Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Chanuka . . . and Tevet

When we think of the place of Chanukah in the Jewish calendar, our thoughts always turn to the month of Kislev.  It is interesting to note, however, that Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday that actually spans portions of two months; five days in Kislev, and three in Tevet.   This oddity is even more striking when we consider that the two months have very different connotations for our people.  

Kislev is looked up to as the culmination of the Maccabean war, a time of Chanukah, renewal of the Temple after its defilement by foreign evil forces.  For Chabad Chassidim, it contains the 19th of Kislev, a time of the remarkable liberation of the Alter Rebbe.   By contrast Tevet contains (other than my birthday) only days of sadness of note.  The Eighth of Tevet is the Day that Ptolemy II forced the Jews to translate the Torah into Greek.  The Ninth of Tevet marked the death of the great Ezra the scribe, one of the greatest Jews of all time, who was instrumental in bringing our nation back from the Babylonian exile and rebuilding the Bet HaMikdash.  And of course the Tenth of Tevet, on which we mark not only the previous two events, but also the beginning of the end of the First Temple, when Nebuchadnezzar set the two and one half year siege of Jerusalem.  Altogether an unpleasant month, to say the least.

The juxtaposition of Chanukah between these two very different months is surely no accident.  Let us think about what the events described represent on a deeper level.  

Chanukah is about renewal.  The Temple, all its utensils and all of its holy oil (save one flask), had been contaminated.  On a larger level, the Hellenists had succeeded in contaminating the minds of much of the intelligentsia and elite levels of Jewish society.   The Maccabean revolt was about renewing authentic Judaism, expelling the physically and spiritually oppressive Greek regime, and rekindling the holy pure light of Torah in the Holy Temple.  Although ultimately the Renewal did not last, and the Hasmoneans themselves succumbed to Hellenism, the new beginning at Chanukah was glorious, and the lights that they kindled stayed with the Jewish people forever.

All of Tevet Days were of an opposite nature.   The Septuagint translation by Ptolemy, occurring close to the time of the Chanukah story, was a time of sadness because it represented a darkening of the light of the Torah.  As Eliyahu Kitov wrote, “Once the Torah was imprisoned in the Greek translation, it was as if the Torah were divested of reverence. Anyone who wanted to find fault with its logic, could now do so, based on the translation. The Sages, therefore, likened the event of this day, to the day on which the Golden Calf was made. For just as the Golden Calf had no reality, and yet its servants regarded it as having real substance, likewise the translation, devoid of the true substance of Torah, allowed non-Jews to imagine that they already knew the Torah.”  It was the beginning of the end of our exclusive relationship with the Torah, and caused a great diminution of its light.

The death of Ezra represented a great light that had not fulfilled its potential.  Ezra, one of the greatest Jews ever, battled mightily to bring the Jewish people back from Babylon and re-establish the primacy of the proud Torah life in Eretz Yisrael.  As the leading Sage of the “Men of the Great Assembly” he instituted vital methods that allowed Torah and Judaism to flourish once again in the aftermath of the horror of the Babylonian Exile.  Although he accomplished enormously, his dream of truly re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in the Land was foiled, as a plurality of Jews opted to remain in the Diaspora, and ignore the call of the hour to return Home.  His death, and the end of his striving, marked the beginning of the end of the Second Temple, which could not last forever having begun on such a shaky foundation.

And of course the Tenth of Tevet represents truly the Beginning of the End; that is its essence.  Although the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash did not happen until two and a half years later, the die was cast and doom was all but inevitable.

Chanukah, living both in Kislev and Tevet thus contains within it both a message of renewal and doom; of new hope and the end of a dream.  Surely a mixed message, if there ever was one.  But perhaps this is just the point of Chanukah.

Judaism does not back away from the fact that, for a thinking person, life is complex, full of contradictions, and not given to easy formulations, thought developed remarkably in book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). There are moments of great promise, and crushing defeats; marvelous joys and unspeakable suffering, and all of it under the directorship of a Loving and omniscient Almighty G-d whose ways are often inscrutable to us.  We learn to look for the meaning that is over the Sun, trusting that ultimately His plans will result in a glorious future.

Chanukah was a bright light in a darkening gloom.  Occurring after the events that would ultimately result in the destruction of the Second Temple, Chanukah provided a small but inextinguishable light that would burn through the decline, through the expulsion, through 2,000 years of exile, and into the beautiful renewal of Jewish life that we experience today.   The small light coming from a flask of pure holy oil that was not, and will not, be extinguished, and emulate the eternal flame of soul of our people.  In a famous comment, the Ramban says in Bamidbar 8:2 that Hashem promised Aharon שלך גדולה משלהם, your portion is greater than that of the princes of the other Tribes in that their gift to the Temple would end when it was destroyed, while his descendants (the Hasmoneans) would light a light that would continue favor, in to and through the Great Exile.  That light gives us strength not only in the darkness of winter, but in all moments of darkness in our lives, in all situations and at all times of the year.

The Jewish world has known a great deal of sadness lately.  The terrible Chilul Hashem caused by the reaction of the Satmar leadership to the Weberman case, the suffering of so many in Eretz Yisrael in the recent skirmishes, and notably, the incredible devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy that hit our community so disproportionately.  We are left with a darkened community and world, but also one which can be, and will be warmed by the eternal light and warmth that Chanukah represents.  The placing of the days of Kislev before Tevet, and the fact that the majority of the Chanukah days are in Kislev, serve as an affirmation that we will choose to focus on the promise of renewal and eternal light, in the face of the undeniable presence of the negativity of Tevet.   We pledge to look at the coming of Tevet as not a time of lessening light, but in keeping with Bet Hillel, of ever growing and increasing light, until the ultimate redemption that it heralds.

In closing, I am looking forward to a trip I will be taking in a few short weeks to Eretz Yisrael to attend the wedding of our son Dovid Ezra (who was named after the original Ezra described above).  As fortune would have it, we will be stopping for the day in Rome on the way to Israel, and I plan to take advantage of that.  I hope to go to the Arch of Titus, perhaps the greatest symbol of our Exile outside of Israel, and look at the Menorah on its face, and reminisce on the time that the evil Titus gleefully carted off our national treasures as his spoils of war.  How exciting it will be to travel from there to the wedding of our son in Bet Shemesh, the house of the rising sun, among the blessed re-jew-venataion of Eretz Yisrael with Torat Yisrael in our time.  May we all merit to be there together soon!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Pope and integrity

The Pope . . . and Truth

It is not every day that I agree with the Pope.

After all, to say the least, we have several non-trivial theological differences.  There is also the matter of the history of the Church, and its relationship with our people, and frankly, many more matters than I can list in this essay.

Today, however, I must say that I stand firmly with the Pope in a position that he took last week.

While many of my co-coreligionists may not be aware of it, on October 27, 2011 Pope Benedict XVI invited some 300 religious leaders, and tellingly, some non-religious leaders, to the city of St. Francis to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of one of the signature achievements of his predecessor.  John Paul II convened a “ World Day of Prayer for Peace” on Oct. 27, 1986; an event that was part of that pontiff's historic opening to other faiths, the legacy of which is now known as the "Spirit of Assisi."  During that event one could witness, along with a traditional Catholic prayer, Zoroastrians tending a sacred fire,  Buddhists chanting to the accompaniment of gongs and drums, and a Native American medicine man in traditional headdress calling down the blessings of the "Great Spirit" while smoking a peace pipe.  The event was immortalized by a picture showing all the various religious leaders standing together in their distinctive dress under the great banner of peace.  This convocation was one of the great moments in cementing John Paul's place as a great promoter of peace, coming as it did shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Interestingly, however, not all of the Pope's Catholic brethren were positively infused by the "Spirit of Assisi." Several prominent leaders of the Catholic Church split with Rome because of it. One of the strongest critics was then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's doctrinal office, who told an interviewer that Assisi "cannot be the model" for such encounters. The cardinal later wrote that "multi-religious prayer" of the kind offered there "almost inevitably leads to false interpretations, to indifference as to the content of what is believed or not believed, and thus to the dissolution of real faith." 

In other words, to believe that all faiths have an equal claim on the truth – that in fact truth is a relative concept and there is no one absolute ultimate truth – is to strip one's faith of any real content by giving equal validity and credence to mutually exclusive points of view.  One cannot believe that the Christian Savior was the son of God, and at the same time offer full validity to those who deny this claim; One cannot accept Mohammed as a true prophet bringing a new truth to the world, while at the same time rejecting his teachings as inconsistent with G-d's law, and so on and so forth, if there is to be any real content to one's faith.   As Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, he wished to "make clear that there is no such thing . . . as a common concept of God or belief in God, that difference not merely exists in the realm of changing images and concepts" but in the substance of what different religions claim."  A seemingly obvious position, but one that is rejected by much of the intelligentsia of the Western world, who believe in moral relativism and the absence of an objective truth about G-d and the universe.

Now that Cardinal Ratzinger is known to the world as Pope Benedict XVI, he found himself in a bit of a dilemma in squaring his beliefs with the honor that he owed his beloved predecessor, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his works of Peace; including peace between and among the various faiths.

The pope's solution was ingenious.   Rather than advertising this day as being about a “ Prayer for Peace”, the day was advertised as a “Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World”.  Invited to participate were not only religious leaders but agnostics who are seekers of Truth, and in fact the pontiff devoted his concluding remarks to welcoming them and joining with them in Unity.  The various invocations were not “prayers” so much as calls for a united stand for peace and against war and terrorism, acknowledging that in our world today there are those who, most unfortunately, kill in the name of religion as well as those who target people of faith.

To those listening carefully, this was masterful diplomacy in which: the cause of Peace was truly honored, respect was shown to those who practice a great variety of faiths, while  at the same time avoiding any joint prayer or acknowledgment of the truth of those other beliefs.

As we now begin the study of our Patriarch Avraham with the onset of Parshiot Lech Lecha through Chayei Sarah, we see lehavdil, a similar tension.

