Hillel Halkin’s Sour Grapes

Wine grapes come in distinct varieties. There is no reason that sour grapes should not do the same. Hillel Halkin has uncorked his style of their juice with a splash in The Jewish Review of Books. This is no occasion for a joyous “bottoms-up.” He is unfair to Israeli democracy, to Zionism, and to Judaism. Most of all, he is unfair to himself.

Halkin, an outstanding intellectual figure through decades of recent Israeli history, is all in favor of the first two. He believes that democracy, however, has been mortally wounded by the recent election, and that Zionism is breathing its last, having been done in by Judaism.

“No, it’s not the end of Israeli democracy,” writes Halkin of the new Netanyahu coalition. “But it is the end of an Israeli consensus about what is and is not permissible in a democracy.” He doesn’t quite say what unmentionables the right will be responsible for in the future that will bury democracy. For the moment, he is unhappy about bills that will allow reprobate characters and felons like Bibi and Deri to remain in power (as if the left produced only saintly figures); that the coalition includes two parties of haredim (the folks who don’t serve in the army or earn a living, but try to take as much from the government as they can get their hands on), one of Religious Zionists (“hypernationalist and Jewish supremacist in its attitude toward Arabs”), and a fourth led by a Kahananik more extreme than the other three. And then there is their intention to emasculate the Supreme Court by restricting its powers – the powers usurped from the people by Aharon Barak’s engineering of what is roundly regarded as the single most activist court in the world, which arrogated for itself to pass judgment on absolutely everything and make all legislation conform to its sense of morality.

But perhaps things will get better? In time, the political pendulum eventually swings back. Not going to happen, Halkin says. “The rascals will probably win [future elections] by bigger margins than they won this one, which was close. This is in part because they have the demographic winds at their backs. The current ultra-Orthodox birth rate in Israel is twice the modern Orthodox one, which is a good deal higher than the nonreligious one…The currents driving Israel steadily rightward will persist.

(For the record, it is not just haredim whom he dislikes. About religious Zionists, he has this to say: “Modern Orthodoxy, though it took part in Zionist construction in Palestine, contributed relatively little to it or to Israel’s creation.”)

So there you have it. Israeli democracy is imperiled by haredim having too many children, and then having the temerity to vote. Who gave those rights to them? What kind of democracy is that?

Halkin does not have to search long for the chief culprit for this mess:

When you can think of no rational reasons for hope, you turn to irrational ones. The steady drift toward religion in Israeli life in recent decades, so opposed to the trend in Western countries, is directly related to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse…I do not pretend to know whose side God is on, or whether he takes sides at all in such matters…There is something, however, that I do know. Zionism aspired to wean the Jewish people off the belief that G-d was on its side and could be relied on to rescue it from its predicaments—that it should rely on G-d rather than on itself because it was G-d’s chosen.

Halkin writes to an old friend, an anti-Zionist who was finally fed up enough with Israel to move to Portugal. That friend, with whom Halkin formerly debated, found vindication for his contempt of Zionism in the results of the recent election. Halkin mostly agrees, but has reservations about the lesson to be learned:

You put the blame on Zionism, and I put it on Judaism, of whose fantasies and delusions Zionism sought to cure us only to become infected with them itself. Zionism wanted to make us a normal people. It failed and grew warped in the process. 

We sense that Halkin at 84 is having a hard time – as do most people – dealing with human mortality. Looking back at the ideas and dreams that animated him, he cannot find their realization today. Looking ahead, he cannot find the people or the will to fulfil them in the future. And so he writes to his old friend:

We’re both old now. Neither of us will live to see the end of this. I will die, anguished, in my country and among my people, and you will die, tranquil, among foreigners in a foreign land.

