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.
Protesting the Jerusalem parade? The Bus 2 controversy?
It can’t be these issues. We do have Torah support on these questions. Our leader, Maran, the Gadol haDor, has ordered us in no uncertain terms to fight the “toeva parade” fiercely, including attending huge protest rallies of a very “anti” character.
And he unquestionably supports separate seating on #2 busses. He’s just set up a “modesty squad” that would probably fit the more extreme definitions world wide.
I wonder what particular protests Rabbi Rosenblum thinks it is that have gone too far…maybe he’ll post a clarifying comment.
>>>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.
> 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.”
Unfortunately, the one point missed in this essay is that there are many things a person can be extreme about. A gaon like the Chazon Ish can have the right priorities but since there is no one like him in the world today, what is the result?
One can be extreme in humility. The Mishnah in Avos, quoting Rabbi Levitas, advises just that. Other rishonim note that there is no such thing as being too extreme in being humble. Look around the chareidi world. This is not exactly a characteristic today’s kollel crowd is extreme about.
One can be extreme in loving one’s fellow Jew. How many sources could I quote for this if I wanted to? Look around Mea Shearim. When they’re not burning stores that sell chametz on Pesach, they’re lining up the garbage cans they’re going to set alight at next week’s Toevah parade. Don’t tell me it’s all about hatred of sin and concern that decent Jews will be perverted. That’s not what you see when you look in their eyes.
There’s extremism in being a good father and husband, in supporting one’s family so they don’t have to be reliant on government handouts. There’s being extreme about doing a great job at work. Need I go on?
Rambam himself demands that we ALWAYS take the middle path between extremes, never committing too much to one side or another. Even humility has its limits, in this case, because one might need to show some strength when confronted with anti-Torah viewpoints.
Telling someone his Torah committment isn’t that strong because he’s not extreme about his loyalty to it? That’s extreme in itself.
“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?”
Rav Kook, throughout his career. But of course Rav Kook is persona non grata in the haredi world.
The Satmar Rebbe wrote, that the laws against LoShon Harah, do not apply so strictly when we must defend our Torah and our fellow-Jews from evildoers. He warns that, if we are to careful to maintain a position of moderation in such circumstances, we could be guilty of callousness towards our fellow-Jews and neglect of our duties to defend the honor of G-D.
Here is BG’s statement in some context:
“Today, as then, but more urgently and more broadly than then, the task of preserving and enlarging freedom at home and safeguarding it from the forces of tyranny abroad is great enough to challenge all our resources and to require all our strength. Anyone who joins us in all sincerity, we welcome. Those who do not care for our cause, we don’t expect to enter our ranks in any case. And let our Republicanism, so focused and so dedicated, not be made fuzzy and futile by unthinking and stupid labels.
I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
The beauty of the very system we Republicans are pledged to restore and revitalize, the beauty of this Federal system of ours is in its reconciliation of diversity with unity. We must not see malice in honest differences of opinion, and no matter how great, so long as they are not inconsistent with the pledges we have given to each other in and through our Constitution. Our Republican cause is not to level out the world or make its people conform in computer-regimented sameness. Our Republican cause is to free our people and light the way for liberty throughout the world.”
I saw an interview with Barry Goldwater over 20 years after that famous speech. He said that he had no regrets and would make it again.
Barry Goldwater was an unusual politician. He founded an integrated Arizona Air National Guard two years before the rest of the US military was integrated, yet voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was considered the founder of modern Conservatism in America yet his wife was one of the founders of an Arizona Planned Parenthood chapter, he himself voted pro-choice, and in his later years he became an outspoken gay rights activist. He also had no use whatsoever for the evangelical Christian Right, saying some things about Rev. Jerry Falwell that aren’t appropriate for this blog, and even supporting a Democrat in a congressional race against a Christian Right Republican. (She won.) He also supported legalization of marijuana.
“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… 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.”
I agree that a person’s attachment to Torah affects his appreciation of it, (Rashi in Bechukosai), and that mediocrity is antithetical to “shleimus”(spiritual perfection), as the Mesilas Yesharim points out. Yet, there is a concept of balance in Judaism: Mesilas Yesharim speaks of “Mishkal Hachasidus”, and at the very end, of different paths in Avodah, including working for a living; Rambam speaks of a middle path in character traits; Netziv speaks of tolerance. At the core of the question is, what are the limits of “These and Those”? If a derech is legitimate, it’s “moderation” aspects are legitimate(e.g., Agudah is more “moderate” then Satmar), and to an extent, its adherents will disagree with “extremism”. R. Schwab pointed out strengths and weaknesses of “Torah Only” and “TIDE”, in a rational and respectful manner that we rarely hear of today; so in theory, there are strengths and weaknesses in all derachim, independent of the motives of the critics.
