Vive la difference -Merkaz HaRav
He entered the lioness’s den and came out unscathed.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Weiss of Merkaz HaRav Kook, Rosh Yeshiva L’Tzeirim was interviewed by Ilana Dayan three days after the terror attack, on her regular Sunday TV program. Secular Ilana Dayan usually plays hardball so it was surprising that Rav Weiss agreed. He displayed the sterling qualities that make him a leader: sensitivity, deep faith despite grief, patience and complexity. Parts of the interview were broadcast the next day on a haredi radio station. R. Hillel Fendel translated the interview into English “Faith Through Tears.” It is a good idea to skim the English translation first, the better to understand the Hebrew of Rav Weiss.
The interview, in Hebrew, can be seen and heard.. If you read some of the 150 comments posted beside the interview, you will see what a Kiddush Hashem this was.
“What makes Merkaz Harav unique?” was the question posed to me by several American Beis Yaakov seminary girls here for their gap year as we stood on the sidewalk outside of Merkaz HaRav. On the seventh day of the shiva for the eight precious masmidim of Yeshivat HaRav Kook, there was an evening of eulogies at the Yeshiva. Knowing there would be an overflow crowd the yeshiva set up screens in the street so those of us who could not get inside could watch/listen. The previous writers have expressed eloquently what all segments of the Orthodox world have in common with Merkaz HaRav. I think it is also important to touch on what makes Merkaz HaRav unique.
I have been pondering this question for two decades. I have friends in the circles of Merkaz Harav, I visit the settlements, I read the publications, and I attend their yearly women’s study days of Binyan Shalem. I admire tremendously their devotion to study, idealism, modesty in dress and living standards, and their educational initiatives from Kiryat Shmona to Sderot.
To answer the seminary girls’ question I touched on some of the elements that characterize Merkaz HaRav circles- the view of ikvisa demeshicha; the view that the State of Israel is the as’halta degeula ; and I gave them some of the background about Rav A.I. Kook and his son Rav Zvi Yehuda,ztz”l, including the latters’ encouragement of settlement in Judea and Samaria after 1967. BTW, I just came across an article on Israel’s 57th Independence Day, where Haaretz listed R. Zvi Yehuda as seventh among the „Ten who made Israel what it is.”
When explaining to the Sem girls, I didn’t go into the deeper aspects of R. Kook’s theology. If I had to pinpoint one element that underlies the Rav Kook approach I would say it is his view that there is intrinsic, inherent kedusha in the Jewish people, in the land and in some of the institutions. One could almost say the kedusha is in the molecules. From this basis flows a special emphasis on the Land of Israel. To better highlight this, juxtapose it with the view of R. Meir Simcha Hacohen of Dvinsk (d.1926, author of Ohr Somayach) in his Meshech Chochma. In a long commentary on the breaking of the Tablets (Ex. 32:19) he wrote the following.
Even the Tablets – the writing of G-d – were not intrinsically holy, but only on account of the mitzvot. The moment Israel sinned and transgressed what was written on them, they became mere bri- a-brac devoid of sanctity. …There is nothing intrinsically holy in the world except for the L-rd…Moses feared they would deify the Tablets as they had done the calf. Had he brought them intact, they would have substituted them for the calf and not have reformed their ways. Do not imagine that the Temple and Tabernacle are intrinsically holy. No holiness resides in any created thing other than that invested in it by Israel’s observance of Torah and mitzvot.
One might express the difference between these two approaches in terms of a spectrum of understanding of kedusha. At one end would be Rav Kook (and Maharal and Yehuda Halevi-Kuzari) where kedusha is intrinsic. At the other end would be the Meshech Chochma where the commandments engender kedusha. No observance, no kedusha.
This is an oversimplification, but I think it captures the essence of the difference. The difference then leads to different approaches to settling the Land of Israel and to political Zionism.
Several CC writers wrote about unity. I would like to stress unity in diversity. Rabbi Adlerstein wrote below about “an op-ed columnist in Yated, whose headline read, “We Are All Mercaz Harav.”
A slightly different, complementary, op-ed in Yated was expressed by their columnist M. Shotland, who wrote on the Tuesday (4 b Adar II) following the attack that he criticized the secular media for labeling this a “sectorial attack” and not showing as much commiseration as the dati and haredi publics. After expressing deep condolences, Shortland wrote, “For several years the government, accompanied by the media, has been harming all that is holy to the National Religious who see themselves as loyal to Zionism and the State. Despite the fact that we don’t by any means identify with their [the National Religious] approach, it is hard to see how something as tragic as the death of eight young men cut down so cruelly, does not stop the the Israeli left from their pursuit and their criticism.”
On a more practical level, I wanted to understand how the haredi press reacted to the attack. I surveyed all the papers that terrible week. Mishpacha had cover stories in the Hebrew and English editions. Hebrew headline: “Death of kedoshim in the tent of Torah” ; English : “Eight Lost Lights, Faith through Fire at Mercaz HaRav.” Bekehila devoted the entire front page to large headlines: “Grief Cuts Through all the Camps” and in their magazine cover there was a gloved Zaka rescue worker’s hand holding a bloodied crocheted kippa with the headline “Tevah b’Hechal” (Slaughter in the Temple);their Kolot magazine cover showed a photo of the Merkaz Harav students making havdala on the first Shabbat after the attack; the Arba Kanfot cover showed a picture of the funeral, “Avodas hakorbanos.”
Among the writers in Haaretz, a reasonable analysis was written the morning after the attack by Yair Sheleg (a graduate of the hesder in the Gush) titled, “The flagship of national-religious yeshivas.” A week later he wrote a longer piece on the reactions of leaders and students “Days of Awe.” Yair Ettinger who also covers the religious world for Haaretz addressed the reactions of the haredi world in “A moderna yeshiva but still a yeshiva.” In the printed edition the article was accompanied by a poignant photo of the Belzer Rebbe holding the hand of one of the hospitalized surviving boys.
Why do I admire Merkaz Harav even though I tend towards the Meshech Chochma end of the spectrum? Because of stories like that of Doron,the young Ethiopian scholar who was murdered.
See Rabbi Adlerstein’s A Hillel for Our Time on March 16 below. I hope readers don’t mind if I repeat the paragraph that moved me the most.
Doron wanted to learn Torah in Mercaz HaRav, one of the best of Israel’s yeshivas. But…he lacked a strong background in Gemara. The Yeshiva rejected him. He asked, “If you won’t let me learn Torah, will you let me wash the dishes in the mess hall?” Doron washed dishes. But, he spent every spare minute in the study hall. …One day, the “dish washer” asked the Rosh Yeshiva to test him. The Rosh Yeshiva politely smiled and tried to gently dismiss Doron, but Doron wouldn’t budge. He forced the Rosh Yeshiva into a Torah discussion; the next day, he was no longer a dish washer but a full-fledged “yeshiva bachur”.
Yehe zichram baruch.