Halkin would rather die anguished in his country, than tranquil among strangers. Why can he not see the majesty of that statement? His dismissal of Judaism, irritating and pathetic as it is, will affect no one. But his despair about his own self is a human tragedy still in the making. He is selling himself hopelessly short. For decades, he enriched the lives of countless Jews with his thought and his magnificent translations of works important to the diverse tastes of our fractious people. He should be taking immense pride in what he has given this great country, even if it is not heading in the direction he anticipated.

We can wish him an ad meah v’esrim – till 120 years. Perhaps in the years ahead, he will come to realize that his core commitment was to the fact of Israel’s existence, not to a set of suppositions on how that country would operate. He will open his eyes to what he should see around him: a country whose citizens report one of the highest rates of life satisfaction on the globe – despite the kvetching. He will see a country where that is evidenced as a lone reversal of the rule that people have fewer children as their lot improves economically, not more. He will see a country where people routinely help strangers, even if they drive like maniacs. He will see a country that takes pride in itself, standing out in a world of anomie and indifference. He will see a country that is determined to remain the nation-state of the Jewish people, and has the conviction and resources to do so, with the help of Hashem.

Zionism didn’t disappear. It morphed into a new variety, indeed stripped of some of the old encrustations. The new Zionism, in a word, is the idea that the largest Jewish community in the world is entitled to safety and security and will be defended on our own terms. It does not stand as a counterforce to the old Zionism, but is a healthier outgrowth of it, accommodating far more adherents. Halkin should great the new baby with joy, rather than mourn the passing of its ancestors. If he is not a parent of the new arrival, he is still a godfather.

If he reconsiders his vitriol about Judaism, he might realize that Judaism is a boon to Israel’s existence, not its bane. He might accept what so many thinkers have said – that a people needs a strong ideal or belief system function cohesively, and that everything in Jewish history pales in that ability relative to our self-understanding as the Torah’s mission. Recently, Aharon Barak himself, after a particularly stormy interview with a haredi publication, agreed to don tefillin and recite the Shma, with tears in his eyes. After that, anything is possible.

Perhaps Halkin will even find a way to make peace with his great-grandfather the Netziv and his legacy. We will cheer him on all the way.

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52 Responses

  1. Nachum says:

    Very, very well said.

    Some years back I noted that while Rav Soloveitchik and Saul Lieberman are often described as “cousins,” they were in fact half-first-cousins-twice-removed-by-marriage. (As Lieberman and the Hazon Ish were first cousins, that means that the latter and the Rav were half-second-cousins-twice-removed-by-marriage.)

    That also means that the Rav had the same relationship to Lieberman as he had to Abraham Halkin, father of Hillel. Small world.

    My only connection is that I think Hillel Halkin and my mother were in Camp Massad together, and that Halkin answered one or two of my letters in his pseudonymous column.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Many traditional Orthodox leaders considered what you call the old Zionism to be incompatible with Judaism. Example from Rav Elchonon Wasserman HY”D:
    https://www.truetorahjews.org/images/Epoch_of_the_Messiah.pdf
    Is Halkin reinforcing their point, but from a twisted, antireligious direction, unchanged by recent history?

    • Nachum says:

      Can’t mean they’re not both wrong. R’ Elchanan at a terrible price; Halkin hopefully not.

      • Bob Miller says:

        R’ Elchonon HY”D came back to an Eastern Europe in grave peril when he could have remained safe in America. Nothing we do in life will probably be that brave. Elements of his critique that I cited were valid and remain so.
        https://yated.com/final-moments-life-rav-elchonon-wasserman-hyd-eyewitness-accounts/

      • Bob Miller says:

        More background, including Rav Wasserman’s trip to America:

        https://mishpacha.com/the-eternal-flame/

      • Nachum says:

        Brave, maybe. (What did it accomplish? And did really have an idea what would happen to him?) But I’m not talking about the last bit of his life; I’m talking about opposition to Zionism, and how it might be said to have led to the deaths of millions. Or at least hundreds of thousands.