On the one hand, Avraham Avinu, through the force of his kindness, courage, and integrity was universally acknowledged as a Prince of G-d  among men, a beacon of light admired by all (see Bereishis 14:18-21, and  more so, 23:6).  He more than held his own with the Kings of Sodom, the Emperor Nimrod, Abimelech, and the Pharaoh, all of whom had different beliefs than did he, and garnered their respect for the Almighty.  He sought good for all mankind, praying even that  G-d spare the presumably atheistic and depraved society of Sodom & Gomorrah.

Yet on the other hand, Avraham is also known as Avraham HaIvri (Abraham the Hebrew), which according to our Tradition means:  Avraham was the one who stood to one side against the whole world.  Living in the midst of their pagan and polytheistic, and even atheistic cults (the Tower of Babel was a formative experience of his youth), Avraham stood tall for his monotheistic belief system and was even thrown into a fiery furnace rather than recognizing the idolatrous cult of Nimrod as the relative truth.

Avraham's life is a testament to the importance of being able to live and proudly proclaim the unique truth of one's faith while garnering the respect and admiration of all the people of his time, very much including the religious leaders.

So kudos to the Pope.  While I strongly disagree with his religious views, I salute him for his honesty in not pretending that he agrees with mine, and allowing us to hold each other in mutual respect.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Hurricane Sandy . . . A wake up call ?

Hurricane Sandy . . . A wake up call ?

Much has been, and will continue to be written, about the calamity that was Hurricane Sandy.  Thousands rendered homeless, millions without power; an incalculable loss of money, possessions, any sense of security. . . the full extent of the suffering  is really beyond comprehension.  Economists claim: “There has not been such devastation affecting so many participants in the US economy before.”   That is to say, even when compared to the trauma  of 9/11/2001.  Although there was far more loss of life at that awful time, the calamity did not directly injure as many people as Sandy has.  For the American Orthodox Jewish community in particular, I am not aware of any incident that directly affected so many with serious hardship as this hurricane.  In fact, as time goes on, it seems that the impact is growing, as the scope grows larger and larger.

How do we think about such a tragedy from a theological perspective?   What message is Hashem sending us with such a large megaphone?   Although I claim no special insight into His inscrutable ways, it would seem that Chapters 40 and 41 of Yeshayahu are particularly germane.  (I was drawn to looking at this section, in part, due to its being the Haftorah of both Parshat Lech Lecha, immediately before Sandy, and Bereishit, two weeks before.) My thanks to Rav Yaakov Shulman of Brooklyn for pointing this out.

Chapter 40 begins with the famous words

 נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:
"Comfort ye, comfort ye My people," says your God

With these words we begin the seven weeks of consolation that lead from the depths of Tisha B'Av to the heights of Rosh Hashana.  In the ensuing verses the prophet describes the Almighty as being far beyond the plans of mortal man, as He arranges for the time that Jerusalem and Zion will be restored to their proper place of world prominence, inhabited once again by His beloved people. Gently, with great love, the great shepherd will come and gather up his lambs from the clutches of their enemies.  For after all, He is so much greater than any of his creatures, who are like a drop from a bucket; mere dust before Him.  All will know that:

כָּל הַגּוֹיִם כְּאַיִן נֶגְדּוֹ מֵאֶפֶס וָתֹהוּ נֶחְשְׁבוּ לוֹ
All the nations are as naught before Him; as things of no value are they regarded by Him.

The prophet surveys all human activity, all the artisans, the princes, all those who think they have their own power, and
גַם נָשַׁף בָּהֶם וַיִּבָשׁוּ וּסְעָרָה כַּקַּשׁ תִּשָּׂאֵם
He blew on them, and they dried up, and a storm shall carry them away like straw.

If we would only
שְׂאוּ מָרוֹם עֵינֵיכֶם וּרְאוּ מִי בָרָא אֵלֶּה
Lift up your eyes on high and see, who created these

we would know that

וְקוֵֹי הֹ' יַחֲלִיפוּ כֹחַ יַעֲלוּ אֵבֶר כַּנְּשָׁרִים יָרוּצוּ וְלֹא יִיגָעוּ יֵלְכוּ וְלֹא יִיעָפוּ
But those who put their hope in the Lord shall renew [their] vigor, they shall raise wings as eagles; they shall run and not weary, they shall walk and not tire

and thus have the power to face all that life can throw at us, confident that He will grant us strength and the capacity to deal with all adversity.

Actually, this was Hashem’s plan from time immemorial:

מִי פָעַל וְעָשָׂה קֹרֵא הַדֹּרוֹת מֵרֹאשׁ אֲנִי יְהֹוָה רִאשׁוֹן וְאֶת אַחֲרֹנִים אֲנִי הוּא
Who calls the generations from the beginning; I, the Lord, am first, and with the last ones I am He.

The islands (Bahamas?  Cuba?) first will see& fear, then the areas that are on the end of land (seacoast? Jersey shore?) will be terrified:
רָאוּ אִיִּים וְיִירָאוּ קְצוֹת הָאָרֶץ יֶחֱרָדוּ קָרְבוּ וַיֶּאֱתָיוּן

The islands shall see & fear; the ends of the earth shall tremble; they have approached and come

Some will think themselves mightier than the storm; they are not mightier than G-d's word; they feel that their works can hold Him back:

 וַיְחַזֵּק חָרָשׁ אֶת צֹרֵף מַחֲלִיק פַּטִּישׁ אֶת הוֹלֶם פָּעַם
 אֹמֵר לַדֶּבֶק טוֹב הוּא וַיְחַזְּקֵהוּ בְמַסְמְרִים לֹא יִמּוֹט
And the craftsman strengthened the smith, the one who smooths with the hammer [strengthened] the one who wields the sledge hammer; he says of the cement, "It is good," and he strengthened it with nails that it should not move.
They build, they fortify, build with nails and cement, they think themselves impervious to G-d's power; that the work of their craftsmen will be able to withstand whatever the Almighty has in store.  After first reassuring His people that they will survive all that will transpire:
אַל תִּירָא כִּי עִמְּךָ אָנִי אַל תִּשְׁתָּע כִּי אֲנִי אֱלֹהֶיךָ
 אִמַּצְתִּיךָ אַף עֲזַרְתִּיךָ אַף תְּמַכְתִּיךָ בִּימִין צִדְקִי
Do not fear for I am with you; be not discouraged for I am your God: I encouraged you, I also helped you, I also supported you with My righteous hand.

He tells those that oppose Him that

 תִּזְרֵם וְרוּחַ תִּשָּׂאֵם וּסְעָרָה תָּפִיץ אֹתָם וְאַתָּה תָּגִיל בַּהֹ בִּקְדוֹשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל תִּתְהַלָּל
You shall winnow them, and a wind shall carry them off, and a great storm shall scatter them, and you shall rejoice with the Lord, with the Holy One of Israel shall you praise yourself.

And though that great wind will cause tremendous destruction, which will lead to widespread hardship and the demolition of His enemies, Israel is called upon not to have fear:

 וְאַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל עַבְדִּי יַעֲקֹב אֲשֶׁר בְּחַרְתִּיךָ זֶרַע אַבְרָהָם אֹהֲבִי
But you, Israel My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham, who loved Me,

Those that oppose Hashem will be gone:
הֵן יֵבֹשׁוּ וְיִכָּלְמוּ כֹּל הַנֶּחֱרִים בָּךְ יִהְיוּ כְאַיִן וְיֹאבְדוּ אַנְשֵׁי רִיבֶךָ
Behold all those incensed against you shall be ashamed and confounded; those who quarreled with you shall disappear and be lost.
As the chapter ends:

הֵן כֻּלָּם אָוֶן אֶפֶס מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם רוּחַ וָתֹהוּ נִסְכֵּיהֶם
Behold them all, their deeds are naught, of no substance;
wind and nothingness are their molten images.

Thus, in brief, the prophet warns later generations that a time will come before the end of days when, primarily through the power of wind, He will show once and for all, that man's arrogance, as expressed through the objects and structures he builds, strengthened or not with cement and nails, are no match for the Almighty when he allows his wind to blow and cause havoc and destruction.   Using just wind, a barely tangible medium, He can easily wipe away the strongest structures of Man.  Virtually all that Man creates is after all, according to the wisest of all men, mere הבל הבלים, vapor and emptiness.  (In modern Hebrew הבל  is the vapor that is created by a breath on a cold day, for a moment looking like it exists and gone in an instant).

Again, one hesitates before suggesting what lessons we are being taught. 

Some are suggesting that in keeping with Parshat Lech Lecha, rather than rebuilding ruined homes here, it is time to take the insurance money and head, finally, to Eretz Yisrael.  While I agree with the sentiment, and feel that in general all of us need to ask ourselves constantly whether we are justified in not taking advantage of the blessed opportunity our generation has been given to move to our true home, I recognize that this might not be the answer for everyone at this time.

And so, we rebuild here in the USA.  But as we rebuild, perhaps we ought to reflect.  Do we really need to build the types of mansions that so many Orthodox Jews have built themselves?  With the “tuition crisis” and the struggles facing so many worthy institutions, with the many people struggling to keep up with the demands being made for shuidduch “neccesities” and the economic crisis in Eretz Yisrael, is it not time to perhaps rethink some of our priorities?  Are we really going to rebuild as if we are staying in the Five Towns and Seagate and Belle Harbor for the next hundreds of years?   Is it not obscene that, as I heard just the other day, an Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan is completing a new building that will cost close to 50 million dollars?   Has “Next Year in Jerusalem” been reduced to nothing more than an advertising campaign for tour operators who bring crowds for the holidays who have absolutely no interest in staying? Have we not lost our minds?

Let us fervently hope and pray that all the suffering should end, that everyone is restored to their homes in safety and blessing, and that the losses, financial or otherwise, be restored and then some.

But let us not forget this wake up call, and think again about the momentous hour in which we have been given it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Siyum Hashas - The Speech I did not give. Part 3

Crossing G-d’s Goal Line at MetLife Stadium – Part III

It is the season again.

While from some of the essays that I have written recently, one might think that I am referring to the NFL football season, or the MLB playoff season, I am, in fact, referring to the High Holiday season – the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe.   The very special time every year that we regroup, reassess, and recommit ourselves to the core principles that ought to govern our lives.  We take time to reflect on the successes and failures of the past, especially the recent past, in preparing to ask Hashem for another year of life and blessings.

