The Haredi Conundrum

     The repugnance and absurdity of Dan Perry’s Jerusalem Post screed against Haredim is readily apparent from the headline:  “Haredim, not Arabs or Iran, are the biggest threat to Israel.” Although you can’t always blame the writer for the headline, in this case you can, because in his text he calls Haredim the “primary threat” to Israel’s future. One must be filled with hatred to reach the conclusion that faithful Jews are a bigger threat to Israel than hostile Arabs who wish to dismember the state or Iran that yearns for Israel’s nuclear destruction. From where does such antipathy arise? One never knows the internal motivation and biases of another but we can ascertain the sources of his fears from his world view.

     According to Perry, the Haredim endanger Israel’s existence because they have no discernible or foreseeable role in the “Start-up Nation that is a world leader in cybertechnology, agrotech and venture capital, punches above its weight on Nobel prizes and exported television formats, is a global leader on gay rights and decriminalizing cannabis and has developed Iron Dome to zap rockets out of the sky.”

     In other words, the writer’s conception of the Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, is a sort of weird hybrid of Singapore and Sodom. While the technological feats should make us all proud (some others are more dubious), they hardly constitute sufficient reason for Israel’s existence and the sacrifices required to sustain it.

      Centuries of Jews did not dream of returning to Zion so that Jews should be world leaders in cybertech. Jews who were murdered in sanctification of G-d’s name did not pray for an Israel that would transform the world with its “exported television formats.” Even Herzl did not fantasize about a Jewish state that would be a “global leader in gay rights.” Jews won plenty of Nobel Prizes before and since Israel’s establishment. And, suffice it to say, the Iron Dome would not be necessary if the “primary threat” to Israel were Haredim rather than radical Arabs and genocidal Iran.

     It seems clear that Perry perceives Israel entirely as a place of refuge for the Jewish people and not at all as the place where Judaism – as found in the Torah, elaborated in the Talmud and Codes, and observed and preserved by millions of Jews throughout history – is to be fully realized. That crucial flaw underlies his world view which seeks to safeguard Jews but not Judaism and therefore does not at all address why is it important for Jews to survive or for a State of Israel to exist. It cannot be because mankind could not endure without Homeland or In Treatment. And there are plenty of Asians and others who are quite gifted in cybertechnology.

     The writer disdains Haredim because his fantasy of Israel is that of a material powerhouse and a spiritual non-entity. Haredim have no substantive role in that notion of a Jewish state. And in this he is correct: if that is all there is to Israel, there is little reason for secular Israelis to remain, serve, sacrifice and develop the country. They would do better elsewhere. And  having banished the Torah from Israel – the Torah which is the source of our claim to the land of Israel – Perry lacks any real justification for being here, and no answer to the ancient (and modern) allegation that we are “robbers who stole the land from its inhabitants.”

     It is fascinating that the Jerusalem Post reported recently that Bnei Brak ranks as Israel’s poorest and most densely populated city and yet its residents are Israel’s happiest and most contented. Surely that conundrum is incomprehensible to the writer.

      Fortunately, he is wrong and misguided in each assertion, for Israel is far more than a haven for endangered Jews. It is the one place on earth where Jews are to live and the Torah is to be actualized. Yes, the Torah which is the Tree of Life to all who grasp it – the Torah that provides us with a constitution for the Jewish state, the place from which G-d’s morality is exported to the world in every conceivable format.

        Perry is the wrong person to make the argument that Haredi society has to change because at the heart of Haredi society is the impulse to do what is necessary that Judaism survive and not just Jews. “Jews without Judaism” is a non sequitur, a purely ethnic identity with any real meaning or importance.  A “Jewish state” without Judaism cannot endure and there is absolutely nothing in Perry’s credo of Israel that is remotely Jewish.  Contrary to Perry’s conclusion, Israel cannot survive without Haredim as their intense focus on Judaism provides the state its raison d’être.

       That being said, here is where I part company with both sides. Rav Kook noted over a century ago that the Old Yishuv Jews, the spiritual ancestors of today’s Haredim, had rich spiritual lives but their national lives were impoverished. They lived, and to some extent still live, in a Jewish world in which the need for a Jewish state ranges from desirable to tolerable to unnecessary. Their focus is not on statehood and what is needed to maintain it but rather on Torah and what is needed to maintain it. If only they realized that the moment is at hand – it is not coming, it is here now – when the Torah must be applied and integrated in the modern state, a state that is pervaded with Jewish morality and values and not those imported and absorbed from Western and pagan sources.

      I too wish the Haredi world were more receptive to this approach. The antagonism towards much of the Haredi world in Israel is overblown but it is also real. It can also be diminished. For years, there has been a growing realization in the Haredi world that a life of voluntary penury is unsustainable and certainly not at public expense. Substantive efforts have been made to increase Haredi service in the military and participation in the work force. Not every politician who encourages military service, work, self-support and even a reduction of benefits is an enemy of Haredim (for sure, some are). And Haredi politicians have also not distinguished themselves with their public deportment, words or policies, some of which are indefensible.

     The most unfortunate aspect of Haredi life is the vibe that is often projected that Torah is incompatible with a modern state and that Haredim must remain sheltered until the storm passes. That is a disservice to the Torah that is cherished by its adherents. Life itself involves weathering this “storm.”  It is insufficient, as apologists often do, to highlight the amazing chesed that exists in Haredi society for that is born of necessity as much as it is born of virtue. There would not be a need for thousands of gemachs if people were able to support themselves.

       It is surely not surprising that a writer who extols Israel for “decriminalizing cannabis” would have no interest in or respect for those who learn Torah and get lofty with G-d’s word rather than high with a plant.  A truly Jewish state can create the right balance between those who study the Torah and those who implement it in the public domain. Indeed, they will often be the same people at different times. This is also our failure – to convey the depth, beauty, wisdom and all-encompassing majesty of the Torah to all Jews at all times.

      Perhaps that is the real threat to Israel’s future – a generation that is so devoid of Torah values and connection to G-d that it does not know why we are here and what to do now that we are here. In overcoming that threat, Haredim are surely our allies and, as their numbers increase, they will be the leaders in building Israel’s future.

2 responses to “The Haredi Conundrum

  1. Alvin Roslyn

    Just as the word ‘tzibor’, community includes tzadakim, be a in and rashamim, righteous ordinary and bad people: so is the necessary composition of Israel. In order to be competitive and sustainable in today’s world you need to be inclusive and innovative. Moreso for Israel which always needs to maintain an competive lead and safety margin. This also is an important protective strategy.

  2. Chaim HaLevy

    The Rambam tells us in Hilchot Talmud Torah that one who relies on public assistance to “advance his Torah learning” is a disgrace!! And a chilly Hashem.

    We ( all of us ) have an obligation to fight these “chareidim” who call themselves Torah Jews. They are a disgrace (as the Rambam says) to society In Israel and promoting the concept of:
    1. Do NOT work—the others will support us.
    2. Do NOT go to the IDF to protect our people, the others will do it. ( While we sit on our fat behinds—“Learning”
    3. Do NOT enroll in Sherut Le’umi-we learn and OTHERS will help the State. ( Which is the Satan )

    I don’t know Lieberman’s motive, but he happens to be correct. We must do our best to keep these leeches out of Government and STOP THE FLOW OF FUNDS that they receive from hard working taxpayers!!
    The real Torah community has Little to do with the Chareidim- who wont even say a prayer for our Medinat Yisrael or Tzahal.

    Hoping to receive a reply soon.
    Chaim HaLevy