Thursday, April 25, 2013

Da'as Torah and the Israeli Elections - A letter and a Response

I have been writing on this blog more frequently lately, mainly as a result of a regular column that I have been asked to contribute to the Queens Jewish Link, the local Jewish newspaper.  In response to a my recent essay "A Post-Hareidi Election ", the QJL received the following rather strong letter to the editor.  My response follows.

by Shimon Davis

Having been in Queens for Pesach, I had the opportunity to come across an issue of the Queens Jewish Link (#30). While I was quite impressed with the overall content of the paper, I was also rather disturbed with two of the articles appearing in it, one of which was authored by a Rabbi in one of the Queens shuls.

Although this author’s statements were made public, I have chosen not to mention his name since I noticed that he decided to quote public statements from several gedolei yisroel without mentioning their names. And while I do agree that the actions of certain minority groups amongst the Chareidim in Israel (i.e. the incident in Beit Shemesh), must be condemned in the strongest way, I will also state that this writers rebuke of the gedolei yisroels statements must also be condemned.  I shall explain but I first begin by quoting a segment of the QJL article:

“the greatest amount of blaming came from Chareidi spokesmen against Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid. The invective and vitriol was intense. Bennet’s Bayit Heyehudi (Jewish home) party is a “party of gentiles” and anyone who votes for them “denies the torah”, according to a major Chareidi Rabbinic figure. Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid Party are “haters of the Torah.” Submitting to the plans of many of those now learning full time must be resisted at “pain of death” (yehoreg v’al yaavor), according to a leading Chareidi Rav. The Sitra Achra has overtaken Bennet, according to another chareidi leader…….etc.

The author continues:

“I don’t know about you but I find this all very uncomfortable at best, while maddening and disappointing are better words to describe my feelings…..So I ask you, do the parties presenting themselves as chareidim represent our points of view and those of the Rabbonim whom we have always looked to for guidance? Etc…”

And so I respond as follows.

Had the statements quoted above been made by Eli Yishai- head of the Shas party, Menachem Moses- head of the Agudah party, or Moshe Gafne- head of the Degel party, then all and any criticism is welcome. However, the statements were made by several gedolei yisroel, including Rav Ahron Leib Shteinman, Rav Shmuel Aurbach, Rav Dovid Soloveichik, Rav Moshe Shternbuch, and several Admorim from various Chassidic groups. Thus, any criticism, especially by a local community Rabbi, is an absolute disgrace.

However, the statements that were taken out of context in the article, were those made by Rav Ovadia Yosef. Interestingly, it’s usually the Yediot Achranot or Maariv newspaper that manipulate his words, its chaval that it was done by an orthodox paper as well. I will explain.

Rav Ovadia spoke out against Naftali Bennet and his “bayit hayehudi” party on numerous occasions prior to the elections. As quoted in the QJL article, he coined them as the “Bayit shel Goyim” party and chastised anyone supporting them as partners in destroying the Torah. Earlier, Rav Ovadia had chastised some of the “Rabbonim” associated with the party for permitting mixed dancing (!) and mixed swimming (!), and attacked them as destroyers of the Torah as well.

The following is the quotes made by Rav Ovadia in a shiur on the days leading up to the elections after members affiliated with Naftali Bennets “bayit hayehudi” party asked to permit civil marriages in Israel:

There are certain people who many mistaken them as religious jews. They call themselves “bayit hayehudi”. [I hereby tell you that] they are not representing a bayit shel yehudim, they are representing a bayit shel goyim! They want to uproot the Torah! They want to permit civil marriages. They want to permit public desecration of shabbos in eretz yisroel...They are sonei torah umitzvos and are chotei umachtee es harabeem who cause assimilation…how can anyone mistaken them as religious g-d fearing Jews?

Rav Ovadia later joined Rav Shteinman in calling Yesh Atid leader, Yair Lapid, a “Sonei torah”, as well.