There have been public statements in Agudah circles conceding that Centrists are entitled to follow daas Torah of their Torah leaders. If so, to the extent Centrist leaders disagree with “Torah Extremism”, part of such criticism is legitimate, and is independent of an appreciation for Torah. It is hard to imagine RYBS endorsing many cases of “Torah Extremism”, yet this did not prevent him from saying that “Talmud torah is basically for me an ecstatic experience, in which one meets G-d”. Ideally this group should appreciate the motives of those to its Right, but this may sometimes be difficult(but not impossible), because there is an imbalance as far as mutual appreciation.
The yeshivah world is more complex, in that the more “left-wing” segment’s needs are sometimes sacrificed for the good of the whole, as opposed to the Right doing so for the Left. The ideal situation would be for this group to have it’s own identity, with leaders to give it encouragement and guidance, along a Shvil Hazahav of “Torah Moderation”. In the less ideal case, when this group criticizes “Torah Extremism”, it can be seen as merely a way of trying to find some nuance in positions which are sometimes expressed in black and white terms, without enough shading. As was said at the Agudah convention, ” we have no complaint against anyone asking questions about our convictions, or even disagreeing — agreeably — with stances we have seen fit to take”.
So I agree that increasing appreciation of Torah can be a factor in lessening the need to criticize, but that is far from the only reason of criticisms expressed about “Torah Extremism”, in its many forms. An article in the Jewish Observer(June, 2006) stated that :”it is an undeniable fact that at no time since the churban in Europe has the Torah world suffered such fragmentation”. Different factors and cumulative effects of events may have caused the current situation, and we may just have to wait for time(with Hashem’s guidance) to sort things out.
“I wonder what particular protests Rabbi Rosenblum thinks it is that have gone too far…maybe he’ll post a clarifying comment.”
Rabbi Rosenblum gets it from both ends with a piece like this 🙂
On another note, it would be very interesting to see some of the “surprising examples in which the Chazon Ish ruled contrary to what a superficial understanding might view as the “zealous” position”. Also, I think that if someone would cite some examples when current EY gedolim took surprisingly “non-zealous” positions against the superficial understanding(as Hanoch Teller wrote about RSZA),it might help some people appreciate them more.
The question is not and should not be whether extremism is good or not. As extremism is defined by Jonathan Rosenblum, it simply means full commitment to Torah — and what Torah Jew could be against that. The question rather is: what is the Torah ideal — to which we must be extremely committed? The reality is that to that question there have been, over the centuries, different answers, sometimes at odds with each other, by the greatest of Gedolim. We have a Rav Kuk. We have a Chazon Ish. We should focus on the true issue of limud haTorah and work out, for our benefit and direction, this machloket between Gedolim — and not sidestep the issue by talking of extremism.
Perhaps people do not recognize but the Shvil HaZahav is just another extreme if done correctly. It reflects the ideal of Torah that one must be 100% committed. Stop attacking by calling people extremists. Start questioning by questioning their understanding of Torah and how they arrived at their position. And in doing so, start questioning oneself in the same manner, not hiding behind some vague shield of tolerance and not be an extremist. While I am not sure if it is proper to mention articles on my website that deal with this issue — and I do apologize if it is improper — but I invite you to look at my series on the Slifkin Affair at http://www.nishma.org as they deal with the difficul task that Hashem has given to us in truly trying to work things out al pi Torah. It is easy to define the correct path when one sees one view as clearly the Torah view and the other as clearly not. It is much harder to work things out when one sees both views as coming from the world of Torah by two Torah giants equally committed to the extreme of Torah commitment and observance. They just disagree on what that is.
A similar question about the dual way of viewing critics’ motives, is how to view the criticisms one sometimes hears of some aspects of charedi publishing(which come from different directions), some kiruv aspects, and the trend towards segulos and mysticism. One can view all of this in two ways.
The first, less charitable way, is that such criticisms come from a lack of appreciation of Torah, based on Rabbeinu Yonah in Sharie Teshuvah who speaks strongly about not speking negatively about people who are Avdie Hashem.
On the other hand, the critics are coming from a different intellectual background, and don’t take for granted fundamentals of Jewish beliefs that they gave serious thought to, in the same way that they perceive that others do. So they will react negatively to what they see, rightly or wrongly, as overconfidence of some, such as various forms of segulos which are sometimes sensationalized, especially when their own intellectual-faith needs are not recognized(eg, a previously accepted belief is banned overnight, or an editorial decision is made not to translate a portion of a text without, at least, a full disclosure as to why that was done).
