Are We a Moral Society?

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Rabbi Chaim Rubnitz Torah editor at Avodah Berurah Institute

Charedi society tends to be stringent and highly diligent in all things halachic. Every small minutia in the Shulchan Aruch has become the subject of entire books, designated to lead our religious conduct at the highest possible level. The public itself continues to adopt many strictures, even at a significant monetary cost. This display of Jewish excellence leads us to ask a tough question: How is it that so conscientious a group is ostensibly unconcerned by the deep moral complaints, seemingly justified at least in part, directed towards its public conduct? The answer lies in an analysis of the moral worldview common to Charedi community; the same analysis also calls for a reappraisal of our traditional resolution of everyday moral dilemmas.

Tamuz 5779 / July 2019
 

From the establishment of the State of Israel through to the present day, many a sharp criticism have been hurled at the ethical conduct of Charedi society. Some grant that Charedim are ethically upright in the private conduct. In stark contrast with other poor societies, their crime rate is low while their rates of debt repayment are remarkably high. The main argument, however, is that their public conduct suffers from deep moral flaws. Often, the grievance focuses on one specific theme: the Charedi community’s attitude towards the “State of Israel.”

Many a sharp criticism have been hurled at the ethical conduct of Charedi society. Some grant that Charedim are ethically upright in the private conduct. The main argument, however, is that their public conduct suffers from deep moral flaws. Often, the grievance focuses on one specific theme: the Charedi community’s attitude towards the “State of Israel.”

Three related but distinct areas take central position in the argument: 1. the state’s security burden; b. the state’s economic burden; c. Unfair use of public money (or more bluntly: embezzlement of public funding). Though obvious, there remains room for emphasize: The state is not some abstract entity. It is the association of all its citizens and residents. Improper conduct toward the state is therefore improper conduct toward all its citizens.

In this article, I will seek to resolve the conundrum of how people who are Godfearing and diligent in all matters of Jewish law, as well as in many everyday dealings, remain quite indifferent to serious moral claims against their public conduct. By way of introduction, I will describe the main arguments in some detail, despite most of them being already well-known.

 

The Security Burden

The best known of ethical claims levelled against Charedi society relates to so-called “draft-dodging.” This is also the most highly-charge of the different issue; naturally, it is also the most sharply politicized. Israel’s second national elections in three months are set to be held because coalition partners failed to reach agreement over the legal framework for the continued deferral of army service for yeshiva students. But in contradistinction to the political map, the moral argument is very simple.

Every other citizen in Israel (or more precisely: every male, and most women) makes their contribution to the heavy security burden Israel needs to bear, serving his country at the peak of his youth for three full years (and for many years later in the reserves). Some serve in combat units, and others in intelligence and support units; all are part of the effort. By contrast, the state’s Charedi residents spend these years in the calm of Torah study, dwelling in the Beis Midrash rather than in army field conditions. Naturally, some are more studious and others less, but either way they are not serving in the IDF. They benefit from the state’s security services but avoid making their own contribution.

There are very good reasons for the Charedi avoidance of military service. Charedi society sees participation in the military framework, whether combat or non-combat, as an existential threat to the spiritual and religious condition of young men, and even to their basic Charedi identity. Whether Israeli society understands this fear or not, this is our position; from our perspective, refraining from serving in the IDF is justified. But the legitimacy of refraining from army service does not exempt us from answering the moral demand of fairness. How can a Charedi person justify himself in the face of the moral argument? How can he stand indifferent before a mother who loses sleep over her sons in the trenches, while his children are safe and sound (protected by the same soldiers in the trenches) in the yeshivah halls?

Alongside the demand of “Shall your brothers go out to war while you dwell here,” which can be partially refuted by the said arguments, another accusation relates to actually recognizing the importance of carrying the burden. Charedi Rabbis are almost entirely silent in expressing support or encouragement for those who do bear the burden, for those young men spending their best years to physically protect the nation

Alongside the demand of “Shall your brothers go out to war while you dwell here,” which can be partially refuted by the said arguments, another accusation relates to actually recognizing the importance of carrying the burden. Charedi Rabbis are almost entirely silent in expressing support or encouragement for those who do bear the burden, for those young men spending their best years to physically protect the nation. Moreover, Charedi synagogues generally refrain from reciting the prayer for soldiers risking their lives. Even in times of war, there are virtually no initiatives to join in the national effort and assist soldiers in various ways. Exceptions aside, no public prayers are heard, no special donations made. In sum, the impression is that Charedi society is complacently unaware of the unfairness of the present situation.

