Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

15 teves 5761 - January 10, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Day the Lion's Roar Terrified the Land

By B. Levy

Part II

A Degel HaTorah rally took place one decade ago last Pesach at the Yad Eliyahu Auditorium in Tel Aviv. The climax of the event was the speech of Maran HaRav Eliezer Menachem Shach shlita. This was a historic speech, which reached the eyes and ears of millions. Both in Eretz Yisroel and abroad it was given top coverage by the written and electronic media, putting Degel HaTorah in the public eye for several days. In those days, Degel HaTorah was an independent political party with its own policies determined by its Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah. It had two representatives in the Knesset.

The speech touched off a firestorm, and for weeks the media were obsessed with HaRav Shach's remarks and their consequences. A particularly striking analysis of the remarks and their ideological context was given by Dan Meron in the periodical Politica (1990). Meron explains why HaRav Shach, even though his position on territorial compromise seems similar to the Left at that time since the major issue that occupied Israeli politics was cast as the attitude towards territorial compromise, yet HaRav Shach's approach to the issue is still radically different.

Explaining how HaRav Shach fits into Israeli politics, Meron notes that the roots of the Labor Zionist movement are much closer to the religious yeshiva world. Most of its early luminaries came from the deeply religious, yeshiva world and were thoroughly steeped in it. The Revisionists (who are the predecessors of today's Likud) came from completely assimilated backgrounds. So the question is, why are the latter preferred to the former?

Moreover, notes Meron, it cannot be the fact that the members of the Right parties are themselves more traditional. "In the eyes of authentic Orthodoxy, both the affection for tradition as displayed by rightists such as Menachem Begin, and the ritual of `Jewish awareness,' as exhibited by veteran Mapainik Zalman Aran, are objects of ridicule." As we say, one is neveiloh and the other is treifoh.

At the end of part I, Meron had just touched on the crucial topic that is further developed in this part: the closeness to modern Hebrew literature and Israeli "culture" and all that they imply, as Meron goes on to develop in the part of his essay quoted here.

The new Hebrew literature was the seed which sprouted modern Israeli culture with its total alienation from religious faith. It spoke about, as could be expected, the suffering of the Jew in the Diaspora; it reacted to violent antisemitism, described the trials of emigration and poverty, and foresaw the establishment of a `safe shelter' for the persecuted Jews in Eretz Yisrael. Still, its main focus was not on the `troubles of the Jews' (according to the term used by Achad Ha'am), but rather on the `troubles of Judaism.'

"The main national issue, with which it struggled unceasingly, was the question of the possibility or the feasibility of the continued existence of a spiritual/ethical Jewish identity in a reality which no longer sanctioned religious faith. Among the celebrated Hebrew writers, many were not at all certain whether Judaism, as a historical/spiritual entity, had not indeed seen its end [that is, since they thought mistakenly that religion was passe].

"From the beginning of the 19th century, long before the arrival of Zionism, proponents of the new Hebrew literature saw it as an alternative to traditional Jewish culture, a replacement for the religious/scholarly tradition. This literature was assigned the title `Hatsofe LeBeit Yisrael', and its task was to discuss and solve all the problems which bothered the Jewish person, addressing first the person, and then the Jew. Herein, also, lies its right to speak to its readers in a prophetic voice, a privilege which was established theoretically by Achad Ha'am, and developed poetically by Bialik and those who continued in his footsteps.

"The Jews who came on the second aliyah were removed from the `spiritual Zionism' of Achad Ha'am, but they did accept his conception of Zionism as a continuation of Judaism; albeit with a new set of spiritual priorities which revolved around `national ethics' instead of faith in the Torah of Israel. This was the rationale behind their attempt to synthesize Zionism and Socialism. From here arose their struggle for a `Jewish- Personality Revolution,' which involved not only negation of the Diaspora mentality and aspiration for political independence, but mainly the transformation of the ethical character of the Jewish person by bringing him back to nature and working the land. This `revolution' was, in intellectual terms, a direct outgrowth of the demands of the Hebrew Haskalah literature.

