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AREN’T YOU SCARED?

Eytan Kobre

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Some wonder regarding the Torah community’s reaction to the proposed criminal sanctions against bnei Torah: Why all the outrage? After all, even once passed, it won’t take effect for years hence, and by then so much can change, not the least of which is the composition of the government. Others argue, in fact, that the Torah community will be able to fill the enlistment quotas that the law demands without any existing bnei Torah having to leave learning.
The answer is a key to a fundamental understanding of the entire issue of the drafting of bnei Torah. To draw a useful analogy, there has always been a conundrum underlying the Jewish heterodox movements’ push for religious recognition and equal status in Israel.
The only way for Israel to institute religious pluralism would be by acknowledging that it is a democracy devoid of any religious aspect, that it is not, in other words, a “Jewish” state at all. But, of course, Israel sees itself as precisely that, as its unique Law of Return makes abundantly clear, and none of the heterodox movements are prepared to argue against that self-perception either.
Thus does the notion of religious pluralism fall victim to the contradiction that lies at the heart of the schizophrenic hybrid called Israel. It is intended to be both a Jewish and a democratic state, and thus ends up being neither, with those two irreconcilable national characters at perpetual war with one another.
The Orthodox opponents of pluralism argue, in essence, that if you want a secular democracy called Israel, don’t claim that it can be that strange bird of a “Jewish state” with multiple “wings.” If it is a Jewish state with an official state religion known as Judaism, then the Judaism of the ages (known, of late, as Orthodoxy) and the heterodox knockoff versions can’t possibly both qualify for that status. Advocates of pluralism, by contrast, argue that Israel is indeed a Jewish state and that their brand of “Judaism” deserves equal standing within it.
Moving to the current situation, we received several letters from readers upset at the implication they said was created by the cover of last week’s issue and some of the content inside that the effect of the draft law would be to criminalize Torah study and brand bnei Torah criminals. As one representative letter put it: “By your logic, the government is making studying basket weaving a crime as well. After all, if I studied basket weaving full-time, I’d be in the same situation as those who are studying Torah full-time. Who knew it? The Israeli government believes that studying basket weaving is a crime!”
But the great, albeit unintended, irony of the writer’s reasoning is this: The notion that the draft law targets non-service of any sort rather than being specifically aimed at eviscerating limud haTorah, makes eminent sense, so long as it’s a Scandinavian or Filipino draft law that’s under discussion. But it isn’t  — what’s at issue is the draft law of a proudly self-identified Jewish state, one that’s so confident in asserting its Jewishness that it has a Law of Return that in any context other than as the legislation of a Jewish state would be regarded as perniciously racist.
And what we sought to underscore last week was precisely the notion put forth so clearly by that letter-writer: that this Jewish state grants limud haTorah — that which “bereishis,” the very first word of the national charter of the Jewish People, declares to be the purpose of the creation of the cosmos and all it contains — a status no higher than basket weaving, criminalizing both equally so long as one doesn’t enlist. With apologies to all the committed basket weavers out there, a state in which the raison d’être of the Jewish People, and with it the universe, is deemed a criminal act loses whatever pretension it might have had to the exalted title of a Jewish state. A state of Jews, yes, but not a Jewish state.
And that, too, is why it’s irrelevant whether the criminal sanctions will take effect in three years, or tomorrow. What’s unavoidable, and so deeply painful that it moved gedolei Yisrael to ask hundreds of thousands of Jews to come together to cry out in pain, is the very fact that Jews, running a country full of Jews, chose to declare limud haTorah every bit as essential to our nation’s purpose and its national security as… basket weaving.
PERHAPS NOW WE CAN grasp an inkling of the profundity of Rav Steinman’s description of the criminal sanctions as a massive chillul Hashem, one whose magnitude required a massive atzeres tefillah in response. How else, indeed, other than as a historic chillul Hashem, can one characterize the way in which Jews are treating the activity — no, “activity” is such an impoverished word to describe that which is the point, the justification, the project of all of human history — the life-giving ball of fire in our nation’s midst that is limud haTorah?
That would be the case as a matter of intrinsic truth even if there wasn’t a single non-Jew on earth to witness it. But the chillul Hashem is magnified beyond measure when lomdei Torah and talmidei chachamim are treated as the national bête noire of the Jewish state before the eyes of all of humanity. And the deep irony is that those Jews who see Israel as a Jewish state, rather than merely one in which Jews happen to live and govern, ought to be the most incensed and hurt of all; for them, after all, it is the world’s sole Jewish state — one they believe has great religious significance — that has done this.
Some of the letters we received were rather heated, and I don’t for a moment presume to know the inner thoughts of the writers, good and well-meaning fellow Jews all. But I have to imagine that for some people who have always taken such pride in the existence of this state — who defend it so strongly in the face of the worldwide attacks and ostracism to which it is incessantly subjected, who see it as a haven, as an answer to Jews’ historical vulnerability, and as the standard-bearer of the Jews — it cannot be pleasant to be confronted by a cover reading “Holy Criminals.” It means squarely facing the harsh reality that we have arrived at the point where that is exactly what this state has rendered their brothers. Our cover was intended to be unsettling, and it appears to have found its mark, leaving people unsettled indeed.
I close with a question for those Jews who are m’shlomei emunei Yisrael, Jews who share a vision of Klal Yisrael as a unique Torah nation guided by gedolei Torah, but who have both struggled with the view of those leaders and have written and spoken against it:
Aren’t you scared?
Believing what you believe, and knowing that we have arrived at what is surely one of the gravest moments of impending doom to the Jews since Haman as the madmen in Tehran are feverishly readying their apocalyptic bomb while the American president dithers and golfs and fundraises, aren’t you scared to support tinkering with the single greatest protection there can possibly be against that threat? Imagine the reaction of a fellow who’s being wheeled into the operating room for emergency open-heart surgery, and overhears the surgeon telling his assisting nurse, “You know, I received this nifty set of surgical implements in the mail the other day, kinda newfangled and experimental, and I was thinking to try them out today.”
And as I’ve read and listened to thousands upon thousands of words expended by ehrliche Jews on all manner of socioeconomic, political, and military pontifications extending decades into the future, I’ve searched for even a barely perceptible note of desperation, a small glimmer of recognition of the immensity of the stakes at hand, of the depths of the trouble we are in — but largely in vain. That conveys a soul-numbness to either the fate of our People or to the central role Torah plays in it, and both are terrifying.
When all the smoke clears from the battlefield of rhetorical jousting and endless punditry, this really isn’t about the views of Yonoson Rosenblum or Eytan Kobre versus those of any other Jew of whatever stripe. It is about what maranan v’rabbanan, the leaders of our generation — those about whom we beseech Hashem with the words v’ruach kodshecha al tikach mimenu, please don’t remove ruach hakodesh from our midst — have said and done, versus what Lapid and Bennett and Netanyahu have said and done. And so, aren’t you scared, or at the least, a bit humbled? —

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