Burning down our own neighborhood
I’m delighted to have been out of Eretz Yisrael during the prelude to last week’s scheduled Gay March of Pride. The closest I came to the action was the morning I could not get through to my office because the phone lines were down as a consequence of the previous night’s fires.
The rioting revealed our community at its weakest. The mark of a Jew shaped by the Torah is the extent to which his sechel rules over his emotions and desires. That quality was notable primarily by its absence last week.
Using one’s sechel requires matching means to goals, and recognizing that improper means can damage, sometimes irreparably, the best of causes. Even when the goal is achieved the damage caused by poorly chosen means can sometimes outweigh any possible gain.
An extreme response, for instance, almost inevitably ensures that one’s message will be lost and the focus of public attention shift to the messenger and the impropriety of his actions. Prior to the onset of the rioting, many secular Jews viewed this particular march in this particular place as a deliberate affront to the sensibilities of Jerusalem’s residents.
But as soon as the garbage cans started going up in flames, all public discussion switched from the propriety of the parade to that of the response, and the chareidi community found itself on public trial. Many of the relevant governmental bodies opposed the parade for their own reasons, but they could not appear to be intimidated by threats of violence.
A massive demonstration, such as that against the Supreme Court’s trampling on all religious values, would have made clear that the kedushah of Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael are not matters of indifference to the Torah community. And it would have enjoyed a great deal of public sympathy. But that sympathy was wantonly squandered.
Another aspect of sechel is the recognition that almost any course in life involves balancing competing values. In the case of the parade, for instance, the necessity of protesting the parade had to be weighed against the impact on the image of Torah in the world from the means chosen to make that protest. In addition, there is almost always a balance between short-term goals and long-range consequences. The capacity to keep both in mind is the hallmark of a person guided by his sechel.
All the gedolei Yisrael about whom I have written thought constantly about the image of Torah and Torah Jews in the world. It is hard to imagine that last week’s rioters gave a moment’s thought to such concerns. I’m old enough to remember the urban riots that swept across America in the early ’60s. At the time, the most frequently asked question was: What kind of people burn down their own neighborhoods? Now, that question is being asked about those garbed as Torah Jews.
If the rioters were motivated solely by righteous zeal, they might at least have commanded some respect. But it is all too clear that their motivations lack the purity required of a Pinchas. When youth in Ramat Beit Shemesh stone Egged buses carrying other chareidi passengers because Egged has failed to institute separate seating – as if a public company were obligated to impose chareidi standards of tznius for reasons other than its own economic gain – can secular Jews be blamed for thinking that rock-throwing is a form of chareidi sport for which any pretext will do?
Yair Erlanger in Ha’aretz last Friday quoted one foreign student at a major Jerusalem yeshiva, “Its not so bad for the young people to enjoy themselves a little. The main thing is that the parade is stopped.” Another told him, “We all have a common goal: to stop the parade and to have some fun.” Apparently it did not occur to either of these young men, who were clearly delighted with their good fortune to be in Jerusalem at such an exciting time, that their talk of “enjoyment” and “fun” discredits the cause they support.
Besides the image of Torah Jewry, there was another victim last week: Klal Yisrael. The failures of the war in Lebanon engendered a great deal of soul-searching on the part of many Israelis. Yair Sheleg, writing in Ha’aretz of all places, argued that a decadent society is ill-equipped to confront ongoing threats to its existence. And Ari Shavit railed against the country’s elites for having made money the measure of all things, and imagining that Tel Aviv requires no more of its citizens to survive than does Manhattan.
The societal elites, in Shavit’s view, have destroyed all sources of national will, all belief in the justice of Israel’s cause. And, he argues, precisely upon such national will does Israel’s long-term security depend.
These secular writers have diagnosed the disease. But they can offer no cure, for national will is not a commodity that can be ordered off the shelf. Nor can it be reduced to another line in the budget law. No amount of money can create national will.
Nothing less that an account of why it matters whether the Jewish people continue to exist — a description of our national mission, and how and why it is linked to the small sliver of land that we inhabit — is required. Absent that Israelis with the talents and wherewithal to do so will opt for a less threatening place to live.
The Torah offers what secular Israel so desperately needs. Last week’s events, however, make it less likely that secular Jews will seek the answers to their admitted spiritual malaise from us and not in some ashram in India. And that is a tragedy for all of us.
And for the Torah community, it is no less a tragedy that concepts like Kiddush Hashem and Klal Yisrael never entered the minds of last week’s rioters. They are not even on their radar screen.
For the rest of us, it is time to ask: Why not?
Published in today’s Mishpacha magazine.