 

The Economic Burden

The economic burden refers first and foremost to common practice of Charedi men refraining from participation in the workforce. Over the last few decades the situation whereby men devote their lives to Torah study for many years, and sometimes indefinitely, has become common and even standard for the Lithuanian community in Israel. This sector has dramatic influence over the other sectors of Charedi society, so that the rate of workforce participation among men in the general Charedi community has plummeted. It is remarkably low (under 50%) both relative to general Israeli society (approx. 90%) and even in relation to the accepted norm in Charedi communities across the sea.

Other essays have focused on why our community has deviated, based on the guidance of Torah leadership, from accepted norms of previous generations—and I will not do so here. Suffice for our purposes to note that there are good and clear reasons that led to this development, despite the complexities involved in the resultant situation. I wish to focus rather on the basic economic consequence of this development: the reliance of Charedi society on the general public. It should come as no surprise that without general society bearing the economic burden on its shoulders (by means of taxes), Charedi society would not be able to survive in any sense: security, medical, welfare, infrastructure, and so on. It would certainly not be able to live a life of comfort befitting a developed western state.

The question of this article is not the legitimacy of the choice itself—Charedi society has the ostensible right to refrain from working and live a life of ascetism and poverty—but rather to handle the moral claim of fairness

The question of this article is not the legitimacy of the choice itself—Charedi society has the ostensible right to refrain from working and live a life of ascetism and poverty—but rather to handle the moral claim of fairness. The reality is that Charedi society has become an economic burden on the shoulders of general society, which unwillingly becomes a “Zevulun” supported the Charedi “Yissaschar” dedicated to Torah study. This state of affairs is disparaged by many in general Israeli society, and raises a piercing question: do the benefits latent in our social choice justify the unfairness it brings in its wake? Prima facie, it seems Charedi society is simply not bothered by the question.

Some attempt to supply economic calculations that emphasize the Charedi contribution Israeli’s economy—soliciting donations from abroad; the Charedi wealthy; religious tourism; and more. These contributions are occasionally cited to rebuff the claim of unfairness. But not only will any economist summarily reject the arguments; even the justifiers themselves admit (personally if not publicly) that this is not the real issue. It is abundantly clear to that even if proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Charedi society is indeed a significant burden, its path will not change.

 

Embezzlement of Public Funds

Every Charedi youth knows to quote the common rumor that the Chazon Ish permitted one to “steal from the state.” The state is an “[illegitimate and exploitative] tax collector,” so that taking from the state is merely “saving from the lion and the bear” (to use the halachic terminology). True, we have no documented evidence of the Chazon Ish ever having said this, and the reliability of the source is questionable to say the least; nonetheless, the rumor penetrated deep.

But even according to the rumored statement, the license to steal was not given concerning local property taxes. Moreover, the great Poskim of Charedi society (headed by Rabbi Elyashiv ob”m) maintain that avoiding paying taxes is entirely prohibited, while avoiding paying municipal taxes is an outright violation of theft. Yet strangely enough, this does not detract from the common custom of treating the state and its local and federal institutions as legitimate targets for theft. True, only a hardened few would actually consider lifting a chair from the local post office and bringing it home; but many consider tax evasion of all types, including by means of lies and deceit, as wholly legitimate.

Naturally, Charedim do not oppose the collection of government and municipal taxes in a general sense. We all desire an advanced health system, security, education, welfare, sanitation, transportation, and so on; and we all know that absent taxes we won’t have any other them. But the path from this basic understanding to a willingness to pay taxes wholeheartedly is long and winding. Some will argue that many in general society do their best to evade various taxes too; nobody really wants to slash their income for the good of the state coffers. But the situation in Charedi society is irregular in the public legitimation of tax evasion, including lying in basic declarations; there is hardly a Kollel where the halachic validity of making various false declarations does not come up for discussion.

It is well-known that a person can put down their goods in Charedi areas in the public square and trust passersby not to touch it (I’ve tried, and it works). We therefore need to ask the question: How can it be that on this issue, whose moral justification requires leaps of halachic faith, the finger of Charedi society is so easily on the trigger? How is it that on this issue, by stark contrast with others, it trusts weakly founded stories, a raft of rumors, and weak permits to engage in dubious conduct?

