The Price of Disunity

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, at the beginning of his commentary Oznaim LeTorah on parashas Vayeishev, explains the juxtaposition between the chronicles of the descendants of Yaakov and the brief enumeration of the tribes of Esav at the end of parashas Vayishlach. The Torah, writes Rabbi Sorotzkin, seeks to explain why the descendants of the Esav merited to establish a kingdom, with an orderly succession, for eight generations before Yaakov and his descendants succeeded in doing so.

He answers that the tribes of Esav, for all their individual corruption and wickedness, at least had a measure of internal unity. Though they descended from different mothers, the tribes of Esav were able to settle on a single king without recourse to warfare. The children of Yaakov, by contrast, were divided among themselves and even came to the point of fratricide. And thus they had to be purified in the crucible of Egypt before they could establish their own kingdom.

The Lutzker Rav’s vort struck with particular force this past Shabbos, following, as it did, the headlines in the weekend chareidi press about the disunity in chareidi ranks ahead of the coming elections. Both Degel HaTorah and Agudath Israel announced last week that they are planning to run as separate lists in the upcoming elections. Each side, needless to say, blamed the other for the breakdown in negotiations.

The chief stumbling block to a unified list – at least as far as one could gather from news reports – is the issue of the placement of representatives of the various factions on the Knesset list. Ideological differences, if any, it seems play little role in the failure to agree on a common list. In this context, one is reminded of a classic vort of Rabbi Moshe Sherer on one of his periodic missions to Israel to try to resolve some of the perpetual infighting in Agudath Israel. Then, as now, the issue was placement on the Knesset list. In those days, when Knesset members still had the power to allocate monies to individual institutions of their choice, the order of the various factions’ representatives could determine which institutions remained open and which closed. And so placement on the Knesset list was always bitterly contested.

In the midst of one particularly heated meeting, Rabbi Sherer said that he now understood a Gemara that had always bothered him. The Gemara in Berachos (28a) relates that on the day that Rabban Gamliel was deposed as Nasi, they had to add a large number of safsalim in the beis medrash – according to one opinon 400 benches and according to the other 700. Why, Rabbi Sherer asked, does the Gemara refer to the additional numbers who entered to learn in terms of the benklach on which they sat?

He answered that the great increase in the numbers learning was because of the rescission of Rabban Gamliel’s order that only those who were tocho k’boro could enter. And when you are dealing with those who are not tocho k’boro, they will end up fighting over benklach. Thus the Gemara refers to the increased numbers in terms of the greater number of benches in the beis medrash.

The present failure to agree on a single Knesset list is another painful reminder of how much disunity continues to plague chareidi Jewry, if any were still needed after the recent Jerusalem mayoral elections. (In this context, Reb Aharon Leib Steinman’s success in putting together united lists in all the chareidi municipalities, prior to last month’s elections, appears more and more like the exception to the rule.)

THE DISUNITY AND DISARRAY in the world of chareidi politics might be of little concern if things were swell, and we had nothing to fear. That, however, is hardly the case. It is a bit hysterical to say that Klal Yisrael has never been in greater danger than today. Such statements betray a rather short historical memory. But it is true that the social structure of the Israeli chareidi community that has been in place for at least thirty years – a social structure based on long-term kollel learning for all men – has never seemed so fragile as it does at present. And if that whole structure were to collapse, it would do so with dizzying rapidity leaving no time for preparation or gradual readjustments. The social dislocations would be enormous.

Jews in Eretz Yisrael have not yet fully grasped the nature of the situation that we are facing, unless they are among those who travel frequently to the United States collecting for their mosdos. The head of one of the largest kiruv organizations told me upon his recent return from the United States that in a week he barely covered his plane fare. Another rosh yeshiva said that everywhere he went he met only depressed and broken Jews. The only thing that kept him going was the thought that every closed door was undoubtedly lessening his Gehinnom. “Al pi derech hateva,” he told me, there is no way to open the doors next month.

There is a widespread feeling that large institutions and organizations cannot possibly just close their doors. We assume that the future cannot be that different than the past. Yet all around us we see clearly that is not so. What baby-boomer, who grew up hearing about the Big Three automakers, can imagine a world without them? But such a world is today more than just a remote possibility. Hundred year-old firms with billions of dollars in assets – Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch – suddenly disappeared or exist in a completely different form.

Can we say with confidence that the same fate cannot possibly befall one of the large mosdos haTorah? And if it could happen to the very largest mosdos, with huge pools of alumni, how much more so hundreds of small kollelim, who are no donor’s top priority. Maybe the promise that Torah Yidden exist above nature will somehow keep all these institutions afloat, but, in the meantime, the responsibility of providing food and paying staff is draining the lifeblood of those who bear it.

At a time like this, the Torah community of Eretz Yisrael needs a forum to gather its best minds to address themselves to the future of the community, to analyze possible courses of action, to assess the dangers of action and the dangers of inaction, and to collect information to understand the scope of the challenges that we face. And what do we have instead? Bickering about Knesset seats, while Jerusalem burns.

But the latest bickering is only one more reminder of the failure over the last fifty years in Eretz Yisrael to develop a functioning professional organization serving the interests of the entire Torah community.We totally lack a professional staff to help provide the gedolei Torah with the best possible information prior to their decision-making and with the ability to execute their directives. Not by accident were the two major recent initiatives outside of the political sphere – BeTzedek, a legal organization representing the Torah community in the Israeli legal system and Temech, a program to develop employment possibilities for chareidim – both projects started by Agudath Israel of America.