      • Steven Brizel says:

        Yet, regardless of that hashkafic perspective there is a superb Magid Shiur on All Daf who is a RIETS musmach who cites to Kovetz Shiurim very frequently. We err in engaging in cancel culture of any Gadol and his Torah merely because of a hashkafic position

      • Bob Miller says:

        Nachum, your hypothetical body count totally ignores the strong 1930’s barriers to immigration to the US, the British Palestine Mandate, and virtually everywhere else. You’ll note that large numbers of avid Zionists were also stuck and murdered in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East by Nazis and their accomplices. Until Rommel Y”S was defeated and repelled at El Alamein, the fall of Egypt and the Palestine Mandate to his invaders was gravely feared by the British and the Yishuv. The British were already burning sensitive documents in Cairo. Sadat was looking for a regal enough Egyptian residence for Rommel.

      • Nachum says:

        Hundreds of thousands, then. Hundreds of thousands too many.

      • Bob Miller says:

        Repetition doesn’t make it so, Nachum…so I object!

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEabC9WzHck

      • nt says:

        Zionism as formulated by its founders is openly antithetical to Judaism. There is no way Rav Elchonon was wrong about that. That did not mean he opposed people moving to Israel. In addition, having a state would not have happened with or without Orthodox support prior to the Holocaust.

    • lacosta says:

      the cited article appears on the site of the satmar-NetureiKarta acolytes , the modern bearers of the most vicious forms of antizionism , that literally kowtow and genuflect to their Iranian and Palestinian messiahs—- the Hope that they will be able to destroy the zionist entity in canaan. One wonders if some of them have in fact turned that into their own false ism…. of course they will say that the state and all its contents are fruits of the forbidden tree , and simply a nisayon of emuna [ in the inherent evil of that entity ] , that most frum jews have fallen into…..

      • Bob Miller says:

        If the NK idiot-traitors posted the US Constitution for some crazy reason, it would lose no credibility.
        I was saving readers the chore of buying the pamphlet itself.

    • mycroft says:

      RE Rav Elchanan returning to Eastern Europe. The attempt to make him a Zaddik that he knew what was going to happen boomerangs. if Rav Elchanan Wasserman believed Jews were doomed, he would have followed the Mir example of spend full time trying to save his talmidim and get them passports to leave as Mir did. Reality is that people did not perceive what would happen. RYYW in Berlin after Kristallnacht advised students not to leave . The Sreidei Eish advised students not to leave despite the Yeshiva dorm being damaged in Kristallnacht and for the duration, students didn’t stay in dormitory they stayed in peoples apartments in Berlin. We must remember anti-Semitic pogroms were not ancient history in Europe .then and many felt this was just another bad experience to be endured. I once heard Marc Shapiro speak and said R Elchanan did not perceive danger that Nazis were but Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski did.
      Different Rabbanim treated events differently, Rav Ehrenkrauz in Munich made a holiday of the day the Beer Hall Putsch failed and for a decade they said Tehillim in schule Thanksgiving, others treated it as a big warning and time to leave Germany. None of us including big Zaddikim and Talmeidei Chachamim are Neviim.
      Complex story and facts..

      • Bob Miller says:

        Which is why all polemicists with 20-20 hindsight should have considered this general unawareness at all levels. Grading Tzaddikim by political philosophy is offensive. Many learning opportinities are lost.

      • Bob Miller says:

        On your point about what Rav Elchonon himself knew on returning, he at least knew as a reader of newspapers that the Jews in Eastern Europe were in a very bad spot with few if any good alternatives. Still he needed to be with them to guide them as best he could, and overlooked his own personal comfort.

