(Photo: Blake Campbell/Unsplash).
“For the Sake of Heaven”: On Charedim and Religious Zionism
BY RABBI ARYEH MEIR
Historically, Religious Zionism has generally been verboten in the Charedi world. In this essay, Rabbi Aryeh Meir, a member of the Charedi community in Israel, argues that both Charedim and Religious Zionists would benefit from greater interaction between the two communities.
At the height of the pandemic, Israel’s Health Ministry’s policy of housing Covid-19 patients in specially designated hotels facilitated an unusual encounter between Charedi and Religious Zionist yeshivah students. While sharing the same hotel lobby (that was converted into an ad-hoc yeshivah study hall), the two groups got together for a joint discussion panel on their communities’ respective worldviews. Notwithstanding differences between them, it seemed natural to yeshivah students of both ilks to include their new peers in discussions they were already conducting among themselves.
But from the perspective of many Charedi leaders, the panel was grounds for banning yeshivah students from entering Covid-19 hotels altogether. The dialogue itself, irrespective of its content, was considered worthy of censure. “This is how the Haskalah movement began,” one rabbinic figure noted.
Over the last few decades, very little Torah or public dialogue has taken place between the two communities. This is true not only of human discourse but also of books and other literature. My great-grandfather made a living by selling books in Bnei Brak. When he approached the Chazon Ish to ask whether he should sell books written by Rav Kook zt”l, the latter responded: “Halachah books – yes; Aggadah books – no.” Since then, all of Rav Kook’s books, together with other Mizrachi-affiliated publications, have been removed from Charedi bookshelves and from internal halachic and Torah discourse.
From the Charedi perspective, it seems that the Religious Zionist way of life shares a similar status to full-blown secularism. Indeed, every Charedi school student has heard the adage that “a Mizrochnik”– the familiar pejorative for Religious Zionists – “is worse than Esav.” The former tries to have it both ways, maintaining superficial allegiance to both traditional and secular practices, which is even worse than the latter. In Charedi eyes, there is no common ground, no scope for meaningful dialogue.
While there were understandable causes for the original break between the Charedi and Religious Zionist communities, I believe that today this rift requires reexamination. Both communities have been transformed over the years, and the State of Israel, whose status constitutes the main reason for the hostility between them, has also changed. These changes should facilitate and even invite dialogue and closer cooperation between our communities.
Polemic or dispute?
Chazal distinguished between disputes that ought to take place within the traditional study hall and those that belong outside of it. The arguments between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel exemplified the first type. The Sages’ polemical war against the tzedukim, which was one of communal survival, belongs to the second variety.
The Gemara documents several debates between Chazal and the tzedukim. Unlike regular Talmudic disputation, the Sages aimed to reach total victory in the form of ideological expulsion. Their views were out of bounds and had to be purged by means of the sharpest polemic. One illustration of this approach is Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai’s response to the tzeduki position regarding a daughter’s inheritance: “He told him: Fool! Our complete Torah should not be as their idle chatter. […] They defeated them, and the day was made into a holiday” (Bava Batra 116). The tzedukim were considered enemies rather than peers, and the Sages’ attitude towards them was dismissive and contemptuous.
The tzedukim were, of course, unusual. Chazal tolerated many views within the Jewish fold, and their world is thus replete with constructive disputes, sometimes more collegial and sometimes less, and is generally characterized by the uniquely pluralistic position of “these and these are the words of the living G-d.” Disputants observe and learn from the virtues and arguments of the other side. The emphasis on debate and discussion, often animated and even fierce, enriches the beit midrash and its occupants. Variety leads us to consider new points of view, including those we can learn and grow from.
This continues to be true today, as is exemplified by the debate between Chassidim and Misnagdim. Today, unlike the situation in the past, the arena for this debate is firmly inside the beit midrash. Moreover, Chassidim and Misnagdim have learned from each other; Lithuanian davening and service of Hashem has become more spirited, while Chassidim have adopted Lithuanian methods of halachah and Torah pedagogy.