"Chareidi Jewry reacted with open suspicion to this claim of establishment of a new, Jewish-ethical culture. Although in 1947 Agudas Yisroel retreated from its intense anti-Zionist platform, this was not to be seen as a sign that it had granted legitimacy to the Zionist ideal; rather it had decided to treat it as a neutral governing body with which it was permissible to cooperate in order to receive benefits and/or for the sake of furthering the interests of Torah Judaism. However, the fierce emotional opposition of Orthodox Jewry to the revolution, embodied in Hebrew literature and personified by the new Hebrew- Jewish culture, and Zionist activities which reflected that culture, did not decrease in the least. Orthodox Jewry identified in its arch-enemy, a dictatorial tyrant!

"The Orthodox vastly preferred plain, lax Jews, whose institutions and leaders could be dealt with much in the same way as in Poland under Jozef Pilsodowcki. The Zionist Right was invalid and deplorable, yet harmless. It did not claim to be establishing a set of rules for a modern Jewish- ethical lifestyle. Its Jewish identity was limited to externals: an independent, dominant Jewish state on both sides of the River Jordan. In terms of Jewish `principles,' the majority of those who made up the Right were nothing more than `modern Jews' who followed their evil inclinations. When they put pork on the table or profaned the Shabbat they were not attempting to make a statement.

"Those same transgressions, when committed on the kibbutz, were considered a serious crime which justified a huge commotion. The Zionist Right did not present Orthodoxy with a Jewish challenge. Its philosophy was devoid of all Jewishness; it could adopt almost any idea that happened to be fashionable at the time, as long as it conformed to the basic principle of Jewish independence and sovereignty in the Land of Israel. In spite of the total secularism of Jabotinsky and his followers, the Orthodox did not see in him an obvious spiritual enemy. They could therefore relate to the Revisionists with less suspicion and enmity than the Left, and were even able to cooperate with them on occasion (as witnessed in the thirties in the Polish Sjem.)"

Now Meron arrives at his "far-reaching conclusion:" " Rav Shach's speech revealed the deep historical roots of Orthodoxy's contempt of the Zionists resulting from their contention to be a new Jewish culture. Unfamiliarity with these roots was--perhaps more than any other factor--the cause of Shimon Peres' miscalculation, which resulted in his humiliating defeat.

"Awareness of these roots has clear political ramifications. It must be understood that a stable partnership between Orthodox Jewry and the Labor party is impossible. Even if at the outset there were politicians who strove to initiate such a partnership, it would inevitably be doomed to disaster by the natural, historical process of their party and their culture. This is the grim political truth as manifested in Rav Shach's speech."

Meron concludes with an astonishing admission: "There was another tragic aspect to Rav Shach's speech. Rav Shach's war against the kibbutzim and the new Jewish culture of the Labor party is, quite simply, no longer relevant. The Rav continues to fight the kibbutzim of the twenties and thirties and he is unaware of the fact that the kibbutzniks of today completely lack any true sense of national, cultural purpose. He is waging war against the Labor party of Berel Katzenelson, and he fails to perceive the huge breach between it and the present day Labor party headed by Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. He mocks the kibbutzim saying that in addition to the fact that they consume pork and profane the Shabbat, `they are beggars!' and he does not realize that the material poverty of the kibbutzim is nothing in comparison to their cultural and spiritual indigence. As Rav Shach sees it, the danger in their beggary lies in their becoming competitors for state support which, in his opinion, should be channeled to Yahadus HaTorah and its institutions. He feels that the kibbutzim claim to be competing on an equal footing in that they comprise a legitimate, highly principled society (and therefore deserving of public support), whereas he is only prepared to recognize the value of Torah learning and observance of its mitzvos. He still considers the kibbutzim. to be dangerous spiritual enemies. If only this view were to have even a grain of truth to it!"

