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Tracing the Source of the Kana’us

Yonoson Rosenblum

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

During Chanukah we will retell the story of Mattisyahu and his five sons, whose rebellion against the mighty Seleucid Greeks began with Mattisyahu killing a Hellenized Jew bowing down to an idol. And it was the kana’us (zealousness) of Pinchas that turned Hashem’s wrath from the Jewish people after Zimri and Kozbi defiled the Mishkan. So there is a form of kana’us that is not just permissible but praiseworthy in the extreme.

Yet the Torah clearly recognized the dangers of kana’us. The din of kano’im pog’im bo is a halachah that is not taught — if you need to ask, you are not the one to act. The Torah specifically relates Pinchas’s descent from Aharon HaKohein, writes Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, to teach us that only one filled with Aharon’s quality of pursuing peace and overwhelming love of every Jew can fill the role of the kanoi. Anyone who does not act out of that closeness to Hashem or lacks the quality of being a rodef shalom is a murderer, pure and simple.

My guess is that of the ratio of acts of true kana’us to those that deserve the most forceful condemnation is about one in a thousand. One clue: the overwhelming preponderance of teenagers — including, unfortunately, American yeshivah bochurim — joining in the “action,” whenever violence breaks out. I doubt that a 15-year-old ordering an 80-year-old great-grandmother to move to the back of the bus is primarily moved by his care for shmiras einayim, or that those chasing religious little girls down the street while calling them filthy names are filled with the requisite ahavas Yisrael.

Second clue: the refusal of the self-styled kano’im to listen to daas Torah. Even Rav Elyashiv has been assaulted in Meah Shearim. Rav Aharon Feldman, rosh yeshivah of Ner Israel, once told me how he and a group of other distinguished rabbanim were laughed at and ignored by a group of kids throwing rocks at cars on the Ramot Road on Shabbos.

That lack of deference constitutes one of the two greatest dangers of contemporary-style kana’us: Those who view themselves as the sole protectors of the “Truth” make it harder for our Torah leaders to fulfill their role as the einei hador. Even Rav Shach ztz”l used to say, “I’m afraid of the stone throwers.” Those stones can be real, or take the form of pashkevillen, or even editorial pages. We have witnessed manhigei hador disparaged or given the “silent treatment” by certain organs.

A few years ago, I asked a gadol whether he had addressed certain socioeconomic problems in a new work on contemporary issues. He told me that he could not do so, because if he did, the kano’im would marginalize the influence he could have on Klal Yisrael by denouncing him in public. In other words, he could not address pressing issues because if he did he would become so discredited that no one would listen to him anyway. And then we complain that there is no leadership.

THE SECOND GREAT DAMAGE wrought by the kano’im is that they distort the Torah and make it ugly in the eyes of those far removed from Torah observance. Rav Shlomo Pappenhein of the Eidah HaChareidis, an outspoken and brave opponent of the kano’im, frequently quotes his own rebbe, Rav Yosef Dushinsky ztz”l, to the effect that those who make the Torah ugly push off the Geulah. And he notes that Rav Amram Blau, the founder of Neturei Karta, modeled all his protests on Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent approach.

Often when I’m struggling with a particular middah, Hashem seems to send me little hints as to how off-putting is the behavior I’m trying to correct by exposing me to others in need of the same behavior modification. If as a community we want to understand the negative impact of kana’us, we have to look no further than the reaction this week to the attack on an army base (however exaggerated by the media) by a group of hilltop youth. The media talked about nothing else all week, and leading politicians and former IDF generals took to the airwaves to say that the IDF should have shot to kill. Spokesmen for the residents of Judea and Samaria spent the entire week condemning the hilltop youth in the sharpest possible terms in order to mitigate the damage to their cause.

The backlash in Europe against Muslim immigrants, who have turned areas in which they are the majority into no-go zones for government officials, provides another example from which we can learn. Islam is a territorial religion that divides territory between that which is under Islamic sovereignty from that which is not yet under Islamic sovereignty. Judaism is not territorial in the same sense. Frankly, however, a lot of contemporary Israeli kana’us — attempts to impose standards, often by force, in what we view as “our neighborhoods” — smacks of a similar territorial impulse. The resulting secular fear of being under chareidi control constitutes one of the greatest barriers to chareidim seeking to purchase housing in non-chareidi neighborhoods.

THE MORE FREQUENT MANIFESTATIONS of kana’us in Israel has less to do with the spiritual elevation of Eretz Yisrael than with certain historical and sociological factors.

From the pre-State days, there has been a certain strain of lawlessness in Israel and an admiration of those who establish facts on the ground, without undue attention to legalities. Violence has often proven effective in various political struggles, and that success has encouraged further resort to violence.

Most of the kana’us nowadays comes from the community centered in Meah Shearim — those who have been waging a hundred-year war with Zionism, and who are in perpetual battle mode.

But as the Brisker Rav once pointed out to Rav Amram Blau, even the fiercest anti-Zionists often act as though they are living in a Jewish state in which they need not worry about the harsh responses they would receive for similar acts in chutz l’Aretz. Satmar Chassidim in Williamsburg do not try to impose their standards of modesty on the gentiles with whom they share elevators in high-rise apartment buildings because doing so could prove life-threatening.

Kana’us that does not derive from an inner closeness to Hashem, like that of Pinchas, damages not only the chareidi community but the kano’im themselves. In a certain baal teshuvah yeshivah, students are absolutely forbidden to wear hats, lest they confuse donning an external garb with having achieved a certain internal spiritual level. That is a profound insight. Kana’us that does not come from a deep connection to Hashem is by definition a purely external action. The Chovos HaLevavos writes that such external actions designed for their impression on others are in some ways worse than avodah zarah. A worshipper of avodah zarah serves only one false god; a person who acts out of a concern for the impression of others serves thousands.

Of course, we anti-kano’im have the opposite challenge: We have to worry that we are overly sensitive to what those far removed from Torah and mitzvos will say, and that as a consequence we become cold to the sight of Hashem’s mitzvos being trampled underfoot. Combating that danger requires eternal vigilance. For that reason, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztz”l, the gentlest of souls, used to cry out “Shabbos” to himself when he would see people driving on Shabbos. 

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