A Time for Action

Response Article To "The Challenge of Change"

The acute problems Charedi Jewry must deal with today require urgent corrective action. We cannot justify complacency with conservative casuistry of one kind or another, and we must act quickly and with determination to fix the issues.

Iyar 5781, May 2021

Let us imagine a faraway land, a distant island, in which millions of traditional Jews resided – traditional, yet far from living a life of Torah and halachic observance. To strengthen the spiritual level of the country’s residents, a group of Haredi political operators from Israel decided to establish a Torah study hall on the island. Once a year, a ship sets sail to bring a group of excelling Torah scholars to the island, and thereby to sound the voice of Torah study and boost the level of religious observance. The project proves to be a great success, and year by year the demand for young Torah scholars to come out increases. The problem, however, is the ship’s capacity: it can hold no more than 1,000 passengers.

In the second year, the political leadership decides to bend the rules just a little, bringing on 100 more than the capacity allows. “How can we lose a hundred people who want to bolster Torah learning and fear of God?” cry the operators. “Let’s cram together just a bit, stretch the rules, and God will be with us.” But demand does not end there. It continually increases, and several years down the line the ship is being severely overloaded, with the warning sign concerning overcapacity long since been eroded by the masses. The ship wears down, but meantime holds out under the increasing strain – which by now has become the norm.

At a certain stage, some low-level operators notice that there are cracks in the boat that could cause thousands of passengers now on board to drown. They approached the powers responsible for the ship but were turned away on grounds of their being despisers of Torah and of not being true Charedim: the Torah protects us and maintains us, and there is no need for concern.

At a certain stage, some low-level operators notice that there are cracks in the boat that could cause thousands of passengers now on board to drown. They approached the powers responsible for the ship but were turned away on grounds of their being despisers of Torah and of not being true Charedim: the Torah protects us and maintains us, and there is no need for concern. Even demands for elementary safety measures such as sufficient boats and life vests for passengers were rejected (with contempt) by the ship’s operators and by their rabbinic leadership.

When those low-level operators turned to the Gedolim, asking to reduce the number of people on the ship due to the danger involved, they were told: “I support this initiative. It is very much needed, even vital, and I welcome it. Yet, I cannot give it public support. I respectfully ask that you refrain from mentioning my name in this matter.”

Around the same time, a debate emerged among the senior operators. Conservative operators argued that since the number of passengers had increased year by year and nothing has happened yet, the right thing was to continue treading the same path. Multiyear experience indicated that overcapacity was not an issue; no disaster occurred until that time, and none will occur down the road. Progressive-leaning operators, by contrast, claim that there was an immediate need to decrease quotas and return to the long-forgotten capacity level, lest disaster strike.

What ultimately happened?

Two scenarios are possible. The one is optimistic: numbers continue to increase, miracles take place year after year, and the ship continues its annual voyages until this very day, transporting thousands who seek to augment Torah knowledge and fear of God. The second is less optimistic. The expected or the unexpected – depends on who we ask – finally comes to pass, and the ship sinks with thousands on board. Due to the terrible disaster, a special charity fund is established, prayers are recited, assistance is provided to the families of the drowned, and stronger, safer ships are purchased to take new prospective travelers to a land of faith and Torah.

 

We Need Action

The Charedi community in Israel is not the ship I described. It has grown with God’s grace, and grim predictions concerning its future have thus far not been realized. There are cracks at the margins, but these are natural phenomena to be expected for such a large population. Yet, alongside small cracks, there are also serious problems that require serious consideration. Some boats are indeed leaky – too leaky to justify continued seaworthiness on the grounds of standard conservative arguments. They need repair, and the sooner the better. Yes, ships are still holding up, but the less optimistic scenario hovers like a black cloud over our entire community.

[A]longside small cracks, there are also serious problems that require serious consideration. Some boats are indeed leaky – too leaky to justify continued seaworthiness on the grounds of standard conservative arguments. They need repair, and the sooner the better.

Among much that remains strong and sturdy, below is a shortlist of some of our leakiest boats. Though they continue to stay above the sea line, leading some observers to think that things can go on forever, appearances can be deceiving. I have used the Mishnah in Sotah (49b), which lists a range of social troubles that will come to pass in Ikveta De’meshicha – the period leading up to the Messianic coming – as a framework for the comments.

  • “The Truth Shall be Absent” – Herd-Oriented Torah Study

Torah study in our time has become a herd phenomenon. Thousands whose heads and hearts are far from committed remain in full-time Torah study for years after marriage only for lack of appropriate alternatives. Thousands who are unfit for a vocation of Torah study are forced into a reality that denies them the scope for realization and productivity, exacting harsh prices.

  • “Prices Shall Soar” – Economic Collapse

When a group constituting hundreds of thousands opts out en masse from the workforce, the result is an enormous burden on the state’s economy. Given current demographic trends, this will ultimately result in economic collapse. For many men, the lack of core curricula at a young age all but guarantees an inability to make ends meet for the standard large Charedi family.