Why would these Rabbonim say such terrible things about Bennet and Lapid, two fellow Jews? Let’s just look at the basics:

Here is a tiny quote from what Yair Lapid had to say at a forum of conservative Rabbi’s only months prior to the elections:

I will do anything that is in my power to allow women, whether conservative or reform, to pray at the western wall wearing their prayer shawls. Why? Because Israel can’t be the only country in the western world who doesn’t give religious freedom to Jews…this is just wrong and therefore must disappear!

I will do everything in my power to make sure there will be civil marriages in Israel!

The total dominance of the Israeli rabbanut over marriage and divorce in Israel is an insult to every free man...this is just wrong and therefore has to disappear!


 I will do everything in my power to ensure the equality to all movements in Judaism in Israel: orthodox, conservative or reform; in conversions, in budgets, in the eyes of the law. No one can claim ownership over the jewish g-d! Small petty politics cannot determine something that is eternal as the jewish identity! This is just wrong and therefore it has to disappear!

In reference to the military drafts of yeshiva students, Lapid stated:

Ben Gurion agreed to give exemption to 700 men and today Mir yeshiva alone has 3500 men…..

Lapid is not just out to get a military draft of bnei torah….he is out to destroy torah misinai. By Naftali Bennet partnering with Lapid he too is a partner in destroying the values that we have stood for and gave our lives for since matan torah. 

Its amazing how Bennet, who betrayed many of his own Rabbonim from the “bayit hayehudi” party by joining Lapid, decided to join a man who supports gay marriages, civil marriages, fake conversions, public chilul shabbos, a two state salution to peace, etc. etc., over the chareidi parties whose only real difference is with regards to military service of bnei torah. The only possible reason is because he does not represent a “bayit shel Yehudim”, rather a “bayit shel Goyim”.

What is most shocking to me is how the QJL author described himself as one who identifies himself as a member of Agudas Yisroel and “looks to the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah as the voice of Torah authority”.

He later added that gedolim such as Rav Moshe Feinstein would have never supported any of the statements made by the gedolim of today. I believe that this claim is an insult to the gadlus of Rav Moshe. Athough Rav Moshe normally refrained from getting involved in matters pertaining to Eretz yisroel, it is well known that he had publicly lashed out against the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, for the famous incident involving the Langer siblings. That was one case involving one family and Rav Moshe felt he had to rebuke Rabbi Goren for he represented “orthodox Judaism”. Naftali Bennet is no different. He claims to represent “orthodox judaism”, a “bayit shel yehudim”. By joining a “Sonei torah” such as Lapid (note: According to the leaders of the agudah in Israel, Bennet and Lapid agreed to build a coalition block before the elections!), he has indeed proven that he represents a bayit shel goyim.

Here is my published response . . . sorry for the length! 

Well, I guess that it is some measure of success that I now get "fan mail"!  

I am so grateful to Rabbi Schonfeld for his essay in support of my article "A Post Haredi Election", and feel very honored to know that both his father shlita  and he, as well as many others, were in basic agreement with me.  Of course, as Jews, one would expect that others would disagree, and I am grateful to the QJL for publishing the detailed letter of Shimon Davis while giving me this forum to respond to it.  His letter in defense of Gedolim is powerful.  In responding, I am very aware of the dictum of our Sages "Warm yourself by the fire of the sages, but be beware lest you be burned by its embers" (Avot 2:15), and that one must tread very carefully when discussing the pronouncements of great Talmidei Chachomim.  I hope and pray that my words bring more honor to Hashem, His Torah, and its representatives, and not c"v the reverse.