This raises obvious questions. The community of Bnei Torah is diligent in every facet of halacha, including matters that were not adhered to with such ardor in previous generations. Entire books have been written on every siman in the Shulchan Aruch. Many Kollel students adopt a range of halachic stringencies, even if this means significant financial loss. Members of Charedi society are in general very careful to not touch a cent of money that isn’t theirs. It is well-known that a person can put down their goods in Charedi areas in the public square and trust passersby not to touch it (I’ve tried, and it works). We therefore need to ask the question: How can it be that on this issue, whose moral justification requires leaps of halachic faith, the finger of Charedi society is so easily on the trigger? How is it that on this issue, by stark contrast with others, it trusts weakly founded stories, a raft of rumors, and weak permits to engage in dubious conduct?

 

Defending Klal Yisrael

I do not God forbid mean to be a prosecutor among Israel; on the contrary, I wish to reflect on and find appropriate justification for the conduct described above. We are used to hearing voices that judge Charedi society negatively and consider its moral level questionable. Even if it is credited with moral conduct on the intra-communal level, when it comes to general public behavior Charedi society suffers from particularly bad press; general public opinion is unkind to Charedim. This moral criticism is not limited to those who despise religion; it is voiced even by those faithful to Torah and Mitzvos. Unfortunately, it seems Charedi society itself is seeing many of its own develop a cynicism and bitterness towards the Charedi way of life. Charedi Jews with a healthy dose of critical thought wonder how it can be that the Charedi way of life leads its constituents to moral indifference vis-à-vis the issues described above. This can lead to harsh consequences of leaving the path of Torah Judaism entirely: If we are the ultimate representatives of Torah, then we should surely be the most morally upright society; and if we’re not, what does this mean for Torah Judaism?

In sum, this is a question which requires real scrutiny. Some invoke the doctrine of “unintended consequences” to explain how the situation came about, yet this hardly seems satisfactory given the magnitude of the issue. Another equally implausible solution is that Charedi society lives in a cognitive dissonance that separates the private from the public realm, operating in private on a high level of morality and at suffering from moral bankruptcy in the public sphere. There is no room in Judaism for a division between private and public conduct. We know that the Charedi leadership is generally comprised of individuals willing to give up their lives and means for the sake of the right and the just (as they see them). The question therefore cries out: How do we live with this contradiction? How can we resolve high moral conduct in private, as befits a community of God-fearers, with such ostensible moral failings that one cannot tolerate?

 We know that the Charedi leadership is generally comprised of individuals willing to give up their lives and means for the sake of the right and the just (as they see them). The question therefore cries out: How do we live with this contradiction? How can we resolve high moral conduct in private, as befits a community of God-fearers, with such ostensible moral failings that one cannot tolerate?

I wish to offer a response to this question. I do not claim to have a new answer that nobody considered ahead of me. To the contrary, the central idea has been expressed by many in various ways. However, the originally of my contribution will be in suggesting a redefinition and reformulation of old ideas. I will seek to do so via the philosophical framework laid out by American Jewish thinker Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind.

In his breakthrough book, Haidt distinguishes between various fields of moral conduct, arguing that their respective importance and the balance between them are culture dependent. Along these lines, I will explain that the special constraints of our time period have led Charedi society to diminish the centrality of fairness values in their lives; this has been vital in protecting their own community. For Haredi society, ensuring the integrity of the community is a “moral” rather than “religious” category. For this reason, their choice does not run contrary to basic morality. However, this justification does not remain eternally valid. It might follow the Talmudic rule whereby “it is a time to act for Hashem; they have violated your Torah”—but the rule has its limits.

Based on this explanation, I will argue that we need to rethink our path and seek to restore, insofar as possible given current circumstances, the Torah-mandated values of justice and integrity. We are witness to slow changes taking place within Charedi society in these areas, yet old habits die hard. I believe this matter needs to be raised for serious discussion, so we should not God forbid fall into the sin of desecrating His name, and instead of saying “what great nation with just laws and precepts this entire Torah that I have placed before you today” (Deut. 32:6), they will say “and also I have given you laws that are not good and precepts that are not be lived by” (Ez. 20:25).

 

Defining Human Moral Systems

Anthropologist Richard Schweder, teacher of the aforementioned social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, divided man’s moral conduct into three systems: The ethics of autonomy, the ethics of community, and the ethics of divinity. He argues that all three are present at varying levels in every human society.