Nevertheless, as the last in this series, maybe there are a few more lessons that we can take from the world of sports in our preparations.   It is, after all, the beginning of a new season, and we are trying to make our case to the ultimate Team Owner to “renew our contract”, because we have something that we can contribute to the success of Team Klal Yisrael, in its quest to win the championship in the great world challenge of competing ideas, philosophies, ethics, and moral values.   We wish to demonstrate that we will work hard and put out our effort for the team, that we will strive for personal excellence, and that we still have what it takes to keep striving for spiritual, moral, and intellectual growth as we move our personal and “team” goal forward.

First – the importance of preparation.   You cannot show up on game day and expect to perform properly, unless you have gone through a sufficient period of training one’s mind and body to be up to the task.  Perhaps one of the greatest complaints that many people have about the services on the Yamim Noraim is that they are long, boring and uninspiring.  Even if the Chazzan is melodious and the Rabbi’s sermons are (hopefully) thought-provoking, unless one is prepared the Days of Awe might well seem like Awful Days.   What types of preparations are needed? 

Here are some:
  • Going through the machzor to familiarize oneself with the background and meaning of the Davening.  Zipping through unfamiliar arcane Hebrew poetic liturgy full of nuances and allusions to unfamiliar sources at breakneck speed is hardly meaningful to your average shul-goer,  for whom even the regular daily davening is hard to translate and difficult to comprehend properly.
  • Doing a real personal inventory of one’s successes and failures throughout the year.  Beating one’s breast while quickly reciting Ashamnu, while not really having taken the time to think about one’s life goals and obligations, and even a minimum of personal accountability to them, is hardly sufficient.  One should really come to shul on Rosh Hashana with a prepared list of not only the requests that one has of G-d, but also of the commitments that one is willing to realistically undertake in the coming year to improve their spiritual level.
  • Doing some soul-searching in regard to the way one has treated the people in one’s life.  This includes the many people that one encounters in business, in the community, and – most of all – one’s spouse and close relatives.   It is crucial to try to make amends to those who one has offended, hurt, trivialized, or ignored, even if they bear some of the fault.  One should try to look at the relationships that they have, or had, examine them to see if closeness has been lost, and strive to make sure that they have “cleaned their side of the street”, and made right whatever possible in those relationships.

Second – A commitment to strive for excellence.  We had the great fortune this past week of having Rav Yissochor Frand שליט"א speak in our shul on the topic of gaining inspiration.  One of his main points was that although there are many positive trends in our Orthodox community, there is a decided mediocrity to be found in the degree of passion which people bring to their service of G-d, with all too many of us just going through the motions as rote behavior or  מצוות אנשים מלומדה .  An athlete does not compete in order to come in in tenth place, or just show.   He or she strives to excel, and thus gains the impetus to move on, even when motivation wanes and when difficulties arise, because of the passion of the strive to excel.

What can we present to Hashem?  Will next year be the same old, same old?  Or can we muster up the motivation to break out of mediocrity, and truly reach for the prize, something beyond the doldrums in which we have been caught?   Let us not only go through the Holidays, but be uplifted by them!

Third – and here I will draw a contrast – we should know that unlike the famous quote that “Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing”, we should know that what counts in G-d’s arena is not who came in first, but who put in the most effort.   As one Rebbi I had once said, “Hashem doesn’t count the pages you study; He counts the hours”.   It really “doesn’t matter if you win or lose, or whom other people feel are “the important ones”; it is how you play the game” of life, observance and learning. 

One has to feel some degree of pity for the Olympic swimmer who came in at fourth place in their event, trailing the winner by 19 tenths of a second.   After all those years of sweat and toil, they went to the Olympics and came away with – nothing.  No medal, no ribbon, no mention in the record books.  Just a memory of years of missed fun activities that one’s peers engaged in, while practicing and refining their abilities – all for naught.

And yet, some things were gained, that no one will ever be able to take away from the “loser”.   They know that they pushed themselves to a very great degree.  That they did achieve the honor of representing their country on a world stage.  That they are in the rare company of elite athletes who are at or near the absolute pinnacle of their sport.  And that is something they can be proud of forever.

In our world as Torah Jews, not all of us will see our name in the papers, or be celebrated as a pillar of the community, or as a great scholar, etc.  But each of us can live up to being the best person we can be.  To be cheerful and happy as one toils to perfect oneself, away from the spotlights.  To measure ourselves only by the standard of what we, ourselves, deep down know that we are capable of.   And with that we should rejoice.

And finally Fourth – another contrast – it really matters.  One of the most seductive things about sports is that one can invest a great deal of passion, energy, longing, and time into developing a deep relationship with a sports team or figure, and feeling ecstasy or agony if your beloved wins or loses.  You can be supremely confident of your knowledge of the statistics and intangibles that go into the success of your team, and talk for hours with great authority about your convictions.  But in the end, if you are wrong and/or if your team is unsuccessful, it really does not matter at all.  No one’s life will be better or worse if the Yankees lose (except the professionals in the business), no one’s marriage or relationship with their kids will improve if the Jets beat the Giants, and the great problems and potential of the world will not be better now that the Nets are in Brooklyn.  It really matters not a whit.  And that is why it is so seductive to be a fan.  You can pour all your passion to declaring your opinions which, if vindicated, make you feel great, and if not, don’t matter anyway.

Our relationship with Hashem, however, and our approach to Rosh Hashana, is different in the extreme.  It is of ultimate importance how we come to Him on this day, and every day.  While the world out there constantly tells us that G-d does not matter, Torah is an anachronism, religious observance is a pitiful waste of time, parochial Jewish concerns are anti-progressive etc etc, we affirm on the Days of Awe that “Our Relationship With Hashem Is Not Everything, It Is The Only Thing (that ultimately matters)”.

May we all merit to have a Good and Sweet year, filled with bracha and hatzlacha, much yiddishe nachas, and Yiddish success in life in achieving ultimate goals.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Siyum Hashas - The Speech I did not give. Part 2

Crossing G-d’s Goal Line at MetLife Stadium – Part II

In the last edition of the Queens Jewish Link, I was privileged to have my undelivered speech to the Siyum Crossing G-d’s Goal Line at MetLife Stadium – Part I” published.   Given that at least a few of the evening’s esteemed speakers went on quite a bit beyond their originally allotted time, I feel justified in writing some additional thoughts here in “Part 2”, in the time-honored tradition of “Az mir redt shoyn . . .” (or “while I am on the topic”, for you non-Yiddish speakers).

In essence, my original point was that the MetLife venue might be used as more than just a self-congratulatory and condescending “we are superior to them” attitude.  That it was possible to think about an NFL stadium as representing some positives as well, in that we there are athletic values that are analogous to what it takes to finish Shas –determination, consistency, mental toughness, absolute commitment to reaching goals, and so on – and one need not dismiss it all with a simple rendering of the standard Siyum text “We strive and they strive”, etc.

However, aside from a general discussion of the value of sports when kept in the proper perspective, I believe that there is one particular story happening at MetLife Stadium that, strange as it may sound, merits some attention from serious people in the Torah world.  This is particularly so as we celebrate the achievement of those who sincerely dedicate themselves to serving the Almighty.  It revolves around a rising star member of the NY Jets who is deservedly making quite a bit of news, the Jets new backup quarterback, Tim Tebow.[1]

In all likelihood there are very few among the 90,000 here tonight who have heard of Tim Tebow, but I will quickly bring you up to speed. Tebow was one of the hottest stories of last year’s NFL season. He took over midseason as the starting quarterback for the 1-4 Denver Broncos, generating unprecedented excitement as the team completely turned around and began winning, and even made it into the second round of the playoffs.  While his abilities were constantly questioned due to his “unorthodox” (I find that an interesting term) style of play and mixed results, he appeared (to some) to have some special assistance, as evidenced by his uncanny ability to win seemingly hopeless games at the very last minute.  This happened so often that the final two minutes of the game were referred to as “Tebow Time”, when “miracles” seemed to happen regularly.

Moreover, and of particular interest to us, Tebow was constantly in the news due to his steadfast, very public, declarations of faith.  A deeply religious Christian, Tim regularly made a point of attributing his success to G-d’s help.  He spawned a new word as his signature bow to G-d after scoring a touchdown became known as “Tebowing”.  In his statements to the press he always took pains to thank G-d for his success, and movingly declared his allegiance to him.  Of course, given the overwhelmingly non-religious, and even anti-religious nature of the media, Tebow was widely mocked, belittled, and deeply criticized for his “over the top” declarations of faith, but this did not stop him from asserting it to whomever would listen.

Furthermore, while both admired by his many (mostly religious Christian) fans, or mocked by an even greater number of detractors annoyed by his constant public display of faith, Tebow was unfailingly kind, gracious, polite, thoughtful and decent to teammate, opponent, and all others, as he generously gave of his time to a multitude of causes and unfailingly modeled exemplary behavior.  Passionate as he is about winning, he often would shrug off a mean or hard hit by the other team as being within the bounds of acceptable play, and refused to criticize or bad mouth anyone.

In between seasons, Tebow demonstrated an extraordinary depth of character in his handling of being summarily dumped by the Broncos, after doing so much for them this past year, when superstar quarterback Peyton Manning became available.  He was shipped off to the Jets, where he will now have to serve as a backup quarterback, after being “the man” who was constantly in the spotlight.  Without a word of bitterness or complaint, Tebow sunnily accepted this as a business decision that the teams had made, and let his faith tell him that G-d would place him where He wanted Tebow to be.

Most surprising to many was the fact this 25 year old handsome and popular young man claims to still be a virgin, who is “saving himself for marriage”, despite the hordes of women who have thrown themselves at him.  He goes about his business, works extremely hard to be in the best physical and mental shape possible (he is just as adept as a running back as he is a quarterback), serves G-d and lives clean.

Now why would Mr. Tebow be of any interest to us tonight? Surely, despite his impressive physical accomplishments, and even granted his deep faith, a Christian NFL jock would be of little or no interest to Torah Jews who are passionate about learning?!