An Important Speech

Professor Kimmerling of Hebrew University summarizes in an article that appeared in Ma'ariv entitled "The Kindness of the Rabbi": "HaRav Menachem Eliezer Shach, Rosh Yeshivat Ponevezh, did us a great favor when he spoke in front of the entire nation, in what was one of the most significant speeches delivered to the Jewish world in the past century. As such it should be taught in public school, just as children in America and throughout the world learn Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The elderly Rav elevated us, even if only for a few moments or days, from the biroh amiktoh of mundane politics with its unceasing jabber that serves to obscure the fundamental questions facing us, to the igroh romoh of the question of our identity, for we are unable to perceive that most of our actual problems are indeed based on unanswered questions--by us, not Rav Shach.

"The most important point of Rav Shach's speech is that he brings to the fore the essence of non-chareidi Israeli society."

"His Political Views, Just Like his Way of Life, A re the Product of a World Outlook that Renders Halachic Psak into Irrefutable Law"

During this period the secular media published an article by the writer Menachem Hacohen, who calls himself the "Histadrut Rabbi." Here he accuses his fellow Ma'arachniks of being hopelessly naive in their belief that they could enlist the support of Maran HaRav Shach shlita. He claims that "whoever attempts to decipher the political viewpoint of HaRav Shach according to popular political definitions, does not know who is HaRav Shach!"

Let there be no mistake. The writer is an integral part of the Left, and the conclusions drawn by him are tantamount to denying the chareidim freedom of choice but, precisely for this reason, it is interesting to read his analysis entitled "HaRav Shach's Anti-Zionist Ideology in Relation to Mumarim Lehachis and Mumarim Letei'ovon."

"Whoever says that HaRav Eliezer Menachem Shach is a relic of the Lithuanian roshei yeshivot in terms of money, honor, influence and political power has not the slightest idea who is HaRav Shach. Whoever tries to translate his political standpoint, with reference to forming a government and otherwise, solely in terms of inter-party competition and personalities, has not the slightest idea who is HaRav Shach.

"With HaRav Shach the rules of the game are different. This is not to imply that HaRav Shach is cut off from reality; he is indeed well acquainted with the political scene. The point is that his weltanschauung is essentially different than that of all the other politicians, including those of Degel HaTorah and Shas. His political views, just like his way of life, are the product of a world outlook and ideology whose rules render halachic psak irrefutable law.

"If only the political pundits of the parties and the media would make more of an effort to familiarize themselves with all the complex considerations that guide HaRav Shach, their forecasts would be more reliable and true to the actual events as they occur in front of our eyes. If they would delve more into the ideology of HaRav Shach and less into the details of his home/court in Bnei Brak, or into what was said or was not said by his devotees and confidants, it is possible that they would have been able to foresee some of the political developments which we are now witnessing. Furthermore, they would have been able to plan their moves ahead of time instead of being dragged into pointless interpretation after the fact, having to explain why and how it happened.

"The key to understanding HaRav Shach lies in the chareidi perspective of the Ish Halacha anchored as he is to the Olam HaTorah and the Lithuanian yeshivot of pre- Holocaust eastern Europe. This is the very same perspective that sought to shield chareidi Jewry from the damaging influences of the Enlightenment, secularism, and Zionism- winds of heresy that had then begun to be felt strongly in the Jewish world.

"The assertion of the Maskilim, `Be a Jew at home and a person outside,' and Zionist doctrine, which advocated national independence without Messianic Redemption, and which strove to normalize the Jewish nation (making it a `nation like all nations') was countered by the Torah gedolim and Chassidic Rebbes in Eastern Europe with `chodosh ossur min haTorah'--all things new are forbidden by the Torah. This platform led to the withdrawal of the Torah-faithful community into a high-walled ghetto designed to keep out all alien influences, and was the basis for their taking the offensive in their vehement opposition to the tenets of Zionism. The vast majority of the rabbonim and admorim of pre World War II Eastern Europe preached: `Not like all the nations is the House of Yisrael.' They looked upon the ideas of Zionism as a `foreign element in kerem Yisroel' and upon the Zionists themselves as 'transgressors of Hashem's mitzvos that are called evil,' and therefore felt it necessary to isolate themselves in all ways possible.

