Passion, not poison
I was asked recently to speak to a group of foreign journalists about the haredi community in Israel and take them on a tour of Mea She’arim. I refused the second request. A tour of Mea She’arim alone, I explained, would only reinforce one of the most common misconceptions of the haredi world – that Mea She’arim typifies haredi Jewry or, at the very least, represents the haredi community in its unsullied, uncompromised form.
Mea She’arim is in many respects sui generis – linguistically, behaviorally and in terms of the historical memories that shape the community. Outside the hassidic world, Yiddish usage is in steep decline in the haredi community. Most present-day Israeli yeshiva students, for instance, do not speak or understand Yiddish. But it remains the lingua franca of Mea She’arim. The overwhelming majority of haredim eligible to vote do so, whereas most denizens of Mea She’arim do not.
Most importantly, the mindset of Mea She’arim has been shaped by a different history. Its residents represent the so-called “Old Yishuv” that has been locked in battle with the Zionist interlopers for well over a century. It is a community that views itself as being under siege from the outside world.
Though the rest of the haredi community was also ideologically hostile to Zionism, its historical memory has not been shaped to nearly the same degree by the Old Yishuv’s hundred-year war with Zionism. Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (universally known as the Chazon Ish, the name of his multivolume halachic work) arrived in Palestine from Europe in the 1930s and quickly established himself as the ideological leader of the “New Yishuv.” He once referred to the self-proclaimed “zealots” as Jews from before matan Torah (the giving of the Torah). By that he meant they had been rendered incapable of balancing a multiplicity of factors as demanded by the Torah.
The Chazon Ish’s successor as the ideological leader of the yeshiva world, Rabbi Elazar Menahem Shach, noted that a too-great focus on the battle with Zionism, no less than a too-great focus on the sanctity of the Land, inevitably leads to a distortion of the Torah.
THE FOREGOING historical background is necessary to understand a battle being waged within the haredi community. On one side, there exists a small minority that does not factor in the reactions of its fellow Jews before acting. That group has for so long viewed itself as a besieged minority that it has lost the sense of connection to the larger Jewish people. The consequences of its members’ actions on the general perception of the Torah and Torah-observant Jews are of little concern.
Their focus is instead on the protection of their turf from alien intrusions. In recent decades, they have been involved in stone-throwing on the Ramot road and were at the center of the confrontations on Jerusalem’s Rehov Bar-Ilan which did so much to make the entire haredi world anathema in the eyes of the broader Israeli public. And more recently, a younger generation that has moved from Jerusalem to Ramat Beit Shemesh Beit has been involved in a number of violent confrontations that have placed them at odds not just with their secular and national religious neighbors, but even with their haredi neighbors up the hill.
The Chazon Ish, who deliberately chose to make his home in Bnei Brak, took a diametrically opposed approach. He stressed the responsibility of mitzva-observant Jews to draw their fellow Jews closer to Torah. And he made it clear that today – in a period where Divine Providence is no longer manifest – that can only be done with cords of love.
A rabbi once asked him whether he should permit Shabbat desecrators to be called to the Torah in his synagogue. The Chazon Ish replied that the custom of not calling Shabbat desecrators applied in the past, when only a few Jews violated the Torah and so denying them an aliya might cause them to repent. But when those who flout the Torah’s commands constitute the majority, such a response will only further arouse their hatred.
Similarly, he ruled that one particularly harsh approach mentioned in the Talmud towards those who publicly violate the Torah only applied when miracles were common and violators were in open rebellion against God. When God’s presence is hidden, that approach would be viewed by the larger public as an act of cruelty. Since the entire purpose of the approach was to repair breaches in the fence of mitzva observance, it does not apply when it would only widen those breaches. All that is left to observant Jews, wrote the Chazon Ish, is to show our brethren the light of the Torah to the best of our abilities.
TODAY, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv has proclaimed that instilling in students that “the name of Heaven should become beloved through your actions” should be one of the primary goals of haredi education. (Rabbi Elyashiv, incidentally, is a lifelong resident of Mea She’arim; we are discussing archetypes only roughly denoted by a particular geographic location.)
No one would claim that any segment of the haredi public has perfectly fulfilled the talmudic dictum he cited. Nevertheless, the outcome in the clash between these two opposing approaches within the haredi world is of vital importance, not only for the haredi world itself but for the larger Jewish community that desperately needs to be touched by the haredi passion for being Jewish.
This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on November 15th 2007
If the group of foreign journalists asked if there were some other Haredi neighborhoods you could recommend they tour, either in addition to or instead of Meah Shearim, what would they be?
Jonathan Roseblum Wrote:
“THE FOREGOING historical background is necessary to understand a battle being waged within the haredi community.”
Being at the front line of one of the hot spots here on the boarder of RBS B, I see no evidence whatsoever of a battle being waged within the Hareidi community. There are no protests against the violence. There are no posters signed by Rabbis decrying the stoning of school buses. There’s no graffiti begging people to stop placing boulders in the road before Shabbos. There’s no indication that the perpetrators of these heinous acts are in any way being ostracized in the greater Hareidi community. And, sadly, virtually no Hareidim showed up at a recent rally to protest the violence.