I believe that there are several reasons.  First of all, given that his name will surely be plastered on the front pages of local NY/NJ newspapers this year, many Jewish youngsters will be formulating opinions about him.  As there is much that is positive that can be said about him, it is an important teaching moment in that we can teach them to admire the qualities of a person of faith who unabashedly stands for goodness and decency in the spiritual morass that is modern society.

But perhaps more importantly, I believe that Tebow is, providing a model for all of us of how a G-d fearing person can earn grudging respect in our very secular society.  I know, he is a Christian, not a Jew.  I know, he does sometimes go a bit over the top in his declarations of faith.  However, none of that takes away from the fact that he provides a beautiful model of how his faith has caused him to become a remarkable human being, brimming over with civility, decency, integrity and a deep commitment to serving others, all of which are values that Christianity borrowed from our Torah. Indeed, Tebow challenges us to be no less kind, decent, thoughtful to others and respectful as he is.

Unfortunately, I suspect that this is not the message that we will be hearing from Jewish organizations, especially the Non-Orthodox in the months ahead.   It has been a source of consternation to me that Jewish parents and spokesmen are often perfectly willing to expose their children to all manner of depraved music, culture, movies, celebrities, etc., and have no fear of this might affect their Jewish soul.  But, “G-d forbid”, they are absolutely terrified of anything that shows non-Jewish religious people in a positive light, particularly Christians.  They get apoplectic in their fierce fight against any public display by non-Jews of their religious symbols, and any positive Christian message that their children might be exposed to.   Surely we have less to fear from respecting the faith of a G-d fearing Christian, than from the incessant depravity, emptiness, and corruption that is evident in so much of what the prevailing culture so admires.

I say this being fully aware of the danger that is inherent in admiration of Christians.   Certainly our long and painful history of the relationship between Jews and Christians sends out grave danger signals.  We must be very careful to protect our children and the gullible from being influenced by missionaries who seek to promote Christianity to Jews.  Nevertheless, with safeguards in place, it is proper to respect and defend the rights of all who practice Monotheism to hold their beliefs, while at the same time avoiding pluralistic notions of granting legitimacy to those same beliefs for ourselves.

In closing, then, I am not suggesting that anyone take time away from learning the Daf to watch Tebow in action at a football game.  However, while the question of whether there is ever a good reason to watch a professional game is debated by Poskim, with a predominantly negative view, it is well known that, unofficially, many frum Jews do have more than a passing interest in sports.  Perhaps at this visit of ours to MetLife Stadium we might, in addition to all the other positive Torah inspiration, pick up a few pointers from Tim Tebow as to how to live in a way that brings honor to our faith, and let us go beyond, striving to live as a Kiddush Hashem.

[1] I am aware of the general prohibition in Shulchan Aruch YD 151:14 in which there is a prohibition against admiring non-Jews.  However there are many exceptions to this Halacha, and many places in the Talmud, where lessons were learned from exemplary non-Jews.  In particular, Rav Kook zt”l wrote in Tov Roi on Berachos 8b that it is permissible if we are using them to learn a positive lesson.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Siyum Hashas - The Speech I did not give. Part 1

Crossing G-D’s Goal Line at MetLife Stadium – Part I

I was only mildly miffed that somehow they forgot to include me in the illustrious list of speakers at the Siyum HaShas.  In retrospect, given my 3:45 AM return home, I see that it might have been difficult to fit me in. Nevertheless, despite all the wonderful words of inspiration that were imparted, there is a neglected aspect that I might have touched upon had I been able to impart my wisdom to the magnificent gathering.  That aspect has to do with the momentous venue that we gathered in – the huge 90,000 seat Met-Life Stadium, home of the NY Giants and NY Jets of the National Football League.

Several of the speakers made the fairly obvious point regarding the famous prayer of Rav Nechunia ben Hakannah that is recited at every Siyum:

מודים אנחנו לפניך ה' אלקינו ששמת חלקנו מיושבי בית המדרש, ולא שמת חלקנו מיושבי קרנות. שאנו משכימים והם משכימים, אנו משכימים לדברי תורה, והם משכימים לדברים בטלים. אנו עמלים והם עמלים, אנו עמלים ומקבלים שכר, והם עמלים ואינם מקבלים שכר. אנו רצים והם רצים, אנו רצים לחיי העולם הבא, והם רצים לבאר שחת . . .

We thank You, G-d, for making it our lot to be among those who dwell in the House of Study, and not of those who sit in the corners [idle shopkeepers who waste their time in frivolous conversation] [1]... We arise early and toil in Torah, while they rise early for worthless items. .. We labor... and receive a reward, while they labor and will not be rewarded.  We run . . . towards eternal life, while they run to the grave...

Although not stated explicitly, clearly they were reflecting on the differences between the typical beer-drinking, tailgate-partying NFL crowd – ready to cheer on their muscle-bound heroes as they try to move a small pigskin ball while avoiding intimidating 300 pound mountains of muscle intent on pummeling them to the ground – and those who were there to honor the scholarly, spiritual, intellectually inclined thousands who are heroes of another kind. 

And heroes, they truly are.  The celebrated thousands are mostly ordinary folk who face the same stresses of life as all of us, while relentlessly engaging in an often difficult and complex daily intellectual pursuit – no matter how busy or tired or stressed out – for a long period of time.  Anyone who has either tried to “do the Daf” or has a close relative or friend who does, can attest to the sheer determination and will that is required to make it through any medium size mesechta, let alone the entire Talmud.  Certainly it is true, for the most part, that the contrast between the siyum and events that normally take place at MetLife Stadium could not be starker.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that there was more to learn about the MetLife venue than merely to congratulate ourselves on our higher calling.  In fact, a Daf Yomi finalist has more than a little in common with the elite athletes that make it to the NFL.  It might behoove us to examine the aspects of championship sports that might be helpful to us, before quickly throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  If for no other reason than my sneaky suspicion that more than a few of us in the stadium shared a secret propensity to occasionally watch an NFL game, and found it exciting to be sitting in the cathedral that was built to house our local teams, I pondered what could we garner from this experience.

But first, it is instructive to reflect on what positive role, if any, organized sport plays in our society.  Our country is currently reeling in the aftermath of the Sandusky trial, in which one of college football’s greatest coaches and programs have been exposed as complicit in the terrible abuse of students they claimed to help.  Many are questioning the propriety of the incredible amounts of money and effort that go into college athletic programs, that all too often produce uneducated jocks who have little or nothing to show for their four years in college.  As for professional sports, in some ways they can be summed up by the proverbial statement of a sportscaster that “My job is to create the illusion that it matters”.[2]  It is of constant amazement to – say learners of Daf Yomi – that millions of people get crazed in their passion over which group of overpaid jocks won a ball game, and can discuss the statistics and odds for hours, while their eyes glaze over at even the most non-trivial Torah thought.  Truly, We thank You, G-d, for making it our lot to be among those who dwell in the House of Study, and not of those who sit in the corners …”

Nevertheless, although not in vogue in the Yeshiva world [3], it is well known among educators worldwide that so long as it is kept in proper perspective, sports play a very important part in training youngsters to strive for excellence and push themselves beyond preconceived limits in the pursuit of a goal.  Whether it is in garnering the physical and mental toughness to keep practicing a skill until it is mastered, or the pushing of one’s mind and body towards ever increasing levels of strength and endurance, or the importance of strategy and delaying short term pleasure to accomplish a long term goal, or in learning the importance of teamwork and appreciating the role that everyone has in the mutual success, to balancing the different demands on one’s time, attention, energy and passion, organized sports can provide excellent training in the development of a mature, responsible adult who is ready to take on the challenges of life. 

Furthermore, the level of dedication that it takes for anyone to reach the pinnacle of their chosen avocation, as represented by making it to the roster of an NFL team, is worthy of respect and admiration.   Anyone who finds success on a major league team did not get there by innate talent alone, but by combining G-d given gifts with the expending of countless hours of blood, sweat and tears to achieve that station in life.  It is perhaps that pursuit of excellence, and the toughness of mind and spirit, in addition to body, that is required to win, that attracts the attention of many famous intellectuals who are know to be rabid sports fans, and that attracts so many to watch the talent and skill on display at the Olympics.[4]

If that is the case, then what might be the deeper p’shat in Rav Nechunia ben Hakannah’s words?  I might suggest that it is encapsulated primarily in the last stitch of his comments.   One might correctly appreciate the training of an athlete as time well spent, but only if the final goal is truly a worthy one.  If the goal is merely to improve one’s mental and physical capabilities so that one can excel in this-worldly activities, it is ultimately for naught.  In the words of Kohelet, anything that is purely for תחת השמש, under the sun – for improving a temporal life of here today and gone tomorrow – is ultimately valueless, or  הבל הבלים.  But if the goal is to bring us to the World to Come, and to get there with the maximum of accomplishment in this world, then perhaps more than grudging admiration might be granted for those who rise early and work and run to prepare themselves for a Higher calling – so that they have the maximum of energy and abilities to serve Hashem in this world.

Surely our heroes are those who sacrifice all for a Torah way of life and achieve greatness, be it through the daily commitment to Daf Yomi or the much greater commitment that it takes to become a Gadol.  But perhaps there is room, along with that pursuit, to gain inspiration from those who have showed what hard work, determination, and sheer will can accomplish in turning their bodies into a strong and finely tuned instrument.

The relationship between the ethic of spiritual, intellectual striving and that of beauty, grace, physical excellence is a tension that has always been there, most famously during the Hasmonean period tension between Judaism & Hellenism and much earlier between the sons of Noah.  Pure energy, as represented by Ham was to be made subservient to the spiritual Shem, and the esthetic Yaphet.  The ideal is expressed as
 יַפְתְּ אֱלֹקים לְיֶפֶת, וְיִשְׁכֹּן בְּאָהֳלֵי-שֵׁם, to be able to appreciate the beauty of Yaphet, and make it subservient within the Tents of Shem/Israel, by bringing an appreciation of the good aspects of sport, art and beauty under the influence of Torah.   As we sat in a great tent of Ham & Yaphet, in order to appreciate the great achievements of Shem, may we look forward to the time that we are able to fully actualize the blessing of harmonizing all of the these in the proper way as in Hashem's eternal plan.