The ethics of autonomy refers to human rights and their protection. As part of this system of morality, an action is considered bad (only) if it harms someone else. This moral system addresses moral issues using such terms as harm, rights, injustice, unfairness, and freedom. The ethics of community refers to the social-communal hierarchy and the social strata therein. In this moral system, an action is considered bad if it harms the community or its social hierarchy. The relevant terms in this moral system are loyalty, obligation, honor, and preservation of the community. The ethics of divinity refers to principles of holiness and impurity. This framework considers something bad if it harms the honor of God or an act that symbolizes impurity and desecration. Terms used in this moral system include sin, licentiousness, holiness, harm to the soul, and the like.

Haidt, Schweder’s student, conducted an extensive study based on his mentor’s assumptions, examining the moral sentiments of various groups around the world (he calls these sentiments “moral foundations”). His study revealed that the world generally divides into two kinds of people: Members of traditional/conservative/religious communities, and members of liberal western societies. He characterizes the latter with the acronym WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. He discovered that the moral sentiments of liberal/secular society are substantially different than those of conservative/religious society. While conservative society shares the moral sentiments of liberal society, they also have other moral sentiments, which affect their moral choices.

While conservative society shares the moral sentiments of liberal society, they also have other moral sentiments, which affect their moral choices.

Haidt does not deal with “moral theory” (the philosophical justification of this or that moral principle or position) but instead studied the moral sentiments of human beings: Those sentiments direct people towards conduct he identifies as good and bad. He sees these sentiments as “moral intuitions.” Some of these sentiments can be defined as “conscience,” and another part is expressed in feelings of revulsion and disgust, which we are not used to identifying as moral motivators. According to Haidt, this is also part of our moral system.

Based on the extensive study he conducted, Haidt broke down the moral systems in a more detailed manner, defining six “moral foundations”—six distinct areas in which a person can identify moral injustice:

  • Sentiments of compassion in the face of suffering;
  • Demands of fairness in the face of injustice;
  • Demands for freedom in the face of oppression (these three sentiments, all deriving from the conception of man as an autonomous, rights-bearing individual, are included in Schweder’s “ethics of autonomy”);
  • Sentiments of loyalty, outrage at betrayal;
  • Sentiments of accepting authority contrary to rebellion or revolt (these two sentiments are included in Schweder’s “ethics of community”);
  • Sentiments of holiness that arouses revulsion at impurity (included in Schweder’s “the ethics of divinity”).

These sentiments lead people to view things that reduce suffering and encourage fairness, freedom, loyalty, authority, and holiness as being “good.” The same is true of the contrary: Things that lead to greater suffering and that repress fairness, freedom, loyalty, authority, and holiness will be perceived as “bad.”

As we said, Haidt focuses his work on the differences between conservatism and liberalism. He argues that the moral foundations of liberal society are primarily the first three sentiments: compassion, fairness, and freedom. In other words, the morality of liberal society is founded on an “ethics of autonomy.” By contrast, conservative societies incorporate three added moral foundations: loyalty, authority, and holiness. These societies have a clear presence of both “ethics of community” and “ethics of divinity.”

For our purposes, it is important to underscore two central claims made by Haidt makes. First, he argues that moral foundations can change in accordance with the living arrangements and education of different people. He thus asserts that moral foundations of holiness, loyalty, and authority also exist among people who identify as liberals, yet their sensitivity toward the said sentiments is far weaker. Liberal education stresses fairness alone, thereby dulling moral sensitivity toward the other foundations.

The western movement of secularization over the past two hundred years led to the division between a “moral worldview” and a “religious worldview.” This movement created a distinction in kind between the categories of belief and that of moral imperative. We cannot deny that even we, members of the Charedi community, are affected by this artificial division, which has penetrated the common view to a great extent

The second claim worth mentioning relates to the erasure of the distinction between religious and moral sentiments. Haidt argues that the sentiment felt by religious people toward sin or violation of religious principles is identical to the moral sentiment among liberals (which focuses on fairness). Before the category of secularization was established in moral thought, there was in fact no distinction between the two sentiments, and Haidt shows through his research that the same is true today among non-western societies such as the members of various religions in India. Among these societies, an anti-religious act arouses the same sentiments as that which falls under an “anti-moral” category among westerners. The distinction between religion and morals is therefore fictitious, a consequence of western thinking that tends to reject any morality unrelated to fairness, preferring some moral foundations and rejecting others. This distinction does not exist among non-western religious people. Theft, alongside other acts of harm to others, lies within the same moral status as desecration or disloyalty.