"In order to comprehend HaRav Shach's standpoint in the present political crisis, we must refer to one of his fundamental ideological principles: that of the obligation to be separate from the heretics and the prohibition against cooperating with them. This world view, espoused by chareidi Jewry generally and HaRav Shach specifically, is by no means some theoretical philosophical dogma unconnected to everyday life. It is not `yeihoreig ve'al ya'avor.' Under certain circumstances, especially for the sake of maintaining the `world of Torah,' it deems it obligatory to emerge from behind the walls of the ghetto (but not open the gates which would grant entrance to outside influences), and collaborate with the nonbelievers. Under these conditions the chareidi standpoint can be interpreted as eis la'asos leHashem heifeiru Torasecha, `a bending of the rules of the Torah in order to protect it.' This is a means and not an end. The true goals are the learning and observance of Torah, the strengthening of religious life and the expansion of the limits of its influence.

"HaRav Shach's ideological outlook is based on applied halacha with principles and rules that take into account specific factors such as time, place, circumstance, and expediency or lack thereof. The obligation to be separate from the Zionists and to avoid cooperation with them is not absolute. Contrary to the approach of the Eida Chareidis (Badatz), Neturei Karta, and Chassidei Satmar, who endorse complete isolation from the Zionist heretics under all circumstances and prohibit cooperation with them under all conditions, HaRav Shach's approach is one of `assembling [the people] so that they may defend themselves.' In other words, they will stand up to defend the faith and chareidi Jews in general, and the Torah world, the yeshivas, in particular. With this goal in mind, it is permissible, even obligatory, for the Torah-faithful community to join forces with the Zionists so that they may `increase Torah and glorify it.' This is why they sanction taking part in the Zionist elections, sitting with them in the Knesset, joining the coalition and, during the last few years, even being part of the government.

"Before the declaration of the State, under the British Mandate, when the National Zionist Vaad was recognized as the official representative of the Jewish yishuv in Eretz Yisrael, the chareidim were granted a special privilege. They could choose not to identify themselves as Zionists (by way of a formal declaration), and thereby would not be considered a part of the Zionist- controlled yishuv. In those days, just prior to the founding of the State of Israel, chareidi Jewry had autonomous authority over its own institutions, just as the Zionists had over theirs. When it became apparent that the days of the British Mandate were numbered, Zionist government institutions were set up, but the chareidi representatives flatly refused to participate.

"The Chareidim were able to uphold their principle of isolation and noncooperation as long as the foreign mandate, which did not mix into their private affairs, existed in the land. The British Mandatory Government did not force military service and the like on the citizens, and did not enact laws concerning religion and education. With the subsequent establishment of the Jewish State though, the gedolei haTorah faced one of their greatest dilemmas.

"They would have preferred to avoid sitting with the Zionists and taking part in the government altogether. However, the new conditions and changing circumstances forced the chareidim into taking part in the elections and joining the governing process. In spite of the danger this posed to the chareidi community as a whole, the basic world outlook remained unchanged. The Torah leaders were pushed to recognize the new reality and not to hide their heads in the sand. The fact that the law passed in the Zionist Knesset would be binding also on the chareidim forced them to get involved and to take an active part in political life.

"According to the outlook of HaRav Shach, even if it was decreed that they must live with the secular Jews and cooperate with them on the state level, a decision had to be made based on the hypothesis of which of the two secular Zionist groups would best serve the interests of Torah Judaism. Accordingly, this would determine which group they would support: mumarim lehach'is--those who willfully and publicly profane the mitzvos through denial of the Torah's authority; or mumarim letei'ovon--those who also profane the mitzvos in public, but whose actions are more out of habit and weakness than outright denial.

"The eastern-European chareidi Jew saw the Zionist-Socialist Leftist groups as the typical mumarim lehach'is-- atheists profaning all that is holy to Judaism, and whose desire is to strip all Jews of their faith. Conversely, the bourgeois Zionist Right and Jabotinsky-style Revisionists were considered to be nothing more than mumarim letei'ovon-- Jews who abandoned Torah and mitzvos, but exhibited no outright defiance of Hashem and the Torah.