Before I address Mr Davis' concerns, I wish to note that underlying his critique are questions of  the scope and proper application of the concepts of Emunas Chachomim (Faith in our Sages), the mitzvah of Lo Sasur (not to deviate from the rulings of the Sages) and particularly the concept of Da'as Torah (DT), (The Opinion of Torah).  These strongly debated questions are crucially  important for understanding many controversies within Orthodoxy. One might fairly say that - in addition to Zionism, secular culture, the centrality of full time learning and secular education - the differing approaches to these questions are at the core divide between the Chareidi and Modern Orthodox communities.  The Chareidi world tends towards submissive acceptance of the opinions of the Gedolim on virtually all issues of Jewish life, while the Modern Orthodox tend to assert the value of personal autonomy, relegating Emunas Chachomim strictly to issues of P'sak Halacha and personal advice.  As someone who comes from a background now known as Chareidi and whose Rabbeim certainly leaned more that way, I accept the more Chareidi view of DT,  albeit with some caveats, as described below.  Nevertheless, Mr. Davis and I have different approaches to these questions, which explains much of our disagreement.  Unfortunately, these questions cannot be discussed in the depth they deserve in the limited space of this article.[1]

To Mr. Davis' letter: (I apologize if it is Rabbi Davis) At the outset, I believe it is unfortunate that he chose to name the authors of statements that I found troubling, (while for some reason hiding my name).  I refrained from this simply because I do not think that those comments reflected well on their authors.   Mr. Davis obviously disagrees - he apparently is of the opinion that if they said these things then, as DT, they are to be proudly asserted.  No matter that, in the eyes of many, these comments are troubling, at best; if these are reported to be the words of Gedolim then they must be accepted, no questions permitted.   The mere mention of a Gadol's name associated with a statement is enough to quell any doubts, comments, or criticism, or so we are to believe.  But I chose, nevertheless to speak, as the crisis has reached a critical stage, and it is important that questions be raised.

In this I am only following the example of so many Biblical and Rabbinic figures over the millenia, best exemplified by our father Avraham.  In his famous prayer on behalf of Sodom, Avraham dared to question the Almighty Himself when he only feared that an injustice was being about to happen.  Although I am dust beneath the feet of the Gedolim mentioned, and the gap between their Torah knowledge and my ignorance is beyond enormous, nevertheless, surely that gap is infinitesimal as compared to the gap between even the greatest of humans and the Almighty.  And yet, Avraham dared to question.  This ability to ask questions, to seek to understand and not just accept dogma that seems to fly in the face of rationality; to know that our Sages do not speak "ex-Cathedra" but rather are extraordinary human beings whose opinions we must follow in Halachic matters even if they occasionally err, [2] is (or used to be) one of the hallmarks of Judaism, as opposed to other religions.   We must have enormous respect for their  tremendous wisdom and Halachic authority, and therefore must ask humbly - but ask we must, particularly if it not a matter of Halacha but an issue of appropriate policy statements and positions.  If it seems to us that a a perversion of truth, let alone a Chillul Hashem, is going on, we are entitled to raise questions.  I cannot agree with the statement "any criticism, especially by a local community Rabbi, is an absolute disgrace".

            Let's be real.  I did not invent this criticism.  The criticism is in the newspapers, the street, and more importantly, in the hearts and minds of millions of people.  People who overwhelmingly voted for "Anybody but the Hareidim", and who have repeated, ad nauseum, that they are not persuaded by the Chareidi assertion that the merit of Torah study by every available young man and the protection that it provides to the State is worth the enormous privileges and monies that have been spent on them.[3]  People who are outraged and insulted that the party representing their way of life, which is largely one of Torah and Mitzvos and Mesirat Nefesh, is referred to as a "Home of Gentiles".  People who are deeply offended and exasperated that their view, that seeks to not coerce others to follow certain Halachic practices, but rather to democratically allow different levels of Jewish observance to co-exist in an effort to build bridges of Jewish unity and brotherhood, earns them the title "Haters of Torah" and so on.   People are angered and repulsed by these statements.  And for many of us in the Chareidi world, they are greatly disturbing and frankly, embarrassing.  The question is whether we should do or say anything about it.  But, Mr. Davis, please do not pretend that there is no problem, unless you feel that said characterizations are accurate.  In which case, there is not much that we can say to each other.