The western movement of secularization over the past two hundred years led to the division between a “moral worldview” and a “religious worldview.” This movement created a distinction in kind between the categories of belief and that of moral imperative. We cannot deny that even we, members of the Charedi community, are affected by this artificial division, which has penetrated the common view to a great extent. However, despite the clear influence of the secularization movement, we still feel powerful sentiments towards certain acts that belong to the dogmatic side of religion. For instance, most religious Jews will feel disgust and revulsion upon seeing somebody eat shrimp—though moral divisions categorize this as a religious issue rather than a moral one. To the same extent, the sentiment that an act of theft awakens in us is a moral sentiment as much as it is a religious one. We believe that all Mitzvos—whether those between man and man or those between man and God—perfect and elevate us. There is little room in this scheme for the artificial division between religion and morality.

 

An Encounter Between Different Moral Values

The reality of daily life involves numerous conflicts between different moral values (or different “foundations” as Haidt puts it). As a Talmudic example, consider a case in which two brothers are married to two sisters, and one brother dies without children. The situation raises a conflict between the value of loyalty and fraternity and the value of holiness. On the one hand, a man is being required to continue the lineage of his deceased brother by marrying his widow—the mitzvah of yibum (levirate marriage): “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family” (Devarim 25:5). On the other hand, the demand that “you shall not take your wife’s sister as a rival wife” (Vayikra 18:18) also stands. When a circumstance raises a conflict between different values, the values must be weighed up in deciding how to act. Of course, education will have great significance on a person’s choice; if he learned from an early age that the most important thing is to be fair and not harm others, he will resolve a dilemma between unfairness and disloyalty in favor of fairness. Haidt’s studies bring many examples of this.

The decision between two different values is not black and white and cannot be decided through precise formulas. When a dilemma hits us personally, our decision will be influenced by the moral intuitions we have developed throughout life, based on lived experience, the education we received, tradition passed down from previous generations and the ins and outs of our private and public history.

Jews faithful to the tradition of Israel grow up with a particular set of moral preferences—intuitions inculcated by means of intense Torah study and by traditional Jewish education as handed down throughout the generations. These intuitions determine that when encountering a choice between conflicting values, the decision will not necessarily be in favor of the more fundamental value

Haidt demonstrates that people with liberal education are convinced that conservatives lack compassion, and accordingly predict their decisions in a range of dilemmas. But research proves them to be sorely wrong; tests showed their predictions to often be entirely erroneous. Haidt explains that the conservative stance does not lack compassion, but rather includes additional moral foundations that serve as a basis for deciding between clashing values. Oftentimes, conservatives will prefer community ethics over autonomous ethics, based on an intuition signaling that uncompromising adherence to principles of justice could destroy the fabric of human society. Under such circumstances, a person with conservative intuitions might choose to maintain the integrity of the community, even if this means contravening principles of justice. People with a liberal bent have difficulty understanding this approach, since their intuition for conservative moral foundations has been dulled. For this reason, they identify conservative choices with lack of compassion.

A similar fallacy exists concerning the Israeli public’s general opinion of Charedi society. Jews faithful to the tradition of Israel grow up with a particular set of moral preferences—intuitions inculcated by means of intense Torah study and by traditional Jewish education as handed down throughout the generations. These intuitions determine that when encountering a choice between conflicting values, the decision will not necessarily be in favor of the more fundamental value.

Circumstances sometimes require us to prefer a value that is less severe at its core. In Talmudic examples similar to the one mentioned above, Jewish law determines that “a positive commandment overrides a negative commandment”—even though the latter (a negative commandment) is far more severe in nature (see Sefer Teshuva, published at the end of Maseches Yoma, and commentary of the Ramban to Shemos 20:8). In other cases, we are duty bound to entirely reject one version of moral behavior in favor of what most people will consider extra-moral constraints. Take the case of pikuach nefesh—saving a life. A state of pikuach nefesh overrides the entire Torah (aside from the three most heinous sins), meaning that a person is duty bound to commit sins of the spirit in order to save a physical life. Should we conclude from here that the physical body is of greater importance than the spirit? Such a conclusion would run contrary to the Sages’ teaching whereby “one who makes him sin is harsher than one who kills him” (Bamidbar Rabba 21:4)—in the balance between body and spirit, the spirit has the upper hand. Nonetheless, the Torah itself obligates us to sin in order to save a physical life, which serves as an ostensibly extra-moral consideration.