[1]               For an excellent and informative analysis of this somewhat harsh characterization, followed by the request that they be lowered into the pit for eternal damnation,  see http://seforim.blogspot.com/2011/05/hadaran-who-is-going-down-to-pit-of.html
[2]               Although this is a well known quote, I could not find the source.
[3]               Note to self: And you were wondering why they did not ask you to speak . . .
[4]           Clearly there are many professional athletes who are embarrassing boors and who give sports a bad name.   There are many reasons for that, including the obscene amounts of money and idolization thrust upon them at a young age, that go beyond the scope of this essay.  But the potential for greatness in sports is undeniably there, and ought not be cavalierly dismissed as we contemplated MetLife stadium.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Tisha B'Av

I really have not been keeping this up to date.....Hopefully teshuva is in the air...

This piece was published on Aish.com and the Queens Jewish Link

            Tisha B’Av – Festival of Sadness

Unless things change a whole lot in the next few weeks, we will one again be going through the days leading up to and including Tisha B’Av, the Ninth Day of the Month of Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.   Year after year, we take time to reflect on our condition in the Diaspora, and what this long, seemingly endless exile is supposed to teach us, while awaiting the long sought for Geula (Redemption).   

There is an interesting anecdote recorded regarding a meeting between the prophet Jeremiah and the famous Greek philosopher, Plato.  Jeremiah was mourning the destruction of Jerusalem, and Plato engaged him in conversation.  Impressed with Jeremiah’s great wisdom, Plato asked him “I do not understand how a sage of your stature can weep so bitterly over something that is over and done with.   Surely, what is past is finished with, and your concern now ought to be solely with the future, and how you can influence it.   What possible use can there be in all of this weeping?  Jeremiah answered, “I cannot give you a proper answer to your logical question, for you will not understand it.”

Was Plato not right?   And surely now, 2500 years later, is it not time to focus on the present and the future, and to let bygones be bygones?   Can we never forget?  Can we never forgive?   How can we spend three weeks of every year going into greater and greater mourning, culminating in a day of fast and sadness after all this time?

In fact, one of the great blessings that Hashem grants us is the ability to forget painful memories.  “Hashem has decreed about a deceased person that they should be forgotten from the heart” (Sofrim 21).  If it was not possible to forget, if the pain of losing a close relative or friend remained always as immediate as when the loss first occurs, we would be immobilized, unable to cope with life.  It is a blessing that while we always carry a memory of a departed loved one, we are able to remove the pain of the loss from the forefront of our consciousness.  Nevertheless, this general rule does not hold here, as expressed by the famous verse in Psalms, “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten!”  We are bidden never to forget!  The sages, by instituting all of the Halachot surrounding these three weeks, made sure that at least during one long period of the year, and several other fast days year-round, not to mention the requests in our thrice-daily prayers, that we would constantly remember and never forget to mourn for Jerusalem. 

The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Noah Barzovsky, zt”l, wrote a fascinating essay on this subject, in which he noted that central to Tisha B’Av is the idea that we are not to make our peace, ever, with the fact that the Bais Hamikdosh (Temple) was destroyed.  To never allow ourselves the thought that we accept the post-Bais Hamikdosh world as the new, normal; as the permanent reality for us as Jews.  The Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed for many reasons, some more well known than others.  But that was never meant to be its final disposition.   The day that we stop hoping that the Bais Hamikdosh will be rebuilt is the day that its destruction will really be irreversible. 

This basic thought ought to permeate all of our concerns in life.   We struggle with our problems, with our kid’s education, with our personal growth, with financial problems, existential problems; we look at the contemporary scene both here in Israel.  We look to the pundits and “wise men” who have this or that solution to intractable problems or who point to this or that occurrence to explain the crux of our quandaries, and forget that the main problem is none of the above, but rather it is the fact of Golus – our distance from Hashem and his Holy Temple in Jerusalem.   For it is surely true that no matter how many problems we solve here in America and regardless of how much we grow in our spiritual lives as Jews, we will have a huge gaping hole in our spiritual lives as long as “we have been exiled from our land, and we cannot fulfill our obligations in your great & holy House  . . . ”

Why are so many Jews distant from their spiritual roots?   Why are there so many terrible, endless problems between groups of Jews?  How are we ever going to be able to resolve the great issues that divide us, when those matters are based on such fundamentally different outlooks on what the Torah is, what it means to be Jewish, the nature of our Jewish obligations, and how flexible can we be about adapting them for modern times?  What will it take to allow myriads of Jews who have no idea of the beauty of Shabbos, Kashrus, Torah learning, and Jewish living to even have a real glimmer of what they are missing?  How will the great problems surrounding the Land of Israel, and the mutually exclusive claim to is territory, ever be resolved? 

And most of all, how will all of us ever be able to finally arrive at a place of closeness with Hashem; when we will be able to always feel the indescribable joy of His closeness without the inner contradictions and pain and difficulty, and existential loneliness, that we so often feel in our spiritual quest?   To quote the timeless words of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, in his ode to the Jew in Golus that we say on Tisha B’Av:

 “Zion! When will you ask about the welfare of those who were taken from you? ...Those who long to cling to your mountainsides . . .  Your atmosphere is food for souls, Your dust is spice and your Rivers’ floes of flagrance, I would treasure going even barefoot and bare through your former castles and ruins, at the place of your hidden Ark, with the Cherubs in your Sanctuary.  I cast off the pride of my accomplishments  . . .  for how can I enjoy my eating and drinking  . . . How can I enjoy the sunlight . . . when I remember fallen Israel, and recall Judea captured . . . Beautiful Zion, you excite Love & Joy, bound to you are the lives of your friends, those who glory in your successes, who hurt in your pain, and who weep over your destruction . . . from prison dungeons they reach out to you, bowing from distances toward your gates . . . ” Translated by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein in Jewish Action

In this most beautiful elegy, (beautifully re-translated), where the aching longing for a reunion with Hashem in Jerusalem is expressed without equal, we begin to sense just how much we are really missing in this long Golus, comfortable as we may be.

These longings for that rebuilding are the building blocks of the eventual edifice.  Although in many ways, Judaism teaches that what one does (actions) are more important than what one thinks or believes, it is nevertheless true that “The longing to perform a mitzvah, or to engage in a spiritual pleasure, is even greater than the pleasure itself.”  The active awaiting of its rebuilding, the tears shed over its absence; the effort to not assimilate into the surrounding culture and its alien values, but rather to strive to retain our uniquely Jewish selves, these are what will eventually bring it back.   Every tear shed and every sigh over its absence, and what it means to us today, is another element in the building.

Thus, says the Slonimer Rebbe, the period of the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av are a period of crying, but a positive period: a crying that is part of the rebuilding process.  A cry of hope, of longing for a better future – an expression from the depths of the soul that we will never be satisfied and complacent in our spiritual quest until we have achieved total Teshuva, back to the closeness with Hashem that once was and is still potentially possible.  “Hashiveinu Hashem Aylecho VeNashuva  - Bring us back to you Hashem and we WILL return, renew our days as of old! ”

This longing is something that is so very precious to Hashem, as the Zohar states, “A person that raises their voice to cry about the destruction of Hashem’s house, merits to have it said ‘together we shall sing’.”   As Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev said regarding the verse in Eichah, “You will surely cry in the night, and her tear will be on her cheek, not receiving comfort from all those who come to console her,” the tear remains on the cheek because they make a great impact in the heavens if a person truly cries regarding the Churban - destruction.  The tears are not for naught, they are the lubricant that allows one to move higher and higher in one’s spiritual quest.

For each of us then, we certainly must face life with a happy confident attitude.  We must take time to enjoy our growth, to celebrate our Jewishness, and to sing with the joy of being fortunate to be engaged in building our spiritual lives inwardly, as well as in our families and communities.   But we must also take the time to mourn a little inwardly; about all the potential that is there, that is not yet being fulfilled.  Only thus will we continue to grow, and look forward to the day that our inner sanctuary will be fully built, heralding the time of Moshiach, speedily in our days.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Modern Orthodox or Chareidi: Are those the only choices?

Modern Orthodox or Chareidi:
Are those the only choices?
Yehuda L. Oppenheimer

Summer 2012.  Once again, Israel is in convulsions over the Chareidim.   Due to maximalist positions staked out by both sides, no compromise is in sight.  The secularists will accept nothing less than a total draft of all Chareidim.  The Chareidim are determined to fight any change at all in the status quo[2].  And many of us – who want the Chareidim to contribute their fair share to the national burden, while simultaneously honoring the mission and heroism of those who devote their lives to Torah study and teaching – we listen for that nuanced voice from the Chareidi leadership that will bring unity and sanity to this crisis . . . and are once again disappointed by the vacuum.

A first draft of this article was written in December 2011, after grown men – in supposed religious zeal – spat at and taunted 8 yr old schoolgirls who were not dressed “modestly” enough. When 1,500 or more Chareidim then demonstrated, some dressed in  yellow stars and concentration camp uniforms, to depict how the Nazis, i.e. the government of Israel, was victimizing them, shock and condemnation followed throughout the world.  In fact,  this was only a small escalation  by “Chareidi Extremists” from many other incidents such as ugly demonstrations replete with rock throwing and calling police officers Nazis; vandalizing stores that dared to carry such heresy as the writings of Rav Kook; and beating people who refused to accede to the demands of the self appointed “Vaad HaTznius”. 

The resultant Chilul Hashem – that humiliates all decent Orthodox Jews – was absolutely terrible.  In addition, however, I and many others are deeply troubled about being associated in the eyes of the world with this behavior.  Somehow, the entire large social group that we have always been part of has come to be identified as “Chareidi”, based on the Yeshivos that we went to, the type of hat that we wear, the Rabbonim  & institutions we are identified with, and so on.  In and of itself, the label would not matter much.  But the fact that we are constantly being told that we are “Chareidim”, while those who would speak for Chareidim do not unequivocally state that we have nothing in common with the more extreme elements, is too troubling to tolerate. 