But pluralism has its boundaries. It applies only to disputes “for the sake of Heaven” (Pirkei Avot 5:17). Within this framework, each party recognizes that the other is making a serious argument, rooted in Hashem’s Torah. Given this common assumption, and despite halachic differences that threatened to undermine the sense of unity, much effort was invested to ensure men and women of different variant schools continued to marry among one another (Yevamot 12). But when the debate is “not for the sake of Heaven”, with one outside the pale of our tradition’s basic assumptions, matters become altogether different.
The current Charedi approach to the Religious Zionist community, intentional or otherwise, is akin to the Sages’ attitude to the tzedukim. The attitude is disrespectful and displays no desire for serious or candid dialogue; a recurring theme in official Charedi media outlets is that fear of Heaven escapes through the holes in a knitted kippah. Yet, it is hard to point to a fundamental religious disagreement between the Religious Zionist and Charedi communities. Both believe in the same Torah, observe the same halachah, and espouse similar patterns of authority and instruction. The Orthodox approach to the Reform movement is easy to understand: the gap in basic assumptions is too large to bridge, and the discussion cannot be characterized as a debate between legitimate options. But why has the Religious Zionist world been subjected to similar treatment?
Reasons for the rift
The short answer to why our communities don’t speak to each other is simple: the Jewish state. Charedim considered a secular Jewish state to be a grave threat to Jewish tradition. The fear of secularization and the resultant refusal to cooperate with the state and participate in the project of its building, in its institutions, and certainly in its culture became a central feature of Charedi Judaism. It is this feature that separated the Charedim from their Religious Zionist brothers.
Religious Zionism’s close cooperation with the secular wing of the Zionist movement repelled the Charedi leadership. For one, the association led to halachic leniencies of which Charedi society deeply disapproved. At the early stages of the Jewish state, one of the focal points of the rift was the Bnei Akiva movement and the halachic permissiveness of religious kibbutzim. This suspicion over halachic motivation deepened during the era of Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who in Charedi eyes symbolized the establishment of a plastic halachah susceptible to the interests of a secular state. Religious Zionism’s accommodating attitude towards the state motivated the Charedi perception of being faced with an anti-traditional movement in traditional garb.
Alongside the religious concerns, the main motivation for the split between Charedim and Religious Zionists was political rather than ideological. The need to establish Charedi society as an independent and united social movement rallying to a single standard led to the exclusion of many Orthodox groups and worldviews that previously had a home in the traditional beit midrash. Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach in particular purged certain elements from the Charedi world for the sake of a unified communal authority. The same is true of the Religious Zionist community, which was distanced from the Charedi community for primarily non-religious reasons.
The homogenization of Charedi society, which was seen as essential for strengthening its political and educational institutions in the face of tremendous threats, greatly weakened our ability to conduct serious debate on matters of ideology. What used to be grounds for disagreement now became grounds for ostracism.
The good news is that the situation that divided our communities has changed significantly. Over the last few decades, the Jewish state and its religious conflicts have changed significantly. The state and its population have become more religious. There is an affinity – not only rhetorical but also financial and institutional – between the state and its more traditional constituencies. If words such as “Zionism” and “nationalism” were once identified with the secular left, today they possess a strong religious connotation, while Israel’s culture now incorporates traditional imagery and vocabulary.
The struggle between religion and secularism endures, of course, and in some respects has even intensified. Yet, the state is no longer clearly secular and neither is Israel’s dominant culture. The religious tensions are thus not between the state and religious people, but rather internal tensions within state institutions that are not due solely, or even mostly, to Charedim. On the contrary, the state is no longer considered by most of us to be a threat to Judaism. The secular threat is identified today with other institutions, such as the militantly secular “New Israel Fund.” The word “state” thus no longer inspires religious fear, and militant secularism has been condensed to a relatively small minority in Israel.
