Between Secular Religion and Sacred Nationalism

Response Article To "“For the Sake of Heaven”: On Charedim and Religious Zionism"

Charedi Jewry’s dismissal of the secular world has created a crisis. We urgently need to find new ways of connecting the sacred and the secular, so that our own beis midrash can exert a positive influence outside its narrow borders. The Religious Zionist beis midrash can play an important role in our new engagement with the secular.

Shevat 5782, January 2022

In his excellent article, my friend Rabbi Aryeh Meir calls for the Charedi community to move closer to its Religious Zionist counterpart. The original reasons for our camps’ alienation, he claims, are no longer relevant. The Charedi opposition to Religious Zionism derived from the latter’s affinity with the State of Israel and byproducts thereof, including secularization and lax halachic observance. But the so-called “state problem” is less acute now. The state is no longer as secular as it used to be, and there are multiple signs of religious revival among Religious Zionists (especially, but not exclusively, among nationalist Charedim, the “Chardal” sector). Moreover, Charedim have become more open to general culture, for better or for worse, which lessens the distance between the camps. Today, as Rabbi Meir sums it up, the Charedi community has much to learn from its Religious Zionist counterpart. It would be a shame for the vestigial divorce to prevent fruitful dialogue.

Rabbi Aryeh Meir’s message is important, certainly today. I agree that the Charedi community needs to open up to new batei midrash (study halls), and that the Religious Zionist community has qualities we should learn from and adopt. In particular, the scholarly products of the Religious Zionist beis midrash can contribute much to Charedi institutions. Yet, I think Rabbi Meir underestimates the divide between our communities. It runs far deeper than attitudes towards the state. Chareidim and Religious Zionists view the concept of kedusha, holiness, through entirely different eyes, and this leads to variant approaches to the relationship between the sacred and the secular.

In the light of this insight, I wish to propose that Torah study, specifically, is the best way to bring our communities together for a mutually fruitful exchange. I hope that in turn, this exchange will lead to positive developments all-around—both within Charedi society and for Israel and the Jews generally.

 

Charedi Society: Not Just a Strategy

Charedi-ism is commonly understood as a strategy of a minority group trying to maintain its traditional way of life in a secular, anti-traditional world. Thus understood, Charedi patterns of segregation are not ends in themselves, but a means of communal preservation. Cloistering is the ultimate antidote against the secular world, whose temptations threaten to undermine religious life in all its forms. Opposition to the state is sometimes interpreted similarly—not as an opposition to nationalism per se, but rather of the secularism promoted or enforced by the Israeli state.

According to this interpretation, the debate between the Charedi and Religious Zionist communities, however fierce, is fundamentally pragmatic: both camps are interested in preserving Torah life and mitzvah observance in a secular world. Their dispute is over how much of that world to allow in, and how much to keep out.

Indeed, many Charedim consider Religious Zionism’s close connection to state institutions, academia, the general workforce, and secular culture to be at best imprudent, and at worst a conscious exchange of religion for Israeliness. The data pointing to high levels of Religious Zionist attrition vindicate the “Charedi strategy.”

There is much truth to the theory that the Charedi way of life is essentially a strategy. Charedim make great isolationist efforts to protect against secular influence, with an awareness that these are necessary measures rather than an ideal. But this approach still misses something very basic about Charedi separatism.

Underlying Charedi society is a theology that splits the sacred dimensions of life from secular ones. This divorce is prior in the Charedi mindset to this or that specific challenge. The theology underlying the Charedi way of life argues that life in this world is fundamentally devoid of value

Underlying Charedi society is a theology that splits the sacred dimensions of life from secular ones. This divorce is prior in the Charedi mindset to this or that specific challenge. The theology underlying the Charedi way of life argues that life in this world is fundamentally devoid of value. Torah study and the observance of mitzvos, which are the only true (and eternal) bearers of value, occur within the cloistered realm of the sacred. Earthly life is at best useful to sacred life, and at worst a trial for the devout to overcome.

Statements such as “we need to eat in order to recite a blessing,” which are very common in the Charedi education system, reflect the view that life itself is basically worthless. The true goal is to recite berachos; eating and other physical activities are but the means. Life’s true center of gravity lies outside of this world. The Torah, based on this approach, elevates man from the world of temptation to the world of truth. Involvement in earthly matters must therefore be reduced to the bare minimum.

