Torah Extremism and its Opposite
Barry Goldwater, famously declared in his acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican convention, “. . . [E]xtremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! . . . [M]oderation in hte pursuit of justice is no virtue! Widely pilloried at the time – I still remember a Bill Mauldin cartoon showing two bank robbers with guns aimed at the pursuing police and saying, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” – those words have born the test of time.
Indeed Goldwater’s defense of extremism was preceded by the Chazon Ish. In Igros Chazon Ish (III, 61), the Chazon Ish identifies extremism as deriving from the quest for perfection, and writes that without extremism perfection is impossible. Those who are forever proclaiming their disdain for extremism, he writes, “will inevitably find themselves consorting with counterfeiters [of Torah] and the feeble-minded.”
The Chazon Ish goes on to castigate those groups who are always declaring their moderation and opposition to anything smacking of extremism, while insisting that their faith in Torah and the words of Torah is quite adequate. Of such claims, the Chazon Ish writes caustically, “Just as there is no such thing as a lover of wisdom who loves just a little bit of wisdom, but hates too much of it, so there cannot be one who loves Torah and mitzvos, but hates too much of it.”
Those words of the Chazon Ish should give pause to all of us who find ourselves complaining at one time or another of the extremism or kana’us of the Torah world. Such criticisms take many forms, some more valid than others. But it is incumbent upon the critics to constantly ask themselves if underlying their criticism might not have its source in too little love of Torah and words of Torah. It is, after all, always easy to be moderate if nothing very important is at stake.
I first became aware that a certain ambivalence towards Torah learning can lead to sharp criticism of the Torah world and its leadership several years ago when I publicly debated a certain historian who had accused the American Torah community during the Holocaust of having been interested only in rescuing a handful of leading Torah scholars and indifferent to the fate of the rest of European Jewry. In our debate and in subsequent private correspondence, it became clear that he knew very well that the opposite was the case – the Torah community had been the most devoted to general rescue while the mainstream American Jewish community was largely indifferent. (The accusation was just a tool to sell books.)
The only thing that truly irked my opponent was that yeshiva students in Shanghai had received approximately a quarter of a million dollars in 1944. “Why didn’t they close their Gemaros?” he demanded to know. The ten million dollars sent by American Jews to agricultural settlements in Israel the same year or the half million dollars wasted trying to get a resolution for a post-War Jewish state in Palestine through Congress did not concern him. Despite his yarmulke, the only thing that bothered him was the Torah learning of the yeshiva students in Shanghai, who did not exactly have the option of going out to become rickshaw drivers instead.
That extreme reaction alerted me to the possibility that even those of us who profess to place Torah learning at the top of our scale of values may fall into the trap of using criticism of the community of learners as a means of exorcizing our own guilt feelings about not learning more.
THE CHAZON ISH was, in fact, uncompromising with respect to anything touching upon Torah values. Yet the extremism or kana’us that he exemplified bears little resemblance to what often passes for kana’us in our world today, and provides no support for our self-styled zealots.
His was a kana’us in which every action was measured with the calipers of Torah. The Chazon Ish, Rav Shach used to say, was the last person to “know Shas” and to be able to measure every word or action in terms of the entirety of Shas.
The Chazon Ish once described a certain group famed for its zealotry to Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz as “Jews from before Mattan Torah,” by which he meant that their zeal was not shaped by the ways of the Torah.
And he was always on the lookout for a false zealotry. In the early days of the State of Israel, there was a group that called itself Bris Kana’aim, whose modus operandi was to note the license plate numbers of cars seen driving through religious neighborhoods on Shabbos. After Shabbos, they would locate those cars and torch them.
The Chazon Ish called the leaders of Zeirei Agudath Israel together and told them to publicly protest the actions of the “zealots.” And he had his treasured spokesman Rabbi Moshe Shoenfeld write an essay for publication entitled, “Violence is a Foreign Offshoot in Our Vineyard.”
In one of the most famous passages in all his voluminous writing, the Chazon Ish ruled that the Talmudic dictum of moridim ve’ain ma’alim no longer applies in our day. Only one who was entirely shaped by his devotion to Torah, and whose every thought and emotion was a product of that devotion could have written as he did.
The entire purpose of the din of moridim v’ein ma’alim, wrote the Chazon Ish, was to remedy breaches in the fence of Torah observance and to ensure that those breaches did not become bigger. But that was only possible in a time where Hashgachah Pratis is open and clear to all.
But today we live in a period of hiddenness, of hester panim, and in such a period the din no longer applies because it would achieve the exact opposite of its intended affect. Instead of repairing breaches in the fence, wrote the Chazon Ish, application of the din today would widen those breaches, for it would cause Torah Jews, acting according to the Talmudic dictum, to be viewed by their fellow Jews as cruel and violent. In a period such as ours, said the Chazon Ish, there is no alternative to drawing the non-observant public back to Torah with “cords of love” and showing them the light of Torah to the best of our ability.
Who but the Chazon Ish, with his total immersion in Torah, could have ruled so boldly, and established such a clear direction for all interactions between Torah Jews and the non-observant public? Our actions, he reminded us, must always be guided by the ultimate objective of returning them to the ways of Torah. In his remarkable memoir, Bemechitzsasam, Rabbi Lorincz brings numerous surprising examples in which the Chazon Ish ruled contrary to what a superficial understanding might view as the “zealous” position.
Our tragedy today is that we have too few students of the Chazon Ish – too few extremists in his mold and too many “from before Mattan Torah.”
Published today in Mishpacha magazine.