Mr, Davis identified several Rabbonim, all of whom (with the exception of Rav Shteinman and Rav Ovadya Yosef shlita) are associated with anti-Zionist or Eida Chareidis groups that have a very negative attitude towards any participation in Medinat Yisrael. This is important because recognition of the legitimacy of the State is an issue about which there are clear and very strongly stated disagreements, with some being virulently against participating in the elections, and some declaring it an absolute mitzvah obligation, assuming one votes for the Chareidi parties.  (That is without even discussing non-Chareidi Gedolim, who have altogether different views.)  When confronted with an issue such as this - where Gedolim have sharp disagreement among themselves and thus do not speak with one voice -  it should be obviously improper to invoke any claim of Da'as Torah.  My Rebbe, Rav Nachman Bulman zt"l, clearly told me that when DT applies at all, it is only when the overwhelming majority of Gedolim together publicize their unified opinion on a matter.  The Israeli election, clearly, is not such an area.

Neither  it is DT to keep the status quo of all young men learning full time as long as possible, as this has begun to fray many times in recent years, as the economic realities have exerted more and more pressure against this.  Whether it was Gedolim lining up for and against the Tal Law, or of the acceptability of certain schools teaching secular subjects, or other matters, there is little agreement there as well.   The only thing that there seems to be agreement about is that a solution to the problem should not be forced upon the Chareidim.   But unless there is some willingness to engage in a negotiation, I do not know that this is an realistic expectation.

Since we are not dealing with DT, the case for automatic submission to public statements is far less compelling.  What remains is whether we wish to be associated with such harsh statements.  In my article I did not question the right of those Gedolim to make those statements, much as I wish that they had expressed their opinion in a less corrosive way.  Rather, I was making the case that there ought to be a way for those of us who are discouraged by such statements to not be associated with them.

In regard to statements of Chacham Ovadia Yosef shlita, I hesitate greatly in saying my opinion about this unbelievable Sage and Ohev Yisrael.  I will only say the following, which I believe to be well known and indisputable fact:

1.      There is a long history of Chacham Ovadya using hyperbole that dramatizes in a way common in the Middle East, that comes out sounding reprehensible to Western ears, while speaking to non-Western audiences.
1.      Many of these statements are taken out of context, and skewed by those in the Israeli media who have an anti-religious agenda, and have thus invited much ridicule.
1.      As it should be well known to the Rav and his handlers that this has happened and will happen again, it is difficult to understand why greater care is not taken to prevent it.

That is all I will say on that matter.

I will not say anything directly about other statements of particular Gedolim.  However, I do want to say the following regarding the characterization of Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennet as "Sonei HaTorah".  Mr. Davis cited a variety of positions of Lapid to prove that he indeed "is out to destroy torah misinai", and that "by Bennet partnering with Lapid he too is a partner in destroying the values that we have stood for and gave our lives for since matan torah."  Regrettably, I fail to see how  insistence that most Chareidim do some National service, that there be more fairness in carrying the national burden, less religious coercion, and more quid pro quo in granting financial assistance to Chareidi Yeshivos  qualifies one as a "Sonei Torah."  

Although Lapid's father, Tommy was clearly a "Sonei Torah" (although as a Holocaust survivor we have nothing to say to him about that), I deeply believe that the son is not the father.  Again space does not permit, but I urge anyone who wishes cares about truth to watch the presentation that Yair Lapid gave at the Chareidi Kiryat Ono College[4] . He challenged the Chareidi community to assume their fair share of the national burden, now that they are so successful, numerous, such an economic power,  and so significant in Israeli politics; that they no longer have the luxury of thinking of themselves as marginalized. He then threw down the gauntlet; with the end of marginalization, should come the end of fear.  What is the vision of the Chareidi world, he wanted to know, about who will be responsible for the economic, military, and civic needs of the State in which they are no longer a small minority but a large and growing mainstream force. "I understand that you don't want your children to play with my children on the playground," he said, "and I try hard not to be insulted by that. But can we not find a way to at least be able to live next door to each other?" And, he wanted to know, why he and his children should serve in the army, when they and their children do not. 