The sources of this theological approach are worthy of discussion. There is room to investigate the degree to which it reflects the Biblical and rabbinic spirit of Judaism and how much it imports from external sources. This question, however, is not our concern here. The important point for our purposes is that Charedi isolationism is not just a strategy developed to cope with certain unfortunate conditions, but a principled theological proposition: the sacred dwells apart from the secular, and the secular is therefore of no inherent interest. It is no surprise that this worldview has on the one hand produced strong fortifications around holy spaces, which must not be tainted by the mundane, and general neglect of secular life on the other.

 

Religious Zionism’s Theology of Secularism

Broadly speaking, and in stark contrast to the Charedi approach, Religious Zionist theology posits a fundamental connection between the sacred and secular parts of life. Religious people should not flee from the secular world but should instead confront it. This theology holds IDF service and the building of settlements in the Land of Israel as central mitzvos, and likewise attaches religious significance to social activism, professional studies, and providing for one’s household. In the Religious Zionist worldview, the same individual can be a talmid chacham, a military commander, an academic, work for a living, and paint portraits in his spare time.  A person who combines such diverse vocations (or, more likely, some of them) would be an ideal role model in the Religious Zionist world. By contrast, in the Charedi space, any connection to secular life immediately tarnishes a person’s Torah image. The ideal talmid chacham never leaves the beis midrash.

In the view of the average Charedi person, the notion that army service can be a mitzvah is altogether foreign. The reason for this isn’t some halachic norm but rather something more fundamental, often even unconscious. The two sides of the debate are predicated on very different assumptions regarding religion and its relationship with secular life. Charedi theology cannot accept that earthly and ostensibly “secular” activities like serving in the army or building a home can be religious duties. By contrast, those who espouse Religious Zionist theology cannot understand the Charedi perspective: how can Charedim not feel a sense of responsibility for the fate of the country? How can men sit and learn and neglect their duty to provide for their households?

The Charedi and Religious Zionist worlds don’t only cope with secularism differently—they understand the threat differently. For the Charedi person, the challenge of secularism is just another manifestation of the challenge of worldly life. The secularist is simply someone who validates this world and grants it importance; even if a secularist ideology and culture did not exist, we would still need to avoid worldly temptations. In each generation, we are tempted to divert ourselves from the sacred toward the material. Today, this temptation is called secularism, but tomorrow it might have a different name. This is not how Religious Zionist theology sees matters. It does not consider secularism to be fundamentally evil, but only inadequate. Involvement in this world is not illegitimate—losing the sacred is. Therefore, the role of the religious person is to sanctify the secular, shining the light of holiness upon it and thus mending its flaws.

While the idea of elevating the secular seems attractive, the Religious Zionist ideal is far from simple, both in theory and in practice. It has been difficult to apply the theology to modern secularism, which often seems antithetical to the core of Judaism. Can the Pride (gay) Parade be sanctified? Can the desecration of Shabbos and co-ed service in the IDF be sanctified? Can the struggle to bring about civil marriage and reduce the influence of Torah in Israel’s Jewish education be sanctified? The Charedi public has no theological problem in dealing with such matters. For Charedim, secularists are simply rebelling against God, preferring their urges to the sacred; the story is not complicated. But for Religious Zionism it is certainly complex, since the secular ought to be a potential fit for the sacred, and certainly not diametrically opposed to it. The resistance of Israeli secularism to Religious Zionist attempts at sanctification challenges Zionist theology from within.

This challenge of secularism engenders fierce disputes within the Religious Zionist camp, and recent years have seen some elements adopt separatist approaches that are ostensibly similar to the Charedi attitude. However, we should distinguish between ideological fine-tuning and the patterns of life produced by a theology of connecting the sacred and the secular. The ideological responses may not be wholly convincing, and sometimes seem strained or convoluted. For instance, Religious Zionist depictions of the State of Israel as the foundation of God’s seat in the world, or of secular pioneers as fervent God-seekers, is justifiably critiqued by Charedim for its naïveté or blindness. Yet, the basic theology emerges unscathed: it continues to dictate a way of life that sanctifies a deep connection between the sacred and the secular.