While Rav Elyashiv’s proclamation to instill in Hareidi students the (novel?) idea that “the name of Heaven should become beloved through your actions” is thoughtful. I’m not clear on how this in anyway constitutes the “clash” and “battle” that JR refers to. Furthermore, the people who have been engaging in this violent behavior have been known to attack Rav Elyashiv and others considered to be Gedolei Torah.
Given the above information, I would sincerely like to hear from JR how he perceives that this “battle” is being waged.
“A tour of Mea She’arim alone, I explained, would only reinforce one of the most common misconceptions of the haredi world – that Mea She’arim typifies haredi Jewry or, at the very last, represents the haredi community in its unsullied, uncompromised form.”
In my most recent trip to Israel I visited Mea She’arim and at the gate to one of the older institutions there was a sign addressing modesty. I don’t recall the particular wording but it made it obvious to me that the Mea She’arim community feels like it is being put on display in a zoo. When one steps back the idea of touring a community to watch its people in their “natural habitat” seems a tad bit demeaning.
The implication of what you wrote is that Rav Elyashiv agrees with the Chazon Ish in terms of Tinok Sh’Nishba and the relations to the non frum and non Jewish world.
Several months ago Rav Elyashiv gave a psaq that a Rav (don’t remember who) should not sit shivah for his brother who was a Shoneh U’Piresh (learned and then left religion). I understand his brother was took every opportunity to bach the religious. However, that doesn’t seem to fit within the (well known) parameters of the Chazon Ish. This isn’t a comment on Rav Elyashiv himself, just pointing out that I don’t see the two as necessarily agreeing as your article seeems to imply.
Rav Reuven Grozovsky, ZT”L, former head of Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah of Agudas Yisroel in America, writes (in his well-known sefer Boias Hazeman) that the Neteurei Karta group, headquartered in Meah Shearim, may well be right in their approach to secular Zionism.
Although he took a different approach, he did not dismiss and disparage those who disagreed with him, based on Torah priciples. He had the utmost respect for the Torah scholarship of the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, ZT”L.
This is the proper way for a Machlokes LeShem ShoMaim to be conducted!
Re foreign journalists: would it be possible to replace a single trip around Mea Shearim with a series of visits to different haredi neighbourhoods/communities? By visits I mean actually being introduced to residents, perhaps being given hospitality by local families, introductions to selected figures, all while being given explanations of the different histories and hashkafot? No doubt, it would require a lot of preparatory work but, if run well, this may help to undermine the media’s perception of a monolithic, fundamentalist bloc by experiencing the humanity behind the head coverings.
“Rabbi Elazar Menahem Shach, noted that a too-great focus on the battle with Zionism, no less than a too-great focus on the sanctity of the Land, inevitably leads to a distortion of the Torah”.
Would a too-little focus on the sanctity of the Land, also inevitable lead to a distortion of the Torah?
Articles like this just reinforce my preferance for academics explaining the dynamics of the charedi community. I for one, prefer the simple behavior of those Chassidim and Mitnagdim in Mea Shearim who neither accept the legitimacy of the government nor its funds, over the behavior of the “modern” Lithuanian Charedim. I have no information, but associating the mindset of the old yishuv, as opposed to the current followers of the Chazon Ish ztl or perhaps modernity itself, with the violence in RBS2 seems unfair. I prefer to think that neither the old yishuv or the CI would tolerate current behavior.
Yeyasher kochacho for an important article and your principled stance.
Your frankness is important and refreshing.
For the record, it’s not only foreign journalists who are in the dark about these intra-Haredi divisions. Even some American Haredim, who are basically of a Yeshivish or Agudah orientation, sometimes think that the Edah Haredis is their party.
If you wanted to show foreign journalists how Haredim live, take them to Reches (Shuafat), Ramot Polin (never mind the architecture), Gush 80, Sorotzkin, Beitar, and Kiryat Sefer.
‘Several months ago Rav Elyashiv gave a psaq that a Rav (don’t remember who) should not sit shivah for his brother who was a Shoneh U’Piresh (learned and then left religion). I understand his brother was took every opportunity to bach the religious. However, that doesn’t seem to fit within the (well known) parameters of the Chazon Ish. This isn’t a comment on Rav Elyashiv himself, just pointing out that I don’t see the two as necessarily agreeing as your article seeems to imply.’
I’m not sure what you find difficult here. The brother of this person was not a Tinok Shenishbah according to what you are saying.
“If you wanted to show foreign journalists how Haredim live, take them to Reches (Shuafat), Ramot Polin (never mind the architecture), Gush 80, Sorotzkin, Beitar, and Kiryat Sefer.”
– I never found a lack of charedim in Har Nof, Bayit Vegan or Sanhedia Murchevet