      • Steven Brizel says:

        See ny point re R Elchanan HYK ZL ‘s sefarim-Jovetz Shiurim and Kovetz Hearos sefarim are superb in helping aniyone understand the ussues on a daf and cite the Divrei Torah of RChaim Brisker , ZL, R Shimon Shkop and theChafetz Chaim on many important issues in Shas. The Seredie Aish was a pre war Gadol who was one of the greatest talmidim of Slabodka but understood the realities that German Jewry .Hashkafic issues should not be a form of cancel culture of great Sefarim

      • mycroft says:

        On your point about what Rav Elchonon himself knew on returning, he at least knew as a reader of newspapers that the Jews in Eastern Europe were in a alternatives

        20/20 hindsight when he came back certainly risks were in the air-but nothing new-pogroms had happened often in Europe. Even the head of Berlin Yeshiva which was damaged during Kristallnacht advised students not to leave-how could one expect a person in Eastern Europe to assess the danger. If Rav Elchanan perceived the danger when returning, he would have taken efforts to save his talmeidim. Nothing wrong in integrity-stop applying 20/20 hindsight to people’s reasonable actions at the time.

      • Bob Miller says:

        Mycroft,

        For how many people at that juncture was leaving even an option?

      • mycroft says:

        The Seredie Aish was a pre war Gadol who was one of the greatest talmidim of Slabodka but understood the realities that German Jewry .

        He also was the one that even after Kristallnacht-advised his students NOT to leave Germany. even when it was considered too dangerous to stay in the dormitory which was damaged in the November pogrom. One certainly, can’t blame Rav Elchanan for not perceiving danger that a Rav in Berlin couldn’t.

  3. William Gewirtz says:

    The time has come to lower the rhetoric. Listen intently to any of Prof. Moshe Halbertal’s presentations on what being a Jewish and halakhic state entails; the announced direction of the current government violates those principles and not narrowly.

    But this too will pass. Well before Haredi population growth will threaten the modern state with its antiquated versions of halakha, the folks that pay the bill to support the unnatural state of Hareidi society will take resolute control. Unfortunately, their draconian reactions may place a burden on Hareidi society too harsh to even contemplate. Deri, Ben Gvir, Goldknopf, etc. deserve to occupy their place in the world, but far asway from power or influence.

    The Jewish state is the home of not just halakhic Jews but, to use the Rav ztl’s phrase, all Jews of fate. Attempts to change that are IMHO unthinkable.

    Any observer of the Israeli scene probably recognizes the growth in Jewish/religious/halakhic consciousness and sensitivity over the last decades on the part of secular Israelies. I visited Israel (on an acquisition that did not happen then) as an orthodox AT&T executive almost 30 years ago; the reaction approximated that I would have received as a unicorn.

    iI have travelled among a very different secular population in Israel over the last 15 years. Visit downtown Herzlia on Tisha B’Av night to appreciate what I am saying. The current stated direction of the government will hopefully not reverse that trend significantly.

    • Nachum says:

      “Deri, Ben Gvir, Goldknopf”

      One of these things does not fit in your sentence.

      • dr. bill says:

        they are hardly the same; three very different types that disgrace the Knesset. I don’t feel any need to explain.

      • Nachum says:

        Indeed not. Holders of the sole moral truth have no need to explain themselves. It’s a comfortable perch.

      • William Gewirtz says:

        Nachum, the perch I occupy is sadly a very lonely place; the curse of a sense of right and wrong informed by extreme sensitivity and balance. 🙂

  4. Reb Yid says:

    he is unhappy about bills that will allow reprobate characters and felons like Bibi and Deri to remain in power (as if the left produced only saintly figures)

    Deri was convicted not once, not twice, but three times. Bibi has been indicted twice and part of his “reforms” are to make his governing coalition judge and jury over his ongoing indictment.

    There really aren’t any comparisons to anyone in the opposition.

    Everyone is accountable to the law. In the United States, the electorate rid itself at the very first opportunity of a leader who thought he was above the law. Unfortunately, in Israel, the electorate has been unwilling to do the same for several decades.

    • afrumrabbi says:

      Reb Yid: have you considered that perhaps there is good reason why – despite the convictions – the electorate is ‘unwilling to do the same’?