Granted, it is true that here or there this Rav or that Rosh Yeshiva will say something to a limited audience in protest.[3]   When the press reacts particularly strongly there will be posters around asking people to avoid violence, while at the same time supporting the underlying goals of the extreme elements.  But a large, joint public statement  – the kind that seems to be easy to arrange for the purpose of banning the internet or questionable books or concerts – never happens.   Something that appears in my dreams – where some leading Chareidi Rabbonim would come to Bet Shemesh and walk with the little girls to their school in the face of the contemptible thugs – is unfortunately unthinkable.

Instead, articles in Chareidi papers attack all this as the fault of the cynical secular media and politicians  (sample headline: “Intifada Against Chareidim!” ) as if there are only a few rogues that are causing  trouble.  Various writers have commented on  the toleration of  these terrible behaviors[4].  However, it is clear to me that there is another basic issue that must be addressed: the confused self-identity inherent in much of the Chareidi world, (and for that matter, in the Modern Orthodox community as well[5] ).

An Identity Problem

My basic contention is that the majority of those who are now called Chareidim would be better served if they were not identified as being one and the same with groups with whom they hold such profound disagreements. We do ourselves, nor the cause of bringing more Kiddush Hashem into the world any favor by being confused with those whose divergent views on fundamental matters too often result in behavior that is anathema to us.

To explain, permit me to draw on my personal experience.  I grew up in the USA and then moved to Yerushalayim at a young age.   My family, like most that we associated with, did not consider ourselves “Chareidi”.  In fact, we had never heard the term.   Rather, we were aware that there were three major groups within the Orthodox world, each of which contained various factions.   The three groups were (a) Modern Orthodox, (b) the so-called Ultra-Orthodox, and (c) a large group in the middle. Roughly speaking:

·         Modern Orthodox tended to be Religious Zionist, identified with Mizrachi & Yeshiva University, very open to secular culture; saw great value in secular education; were interested in basic observance but not perceived “chumros”, except for more serious individuals. Relatively few adults engaged in serious Torah study, which was usually limited to attending a weekly class.
·         Ultra-Orthodox tended to be mostly Chassidic (Satmar), very opposed to Zionism, not identified with Agudah, closed to secular culture; had little or no secular education, honored Torah learning, and placed a high value on rigorous observance.
·         In the middle people were not Zionist and often critical of the secular government of Israel, while simultaneously (whether or not expressed overtly) concerned about the welfare of the State of Israel and quietly proud of many of her accomplishments.  They generally identified with Agudah, were open to some aspects of secular culture, and were interested in sufficient secular education to qualify for a well paying job.  Many did not seek a university education, while some did only after years of Yeshiva study.  They were careful about observance, with only a minority into perceived chumros, and placed a high value on Torah learning.

Obviously, these are simplistic descriptions.  Nevertheless, they are descriptive of life as I knew it.

These descriptions were only partially useful when our family moved to Israel, as the divisions differed somewhat.  Here the groups could be roughly defined as:

·         Dati Leumi (DL) identified with Mizrachi and Yeshivot Bnai Akiva, open to secular culture (but less than American Modern Orthodox), ascribed great value to secular education, served with pride in the IDF/Hesder; most were interested in only basic observance, while producing significant numbers of serious Bnai Torah (often not recognized by the other groups).
·         Chareidi (UO) tended mainly to live in Meah Shearim/Geulah, including groups such as Satmar, Neturei Karta, and the Eidah Chareidis; virulently opposed to Zionism; not identified with Agudah; closed to secular culture and education; punctilious about observance.
·         Middle group (MG) people were non-Zionist but cognizant of the accomplishments of Medinat Yisrael, interested in its welfare, and appreciative of government provided services such as the Army, police and National Insurance.  Generally identified with Agudah, open to very limited aspects of secular culture; most young men learned full time until a few years after marriage, after which many would briefly serve in the army 1and then begin working.  There was little interest in secular education beyond elementary school; were careful about observance including chumros.

Interestingly, the middle group did NOT “self-identify” as Chareidi.   They saw major differences between themselves and the Eidah Chareidis.  Table 1 shows examples of differences that everyone was aware of, either implicitly or explicitly, that governed life to a great degree.  MG would usually call itself “Yeshivati” (Yeshivish) or “Litai” (Lithuanian) or “Chasidi” (Chasidic, including Vishnitz, Belz and Ger as the largest groups), “Sefardi” (Sephardic), or just “a frummer Yid” or “Black Hat”.

In addition, there was a fairly clear division as to which Gedolim belonged to which camp. The Chareidim were led by the Satmar Rav and the Eidah HaChareidis.  MG looked to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisrael.  The Dati Leumi Group looked mainly to several Roshei Yeshiva, notably Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, Rav Shaul Yisraeli as well as the Chief Rabbinate.  

In America, as well, different Gedolim were looked to by the streams, with the Satmar Rav on one end, Rav Yosef B. Soloveichik on the other, and many in the middle, particularly Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky as the leading lights of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah.   One could never imagine, for example, that Rav Moshe would be considered authoritative in Satmar, or that the Satmar Rav would be the guide for MG; it was clear that these were different streams with different shitos and hashkafos.[6]

Chareidi Middle Group
Anti-Zionist Non-Zionist
Speaks only Yiddish Speaks mostly Ivrit (Modern Hebrew)
Does not recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel Recognizes, de-facto, the existence of Medinat Yisrael
Publicly shows contempt for Yom HaAtzma’ut & Yom Hazikaron leTzahal Privately ignores Yom HaAtzma’ut & Yom Hazikaron leTzahal
Does not participate in Elections or the political process; strongly criticizes anyone who does. Strongly supports using political power to influence community needs;
Political parties include Agudah, Poalei Agudah, Degel HaTorah, Shas, Yahadut Hatorah
Refuses to pay any taxes Pays taxes
Absolutely refuses Army service Defers Army Service until after years in Yeshiva and marriage
Refuse Government Benefits Receives Government Benefits
Acceptable standards for women: Acceptable standards for women:
Education Nothing beyond the most rudimentary Education Young women are schooled in a serious study of Hashkafa, Halacha, Tanach & other subjects, and given a basic secular education
Dress Shaved head Dress Covered hair
Simple sheitel covered by hat Nice Sheitel or Tichel
No fashionable clothing Modest fashionable clothing
Black Stockings Other colors as well
Public Behavior Never speak to a woman in public Public Behavior Avoid speaking to a woman in public
Never walk with wife in street or sit with her on bus May walk with wife in street/bus
May not work in an office with men May, with caution, work in an office with men.

A Little History of the Middle Group in Eretz Yisrael

These divisions inhered in the way 18th Century Gedolim saw the nascent return of Am Yisrael to its homeland[7].  Briefly, most of the original immigrants of the Old Yishuv, the disciples of the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov, saw European Jewry on a spiritual downward spiral, due to the influences of the Enlightenment and Reform, following the Shabbtai Zvi and Chemilniki crises.  They endeavored to build a community that would be unsullied by external influences until the Final Redemption, dedicated only to service of G-d. This ultimately developed into today's Eida HaChareidis.

Those who came later, particularly after WWII, did not share this vision.  While clearly the Holy Land, Eretz Yisrael was a place where self-supporting people were to live and participate in society to whatever degree necessary.   They established non-Zionist, but also not Dati Leumi towns such as Petach Tikvah, Chafetz Chaim, and Zichron Yaakov, and Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Shaarei Chessed, Givat Shaul, etc. 

Before WWII, Agudas Yisroel was anti-Zionist, though not as virulently as Satmar.  It was not so much opposed to forming a State, but rather to the fact that the leading Zionists were too often anti-Religious secularists, who were trying to change the identity of the Jewish people from an Am HaTorah to that of a nation defined in relation to the State of Israel.   Furthermore, power in the hands of the secularists threatened the ability of religious Jews to live and educate their children in the ways of our Mesorah.

After the Holocaust, of course, attitudes changed.   No longer could Zionism be ignored.  The survivors needed a place to go, and quickly.   Most chose to go, if they could, to Eretz Yisroel.  After the State of Israel provided a refuge for several hundred thousand Jews who Hitler had not managed to kill, a different calculus prevailed.   It was patently clear to most that refusal to recognize the State of Israel, and to not help assure protection its citizens, was absurd.   It was possible and positive to live in the State of Israel as a non-Zionist citizen, and as a matter of simple gratitude, recognize those who, secular or not, had built the place of refuge. 

Furthermore, they recognized that Orthodox Jews could wield political power to great advantage in procuring financial and governmental benefits, given the form of government in Israel.  Through Agudas Yisroel and several other parties,  non-Zionist Orthodoxy served in the Knesset, and benefited enormously.  Although it would be anathema for many Chareidim to agree with this statement, it is self-evident that due to the influence of Orthodox parties (including Mafdal), the State of Israel, through its contribution of untold millions of dollars and benefits, has been the greatest builder of Torah in 2,000 years, often despite itself.
What Happened to the Middle Group?