The effects of these changes on the Charedi community are readily apparent. Charedim are much more identified with the state than they used to be, both in theory and in practice. The Charedi public has become part of Israel’s right-wing political bloc. It is no longer a “swing vote” in Israeli politics, standing aloof from the country’s core issues while lobbying for its parochial interests. Younger Charedim in particular identify with the State of Israel. They do not feel the persecution or victimization that the older generation still remembers; if they do, they do not see themselves as powerless to respond. In short, Charedim no longer view the state as an implacably hostile monolith, but as a project that can be responsive to the Charedi point of view. Unsurprisingly, Charedim now often adopt a more respectful approach to national days of mourning, and even holidays like Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim.
Concomitantly, the Religious Zionist community has undergone its own changes, converging with Charedim in several respects. Feeling betrayed by a secular majority that defended Oslo and the disengagement from Gaza, many Religious Zionists view themselves as political dissidents. The tagging of residents of Judea and Samaria as “settlers” and “post-Zionist” trends on the Left have broken faith between Religious Zionists and their old secular comrades. On the whole, the Religious Zionist sector is far more aware of the state’s deficiencies, both religious and practical. Today, Religious Zionists are often the hawks in the fight for the state’s religious character, even more so than Charedim.
On numerous fronts, the two communities have moved towards one another. There were always some Charedi individuals who were more open to Israel’s formal and informal institutions, but this trend has morphed from a small group of individuals to a coherent, expanding community with its own identity and institutions. The internet, moreover, has brought Charedim closer to certain elements of Israeli culture, which used to reside outside the pale of Charedi society. At the same time, Religious Zionists have become far more diverse on matters of halachic stringency and the distance from secular culture, to the degree that there are no clear and set norms on these and related matters. For some, the commitment to religion is very rudimentary, while the halachic observance and cultural isolation of the Chardal (Charedi-nationalist) sector is indistinguishable from those of mainstream Charedi society.
Even the more liberal wings of Religious Zionism have moved rightward religiously. It has become a challenge to find co-ed Religious Zionist schools, and many Bnei Akiva branches – to say nothing of the more right-wing youth groups – separate the sexes. Politically, the Religious Zionist community now fully recognizes the complexity of the state’s secularism. It understands that for the state to be what it ought to be it needs active religious guidance. Its mere existence, even as the “blossoming of our redemption,” is not enough.
Most promising of all, perhaps, is the progress of the Religious Zionist rabbinate and its batei midrash. Yeshivah institutions in the Religious Zionist sector have experienced a renaissance of a sort the Charedi Torah world can mimic and benefit from. Merkaz Harav and Yeshivat Har Etzion are illustrious batei midrash, producing impressive figures such as Rabbi (Yosef Zvi) Rimon and Rabbi (Eliezer) Melamed. Some alumni have gone on to start great institutions of their own, and others have become prominent scholars in all Torah areas.
Is the difference relevant today?
In light of this convergence, what, if anything, still justifies the distance between the Charedi beit midrash and the Religious Zionist one? The fierce philosophical and practical debate over the state, which tore the religious community apart from within, has long subsided. Both Charedim and Religious Zionists understand that the State of Israel is not (yet, at least) the anticipated final redemption; at the same time, it does not preside over some kind of internal exile. Most members of both communities do not deny the great significance of the state as part of a Divine plan of returning to Zion. Given the common ground between them, our communities’ alienation from each other seems counter-productive.
The truth, however, is that serious differences remain, and the path to reconciling them is long. Military service, and the resentment of the Religious Zionist sector over Charedi non-participation, is a profound divider. Moreover, the liberal wing of Religious Zionism, which is part and parcel of Religious Zionist society, makes reconciliation a difficult task. There are too many rabbis in the Religious Zionist camp whose theological and halachic views are too close for comfort to those of the American Conservative movement. The association between Religious Zionists who take religion seriously and those who do not reduces the chance for a rapprochement with Charedim. Despite the growing political schism within Religious Zionism, this remains a single community with porous boundaries.