Deciding between moral values can be a complex matter. For somebody who grows us with a particular set of moral intuitions, the decision is intuitive and morally upright. For somebody growing us with a different set of intuition, it can appear both contradictory and plainly immoral.

 

The Charedi Community’s Direction in Modern Times

When the State of Israel was established, Charedi society faced a serious dilemma. The openly secular Zionist movement dominated the State and its institutions. It projected a powerful message of Jewish nationalism to world Jewry, alongside its tremendous successes in the military and political realms. Its wave of euphoria and pioneering spirit swept up many of the Jewish People’s finest. As such, Charedi Jewry saw the State as a dire threat to the survival of traditional Judaism. In addition, it needed to continually ward off the spirit of freedom and Enlightenment that had already struck root in the past hundred years, enveloping enormous numbers of European Jewry. This spirit, borne by Zionism too, rejected the moral principles of Judaism, stressing instead the supremacy of other, more universal principles. Charedi society, most of whose members perished in the Holocaust, was tasked with the desperate mission to fight this enormous struggle. To use a term borrowed from halachic discourse, the state of Charedi Jewry since the state’s founding—a state of emergency of sorts—can be defined as pikuach nefesh.

Charedi society faced a hard choice: Should we choose the value of fairness, take part in the security and economic burden of the State fighting for its life, and thus endanger our own existence? Or should we choose separation and isolation, stressing the value of loyalty to the community, and thus ensure our continued existence? Under these circumstances, Charedi society consciously chose to forgo the value of fairness and choose values included in the “ethics of community” category. It preferred the preservation of the community over sharing the burden in a fair and equal way. It saw how unequivocal siding with the values of justice and fairness would lead to internal disaster and risk complete extinction. The strong instincts that traditional Judaism developed over the years left it with no choice but to loosen—at least temporarily—its emphasis on the values of justice and fairness. It preferred complete separation and non-sharing of the enormous and important burden standing before the developing Jewish State.

The strong instincts that traditional Judaism developed over the years left it with no choice but to loosen—at least temporarily—its emphasis on the values of justice and fairness. It preferred complete separation and non-sharing of the enormous and important burden standing before the developing Jewish State

Parts of general society that see Charedi conduct as an embodiment of value corruption and moral indifference are mistaken. This is not a case of moral bankruptcy but rather an informed choice to protect the very existence of a society in the name of preserving tradition and the ember of Judaism, even at the expense of a far-from-simple forgoing of other values, important and central as they might be. This can be compared to various enactments that the Sages made over the generations, which included (to some degree) a degree of suspension of Torah law, when the aim was for the purpose of maintaining the Torah. Thus, the Sages interpreted the verse “a time has come to do for Hashem; they have violated your Torah” to mean that on occasion, the call of the moment to preserve Judaism requires a temporary suspension of an aspect of Torah law.

It’s not clear that the Charedi man on the street would be able to precisely explain his choices, and the choices of members of Charedi society in general. But this matters not. In daily reality, when a man faces a case where there are different considerations to make and he chooses a particular path, he does not have to explain to himself why he chose as he did. The intuitions he developed over the years, born in turn from the intuitions which previous generations developed and handed down (via education and the handing down of tradition), lead him to automatically follow these, especially in time of danger. In times of threat and danger, human intuitions go into “hyperdrive,” and thus the person (usually) chooses the best path. Only in retrospect can he examine these matters coolly and with reasoned judgment.

 

Let Us Search Our Ways and Investigate

Thought initially made under duress, our choices, over time, tend to become habit. We forget the initial duress and take the choice for granted. Ultimately, Frankenstein thus overcomes its master and a decision made in times of pikuach nefesh becomes a “trodden path handed down to us from our sacred Rabbis.” Members of the given community become convinced not only that this is the correct path to follow—it and it alone—but even that this was always the case.

Today, in social circumstances far calmer and more stable than they were during period of Israel’s inception, we need to consider our path and do some internal housecleaning. We need to ask ourselves: Has a way of life reserved for times of danger not become habitual? In times of peace, are we not called to reevaluate how to navigate the same clash of values? The Sages already stated that “hearts follow actions,” and it seems indeed that systematic ignoring of social fairness has created a society in which the sense of fairness atrophies. When a person decides between two contrasting values, even the “right decision,” based on hard logic, will cause a person to feel pangs of conscience. But when the moral sentiment ceases to bother him, this is a clear sign that his internal moral balance has been warped by force of habit.