  • “Men of Outlying Cities Will Find No Mercy” – Rejection of Working Charedim

Disdain for “working Charedim” – those who make the difficult choice of entering gainful employment – alongside the lack of appropriate frameworks for their families, creates a harsh reality and multiple challenges. In such circumstances, many families struggle to maintain Charedi identity and sustain a Torah lifestyle.

  • “The Kingdom Shall Turn to Heresy” – Charedi-Secular Relations

The polarization, suspicion, fear, and even hatred between Charedim and the rest of Israeli society is a constant strain of Israel’s social cohesion. Political and media representatives seem unconcerned, caring for short-term interests alone, so that true discourse is rare. Charedi society therefore cannot share its social and religious commodities with the rest of Israel, nor engage in the type of discourse that can enrich it internally.

I could certainly go on, but my purpose is not to roll the list of issues challenging Charedi society, many of which are well known. My point, rather, is that the prevalent approach to these challenges is simply to ignore them. The ship sails on. Operators keep testing the outer limits; the ship is buckling under the strain, but they keep loading on more baggage and stretching the capacity. Thorough renovations are called for; without them, collapse is inevitable.

Under such circumstances, I find little space for engaging in conventional debates conservative and progressive debates. What we need is decisive action.

 

Sheer Laziness

Allow me to raise a third scenario for our ship parable – ostensibly the simplest and most logical of all. Realizing the dire situations, operators order an immediate reduction of the number of people aboard, and a thorough renovation of the vessel to repair the multiple issues that accumulated over years of overburdening.

As noted at the outset, operators are likely to launch a vicious smear campaign, attacking them as haters of Torah or as “moderns” who dare to argue that instruction manuals should be read and respected. “How can a ship leading pure Torah scholars sink?” they will cry out. “The Torah guards and protects and thinking otherwise is tantamount to heresy!”

There is nothing conservative or progressive about this proposal. It is simply common sense, in line with basic operating procedures requires. And yet, in my own society, those who propose such ideas are likely to be dismissed with contempt. As noted at the outset, operators are likely to launch a vicious smear campaign, attacking them as haters of Torah or as “moderns” who dare to argue that instruction manuals should be read and respected. “How can a ship leading pure Torah scholars sink?” they will cry out. “The Torah guards and protects and thinking otherwise is tantamount to heresy!”

Why do people act like this? The explanation does not lie in some deep philosophical mindset; it is far more prosaic than that. People act this way due to weakness of the flesh, an attachment to routine, and a resultant refusal to see the danger ahead. A similar pattern can be discerned when a marriage begins to break down. Though everyone else understands the household should be dismantled before things get really messy, the couple themselves could go on conducting business as usual for months or for years, ignoring the warning signs even as they stare them in the face. Ultimately, the family collapses as predicted, only that now there are more people whose lives were ruined as a result.

The corona period provided us with a similar situation. Professionals warned that a serious lockdown should be undertaken before the disease begins to slice through the population and a stronger and more extended shutdown becomes necessary. Those who ignored such warnings, continuing life as usual, did not do so out of conservatism; they simply failed to see what was coming. Our Sages call this disposition by several names; conservatism is not one of them.

Aside from the difficulty in changing habits and leaving our comfort zone, the need for change raises two other points that lead people to prefer a policy of abstention. First, until calamity strikes the need for change will never be fully proven. Even if a child flourishes in his new educational framework, to which he was transferred after experiencing difficulties in yeshiva, it can always be argued that “he would have been all right.” Some might even claim that on the contrary, “had he remained he might have become a Torah luminary!” The same is true for marital stability: Early dismantling of the home will never prove it was right to end the marriage and not attempt to restore it. Only disaster can prove the point; success is not proof.

Another weakness of those who demand reform is that change always involves total concession, which is not the case for abstaining from change. Consider the child for whom we are considering a change from the regular yeshiva framework. Leaving him in his present institution implies that we’re not giving up hope of his becoming a yeshiva-man and true Ben Torah; by contrast, when we remove him from the regular yeshiva system this is exactly what we’ve done – given up, just as divorce gives up on marriage. Change thus involves a certain loss and an uncertain gain. There is always an element of doubt, even when the odds are stacked against success.

These factors preserve situations in which people prefer to continue to travel on rickety but familiar ships, despite the danger of death. Though there is a clear and visible need to make urgent changes, we will insist on refraining from implementing them – until it’s too late.

 

Experience Shows We Must Change

Rabbi Pfeffer courageously defends the Charedi economy of change on the grounds that we need to carry out changes cautiously and with due calculation. And we do have much to lose. Yet, I think differently. In my opinion, the most important lesson that experience teaches us is that such economies of change lead to disaster.