I also encourage you to watch the inaugural Knesset speech of Naftali Bennet, and judge for yourself whether this is a "Sonei Torah" and destroyer of values we have held dear since Sinai. In addition, it would be enlightening to watch the inaugural Knesset speech of Ruth Calderon of Yesh Atid, in which she, a non-Orthodox professor of Talmud, gave an inspiring talk to the Knesset about the importance and compelling beauty of Torah.   It is difficult for me to accept that what motivates these people is hatred of Torah, rather than simple fairness.   Res Ipsa Loquitor.  It speaks for itself. 

The question, then, is why it is reported that Rav Shteinman and others have ruled out and compromise with these people and have used such sharp language in doing so.

In truth, I do not know.  However - and this is very hard to write publicly - I and many others that I have talked to over the years lack a great deal of confidence that some statements attributed to Gedolim are in fact the product of said Gadol's full and complete analysis of the issue at hand after being given an opportunity to have both sides fairly present their case to them.  I cannot go into detail here, but it is well known that many of the Gedolim are very old and insulated, and access to them is tightly controlled by askanim who often frame what the Gadol hears, whom they allow entry to, and how what was said is reported.  It is also known that the more extreme elements in the community constantly apply enormous pressure on those askanim for the positions that they advocate, sometimes including intimidation and threats.   Thus, when a particularly difficult to understand statement is made in their name, I begin to wonder what really transpired.   I am sure that Mr. Davis will be horrified by this paragraph, but I must tell you the honest truth as I understand it.

Did said Gedolim ever have the opportunity to sit down and have an open and frank discussion with Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid?  Are more moderate voices within the Chareidi world given the opportunity, without the presence of the more strident ones, to make their case for balancing the forest of ill will being created against the Chareidi public against the trees of the immediate matter at hand?  Is there sufficient input not only from those solely in the Yeshivos, but also for community Rabbonim and askonim who speak to a broader public, to make their perspective known?  This is not what I hear going on.

There is much more that could be said on that topic, but I will stop there.  והמבין יבין.

Mr. Davis chided me as well for contending that Rav Moshe zt”l would not have made such statements, since after all, he criticized Rav Goren's psak.   Clearly, many Gedolim throughout our history have expressed disapproval when necessary, including disavowing actions of Rabbonim. That is fine, and in keeping with the ethic of questioning described above.  The problem that I was addressing was what happens when legitimate criticisms are couched in very offensive and divisive language.   Clearly, the Gedolim want to protect Torah learning and the Yeshivos as much as possible.  In a political process, or any negotiation, each side will start from a position far from the other side, and hopefully find a diplomatic solution that satisfies as many as possible.  But that must be done in the spirit of good will; not by demonizing the other side to such an extent that any possible compromise is ruled out at the very start.  It seems so clear that the current system is untenable; it is difficult to understand why there seems to be no openness to finding workable solutions, instead of circling of the wagons.

I end with a hope and plea that there be an opportunity for those of us who are considered Chareidim, but suffer deep angst over many pronouncements of the leadership, to either have a real avenue to advocate for our position within the Chareidi world, or to develop a distinct middle ground identity, that can work Lehagdil Torah Ulehadiro, to make the Torah greater and more dignified, in the eyes of G-d and Man.

[1]    There has been much written on this issue.  One excellent resource for seeing different approaches to this question is  Tradition Magazine, Vol. 27#4, Summer 1993 "Rabbinic Authority: A Special Issue", which contains several superb articles summarizing different approaches. 
[2]    Cf. the explanation of Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 496 of Lo Sasur, describing the importance of following even the mistaken pronouncements of the Sanhedrin due to their saintliness and genius, as they are correct far more often than they are not.  How much this applies to our non-sanhedrin era is a fascinating part of the questions referenced above.
[3]  Especially given the consistent refusal of the Chareidi community to recite the prayer for the welfare of the soldiers of the IDF
[4]              The entire lecture can easily be found online, and an English transcript can befound at

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