The point is that there are two sides to understanding the “many forms” of criticism of extremism or any critique of the Right; I asked the question a few months ago elsewhere as to why people are anxious to criticize on blogs, and I received a number of thoughtful responses. People may be primarily asserting their own needs, rather than being intolerant of others.
# 1 Mr Fisher, would you mind telling us who is Maran, the Gadol Hador, in case we aren’t aware? Whoever it is, does it apply to chassidim, sephradim, baal habatim, etc? The idea of uniform Daas Torah, just doesn’t fly since the death of Moshe Rabainu!
Garnel Ironheart quotes Rambam’s advocacy of the ‘middle way’. However, Rambam also offers practical advice on how to reach it: if you have a vice then, in order to break its hold on you, go to the opposite extreme! Then, eventually, when you’ve learned self control in this aspect of your behaviour, you should be able to walk along the prized path of moderation. So ‘extremes’ should not be discounted.
May I suggest that, given the difficulties in defining what is extreme, and which extremes may be useful, good or permitted, that our discussion bear in mind Rabbi Hershel Schachter’s observations in his dvar Torah on Korach (www.torahweb.org/torah/2007/parsha/rsch_korach.html) where he warns against exaggeration and stresses the importance of common sense in navigating the many nuances and complexities of halacha (and, one can extrapolate) of life in general?
(1) If one looks at the pictures of the street violence or is privy to inside information from the last round of anti-Gay Parade hooliganism, it is obvious that these individuals were more drawn to the scene for social reasons than for ideological ones. They were yeshiva bochurim with time on their hands or balebattim whose bosses obviously give them scheduling flexibility (i.e. these guys are also unemployed). So, the theoretical value of such protests in defending Torah and K’vod Shamayim is rather dubious.
(2) Joe Fisher–Please enlighten me. “Maran, the Gadol HaDor” would be…?
“Rav Kook is persona non grata in the haredi world.”
– I don’t think most of the haredi world even speak Italian
I love Reb JRosenblum. Generally, I admire his honesty and courage.
He wrote this piece to re-establish some chareidi creds. I’m ok with that.
“Instead of repairing breaches in the fence…it would cause Torah Jews, acting according to the Talmudic dictum, to be viewed by their fellow Jews as cruel and violent…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.”
Tanya(Likutie Amorim 32) mentions as well “cords of love”: “Hillel the Elder said, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving the creatures and drawing them near to the Torah.” This means that even in the case of those who are removed from G-d’s Torah and His service, and are therefore classified simply as “creatures,” one must draw them near with strong cords of love…”
It appears that the Edah Hacharedis disagrees with the Chazon Ish and Tanya’s approach in some instances. According to a news report, a “curse” was placed on the organizers of the gay parade, including the police force securing peace at the event; such an action would arguably be viewed by non-observant Jews as “destructive”, in the Chazon Ish’s terminology.
The Edah’s approach seems to be based on fear of Divine wrath, G-d forbid, that could even affect innocent people. The Talmud( BK 60a) talks about a case of righteous people suffering along with sinners. Such a concern might trump the need to be concerned with the image of Torah in the eyes of non-religious Jews. As long as the means of opposition is deemed legitimate according the Edah’s interpretation of Torah-based opposition and punishment, there would be no issue of Chilul Hashem. One could argue, however, that if people do all they can in a reasonable manner,that is sufficient for Hashem, and “cursing” the police securing the parade, and certainly burning and rioting(which the Edah did not endorse), are not needed to prevent Divine wrath on innocent people.
Furthermore, how are the “self-styled” kannoim(not endorsed by the Edah), able to tell what is worse in Hashem’s eyes: the impact of burning and rioting on the image of Torah Judaism, or the “Toeivah” march? After all, humans can’t dictate to G-d if he wants to defile His own city. How can we be sure that there is a difference in a gathering taking place in a stadium, as it anyhow did last year, or outside in the streets, in terms of additional defilement that will unleash Divine wrath? Nefesh HaChaim tells us that Titus alone could not have defiled the Beis Hamikdah; if so, the main factor is the internal dimension of sin, for which he gives a Jew anywhere, more power than Titus in the Beis Hamikdash. Accordingly, why are we sure that there is such a great difference between a march outside, versus a gathering in a stadium?
I hope that parade does not take place, that the Edah keeps careful reign on the degree of disobedience its constituents will take part in, and that rest of the Torah community will communicate, convincingly, to the public that it is actually doing all that it is capable of doing in putting an end to “self-styled” zealots.
” I don’t think most of the haredi world even speak Italian ”
Persona non grata = Unacceptable person. It’s a Latin expression any educated American would know. But how many haredim in America are educated? More to the point, how many speak Hebrew?