Did opposition to Haskalah succeed? Yes and no. The opposition did succeed in preserving the community that continued to maintain traditional Judaism, but it lost the overwhelming majority of the Jewish People around the world. Was conservative policy a success? I do not think so. The traditional way of life was preserved due to reforms that came too little, too late

The Haskalah, Zionist, and other ideological movements in the last 150 years led to an expedited secularization of the Jewish People in both Europe and the East. The fact is that God-fearing Jews remaining in Europe on the eve of the Holocaust were few and far between. Did opposition to Haskalah succeed? Yes and no. The opposition did succeed in preserving the community that continued to maintain traditional Judaism, but it lost the overwhelming majority of the Jewish People around the world. Was conservative policy a success? I do not think so. The traditional way of life was preserved due to reforms that came too little, too late.

Many of the issues that the Haskalah criticized within traditional Judaism were indeed mended over the years, but this was done only after disaster struck. The traditional education system for Jewish children, which was fiercely criticized by Haskalah authors, underwent many changes, to the point that the same authors would probably be quite satisfied with today’s Talmudei Torah and their softer, sensitive approach to children. Similarly, who today still recalls the war led by Rabbi Wolff against modern psychology? Every girls’ school today incorporates pedagogic instructors, advisors, and other professional women with psychological training. Modern psychology, studied at top academic institutions, has become a staple of today’s Charedi society. These are small examples from pointless anti-change campaigns that contributed nothing to Judaism; finally, after it was already too late for many who were irrevocably harmed, all the changes were adopted.

Take Lithuanian Jewry, for instance, which reached an appalling religious condition on the eve of the Holocaust. One of the initiatives that saved the remnant was the Yavne school network – modern schools incorporating general studies and university-trained teachers, in which most Lithuanian Charedim, students of the mussar movements, sent their children. In Poland, “Agudas Yisrael” established a Charedi youth movement, a Charedi press, and the Bais Yaakov movement above all. All these were modern initiatives including innovations that aroused much opposition. But it was precisely these changes that caused those who remained in the camp to maintain their Jewish identity. The initiatives were all born as “hospitals under the bridge.” In every case, the initial policy was opposition to change as such. Only later, when there was no longer any choice and the collapse had already occurred, “hospitals” were built for survivors.

Many unconventional changes were also implemented here in the Land of Israel – establishing an independent educational stream, changing the language of instruction in yeshiva to Hebrew, participation in elections, allowing (and obligating) women’s voting, the Nachal Charedi organization for Charedi soldiers, and so on. As Rabbi Moshe Schoenfeld relates, the Chazon Ish was approached by a group of zealots who objected to his leading the change from Yiddish to Hebrew. Schoenfeld records the episode:

When Jerusalem zealots came to our Holy Rabbi with a request that he publish a prohibition on learning Hebrew in boys’ schools, relying on a similar prohibition their predecessors had enacted, the Holy Rabbi responded: What is this similar to? An old general who fought a war at a particular battlefield, where the frontline was. Years passed, the borders shifted, the old fortresses collapsed, new ones arose. And once again a war breaks out and the old general claims that we need to concentrate all our forces on the historical battleground, where he once commanded his troops, even though there are now newer and more dangerous weak points.

After the Holocaust, Charedi Jewry enjoyed an enormous renaissance around the world. It continues to possess enormous stores of vitality, and I believe it will continue to flourish and prosper in the coming years. But we do need to take note of voices warning of acute challenges and avoid remaining trapped within the consoling mindset of “that which was will also be.” Opposition to any change on the grounds that it runs against what we know from the Hazon Ish and Rav Shach is a repetition of the “old general” error. The wars of today are not theirs, and we need to take note of future dangers and preempt them, advancing efforts to ensure disaster never strikes.

What sort of initiatives should we take? Let conservatives and progressives debate the matter – which is why, at the end of the day, the matter discussed by Rabbi Pfeffer is so important – as long as they do something about the coming danger.

***

I end with famous words written by Rabbi Meir Simcha zt”l in his Meshech Chochmah on Parshas Bechukosai. Reflecting on the Torah words of admonition, Rabb Meir Simcha wrote as follows:

What will a person do when he wishes to innovate? He will criticize that which he was given by our Fathers with a false idea […] our fathers bequeathed us lies, and the Jew has forgotten his origins and is considered a new citizen. He will leave the study of his own religion, studying languages not his own, learning from the corrupted and not the corrected. He will think that Berlin is Jerusalem, doing as the corrupt among them and not the correct. […] Then a stormy wind shall blow and uproot him from his roots. He will be left to a nation from afar whose language he did not learn, he will know he is a stranger.

Many cite the words of Rabbi Meir Simcha as a forewarning of the Holocaust that will come upon the Jews when they turn Berlin into Jerusalem. But note the reason he gives for why they should do so. It is the nature of humankind to love innovation, and when no outlet is provided within Torah, due to the atrophy brought upon by the hardships of exile, he seeks innovation elsewhere.

Instead of waiting for the painful process Rabbi Meir Simcha describes, created by lack of innovation and repressive conservatism, we must think about how to give our own Judaism a new flavor. Thus our ship should be saved from floundering and remain sturdy and strong for new and exciting voyages ahead.

 

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