How can we understand the harsh, intemperate remarks directed at Knesset Member Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid) by the distinguished Rosh Yeshiva of the very yeshiva he attended and with which he identifies?
MK Lipman, a self-described Haredi, belongs to the Knesset party whose leader has been most outspoken about having Haredim “share the burden” of public service and economic output. From one perspective, his membership in the party is an anomaly and the criticism was bound to happen sooner rather than later. That perspective is one that perceives Talmud Torah as the ultimate value in society – which is laudable – but also demands that the rest of the society acknowledge that as well, which is a much harder sell.
From another perspective, Lipman represents a new wave of Israeli leadership, in which the traditional divisions in Israeli politics between religious and secular are no longer sustained. That approach has already been commented upon here, as approximately half-dozen political parties boast members of Knesset who are religious Jews. That is unprecedented, and it recognizes that, just as the “Jewish Home” includes Jews who are religious and secular, so too the Jewish “Future” has the same. The parochial, provincial parties that are interested only in their own needs and constituents are in recession.
Lipman has embraced a plan that would limit the number of full-time yeshiva students supported by the State to 1800 people chosen annually. The rest could learn Torah until age 21, and then do some form of army or national service and then join the work force. It recognizes the value of Torah study, as well as the necessity of reversing the dire poverty that is endemic in the Haredi world. He also supports a plan to mandate that Haredi elementary schools teach secular subjects like mathematics and English, or lose some government funding. For all that, Lipman was called by the Rosh Yeshiva a “wicked” person, who “has learned [Torah] and rejected it,” and akin to “Amalek,” the eternal arch-enemy of the Jewish people, i.e., one who wants to destroy the Torah and the Jewish people. Ironically, MK Lipman, in his past a veteran Torah educator, wrote a book about Jewish education that carries the endorsement of the very same Rosh Yeshiva who has now denounced him.
One would think that the Haredi leadership, especially in Israel, would themselves be searching for a solution to the financial and educational crises in the Haredi world. The rates of employment among Haredim are staggeringly low; according to statistics released this week, 61% of adult Haredi women work outside the home (typical of the secular world) but just an astonishing 48% of Haredi men are employed. One sin begets another. An inferior secular education leaves even interested Haredim woefully unprepared to hold meaningful jobs that pay salaries that can support their families. Additionally, ignorance of mathematics makes Talmud Torah infinitely more difficult. Anyone learning Daf Yomi should realize that more than a dozen folios in Masechet Eruvin are incomprehensible without some rudimentary knowledge of mathematics. And yet, a defiant ignorance of this subject is being glorified in the Haredi world, notwithstanding the fact that in the Rosh Yeshiva’s own yeshiva in the United States secular subjects are studied in the Yeshiva high school and students in the upper yeshiva routinely attend college. It is hard to see why secular education for Yeshiva students here is the norm, and secular education for yeshiva students in Israel demands martyrdom rather than compliance.
Ask many Haredim in Israel privately, and they will concede that they have been let down by their religious leadership who have proffered an ideal of existence that cannot be achieved, that renders them incapable of functioning in a normal society, and that bears little relation to the Torah world historically.
The “business model” of the Haredim has failed. Proof of its failure is the strident rhetoric flung at MK Lipman in place of a reasonable attempt to find solutions to the existing problems – as if Lipman is the problem and if he – and his ilk – would only disappear, then all problems in the Haredi world would disappear as well. That is patently false, but he is a convenient target for the major failure in the Haredi system, which follows.
Personally, I am drawn to the Haredi world, and especially in its regard for Torah. Too often, one finds in the Modern Orthodox world grievances of one sort or another against this or that aspect of Torah, as if Jews get to sit in judgment of God and His Torah. There are groups that define themselves by their rebellion against the part of Torah or the halacha they do not like. That is disgraceful arrogance, and that type of insurgence is thankfully unknown in the Haredi world. They like – love – the Torah, and they have no complaints against the Creator. Often, they are more humble servants of God than one finds elsewhere, and certainly defer to rabbinic authority (always welcome, but here, probably to a fault).
But those for whom the primacy of Talmud Torah is paramount have failed miserably in one regard: they have not successfully conveyed the value of Torah study to the rest of the society that they hope will support them. And that failure was quite predictable given current trends. That is to say, you cannot tell the rest of society that you cannot live with them in the same neighborhoods, ride with them on the same buses, fight alongside them in the same units (or any unit, for that matter), and socialize and interact with them in any meaningful way – and then stick out your hand and say “support me, because Torah study is the greatest value.” The mendicant cannot condescend to the benefactor, at least not forever; the benefactor might develop his own ideas and values and eventually say “no, sorry.”
In fact, that failure is even more troubling that it sounds on the surface, as the Haredi lifestyle and the walls that it has erected around itself has convinced too many Israelis (and other Jews) that it is impossible to observe the Torah’s mitzvot and still be a productive citizen. To be a pious and observant Jew, it would seem from their value system, demands that a person withdraw from the world at large, from gainful employment, and from meaningful contributions to anyone outside one’s narrow community. But a Yeshiva is not a monastery in the wilderness; it shares a root with yishuv, civilization. A true yeshiva enhances and even defines the civilization around it; it doesn’t detach itself from it.
The chickens of detachment and segregation have come home to roost.
Of course, I know of no precedent in Jewish history where a community of putative scholars expected the rest of the Jewish world to support them in perpetuity, and the Haredi world is being forced to reckon with that reality. The shrillness of the responses to date – catcalls of Amalek from some, threats by others to leave Israel and relocate to Poland and Russia (re-create the “good old days,” I suppose) – underscore the paralysis of leadership in the Haredi world, which is a shame for all Jews because the Torah commitment of Haredim is unparalleled. But that commitment also needs to be re-focused and especially must begin to infuse Jewish life outside the Bet Midrash.
The saddest aspect of this imbroglio is that it has thus far stimulated no major reassessment in the official Haredi world, no re-evaluation of what they might have done wrong and what they might do better, and no acknowledgment that there is even a problem in their circles. They seem to feel it is all politics, combined with Jew-hatred, and that the storm will pass whenever the next elections occur, they handle the post-election coalition building more deftly and the money will start to flow their way again.
They could be right about the latter. That is a tragedy, because such “victories” imperil the Torah world and ultimately harm all Jews. And there is no shortage of role models in Israel today of people who learn, fight, work, earn and build – who see themselves as part of something greater and not apart from everyone and everything else. They are the embodiment of the Torah ideal today, and they are the ones who will move Jewish destiny forward.
PS: In late-breaking news, the distinguished Rosh Yeshiva publicly apologized to MK Lipman for his intemperate remarks (sort of: he went from calling him a “rasha” to simply “misguided” and denied comparing him to Amalek). Now, on to solutions.