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Wanted: A Torah Vision for the Future of the State

Yonoson Rosenblum

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

These are not easy times to be chareidi in Eretz Yisrael. Every day of coalition negotiations brings new declarations from one of the prospective coalition partners that the time has come to solve the “chareidi problem.” The more amiable of these spokesmen sometimes add that they are “friends” of the chareidi world.

To cheer me up, my friend Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Klugman, author of the definitive biography of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, called my attention to Rav Hirsch’s fourth essay on Kislev (Collected Writings Vol. II), in which Rav Hirsch addresses the “despondency” that members of a religious minority can fall into. German Orthodox Jews, in Rav Hirsch’s day, was very much such a religious minority.

The whole history of the Jewish People, writes Rav Hirsch, is one of a minority whose Truth triumphed. It begins with a single man who stood on one side while the whole world stood on the other. It then evolves into the history of a single family, the House of Jacob. Hashem chooses the Jewish People, the smallest of the nations, to be the bearer of His Truth to the world.

A minority, by its very nature, attaches itself to its Truth in a way that a majority never will. Only the spiritual value of its causes compensates for what it lacks in numbers, and so it nurtures and champions that cause in a manner the majority never will. For if a minority no longer had its cause, what else would it have? Its devotion to its cause “impels the minority to immerse itself over and over again into the spiritual content of its cause, to study its content again and again in all their aspects, to remain faithful to every detail and in all their totality.”

WHILE MINORITY STATUS SHOULD not lead to diminished confidence in the ultimate triumph of one’s ideals, it is crucial, according to Rav Hirsch, that the minority remember that its goal is to win over the majority. Several consequences follow from that goal.

First, the minority must be ever mindful of ways in which its actions make its ideals less attractive. As previously noted in these pages, the Tolna Rebbe has said that had the Torah community done a better job of expressing hakaras hatov for the sacrifices made by soldiers over the years, it could have spared itself at least some of the current animosity.

The cause of the minority will inevitably be judged by the actions of its adherents. We can say, “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews” as much as we want, but it will be judged by those who claim fealty to its dictates. As Rav Hirsch puts it, for thousands of years, “Judaism was judged by the Jews one saw, and the Jews [as a whole] were judged by the first Jewish person that came into the view of the gentile world.” The standard Rav Hirsch set — what might be called his Kiddush Hashem imperative — is a high one indeed: “Every single member of the minority must reflect in his own spiritual and practical life the truth and purity of his cause.”

Those words only add to the power of a lament I recently read of a rabbi who succeeded in building a large shul in an area of a major city in which there were previously no observant Jews. When he first began in kiruv work, nearly two decades ago, there was “still a certain respect and maybe even a healthy mystique” concerning the Torah observant world. In recent years, however, that has disappeared. Millions of Jews and non-Jews have been exposed to terrible chillul Hashem by “observant” Jews, and communal failures to address the actions of those individuals. As a consequence, a rabbi in kiruv is likely to confront the response, “Why would I even want to check out that world?”

Those words make fully intelligible the seriousness of chillul Hashem: “One who desecrates the Divine Name, even if he does teshuvah and Yom HaKipurim arrives and he remains fully repentant, and he suffered afflictions, still he does not achieve full atonement until he dies” (Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 1:4).

Though we remain a minority vis-à-vis the larger Jewish world, as our communities have grown, they have become more insular and that insularity makes it easy to forget our minority status. With that forgetting has gone a terrible proliferation of chillul Hashem.

ANOTHER PERIL FOR THE MINORITY, writes Rav Hirsch, can be a certain passivity and loss of willpower brought about by over-confidence in its cause. Because it rightly “equates its own cause with the cause of G-d . . . it might easily fall into the tragic error of folding its hands . . . [and conclude that] since the success of its mission rests with G-d, it need do nothing.”

That passivity can take the form of failing to articulate a vision that can be understood by those outside our camp and appeal to those whom we must convince if the goal of becoming a majority is to be realized. Instead we content ourselves with slogans that we repeat to each other without ever testing them in the crucible of debate.

In the week after the election in which Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party captured 19 seats, a number of Torah Jews, including prominent supporters of Torah, sent me copies of Lapid’s address last year to chareidi law students at Kiryat Ono. He began with the words, “Nitzachtem — You won.” We thought we could build a country without you, he continued, but we find that we cannot. We need you.

Then he threw down the gauntlet, and challenged the Torah world to articulate its vision of its role in defending and building the state, in which it is becoming an ever larger percentage of the population.

Those who sent me Lapid’s clip wanted to know whether anyone had taken up the challenge of articulating a vision of a state in which Torah Jews constitute a substantial part of the population, perhaps even a majority. What form would relations between observant and nonobservant Jews take? How would the IDF function? The economy?

I had to confess that I did not personally know anyone who had responded or who would even have the authority to respond. Once there was a Moshe Schonfeld, whose wrote on the issues of the day as the mouthpiece of the Chazon Ish and whose every word was vetted by the Chazon Ish. No comparable figure in the world of chareidi journalism exists today.

In addition to his monumental halachic works, the Chofetz Chaim wrote numerous pamphlets addressing the general public on issues of immediate concern — e.g., guidelines for Jewish soldiers in the Czar’s army. Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman hy”d wrote extensively on contemporary issues from a Torah perspective, often in the popular chareidi press of his day, and Rabbi Reuven Grozovsky’s Ba’ayos Hazman addressed the issue of how to relate to a secular government in Eretz Yisrael. Those works have no contemporary parallel, and their absence is felt both by the Torah public, which seeks guidance, and by the broader public that wants to know where we stand.

The era in which the Torah community could protect its interests through coalition agreements may be drawing to a close, and, in any event, power politics was never the best way to attract our fellow Jews to our banner. We now have only our power of suasion, which has been allowed to atrophy.

In a way, Lapid’s challenge dovetails with the final paragraphs of Rav Hirsch’s essay, in which he stresses the need for the upholders of Torah to avoid another danger facing minorities — a “certain intellectual narrow-mindedness,” which becomes disdainful of all knowledge outside its particular domain as “utterly worthless.” Rav Hirsch writes that the cause of Torah “can have real, true existence only to the extent that it can mold and dominate the most varied facts of everyday living. . . . [A] minority must attach maximum importance to the realization of its principles in practice.”

In short, Lapid is totally irrelevant. For our own mission of becoming a majority, we require a Torah vision of the future of a state now home to half the world’s Jews.


Heroes in Old Vessels

Nancy Spielberg, Steven’s sister, is making a documentary entitled Above and Beyond about the founding of the Israeli air force. I recently saw a clip of the work-in-progress consisting of interviews with a group of Jewish WWII pilots who volunteered to fly forIsrael, for which they were subject to prosecution under American law.

These young men, who had survived numerous combat missions in Europe or the Pacific, came to Israel to fly planes cobbled together from spare parts left by the German army in Czechoslovakia and which had never been test flown. The four-plane air force played a major role in stopping the Egyptian army 20 miles from Tel Aviv two weeks into the War of Independence.  

The youngest of the aces interviewed would have to be close to 90 today, and they were well into their 80s at the time of the interviews. They were still a feisty bunch. Yet the contrast between the footage of their young handsome selves and the old men they are now was still jarring.

Passing them on the street today, I doubt anyone would guess that they were heroes who proudly risked their lives to save “the Jewish People.” That’s something to keep in mind every time we see an older person whom we might be tempted to dismiss as oveir batul (loosely translated: being in mental decline). But more generally it shows how incapable we are of assessing the greatness in any fellow Jew we happen to meet.

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