Letters to the Editor – Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur Edition 5783

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Familiarity and fellowship

I very much enjoyed your recent issue (Vol. 5, No. 3) analyzing various aspects of the Religious Zionist–Charedi divide. The dedication on the cover to Kurt Rothschild was particularly appropriate. Kurt was the President of World Mizrachi and a staunch supporter of myriad Zionist causes but also played a leading role in the establishment and support of Charedi institutions throughout Israel and the world. I’m sure Kurt would have been proud of your efforts to understand and bridge the Charedi–Religious Zionist gap.

There is a fascinating social process unfolding in Israel today. The Zionist bona fides of the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev) are so strong that its founding charter included the requirement that all students and staff serve in the IDF. Nevertheless, nearly half of JCT’s students are Charedim and the college has created special programs to enable Charedim to achieve high level academic training in an environment that fosters positive interactions between the Charedi and non-Charedi religious worlds that will enable them to become an increasingly important part of Israel’s high-tech and healthcare systems. The academic training of Charedim enhances the economics of the State of Israel and fosters a familiarity and fellowship that connects these communities.

Prof. Chaim Sukenik
President, Jerusalem College of Technology
Jerusalem, Israel


Points for consideration 

The recent edition of HaMizrachi (Vol. 5, No. 3) nobly endeavors to find common ground between the Religious Zionist and Charedi communities. Credit to the editors for attempting to minimize dispute and enhance unity. In particular, Rabbi Aryeh Meir deserves praise for a very impressive and honest self-critical article about his Charedi world. We could all learn to follow his model.

Despite these positives, I found myself deeply unsatisfied with the issue. Efforts at fostering unity can gloss over differences of immense significance. Two groups may utilize the identical term but mean vastly different things by it. For example, Rabbanit Shani Taragin cites Rebbetzin Tzipporah Heller-Gottlieb saying that religious women in different communities could learn the value of tzniut from Charedim. If tzniut refers to humility and avoiding the hyper-sexualization of the contemporary western world, then yes. However, I would insist that this value apply to men as well as women, that it not focus primarily on sleeve lengths, and that it not serve as a reason to erase women’s pictures from magazines or build shul women’s sections where women feel totally removed from the tefillah. Furthermore, most Religious Zionists will not accept Rav Elya Svei’s claim that men’s essential mitzvah is Torah study whereas women’s is tzniut. Once we enter all those caveats, do the two communities truly share this ideal?       

Rabbi Reuven Taragin quotes Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein stating that our basic affinity is with others who share categories such as tzelem Elokim. For me, one of the crucial aspects of tzelem Elokim is its universality. G-d formed all of humanity in His image; therefore, we should relate to gentiles as people of immense moral and religious potential and always treat them with decency and dignity. Charedi discourse about non-Jews often goes in a very different direction. One prominent Charedi rabbi in New York told an audience that theft from gentiles is not inherently forbidden and is only a problem when it involves a chillul Hashem. Rabbi Dan Kestenbaum’s Olam HaMiddot, overall a very fine sefer, says that all the compassionate acts performed by gentiles are truly inauthentic and self-serving (p.174). The popular Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh by Rabbi Itamar Schwartz shares the same assumption (p.119). The implications of tzelem Elokim remain quite distinct for different communities.   

Rabbi Moshe Taragin and Rabbi Moshe Taub both write about joint efforts to filter out negative elements of broader culture. As I have written against television, Friends, and Facebook discourse, I obviously agree. However, how one phrases this matters. Do we depict the outside world as an essentially negative forum which occasionally provides some helpful practical knowledge or do we view it as a complex place that has some excellent elements as well? The broader world of great literature provides consistent insight and inspiration. Some values adapted from the outside world have not threatened but rather enhanced our community. For example, we learned from the larger society that all communal buildings should be handicapped accessible. More controversial influences such as feminism have also had positive impact; greater secular education for women brought along more women connecting to talmud Torah. Of course, some forms of feminism challenge our tradition and we should discuss the positives and negatives. Thus, our description and evaluation of the outside world will differ greatly from our Charedi counterparts.

In addition to significant differences, there is the question of when to promote elu v’elu. At times, we can speak about two legitimate approaches; on other occasions, we feel that the opposition has gotten something seriously wrong. Take army service in Israel as an example. An entire community exempting itself from such service while showing no gratitude for those who enlist is a moral and religious failure which generates justified complaints from secularists. Da’as Torah, as currently practiced, also qualifies. Scholars in their nineties with little exposure to broader society are not equipped to make decisions relating to that society. Furthermore, the doctrine helps promote a controlling communal atmosphere stifling critical and independent thinking and leading to a denial of the diversity of thought in our rabbinic tradition. Rabbi Moshe Taragin’s portrayal of da’as Torah as a “throwback to a bygone era of prophecy, when supernatural insight was widely accessible” is far too benign.     

Finally, Rabbi Meir writes that the liberal rabbis of the Religious Zionist community make reconciliation difficult. I have also criticized overly liberal Orthodox voices, but many relatively left-wing rabbis make enormous contributions to Am Yisrael. We will not throw Rabbis Benny Lau, Yuval Cherlow, and Yoel Bin-Nun under the bus for the sake of unity with Charedim. The shameful treatment of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed by the Chardali [Charedi National Religious – Ed.] rabbinate should not become a communal norm. We do not want to join the world of pashkivilim [posters used in Charedi communities – Ed.] and endless whispering about who qualifies as a heretic. Beyond the above, Rabbi Meir should also address how extreme elements in the Charedi world hinder reconciliation.   

A fuller treatment would note distinctions between Israeli and American Charedim but that will wait for another forum. The Charedi world has many fine institutions, people, and qualities and we have what to learn from them. However, it also has deep flaws and highly objectionable attitudes and positions. The admirable desire for greater unity should not influence us to deny differences or prevent our standing up for our dearest values.

Rabbi Yitzchak Blau
Alon Shvut, Israel


From the Editors:

Though we appreciate and may agree with many of Rabbi Blau’s insightful comments, our goal in the Tisha B’Av edition was to find ways to overcome the divisiveness that too often characterizes the relationship between the two communities. 

The prophet Zechariah (8:19) directs us to “love truth and peace”, but he does not tell us how to balance them. “Where there is justice, there is no peace, and where there is peace, there is no justice” (Sanhedrin 6b). Though we have our own strongly-held beliefs, peace requires emphasizing the points on which we agree instead of our deep and substantive differences.

As Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook once wrote: “The holy work of paving a path and building bridges across the chasms that separate us – this is the work that I wish would be as beloved to all those who are immersed in the soul of Torah as it is to me… My current priority is to write letters of friendship, more so than debating our differences.” (Igrot HaRa’ayah #266)

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