Baruch Horowitz said, “After all, humans can’t dictate to G-d if he wants to defile His own city.”
Can’t any actual or potential defilement in the world be viewed in this strange way? Do we throw up our hands in case the defilement was meant to be? Is direct action ruled out in all cases?
It’s not our job to do calculations about HaShem’s will other than to understand and follow His Torah, which includes following the current directives of our wisest Torah leaders.
“Persona non grata = Unacceptable person. It’s a Latin expression any educated American would know. But how many haredim in America are educated? More to the point, how many speak Hebrew?”
Wow! You are very educated. I’m so impressed.
Neandershort – Do you realize how silly you sound when you write such immature statements?
“Can’t any actual or potential defilement in the world be viewed in this strange way? Do we throw up our hands in case the defilement was meant to be? Is direct action ruled out in all cases?”
The issues are (1) Is it our are responsibility to actually prevent the parade, or just to show G-d that we are not complicit and undisturbed; are we showing the media our feelings, or are are we mainly showing Hashem (2) what is reasonable action to take towards fulfilling either goal, and (3) how to balance the effect of protesting on the image of Torah Judaism.
Of course, G-d does not want his city to be defiled. I argued that it is not in our control to prevent the parade, because we have no control over other’s free-will, nor over how how G-d’s hashgacha(providence) plays out. I also suggested that Hashem will not punish innocent people if he sees that they are disturbed by the parade; arguable, what distinguishes most charedi Jews from fundamentalists(active or quiescent) is the fact that we don’t believe in a wrathful G-d who punishes innocent people, despite their sincere and reasonable efforts(as opposed to a undefined distinction, ie, that Islamism is fundamentalism, because they don’t have Torah leadership).
Thus, I believe that it was a sanctification of Hashem’s name when Edah Hacharedis wore sackcloth last year in anticipation of the parade, or when Rabbi Simcha Kook burst into tears during the proceedings in court about the impending parade last year. Fundamentalists, however, believe that they definitively know that it is G-d’s will to torch garbage bins to prevent the parade. They should be more concerned that they can contaminate Jerusalem themselves, rather than going nuts over whether a parade add extra impurity that will bring Divine wrath(as the Nefesh Hachaim writes in the piece I quoted, “… every transgression a Jew commits in his heart, whether the thought of idol worship, anger, or any other evil lust, these are the fires which destroys our Temple”).
At one point, Rabbi Lazer Brody of Breslov, wrote last year(11/8/06):
“In short, all the demonstrations, the rock-throwing, and the chaos is pointless. The petitions and the letter writing are a waste of time. The matter is out of our hands and no longer part of our free choice. Hashem’s fingerprints are all over this…We have all tried every ploy we know to stop the Impurade. Once we’ve done our best, we should sit back with emuna and let Hashem run the world. Our free choice is to try and stop the parade. Apparently, for Divine reasons that we can’t understand, Hashem is deciding otherwise. Whatever Hashem does is for the very best. Sometimes, Hashem gives the evil rope so they can hang themselves with their own negative choices… Prayer is both my free choice and my form of protest. *Thinking that we can stop the Impurade by force is a total lack of emuna.* The trash-burning and egg-throwing delinquents need to learn what it means to be a Jew…Hashem, this is Your affair – my job is Torah, prayer, and spreading emuna in the world.”
“It’s not our job to do calculations about HaShem’s will other than to understand and follow His Torah, which includes following the current directives of our wisest Torah leaders.”
It is obvious that just as when discussing if using an electric shaver is permitted, a final ruling is decided by one’s halachic decisor and not by quoting sources back and forth, so too, when discussing hashkafa and community policy decisions, each community will follow their Torah leader(s). I tried to make it clear that I wasn’t challenging the Edah’s rabbonim, despite that I’m arguing the strengths and weaknesses of their approach(as well as those of the “self-styled zealots” which they condemn) in a rigorous manner.
The benefit of having open and rational discussions of public policy, to a greater extent than is typically allowed in the chardi media– almost as if we were rabbinic leaders making public policy decisions ourselves– is that it counters the stereotype that charedim are unable to think for themselves, and are but ” interchangeable automatons blindly following whatever [they] are told to do by [their] rabbinic leadership”(“Dale Carnegie Next Door”, by Jonathan Rosenblum).
“He wrote this piece to re-establish some chareidi creds. I’m ok with that.”
– I don;t think we ever needed terutzim to fahrenfer what the Chazon Ish’s agenda was when issuing a statement
Calev points out that Rambam advises us to go to the opposite extremes in working on bad personal traits. Would this have extended to public, mass extremism? Not everybody who thinks he is Pinchas is on that level.