"Then like today, most chareidim in the State of Israel view the parties of the Left as self-declared, militantly-secular atheists. The chareidi and religious parties blame the Left, including the Labor party, for the increased public secularization in the State of Israel in all areas, and especially in education. Moreover, they accuse them of fostering the anti-religious feeling prevalent in Israeli society.

"In the Jewish political arena, many warnings are issued concerning the dangers to chareidim posed by the Left. In chareidi circles an effort is made not to forget the part Mapai and the Left played in the forced secularization of the thousands of children who made aliyah in the early days of the State. And they lose no opportunity to publicize the particular standpoint of the Ma'arach and the Left on religious matters as they are reflected in parliamentary and municipal life.

"In terms of HaRav Shach's worldview, the chareidim fare best when the secular parties need them but are not dependent upon them. This, according to Rav Shach, is the ideal situation, for it frees chareidi Jewry from taking responsibility for the actions of the Zionist government, while allowing for the minimum of cooperation needed to protect the interests and requirements of the Torah world. The political stalemate which ensued from the current crisis has put Rav Shach's political heirs against his will in a position of power as a swing vote. Without them there can be no government.

"The need to decide which of the two political groups will win the support of Degel HaTorah and Shas had put Rav Shach in a position not of his own choosing. However, having no other alternative he made his decision in keeping with his outlook and ideology. As he put it, eis la'asos leHashem heifeiru Torasecha--chareidi Jewry must bend the rules of the Torah in order to preserve that same Torah.

"The defenders of Torah are not permitted to act in the spirit of `sit and do nothing,' to withdraw into their four cubits and refrain from making a decision. In order to ensure their existence and safeguard their needs they have no choice but to collaborate with the secular government. This political development forces chareidi Jewry to decide which of the two secular political parties it will support. When there is no other option, according to HaRav Shach, one must simply choose the lesser of the two evils: the Zionist Right, which fits the criteria of mumarim letei'ovon.

"The false hopes raised by the Left that Rav Shach's political viewpoint, which supports far-reaching territorial compromises such as giving up the Golan and relinquishing all conquered territories including Jerusalem, situate him on the far left of the political spectrum, and give him reason to join a coalition with the Ma'arach, are nothing more than a fanciful wish."

Kabolos, Bli Neder

Another result of that impressive speech were the "kabolos" and "chizukim" which were undertaken. In the Daf HaYarok bulletin of the Kibbutz Movement, Arnon Lapid wrote: "It is shameful that we were alarmed. It's a pity that we were insulted, but since we were alarmed and offended, and we did much soul- searching, it stands to reason that we resolve to strengthen ourselves in our belief: secularism."

Moreover, the political officer of the National Religious Party (NRP) published in Hatsofe a special manifesto on an official party letterhead, dramatically entitled "The Lost Opportunity": "A moment in which the eyes of the entire nation and the whole world are glued to a rav and godol beTorah could be a truly elevating and exalting experience. It would foster unity and the kiruv of tens of thousands; it would encourage the love of Torah, and thanksgiving for the good and expansive land with which we were blessed. It would bring on the ingathering of the exiles and the beginning of our redemption. Somehow, a rare moment such as this came about through the unlikely circumstances of political fluctuations and coincidence. With all due respect to the gedolei haTorah of our generation, the NRP declares with great sorrow that the opportunity was lost. The National Religious Movement will take it upon itself to make an increased effort to develop and sustain botei midrash and places of Torah from which will emerge Torah that is whole and unifying, Torah that will bring people closer and will not reject them."

It is interesting to note what in fact came out of the NRP's impressive resolve. Did it indeed develop "places of unifying Torah, which brings people closer and does not reject them?" Maybe at Bar Ilan University. After all, Yigal Amir's motives were purely nationalistic--in terms of Torah he remained a proponent of achdus and kiruv, they will say.

"Blunt His Teeth"

Among the varied reactions were also those of the self- righteous hypocrites. Eyes rolling heavenward, they expressed their grief at the rift made in the nation and spoke in favor of unifying the people and giving them the benefit of the doubt. "Yisroel," they quoted, "even though they have sinned, remain Yisroel."