Today, in social circumstances far calmer and more stable than they were during period of Israel’s inception, we need to consider our path and do some internal housecleaning. We need to ask ourselves: Has a way of life reserved for times of danger not become habitual? In times of peace, are we not called to reevaluate how to navigate the same clash of values?

Today, Charedi society has a clear preference for the values of community over values of fairness. Almost nobody in the community feels uncomfortable with the decision to act unfairly toward general society. Just several years ago we could still hear members of the Charedi community agonizing over this weighty question; today it is common to see ourselves handwaving away these arguments and viewing them as excessive moralism. This flaws not our intellect but our soul; the heart becomes indifferent to moral values. Beyond this, the moral neglect exacts a heavy price in relations between Charedi society and the rest of Israeli society. Moreover, it also costs us in terms of significant internal damage. The great losers are us—members of Charedi society itself.

A clear expression of the harm caused by neglect of fairness values is found in the internal conduct of sub-groups within Charedi society. The enormous growth of the God-fearing public in just several decades led to the formation of diverse Charedi groups. But the power of habit by which we are concerned mainly with “ethics of community” alone has created a norm by which every community sees first and foremost to its own framework and institutions, while neglecting the consideration of fairness to other communities.

We have become accustomed to a social situation in which the value of preserving the community always takes precedence, ending up with endless instances of one community crassly trampling on values of justice and fairness, preferring the needs of its own over fair treatment of others. We are not in a situation of pikuach nefesh. The question of whether a given public plot of land will be designated to one community or to another will not decide the fate of Torah Judaism. And yet, this seems to have become the central consideration, trumping the most basic values of justice and fairness toward other communities.

The claim that communities act unfairly toward one another has been raised over several cycles of election campaigns and political conflicts. In fact, we’ve almost become accustomed to such complaints and accusations, to the degree that we’d be surprised if this wasn’t the case. The state of affairs in which each community sees only to its own needs could ultimately bring about the demise of Charedi society, weakened and battered by internal strife.

In these times, when so much bitterness is felt over the moral behavior of communities toward each other, it seems we need to hold up a mirror before Charedi society and ask: Are we not acting the same way towards general society? And given our general moral compass, how can we complain about inter-community behavior? Perhaps time is now ripe for a rethink concerning the place of basic values of justice and fairness within the entire Charedi public.

In these times, when so much bitterness is felt over the moral behavior of communities toward each other, it seems we need to hold up a mirror before Charedi society and ask: Are we not acting the same way towards general society? And given our general moral compass, how can we complain about inter-community behavior? Perhaps time is now ripe for a rethink concerning the place of basic values of justice and fairness within the entire Charedi public. We all know these values are important; they are among the foundational values of Judaism, concerning which Prophets would rebuke the Jewish People time and again—learn well; seek justice; defend the oppressed; judge for the orphan; fight for the widow. But we must examine the implementation of values, both in the internal Charedi sense and toward general society.

It seems that there is some development in this area within Charedi society. This development in taking place gradually and naturally, in parallel with the continual growth of the Charedi population. But thus far it remains discernable only at the margins of Charedi society, and not in hardcore communities. I hope that raising this issue to the fore, in a conscious and open way will accelerate the process and infuse it with a layer of depth and awareness. Of course, I do not intend in the framework of this article to provide specific advice on this matter; nor do I consider myself worthy or authorized to do so. But if the call comes from within the Charedi community, I am certain that the right people will be found—first and foremost the great Torah luminaries and their direct assistants—who will provide the requisite guidance to reach the path leading to the House of God—a house of moral uprightness, of justice and fairness alongside holiness and community.

 


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10 thoughts on “Are We a Moral Society?

  • Thanks for your insights. I have read some articles by Haidt. The point he made was we tend to disown or reject values that have become associated with the agenda of the other side. I don’t think he is right about conservative values regarding compassion for the poor. Rugged individualism trumps systematic interventions removing obstacles in the way of the poor. For conservatives life begins from conception and ends at birth , universal health care is not a value , not our responsibility to help poor families. The question is why did poor or middle class whites vote for Trump – white nationalism. As you said the Chareidi community is a chief beneficiary of the state and ignoring moral obligations has a price especially today when not every young man is cut out for long time learning. When the situation is described as them and us , chilul or kidush Hashem is no longer relevant . I am not sure that עת לעשות לה’ would apply to chilul or kidush Hashem.

    • Thanks. You proved Haidt’s point about liberals misunderstanding conservatives brilliantly.