No comparable professional organization ever developed in Eretz Yisrael because the various factions that comprise the Agudath Israel electoral list have been too busy constantly jockeying for position vis-à-vis one another. When positions are parceled out based on factional affiliation, when rotation agreements replace demonstrated competence in the allocation of important public positions, when all activists are paid functionaries and there is no grass-roots constituency whose involvement extends past voting for a certain slate of candidates (and of late perhaps not even that far), the chances plummet of marshaling all the community’s resources for the achievement of concrete goals.

Torah society in Eretz Yisrael faces a multitude and magnitude of threats that the present generation has never known. And unfortunately, we have hamstrung ourselves in our ability to even confront those challenges.

Since this article was published, Degel HaTorah and Agudath Israel came to an agreement on a joint Knesset list.

This article appeared in the Yated Ne’eman on 24 December, 2008.

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10 Responses

  1. Moshe P. Mann says:

    As someone who used to be an Agudah’nik but is no longer, I fully understand Jonathan Rosenblum’s concerns, and I dare to suggest a maverick solution: Adopt the Dati Leumi religious model of separation between religion and politics!

    You see, not all Dati Leumi Jews vote for the Mafdal, and many even despise it. There are Dati Leumi MKs in Labor, Likud, Kadima, and Israel Beiteinu, and yet none of this constitutes a “crisis” for the religious Zionist community, because the RZ camp knew from the start that gedolim do not force their views on politics! They may positively INFLUENCE political action, as does HRH”G Mordechai Eliyahu shli”ta (may he have a speedy refuah shleima), but not ENFORCE it.

    The RZ camp was never bothered by this sort of disunity because they never bantered about the “daas torah” that pretends it doesn’t exist! Unfortunately for Agudah voters, this insistence on homogenous daas torah stems from the same tendency by Artscroll authors to paint the gedolim of the past as having virtually the same hashkafos regarding contemporary issues, and (without opening THAT can of worms) are visibly crestfallen when the homogenaiety proves false.

    So my advice to Agudah fans is that perhaps it is time to accept the fact that Orthodox Jews can and will disagree, especially in the realm of politics. And don’t just be a chickenhawk cheering for the American forces spreading democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Spread it among yourselves, too.

  2. tzippi says:

    This was so painful to read. I have avoided reading anything about the Israeli elections, no matter how sanitized, and presumably lashon hara-free the news source, as I figured that there was nothing I could do about this terrible situation.

    And there I was davening this morning, “Hashem, we’ve proven how we can completely feel and unite for all Jews everywhere, through Merkaz HaRav, Mumbai, and huge prayer gatherings for the current situation in Israel such as the one I attended last night. Please bring galus to an end and give us the chance to prove how happy we can all be for and with each together.” I guess we’re not there yet.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    That is the well-known problem. Jonathan, what steps do you recommend now to try to solve it?

  4. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    It should be pointed out that the Jerusalem municipal coalition is now wall-to-wall with, I believe, 30 council members out of 31 aboard. Mayor Nir Barkat may have a considerable merit in achieving this accomplishment. Time will tell as to the long-term success of the arrangement and how much, if any, substance there is to it.

  5. confused says:

    “We totally lack a professional staff to help provide the gedolei Torah with the best possible information prior to their decision-making and with the ability to execute their directives”

    Where would this professional staff have emerged from? Weren’t they advised by the gedolei Torah, before they could become professionals, to remain in the Beis Medrash?

  6. LOberstein says:

    “Adopt the Dati Leumi religious model “. In case you haven’t noticed, the Mizrachi has ceased to be a force in Israeli politics. It has merged and gone out of business. That is a bigger tragedy than intra-mural squabbling in the Agudah. The disunity in the Religious Zionist camp has led to numerous parties, has squandered the opportunity to make religious zionism the model for religion in Israel. If theer is hatred of religion , it is partially the fault of the impotence of the Mizrachi which abandoned its core principles to put a neshama into the state and became obsessed with one thing only. It is a crying shame.

  7. LOberstein says:

    Where would this professional staff have emerged from? Weren’t they advised by the gedolei Torah, before they could become professionals, to remain in the Beis Medrash?

    Comment by confused — January 7, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

    There is much to criticize,but in this one you are confused.
    Many of the finest askanim, people like Rabbi Sherer and Rabbi Neuberger never went to college. Bright people self educate, stupid people get diplomas but remain ignorant. Agudath Israel of America has regional offices around the country, they are doing a great job and college degrees have nothing to do with it.
    That being said, we have to recognize that there is a problem with denigration of the value of learning skills that will help parnassah.Maybe the economic situation will show some of these people why they need a high school education and professional training. Money talks and if there is no money , they will appreciate having a skill.

  8. dovid says:

    “That is a bigger tragedy than intra-mural squabbling in the Agudah.”

    What are you trying to establish? Who is a bigger fool? Isn’t it a tragedy to be a fool, whethter big or less big? Rabbi Meir Porush was pelted with food by a group that opposed his candidacy, when he arrived at a simcha. Neither party to the fight had college diplomas. Jonathan Rosenblum’s article is about our own backyard that needs some seder and direction. Leave Mizrahi to the NZ crowd to deal with.

  9. Jewish Observer says:

    “In case you haven’t noticed, the Mizrachi has ceased to be a force”

    – In case YOU haven’t noticed, Dati Leumi does not equal Mafdal!!



  10. Chaim Wolfson says:

    “I dare to suggest a maverick solution: Adopt the Dati Leumi religious model of separation between religion and politics!” (Comment by Moshe P. Mann — January 5, 2009 @ 6:29 am).

    How right you are that this is a fundemental difference between the Chareidi and DL approach to politics! It has always been this way. The Chazon Ish commented on this distinction almost 60 years ago in a letter to one of the leaders of Poalei Agus Yisrael. The letter is printed in Shlomo Lorincz’s book “BeMechitzasam” (pg. 59 in the English edition, “In Their Shadows”). “Ayin sham, v’dok”.

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