Within the Religious Zionist community we can find shades upon of this combination, including a broad set of options in which the sacred and the secular maintain a mutually beneficial relationship. Understandably, the boundaries between religious and secular life are thus softer and more porous

Religious Zionist education inculcates its students with the view that worldly life is not foreign to the religious Jew. As such, Religious Zionist society needs to manage the friction between religious consciousness and earthly life. It cannot deal with this friction by defining the encounter as a struggle, as Charedi society does, and must rather seek a peaceful resolution. In a practical sense, Religious Zionist education creates a religiosity that effectively connects religious faith and mitzvah observance with a respectful attitude towards the secular.

This shaky connection, yet to be fully formulated as an ideology, has produced a wonderful variety of forms of religious life. Within the Religious Zionist community we can find shades upon of this combination, including a broad set of options in which the sacred and the secular maintain a mutually beneficial relationship. Understandably, the boundaries between religious and secular life are thus softer and more porous. Of course, this integration sometimes leads to confusion. Costs include ideologically some mealy-mouthed acrobatics; it is hard, indeed, to explain how exactly a yoga class meant to connect you to the body and physicality goes together with a burning desire for clinging to God and total self-abnegation. Yet, the bottom line is that this is a real way of life that many live on an everyday level.

 

The Crisis of Charedi Theology

Given all the above, let’s reopen two questions about the prospects for our communities coming together. First, is there a point to it? Second, is it even possible, or are the theological gaps too wide and deep?

I think the answer to the first question is an absolute “yes.” The great challenge facing Charedi society today is its natural numerical increase, which forces it to deal with numerous issues in the secular world. In the past, Charedi society could leave secular arrangements to the state and its adherents; nowadays, however, the community must run itself. Charedi cities are run by Charedim; various community bodies deal with complex issues of family and individual welfare. The Charedi public’s needs are becoming more complex and require a robust communal infrastructure for a variety of needs, such as training both men and women to succeed in the modern job market. The more the Charedi public grows, the more it will need to learn how to deal with secular matters.

Alongside these “bottom-up” processes, there is also a public demand for a response to secular needs from a Torah perspective. Charedi Jews who need to deal in the secular world do not want to consider their work sinful. They hope to infuse religious meaning into secular life. That presents a problem insofar as Charedi society sanctions narrowly-defined sacred spheres alone. The religious language of Charedi society cannot respond to the secular world; it deals with the sacred alone. As such, the treatment of secular matters is generally neglected by the Charedi leadership as just not important enough to merit careful concern. At best, secular matters are handled amateurishly and at the last moment. The corona crisis, the Meron calamity, and now the tragic Walder affair, are sharp (if extreme) examples of this ad hoc approach.

Charedi contempt for the secular means that management of secular matters in the Charedi world is often delegated to people or bodies that are neither Torah-true nor particularly morally upright. Those who “agreed” to descend into the secular space are the periphery of our society rather than its cream. An elite Kollel student will never set aside his Gemara volumes to run a municipal department. Such roles are reserved for those who “don’t have the strength to learn.”

The Charedi theology of separating sacred from secular begets further problems. Just as the community, in general, cannot ignore the demands of secular life, so the private individual is forced to be a part of this world. Whether Charedi women working in a range of white-collar professions or a yeshiva student watching a soccer game, the Charedi Jew is today involved in secular life, willingly or not. He seeks a role for his religious core even in these areas, hoping to integrate them into the theological framework organizing his life.  If this demand isn’t satisfied, the Charedi heart will be torn by the pain.

In sum, the theology of contempt for the secular is today in crisis. There is an urgent need to open new lanes between the sacred and secular. The beis midrash must open up to the world—not to be influenced by it, but quite to the contrary, to influence life on the outside. But the Charedi beis midrash lacks the language tools to speak of the secular in the terms and values of the sacred; these are held exclusively by Religious Zionist society. An acquaintance with the Religious Zionist system of thought and Torah content can therefore contribute much to reformulating the Charedi relationship between the sacred and the secular.

To emphasize: such a contribution does not require agreement between our two communities. We do not need to adopt religious Zionist theology in its entirety. The contribution would be the very opening up of the possibility to consider the secular as an important field for the religious person, confronting it without being branded “secularist.”. The significant point is the very ability to speak of the secular, rather than adopting this or that idea about how secularism can integrate with our lives.

 

Meeting at the Beit Midrash

This brings us to our second question: is such a meeting and coming together possible? Beyond the language gap and different underlying assumptions that make a fruitful dialogue hard, what platform can be used for such a dialogue to take place? Meetings? Shared conferences? These forms of discussion are foreign to the Charedi community, which makes it difficult to find “neutral” areas meaningful encounters.