The Charedi fear that affiliation with Religious Zionism would channel some of that community’s religious liberalism into the Charedi world is understandable. However, it seems to me that the complete exclusion of the Religious Zionist beit midrash from the Charedi world, as though Religious Zionists were tzedukim, is a mistaken policy. Charedim should learn to distinguish between rabbis and between a society’s subgroups – just as the Charedi world asks non-Charedim to do concerning its own sectors and leading figures. Even if maintaining distinct educational systems and batei midrash remains legitimate, there is no reason to refrain from being acquainted with the rich Torah literature that Religious Zionism has produced. Moreover, though Charedim often pretend otherwise, the dangers of liberalism are present even within the Charedi camp. Rejecting the Religious Zionist world wholesale does not protect us from it, and on the contrary, we have much to learn from Religious Zionists who have strengthened themselves religiously despite exposure to elements of liberal culture and ideology.
It seems to me that despite the differences, both communities would benefit from a cross-pollination of batei midrash along the lines of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Our differences should not be ignored, but neither should they be exaggerated. Dialogue, not cold shoulders, is the response to our decreasing but ongoing estrangement. We share many aims and goals while disagreeing about strategy and execution. Institutional unification at the moment is neither possible nor desirable, but mutual understanding may be within our grasp. The convergence produced by circumstances outside our control should now be advanced through conscious efforts.
In fairness, our communities do not bear equal blame for the lack of dialogue. Serious Religious Zionists have never denied that they have much to learn from Charedim. They admire our resistance to secularism, and many Religious Zionist rabbis have studied in Charedi institutions. To one degree or another, the Religious Zionist community knows it can benefit from engaging with us; when the two groups of yeshivah students held their joint panel, no objections were voiced from the Religious Zionist side of the fence.
It is time for Charedim to recognize that the same is true in the other direction. The benefits of dialogue may strike the Charedi reader as Pyrrhic; some may seem to derive from the very flaws that caused Charedi society to keep Religious Zionism at arm’s length. It is certainly possible that benefits and flaws are inseparable, whether in their batei midrash or in ours. Yet, we should learn to distinguish between them, critically assessing what is right and beneficial to import, and what price is appropriate to pay in doing so.
Advantages of the “other beit midrash”
Choice and love of G-d: The Religious Zionist community does not assume its youth will automatically be receptive to their community’s aspirations, and so Religious Zionist education tries to provide students with internal motivation to remain religious. Religious Zionist education focuses on love far more than on fear. At the Carlebach minyan I attend on Friday night, I see Religious Zionist young men praying with remarkable energy, a countenance of devotion to G-d on their faces. Charedi prayer, by contrast, can be cold and fearsome – in particular in its Litvish incarnations. For those who take to the Charedi style, it may work well; but there is little available for those who would benefit from a more spiritually animated touch. Teaching children to serve Hashem because they want to rather than (just) because they have to is a Religious Zionism strength the Charedi world would do well to replicate.
The Religious Zionist approach is not without its dangers. Fear of Heaven is an absolute virtue and mitzvah observance is an absolute duty. Basing religiosity on personal desire could lead to a waning of religiosity when that desire diminishes. But fear of Heaven can wane too. I myself try to combine the two approaches in my own life and in the lives of my students.
The focus on a personal connection with G-d has produced a serious study of emunah in the Religious Zionist sector. Tanach, aggadah, Talmudic philosophy, and the important texts of Jewish thought supplement lectures in hashkafah from the heads of Religious Zionist yeshivot. The aim is to know and understand Judaism from within itself, in the spirit of the vision of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, who promoted a “self-aware Judaism”.
One of the serious problems in Charedi yeshivah education today is students’ lack of familiarity with the philosophical foundations of Judaism, which can breed misunderstanding of why we learn Torah in the first place. Following the Religious Zionist approach, even without adopting identical texts, would make a positive difference in Charedi education.
Torah relevance: Besides the serious study of the Jewish faith, the other distinguishing feature of the Religious Zionist Torah curriculum is its relevance to daily life. The Charedi emphasis on Torah lishma, “Torah for its own sake”, while admirable, leaves students with a sense that the Torah is an artifact rather than the animating force of Jewish existence today. We spend an entire yeshivah zeman (term) learning shor shenagach et haparah (an ox that gores a cow), though none of us live on a farm, without asking what tort law means for our own lives. This is one of the most serious problems facing the world of Torah education.