  • You are ignoring a basic chareidi viewpoint. Are you blind, or oblivious?
    The chareidi viewpoint has alwas been anti/non zionist. “Defending” the state against people struggling for “one man, one vote” is a burden they shouldn’t have to share. Why should they sacrifice themselves on the altar of zionism? Why do you think israeli corrupt politicians are better than Arab corrupt politicians -or worth dying for?

    • What does this have to do with Zionism? The article is about morality, not about Zionism, and the point is that enjoying benefits of a defense / economy while refusing to contribute, alongside embezzlement (or close to) of public funds is a moral flaw that requires justification. The first issues are not political but deep, social issues. The third might be political but reflects a commonly held perception. And yes, we should expect our politics to be less corrupt or morally bankrupt than the politics of others.

  • Zionism is about protecting the people of Israel, which includes Charedi families.
    Great article, it helps describe how we can bring unity to our branches a little better… bH may we be able to see one another’s viewpoint for good and within the sweep of our history!

  • “The state … It is the association of all its citizens and residents.” – not its not, the state is a monopoly of violence, you seem to conflate the society which is voluntary with the state which coercion.

    “Improper conduct toward the state is therefore improper conduct toward all its citizens.” – No, that is a statist, Authoritarian and maybe even Fascistic idea, the state and its citizens are not the same.

    • In regard of taxes (the concern of the writer) – the state and the the citizens are the same. State property is public property

  • The Chareidi community is not just silent in expressing support of soldiers, but is often hostile to soldiers. A talmid from the US who I know was learning at an elite yeshiva in Yerushalayim and described to me the disdain and jeering, the hostility and denigration of soldiers which goes on amongst the Talmidim. It disgusted him so much he left yeshiva.
    Where is the basic hakorat hatov for a fellow Jew putting their life in danger? And do not tell me if the Zionists had not come the Arabs would not be attacking us, they attacked us before Zionism. So you reject the State, but it is good enough for you to take its money for the Yeshivas. If this attitude continues then eventually someone like Yair Lapid is going to get in power or provide the key seats for a coalition and all the yeshiva funding will be cut. And the Chareidi community will have brought it on themselves with these attitudes.

  • That was a very interesting read. In a sense you valiantly expressed that the charaidi communities deserve the highest form of praise because they have already been fighting as soldiers foregoing much comfort and physical attainment e.g. salaries lost to uphold shabbos, traveling great distances away from home to further their continued education and understanding, to uphold jewish law, sweating while wearing heavy clothing to contribute modesty to the world and so much more from birth to death and since the beginning of time. Ask a secular Jew from refraining to turn on a light on shabbat or a secular women to wear a skirt with coverings on their legs on a 90 degree day and you will have thousands of secular Jews deserting this army because of all the daily discomforts he would have to endure, his entire life. Thank you for the praise.
    However, although you did cover the reality that this recognitions started as a pikuach nefesh situation, you did not cover the first and most important reason the charaidim avoided the army that still holds today, granted, a lot less, thanks to charaidy Rabbies who had to fight for this is the area in which the army of Israel- did not recognize the word of G-d and made it very hard and as I understand and still do to keep halacha while in the army . In return for the crime of not signing up to the army where they were expected to give up their spiritual existence while serving- they punished the deserters by instituting laws that charaidi men were not permitted to pursue employment legally. . What the secular government was asking of them was to not only put their physical life at risk but to put their spiritual existence at risk which they hold is even more important.
    If the government doesn’t like what the charaidim do they should open up their own history books to understand how and why this dilemma started. Maybe both armies can begin to merge if some parties in the government would completely facilitate the needs of the charaidi battalion.
    There is a strong need to start gaining the trust and respect back from the charaidim by firstly recognizing that G-d and his original Torah including the unwritten Torah is the first prerequisite to join the army of the true state of Israel.
    And who says every charaidy cheats on their income tax?

    • Leah – You wrote “the first and most important reason the charaidim avoided the army that still holds today, granted, a lot less, thanks to charaidy Rabbies who had to fight for this is the area in which the army of Israel- did not recognize the word of G-d and made it very hard and as I understand and still do to keep halacha while in the army” – I’m sorry that you believe this to be the case. While nothing is black and white, what you say is simply not true.
      “And who says every charaidy cheats on their income tax?” – It’s a matter of earning money and paying income tax. Again, reality is not black and white but on the average the haredi household income is lower than that of the non haredi, to the point where little, if any, taxes are paid.

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