      • Reb Yid says:

        Of course.

        The reason is simple–democracy is not valued as much as it once was in Israel. It is no coincidence that Israeli has increasingly sought to curry favor with authoritarian leaders of other non-democratic countries while it is increasingly at odds with other democracies around the world.

      • Bob Miller says:

        One such reason is that, whatever one might criticize, today’s ruling coalition partners are not shameless traitors.

      • afrumrabbi says:

        How silly and patronizing – 2.5 million people voted for Bibi amd Deri not because they admire them and trust them to represent their interests, but only because they ‘don’t value democracy’. So you get to define what is the democratic will of the people, and those who disagree are llegitimate.

      • Reb Yid says:

        Afrumrabbi–both are true. Bibi made clearly known before the election what he planned to do in terms of “reforms” and Deri. This is getting into government via the tools of democracy only to use every resource within one’s power to dismantle institutions created by this democracy once in.

        Remember that Bibi did not get a majority of the vote. Neither did The Former Guy. Nor did Hitler, back in the day. They all got in via democratic means, sure enough.

        Israel has been on the wrong side of history of late. This current chapter only makes matters worse.

      • Dovid says:

        “Remember that Bibi did not get a majority of the vote. Neither did The Former Guy”

        The “former guy” meaning Naftali Bennett? That’s correct, he assumed the PM role with a fraction of Bibi’s vote tally.

        “Israel has been on the wrong side of history of late” correct again – handing over billions of shekalim to the Islamic Ra’am party, allowing Bedouins to claim autonomy over the Negev and the Galil, pandering to America’s Reform movement (among other examples) …..

        “Nor did Hitler” — when all else fails, simply insert the ultimate conversation stopper

      • Dovid says:

        “Israeli (sic) has increasingly sought to curry favor with authoritarian leaders of other non-democratic countries”

        Does that mean you oppose the long-time efforts of the Democrats cozying up to Teheran?

  5. Michael Halberstam says:

    If this article proves anything it is that almost everyone who supported Zionism in the past had an axe to grind based upon what he wanted to see in a new Jewish world that was different or better than what he thought he saw. History has created a new reality that almost nobody foresaw. Now we have to rethink why we should be for or against Zionism.
    This all true, But it fails to take into account that a new world has come into existence, and we all need to reevaluate where we see ourselves in that world. It is no longer enough to say that one if for or against religion, as if that is the whole story.

  6. William Gewirtz says:

    afrumrabbi, are you of the view that the electorate possess enhanced ethical sensibilities?

    Bob Miller, those who do not attribute value to Israel as a start-up nation is a shameless fool, effectively a traitor, and aino makir tov from HKBH.

    • afrumrabbi says:

      No, Bill. I am of the opinion that the electorate is disgusted by the power grab of those who unethically slander all those who disagree with them, aided by a compliant and hypocritical media who selectively decide who is ethical.

    • Bob Miller says:

      I’m talking about people, now in the Opposition, who, regardless of their other qualities, want to uproot our religion from our Land.

  7. lacosta says:

    —–that the coalition includes two parties of haredim (the folks who don’t serve in the army or earn a living, but try to take as much from the government as they can get their hands on)

    i would love to hear RYA ‘s thoughts on how close those characterizations are to the reality , at least for the vast majority of denizens of the haredi townships….

    • I’d rather not go there. Whether true or not, including the put-downs of both charedim and religious Zionists was a snarky and cheap way to bolster his misshapen arguments. The fact is that both of those communities are deeply committed to the present safety and future growth of Israel, and are appalled by the way the left (and especially the Court) has chipped away at the Jewish character of the State. They both regard that as placing the lives of millions of Jews – religious and secular – in jeopardy.