Rabbi Meir’s proposal is to bring the discussion into the beis midrash. It seems to me that the beis midrash is, indeed, the appropriate place for an inter-communal discussion, but I would like to sharpen the proposal. Rabbi Meir seeks to “bring the debate into the beis midrash,” in the sense of opening an ideological dialogue with Religious Zionists within the confines of the traditional study hall. In my view, this proposal is untenable—not merely because of ideological opposition, but because the two sides lack the ability to talk with one another. There is simply insufficient common ground and language to allow Charedi and Religious Zionist theologies to engage. The effort to explain the Religious Zionist position of “sacrificing the secular” to somebody Charedi or explaining the Charedi stance to somebody from the Religious Zionist camp leads to a dialogue between the deaf. Neither camp will understand the other.

I would like to advocate another sort of beis midrash encounter, which is infinitely simple: a simple get-together to study Torah.

It is within the beis midrash that the central religious activity of Charedi society takes place. This is the living, thriving, and dynamic realm in which many of us spend our prime years. In addition, the beis midrash is also where Charedi isolation reaches its peak. The Charedi Torah student does not deal in the vanities of this world or even work for his livelihood; rather, he withdraws into a world where lomdus and halachic debate are the most important things. Perhaps they are the only things. This is both the power and weakness of the Charedi beis midrash.

The Charedi Kollel student lives within the beis midrash, its windows overlooking the secular world blocked from the inside. By contrast, the Religious Zionist Torah world is far more open to friction with secular society, and correspondingly lacks the total and intimate dimension of the Charedi equivalent (and in this sense can actually benefit much from connecting with the Charedi beis midrash). The openness of Religious Zionist learning led its adherents towards different and even opposing directions. In Gemara study, the Religious Zionist beis midrash developed a range of study methods. It combined Talmudic scholarship with an awareness of historical and textual layers and brought the spiritual and emotional world of the student closer to the material under study. Moreover, the Religious Zionist Torah world also includes a significant study of additional Torah topics, exoteric and esoteric. On a more principled level, the encounter with the secular, the formative challenge of Religious Zionism, opened up new horizons for study. These are still closed to the Charedi student.

Opening up the Charedi beis midrash to the Religious Zionist study hall can reveal broad connections between the religious and the secular, and on the Charedi student’s home turf. He need not “go outside” to encounter the outside world, and can instead become acquainted with it within the protected sanctum of the beis midrash where he feels entirely at home. It is precisely there, sailing within the sea of Torah, that he can open new horizons, discover new continents, and safely drop anchor in the land of the secular.

My suggestion is not to create something ex nihilo. Some Charedi Kollel institutions have already integrated the study of Bible or Kaballah, and a minority integrates Torah literature produced by the Religious Zionist beis midrash. There is increasing interest in the schools of thought of Rav Kook, Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Shagar, and other thinkers identified with Religious Zionism. Expanding this trend, empowering encounters between different brands of Torah scholars and the rich Torah worlds they represent, will be an unsettling experience in the best possible sense. Such a proposal will naturally arouse objections, some of them justified; but the fact that this is an encounter within the beis midrash will turn the objections into a debate for the sake of Heaven, as Rabbi Meir put it.

I hope that this beis midrash meeting will allow an honest and candid opening up to different views within the Torah world, and will help to create the fruitful connections between the sacred and the secular that all of us need.

One thought on “Between Secular Religion and Sacred Nationalism

  • In the first half of this essay, the author compellingly and eloquently presents the ideological gap between the Charedi and Religious Zionist worlds, as well as what the Charedi world needs to learn from the RZ world. Fascinating to read and really hits the nail on the head.

    The second half of the essay, in which the author provides his suggested strategy for filtering the positive aspects of the RZ world into Charedi society, is baffling to say the least.

    Whilst a very nice thing to do, having more chavrusas and learning encounters between Charedim and Religious Zionists will make no significant impact on the fundamental ideological tension that is on the path to causing Charedi society an existential crisis in the next decades.

    Learning some Rav Kook, a little Tanach, or the “historical and textual layers” in Gemara are not going to make even the slightest dent in the actual issues at stake: complete shunning of the secular world, men not going to work and lack of participation in wider society.

Write a Comment

Please write down your comment
Name field is required
Please fill email