In any case, there developed a very clear demarcation between those who accepted the new reality (MG), and those who insisted on a total rejection of the State of Israel (UO).  That difference was evident until, approximately, the mid 1970's.  At that point things began to change.   For some reason, a monolithic group called “The Chareidim” appeared on the scene that is really comprised of two very distinct groups that have become intermingled and confused.    How did these groups became so intertwined?  Why has the great middle group virtually disappeared? Why did I awake one morning and find that my family and I were now considered “Chareidim”?  In truth, I don't know.  Nevertheless, here are a few possible factors:

ñ     The influence of certain Gedolim, who leaned towards more UO views.  In paticular Rav Shach was most influential in Eretz Yisrael, while Rav Elya Svei championed Rav Shach’s agenda in the USA. .[8] 
ñ       -  The development of the idea of דעת תורה to heretofore unimaginable levels.  I cannot address this important topic  here properly.[9]
ñ     The passion and commitment to serious Avodas Hashem of the UO world.  The levels of mitzvah observance, Torah study, Chessed activities, etc.  are compelling.  It is hard to adopt these values while rejecting those aspects of Chareidi ideology that are unnecessary for Avodas Hashem, given that they seem so intertwined in what one hears from its leading expositors.
ñ      The difficulty of being secure in a centrist position, when people of great passion are promoting a more intense point of view.  Rav Joseph B. Soloveichik put it wonderfully. “All extremism, fanaticism, and obscurantism come from a lack of security. A person who is secure cannot be an extremist.” [10] 
ñ     An unchecked fear of the extremists.   It is unfortunate that the creep towards extremism continues primarily because of fear. I have heard first hand from highly respected people about encounters with Gedolim who admitted to them that they cannot take certain positions, or felt compelled to go along with various statements, because of pressure from extremists.  It is, or should be, a source of great embarrassment to us that we are often left wondering whether a statement was in fact authored by Gadol X, or whether it was the product of a cloistered elderly man to whom direct access is highly restricted, and whose every pronouncement is filtered through “spokesmen” who may not be accurately reflecting an unbiased analysis based on access to a fair representation of all sides of an important issue.  I know that many people will take exception to the previous sentence, but it is, most unfortunately, the unvarnished truth.[11]

Whether it is these or other factors that caused the demise of the middle group does not really matter.  The point is that it is now hurting Klal Yisroel greatly.   Something must be done so that those in the middle could have a principled disagreement with the Chareidim, for the reasons listed below.

 A Compelling Problem

Even if within the Chareidi world there is a sense that the two broad groupings have been somewhat preserved, that is not how the outside world sees it.  I could bring innumerable proofs for this, but an interesting article entitled Where Do Israeli Haredim Stand on Hareidi Violence by Uriel Heller [12] will suffice.  He notes that there are differences within the Chareidi world about the appropriateness of using violent methods, as well as much condemnation of recent events in Bet Shemesh, but nevertheless “there appeared to be just one segment of the Jewish community that was staying silent about the violence: Israeli haredim. That’s because there is some ambivalence among haredi Israelis when it comes to religious zealotry. ” 

“The question isn’t how many haredim support haredi violence and how many do not,” said Menachem Friedman, an expert on haredi life at Bar-Ilan University. . “The problem is that most haredim allow the extremists to act and do not stop them. Some, perhaps a small segment, really do support the violence; some, perhaps a larger segment, do not support the violence but understand the extremists, believing that actions like these, even if they are not pretty, at the end of the day are a true expression of religious sentiments.  And the majority perhaps opposes the violence and knows that ultimately it’s bad for Judaism but doesn’t have the courage to go out and oppose it publicly."

Furthermore,  “While to an outsider all Haredim may look alike -- with their black coats, hats and beards -- the Haredi community is as fractured as the Jewish community as a whole. In Israel, the haredi community is divided between Ashkenazi and Sephardic, Chasidic and non-Chasidic . . . “But in a world seen by outsiders as monolithic, all haredim inevitably are associated with the extremism of a few, and haredi silence is seen as affirmation of haredi bad behavior.“It’s something that may irk haredim who are engaged with the outside world, but it doesn’t seem to matter much to haredim who aren’t.” 

Indeed, one can open any newspaper and understand that outsiders make few distinctions between Chareidi Jews; they see one monolithic, negative group. 

I do not wish to be misunderstood.  The majority of both groups are good, fine, peace-loving people, who want only to be left alone to serve the Almighty.  If each were left to follow their own way; if the extremists of the Chareidi group were clearly לא משלנו  “not from our group”, (as is often said in Israeli circles about perceived outsiders), less confusion would reign, both internally and externally.  As it is now, when both groups are considered – by themselves and all others – as “The Chareidim”, several very negative consequences result: 

ñ                 Attitudes Towards Extremism – Given that much of today’s Chareidi ideology is based on rejection of the State of Israel and repulsion of Western values and the modern world, and given that the dominant culture loudly exudes a very different message, extremist rhetoric is common amongst the UO as a means of keeping people in line.   The following comments and opinions are not unusual in the Chareidi world today: 
      The Medina is evil.
      Saying a prayer for the Medina, or even the IDF, is religious travesty
      Secular knowledge is foolish, corrupt, useless and unholy.  
      Secularists and non-Jews have nothing of value to say – any attempt to engage them is fraught with spiritual danger – and are less intelligent and less moral and ethical than “us”.

These comments and values might seem harmless from the inside, but can only be looked at with shock and dismay by those outside the group.  Whether political pronouncements, comments about other Rabbis or on a whole litany of issues, extremist rhetoric is pervasive.  
Unfortunately, but predictably, extremist rhetoric on the part of the leadership will encourage the fringe elements to engage in outrageous behavior.  The Sikrikim[13] that caused so much trouble in Bet Shemesh and Jerusalem are a good example of this.   They always cite “Rabbinic support” for their actions, with few serious Chareidi leaders daring to speak out against them in a public and unambiguous way.[14]

But it is not just the hooligans that are disturbing.   There is increasing extremism evident throughout Chareidi society, including those who would never dream of physically assaulting anyone.  A prime example was Shlomo Fuchs, the avreich indicted for hurling sexually abusive insults at a female soldier who did not move to the back of the bus.  Several articles in his defense claimed he is a respectable scholar, with purportedly mainstream Chareidi views, who believes it acceptable to call a woman an abusive name for refusing to move.   His example is not atypical; I hate to say it, but I believe that thousands of Chareidim, including many who might have earlier been considered MG, agree with what Fuchs said and did.

This is clearly not the way that the middle group used to be educated or conducted themselves.   But it is a result, at least in part, of the confusion between the camps, where the values of the more extreme are now considered normal in the other.

ñ                 Children - As should be fairly obvious, the ones most likely to adopt extreme behavior and values are youngsters.  They are the most impressionable; they tend to see things in black and white without shades of nuance, and are easily swayed by passion.   Clearly, a confused message sent to children, e.g. that the opinions expressed by co-Chareidim Neturei Karta are acceptable, may lead to most unfortunate behaviors. It is not uncommon for young people from homes that once would have been considered MG to act in ways that would have abhorred their grandparents.   For example:

·         Disrespect for anyone that is not learning full time or otherwise engaged in Avodas HaKodesh.  Simple, pious people are looked down at as lower class, and not treated with common courtesy.
·         Ridicule of anything to do with the State of Israel or its institutions, e.g. not standing silent during the siren on Yom Hazikaron L’Challelei Tzahal.
·         For young boys, an air of superiority over women, exemplified by telling them to move to the back of the bus or out of their way with a dismissive, entitled tone.  My sister, a grandmother,  was seated near the front of a non-Mehadrin bus with several packages, when several boys came over and shouted at her נשים אחורה!, apparently unaware that it was not a Mehadrin bus (would it have been proper even on a Mehadrin bus?).  My mother, a great-grandmother, was asked by a Sherut taxi driver to exit his vehicle when he found, after repeated attempts, that no male passengers would ride in the taxi if she sat in the front seat, which was necessary due to her medical condition. This is not unusual behavior.
·         A deep sense of entitlement when it comes to Shidduchim.  This is not the place to describe all the problems of the shidduch “system”, but clearly one of them the change in the expectation that a young man would ultimately be willing to assume responsibility for supporting his wife and family.  The demands on potential in-laws, the assumption that it is the bachurim who must be sought after and that families of young women must offer large sums for the privilege of being considered as a potential zivug  has caused untold sorrow and difficulty, and is partly a result of changing values in this community.
·         Most tragically, incidents when Bachurim join in demonstrations in which they shout “Nazi” or other terrible epithets at other Jews who are trying to do their work as police officers.

Clearly, if children from a young age see negative attitudes and stereotypes all around them regarding anyone who does not hold exactly the same beliefs, values, and modes of dress as they, let alone if they see the others vilified as enemies and destroyers of Torah (i.e. anyone associated with the State of Israel or Zionism), they will perpetuate and deepen this acrimony and שנאת אחים as they mature.   This is not the way that we used to be taught in the “middle group”.

ñ                 Confusion regarding Hashkafic & Halachic Pronouncements  – When large public positions are taken in the name of “all Chareidim” (the usual case), it brings a great deal of unease to those who do not identify with these statements, and thus a denigration in respect for Rabbinic guidance.

A recent case is illustrative.  Much has been written about the “Ichud Hakehillos” Asifa at Citi Field in May 2012.  I attended a meeting of Rabbonim a few days later, most of whom, in earlier times, would have been considered MG.  Almost none of them had anything positive to say about the Asifa.  Rather, they were deeply offended by statements there such as “All of Klal Yisroel, and all of its Gedolim, are represented at the Asifa, and therefore our decrees are binding on every Jew; thus if the proposed recommendations are not followed by an individual, that person will lose their share in the World to Come”.  Those recommendations included a total ban on the internet except for business use; yeshivos are not to accept  children from a home with internet access, even if filtered, etc.

This is not the place to discuss whether those decrees are wise or necessary.  However, it is clear from the reaction of so many, including Rabbonim, that attempts to enforce draconian solutions acceptable in the UO world will not succeed amongst many who consider themselves Chareidim.  This is a textbook example of where two disparate groups, with markedly different hashkafot and values, are being asked to pretend that they are of like mind, when reality is quite different.  How much better would it have been had there been a true “Unity of Kehillos”, in which separate but equal groups would come together, with each group finding its own way to deal with what all would agree is the serious problem of unfettered internet use.

ñ                 Media and Secular Jews  – The problems in this area can hardly be overstated.  As noted above, whatever distinctions people make for themselves internally are not recognized by the outside world. Invariably, they write about “the Chareidim” en masse, ascribing the attitudes and values of the UO to everyone include the MG.

Consequently, one often hears in the press and from secular Israelis statements such as:

ñ     The Chareidim are leeches on society – they refuse to pay taxes or serve in the Army, while at the same time demanding money for Yeshivos, health insurance and all other social benefits.
ñ     The Chareidim engage in political blackmail – they hold coalition politics hostage to their parochial concerns while not recognizing the legitimacy of the State of Israel, and mock it on its  most sacred Days.
ñ     The Chareidim are out of touch primitives who insist on living in the past  and refuse to contend with the modern world, and yet they want the best cars, the finest medical care, and refuse to compromise.