      • lacosta says:

        i can understand not wanting to go there. one could say that existentially DL , by trading land for religion , has changed totally the character of the state-and maybe not for the better [ the intractable arab problem , we want the land under them , not them; surrendering much of israeli religious life to haredi society -who filled the vacuum ] . and the haredi community, whose numbers will continue to rise dramatically , will present an ongoing financial burden in so many ways…. Al derech hateva this shouldn’t work , but then again the idea of a state of jews that still functions even marginally is so lemaalah min hateva…

  8. Nachum says:

    I’d like to add one thing about Halkin: A few weeks ago the Philologos column, which he writes, answered a question (well, really a polemic, but whatever) about tekhelet. In the course of the column it became sadly clear that Halkin is completely removed from Judaism. He may be completely observant himself- I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he is- but the way he wrote certain things indicated to me that he is still far removed from it. What really jumped out at me was that it became clear that he has *no idea* that Jews have been wearing tekhelet in their tzitzit for decades. Which means it’s very probable he never goes to beit knesset, and likely associates with few if any religious Jews. He’s replaced Judaism (the 1950’s type Conservativism he was raised in) with a strong form of secular Zionism, and hasn’t looked back. And now, learning that many, many Israelis have *not* done so, he’s shocked and disillusioned.

    • He’s not observant. For a peek into his thinking that also demonstrates his great talent as a writer and his remarkably good insights into the current state of frum davening (aside from the mistakes), see https://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/103/endless-devotion/

      • Nachum says:

        Well, then, as an atheist, Halkin’s problem is that he’s in a relatively small minority in Israel. Only about 40% of Israeli Jews are “secular,” and even most of those have some belief in God. Only about 1-2% of Israeli Jews are as doctrinaire about their disbelief as Halkin is. And these elections may have really woken him up to that.

  9. Steven Brizel says:

    Halkin is a fine writer but his hostilitity to Jewish values pervaded his articlce. The real issue is a Jim Crow style self perpetuating High Court of Justice that serves the interests of the secular Ashkenazic elite and has no room for critics of its usurpation of governmental power such as Ruth Gavison and certainly has contempt for anyone who does not share the views of the secular Ashnenazic elite such as Charedim or settlers. Contrary to the legacy media, there have been masssive demonstrations against the decisions of the High Court that impacted on the Charedi world that dwarfed the size of the current demonstrations in Tel Aviv

  10. Michael Halberstam says:

    Halkin is a very talented writer who has produced a lot of interesting work. He is however, not a traditionally observant Jew. There is no need to make him an institution. He is interesting as an individual, but irrelevant as a phenomenon. There are all kinds of people with all kinds of ideas. It is ok to observe and even pay attention to them. We don’t need to go beyond that and be impressed.

  11. Yehoshua Kahan says:

    I do not understand what useful function this post served. If we cannot compel the silence of sonei Torah, must we magnify their voice? Let him do teshuva, and we will embrace him. Otherwise, let us regard him with the antipathy due one that denies the existence of the Ribbono shel Olam and hates his Torah, and be done with him.

    • The purpose is to show the extent of that antipathy in some circles, and – more importantly – to show the old version is concentrated in an ever-shrinking group of old-timers, whose influence is asymptotically approaching zero. And, to show the tragic consequences of those beliefs upon otherwise very talented people.

      • Reb Yid says:

        Don’t blame the messenger. The reality is what is it–an absolute disaster in the making. Irrelevant whether Halkin is a believer or not. As if there are no religious Jews who are protesting this madness.

  12. Jay says:

    Halkin may yet draw succor, as the “old-timers” have not had their final say. They are currently hard at work at wrecking the economy, and bring down the country, rather than relinquish their ill-begotten judicial stranglehold on her values. I cannot imagine the outcry if the Orthodox engaged in Lapidiotic BDS activities, such as telling philanthropists across the world that their money is better invested in Singapore and not in Israeli medical centers or universities.

    They also still happen to control the State known as the IDF, which the general staff states outright has values independent of any government or coalition. “Ruach Tzahal,” they call it.

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