The emphasis on Torah’s relevance to daily life has produced several important Religious Zionist figures and institutions. Uniting them is the desire to translate the Torah into the language of contemporary society without sacrificing any of our texts’ original vitality. Projects such as the Puah Institute, the journal Techumin, and the Eretz Hemdah beit midrash stand out in this regard. Torah scholars from the Charedi camp have begun to participate in these efforts, though Charedi society as a whole remains barely acquainted with them.
Here too, there could be costs. The purity of the Torah is tarnished when it is mixed with the grittiness of the outside world. As much as we would like our surroundings to conform to the pristine halachic theory of the beit midrash, more often than not the reverse occurs, relaxing rules that should be stringently maintained. This is not true in all cases, and oftentimes there is a need to strike a balance between halachic stringency and the practical needs of life outside of the study hall; excessive detachment from the world can lead to extreme halachic stringency. At any rate, it is important for us to be aware of the serious project of making the Torah both relevant and accessible, even if we dispute the rulings of some of its advocates.
Fighting discrimination: Charedim can learn from Religious Zionism outside of the beit midrash as well. In the Religious Zionist community there is virtually no discrimination between Ashkenazim and Sefardim, Ethiopians and converts. All are welcomed. Differences between Sefardi and Ashkenazi halachic traditions are respected, yet the community is not divided by ethnic lines. Indeed, regular interaction between halachic cultures is mutually enriching. A prime example of this in a halachic sense is Rabbi Melamed’s very broad halachic work Peninei Halachah.
Communal pluralism is beneficial even for the beit midrash since it opens up the fullness of the Torah to the student. Halachah, mussar, Chassidut, lomdus – all are legitimate in the Religious Zionist batei midrash, and many yeshivah institutions offer classes in each of these fields, sometimes from a broad range of teachers. In a Lithuanian yeshivah, by contrast, it is hard to find a mashgiach who will discuss a Chassidic source or deviate from the tradition of acceptable texts.
But diversity has costs as well as benefits. It can be plausibly argued that the Religious Zionist world has no clear tradition and its acceptance of variant streams renders it wishy-washy and religiously weak. Even if this is the case, we can learn and gain from studying Religious Zionism’s strengths without surrendering our own. Even if the Charedi community adopts but a small part of the inclusive and accepting spirit of Religious Zionism, we will have profited much.
Good citizenship: Lastly, Religious Zionism’s spirit of good citizenship has much to teach Charedim. Covid-19 unequivocally proved the importance of grounding Torah in derech eretz. The Religious Zionist community sees no tension between the two; religiosity and good citizenship complement one another, and both are in fact religious duties.
Of course, this strength is a direct result of one of the deepest differences between Charedim and Religious Zionists: their respective attitude to the state. Charedim do not have to adopt the state-centered approach of the Religious Zionist community, but they could benefit greatly from adopting their respectful stance towards it. Even if we assume the state is not necessarily the “beginning of the redemption” or the “foundation of Hashem’s seat in the world,” we still need to be good citizens, both for prudential reasons and because the principles of derech eretz demand it.
Our primary goal in this world is to extend the sovereignty of G-d’s holiness. This ambitious aim requires the basic unity of those faithful to G-d’s Torah – a unity that needn’t flatten or blur legitimate differences but must bring us together despite our differences. Indeed, a significant part of our tradition is the maintenance of differences for the sake of Heaven. But disputes for the sake of Heaven are always between respectful peers, rather than between hostile opponents. This communication and conversation, in a spirit of Jewish unity, will strengthen all parties: “Ephraim shall not envy Yehudah, and Yehudah shall not besiege Ephraim.” (Yishayahu 11:13)
● A version of this article was originally published in Tzarich Iyun.
Rabbi Aryeh Meir studies and teaches at Yeshivat Pitchei Olam, and lectures and moderates workshops at Nefesh Yehudi, a prominent kiruv organization in Israel. He has written several thoughtful pieces for Tzarich Iyun and is a graduate of the Tikvah Fund’s “Chochmatchem Ubinatchem” Charedi seminar program. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and four children.