The editorial that appeared in Hatsofe the day after the rally surprised no one when it announced mournfully that HaRav Shach's speech failed to promote ahavas Yisroel at a time when unity was so desperately needed. The Chief Rabbi of Haifa in those days, HaRav Bakshi-Doron, responded with an article that he sent to Yated Ne'eman in which he stated that the pain proves that there is still hope.

"The words of the Rosh Yeshiva, HaGaon HaRav Eliezer Menachem Shach shlita, made great waves and caused a huge public commotion. It came as no shock to anyone when the leftists reacted with brazen insolence against the giant of Torah. Unfortunately, we also heard a faint whine of protest from the camp of those who fear Hashem and uphold his mitzvos. They argued that just as it is a mitzvah to say that which will be heeded, it is a mitzvah not to say that which will not be heeded. They claim to speak in the interest of ahavat Yisrael when they declare that one should not find fault with one's fellow Jews in the spirit of: `Ve'Ameich kulam tzadikim.'

"In order to answer these questions, I will quote from the Haggadah which is recited annually from generation to generation. Chazal, basing themselves on the Torah's mitzvos, have taught us how to answer and relate to each questioner and every son in the Jewish nation. All agree that everything written in the Haggadah is not only appropriate to be said but it is even a mitzvas asei to do so, not in secret, but openly, and `kol hamarbeh harei zeh meshubach.'

"Let's examine closely what is written. With reference to the wicked son, it does not say ` break his teeth,' but rather `blunt his teeth.' A person's teeth may get broken from a fight, but bluntness comes from eating unripe fruit or some other harmful food. The pain itself is not dangerous; on the contrary, it is a healthy sign warning against something harmful. It is a well-known fact that in order to determine whether an affected tooth needs to be extracted or whether it can be strengthened and healed, the dentist will first touch the roots. If they hurt, it is a sign that the tooth is alive and can be healed. However, if touching the roots elicits no sensation, then it is clear that the tooth has lost contact with the body and must be pulled out. This is the meaning of the verse: `Blunt his teeth.'

"The one who asks: `Of what purpose is this work to you?' must be answered by going down to the root of the matter and telling him clearly that in practical terms, he has effectively excluded himself from the community of believers and denied the basic principle of Judaism. You must explain to him in clear language that according to his views and opinions, he is not Jewish. And whoever cuts himself off from the past puts also his future in danger--had he been in Egypt he would not have been redeemed. If indeed he is indifferent, and feels no pain at having separated himself from his fellow Jews, then there is really nothing further to say to him.

"But if the words `had you been there you would not have been redeemed' evoke a painful reaction, this is a healthy sign that in the deep recesses of his soul he is still a Jew; he believes in Hashem and does not want to cut himself off from his faith and his people. Even though the reaction may be punctuated with anger and shouting, this is still a sign that the root is healthy and the chances for recuperation are good. Therefore, one must not `break his teeth' but rather, `blunt his teeth': awaken the roots and make them stronger."

The innumerable echoes generated by the few short sentences of Maran Rosh Hayeshiva shlita, comprise the painful reaction to `blunt their teeth.' The very fact that the kibbutzim were offended to the point of screaming their protest proves that this was indeed a kiddush Hashem and not, G-d forbid, a chillul Hashem. It is common knowledge that the kibbutzniks live according to `Of what purpose is this work to you.' Nobody denies the facts as stated by Maran shlita. Why, then, is everybody making such a fuss? Why was there such a public outcry when the kibbutzim were told straightforwardly that they deny the basic principle of Judaism, they willingly exclude themselves from the Jewish nation, and had they been in Egypt they would not have been redeemed? One might ask, what do they care how they are defined by the Torah? Why should they be concerned with a lecture given by a rosh yeshiva to his talmidim? Why were they so deeply hurt? On the contrary-- many have declared themselves Israelis, even Canaanim!

"The loud protest is the solid proof that indeed the well is not dry, the tree has not been cut down. The roots are strong and hardy. The pain proves just how precious true Judaism is to them; they are offended by the allegation that they are not part of the nation. This goes to teach that there is still hope, and as the storm dies down, they will have second thoughts about what was said and `the sons will return to their borders.'


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