Obviously, these are malicious claims.   But it must be understood that there is little that angers Israelis more than feeling like a frier.[15]    (A frier in Israel is what in America would be called a “sucker”, a naive dupe who is taken advantage of by others.)    They feel that they are being taken advantage of  by the Chareidim – that they have done so much to provide for the Chareidim financially, militarily, building the infrastructure that they use, etc. and receive no gratitude in return, but instead constant ridicule – they are sick and tired and want to stop being frier-im.

Several years ago the Shinui party led by Yosef (Tommy) Lapid achieved instant popularity.  The Chareidi press portrayed him as being anti-religious, and hateful of Chareidim.  While that may have been true, it is clear to me that his appeal was not so much that he was anti-religious, but rather that he represented the point I am raising, i.e. that the secularists have been friers for too long and his party was going to see to it that they would stop being taken advantage of by the Chareidim.

It will be interesting to see what develops  as his son Yair Lapid has decided to enter politics with a similar agenda.   In a recent article he wrote that his goal was to represent the middle-class and prevent their money from being taken by the Chareidim.  “Israel has been enslaved for many years by members of a shameless, extortionist, special interest group - some of whom aren’t even Zionist - who take advantage of our twisted political system to steal the money of the working class”.  Furthermore, “I have no interest in hating Jews, just in dividing the resources betterI think Chareidi children must learn the core curriculum and their parents should work. I believe that there are many Chareidim who agree and would be happy to find out that there is someone who will struggle against the extremist rabbis and hacks who embitter their lives.”[16]  The Chareidi parties are, I am sure, gravely concerned at this development, as they well ought to be.

It would seem obvious that the best way to counter these claims is to differentiate between groups who have become conflated and confused in the public mind.  At a minimum, it would be important for the Chareidi parties to state clearly and loudly,   

“We decry the terrible violence that has gone on for too long in the name of Chareidi Judaism. We wish to make it clear that we, the great majority of those who are called Chareidim, have deep fundamental disagreements with the hooligan extremists. While we are not Zionists, we recognize that the State of Israel is the homeland of the largest community of Jews in the world and we pray and hope for its continued success in providing peace, security and basic services for its citizens.
   "As citizens of Israel, we pay taxes, engage in business, and are grateful for the protection of the IDF and the police and recognize that with all its faults, the state has made it possible for a tremendous renaissance of Torah learning and observance. For this we are grateful.
  "Please know the hooligans represent only themselves and are a source of painful embarrassment and anguish to us, and that we pledge to do all we can to ensure they are ostracized in our communities. For us, authentic Judaism means living in a way that sanctifies Hashem at all times, and that is what we seek to achieve, above all else."
The larger solution would be to publicly and clearly redefine and contrast the two broad groups as being of a different mind and world view.   It is patently ridiculous and unfair that the great majority of the “middle group”, abhorred by what transpired in Bet Shemesh, felt a need to defend themselves from the charge that this represents them, after having been hurt so many times by that association.  It is time that the secular media and public understand that one cannot tar both groups with the same brush. Let those who espouse certain views and condone associated actions live with the results of their choices, while allowing the rest to follow a different path, unencumbered by that association.

But what about Jewish Unity?

In the inaugural issue of the late Jewish Observer, Rav Nachman Bulman זצ"ל penned an important article “What Price Unity”, regarding relations between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox.  In it he spoke of the tension between the need for peace and unity among Jews, and the need for clear distinctions when great matters of principle were concerned,  citing Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, who championed Austritt, the absolute right and requirement of religious Jews to not be represented by those whose views were antithetical to them.  Similarly, Rav Joseph B. Soloveichik in a famous article described the distinction between כלפי פנים and כלפי חוץ , our internal vs. external disagreements.  It is important to stand together against external threats.   But we must not be cowed into accepting what we perceive as a distortion to our banner of Torah.  While in general Jewish unity is vital, our tradition teaches us that it is not always so.  We need Achdus, but we also need havdalah, when unity comes at too great a cost.  


A public identity is needed for what is left of the middle group called something other than “Chareidi”, for those who no longer wish to be painted with the same brush as are people with whom they share so few Hashkafic, ethical, political, and even religious values.  Until such time, at least for present, I will have to self-identify as a non-Chareidi. [17]

If only there was a way to move things back to the way they were; where the Chareidim were the Chareidim, and the others were comfortable defining themselves as something other than that, many of the religious tensions might be resolved.  It would restore the self-respect of many of us who are ashamed of being associated with a group that defends, or is afraid to effectively protest, the acts of hooligans who seek to define us.  It would deprive the secular media a great deal of the heft of their favorite punching bag.   This article, of course, can accomplish very little, other than hopefully raising an aspiration for like-minded individuals to reclaim a sensible middle ground, for the sake of Heaven and the ultimate goal of true Jewish Unity.

[1]              This article does not purport to be academic; it is impressionistic in nature.  I cannot claim that I have researched the topic thoroughly, although it is the product of much thought, reading, and conversation over many years.  But I believe that it raises a very important, and not much discussed, aspect of religious tensions in the Orthodox world.
[2]               Cf. For example http://matzav.com/yaalon-draft-bill-for-chareidim-will-start-a-civil-war and hundreds of others.
[3]               The Belzer Rebbe said in what might seem a tepid response, but considered bold in Chareidi circles, that “If there are those in our generation who believe that warfare is the way to spread the light of Judaism, they are mistaken.”  Rav Ovadia Yosef, published a scathing critique of the behavior.   However his influence is minimal in the non-Sephardic Chareidi community.  However, a most encouraging statement was subsequently made by Rav Gershon Edelstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Ponovez, encouraging a stand against the extremists  and appreciating the IDF.  http://tinyurl.com/845l7vx  
[5]               Many writers have discussed the angst going on within Modern Orthodoxy, where there are some who claim that it is moving to the left, and some that it has moved to the right.   Both are true of course. There is a movement towards the far left, primarily associated with Rabbi Avi Weiss,Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, and their supporters.   Concurrently, it is undeniable that Yeshiva University has moved somewhat to the right, and many of its Roshei Yeshiva and graduates espouse positions  closer to the Chareidi world than in the past. The RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) has recently experienced much tension within its ranks over divisions that have sharpened within Modern Orthodoxy, with some moving further left, and others more comfortably within the “Middle Group” described herein.  I am limiting myself here to a discussion of  Chareidim.
[6]           Of course, nothing is simple in Jewish life.  Some defied categorization such as Lubavitch, although they tend to the MG.  Moreover, several leading Gedolim were somewhere between the Chareidi and middle camps, notably Rav Yitzchok Zev Soloveichik, who was anti-Zionist and against participating in the government while having great influence on Agudah, and the Chazon Ish, also anti-Zionist, who met with Ben-Gurion and was extremely interested in the religious pioneers developing the land, authoring many landmark halachic decisions to help them. It is probably also true that Rav Shach was the most influential Gadol  in moving  MG to positions formerly held only by the Chareidi group. 
[7]               Much of this material can be seen at length in חברה ודת "Society and Religion;The Non-Zionist Orthodox in Eretz-Israel – 1918-1936” Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Publications, Jerusalem 1977
[8]               I have it on good authority that in early times the Ponovezh Yeshiva would refrain from saying tachanun on Yom HaAtzma’ut, unthinkable under Rav Shach. In a famous story regarding the Ponovezher Rav, who when soliciting a contribution from a Dati-Leumi oriented group of donors, was asked “Do you say Hallel on Yom HaAtzma'ut?”  He replied with his immediate wit, “I hold like Ben-Gurion; I do not say Hallel, nor do I say Tachanun”. I believe this was not merely a witticism, but rather a statement of principle.  To say Hallel – that we have arrived at the Geulah and it is time to rejoice, given all that is painful to a religious Jew in the State of Israel – is premature.  But to say Tachanun – that nothing of religious significance occurred on Yom HaAtzma'ut, that it is not even as important as the days after Succos – is simply demonstrating ingratitude for the great gift that the Almighty has given us in our time.
[9]               Much has been written in scholarly journals about Daas Torah.  Of particular interest is
                בנימין בראון, לקראת דמוקרטיזציה במנהיגות החרדית, המכון הישראלי לדמוקרטיה,2011  in which he traces five stages in the development of Daas Torah in the Chareidi community, and what the future portends.  He underscores my thesis that the Chareidi world has expanded and asserted its authority over the former MG, largely by demanding that positions formerly held only by the UO, be adopted by the heretofore MG.
[10]             I saw this quote in a fascinating essay  http://www.beyondbt.com/2006/12/04/its-lonely-in-the-middle/ .  
[13]             Sikrikim is the name that the hooligans in Bet Shemesh and Jerusalem are being referred to. 
[14]             In this regard I, and many other RCA Rabbonim with whom I had communications, found the statement by Agudath Israel of America in regard to the events in Bet Shemesh most disheartening.   The statement started very well: “Such conduct is beyond the bounds of decent, moral - Jewish! - behavior.  We condemn these acts unconditionally”.  If the statement had ended there, it would have been perfect.   However, most unfortunately, the statement went on to describe in several paragraphs the need for upholding standards of Tznius, (of course, without violence).  This was neither the time nor the place to do so, unfortunately watering down a strong statement against the hooligans to a “No, but” response, resulting in a change from a total disassociation to sounding like “we support the end but not the means”.   That was totally and terribly inappropriate for this situation, in which little girls who were completely within any reasonable standards of Tznius were victimized.  This, from the erstwhile standard bearer of MG .
[15]             Cf. an entertaining treatment of this phenomenon at http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Opinion/Article.aspx?id=254301
[17]             There are a number of people in Israel who refer to themselves as חרד"ל or Chareidi Leumi, who are probably the closest to the position described herein.  Unfortunately, without going into the pros and cons of Chardalism (a new term), חרד"ל are viewed by most others as a small group of those who fall “between the cracks”, and are not players in the larger politic of Jewish life in Israel or the Diaspora.  Furthermore, the חרד"ל-niks in general have more pro-Zionist views than most people in the former middle group are willing to adopt, certainly those associated with Agudas Yisroel.  This is not where the center of gravity of the middle group that I am missing belongs.