Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Charedi Isolationism > Are We Separating Ourselves From the Jewish People?

Are We Separating Ourselves From the Jewish People?

Recent weeks have revealed a dangerous trend in our society: detachment from the state can lead to a conscious and emotional disconnect from the entire Jewish people. We must not allow this to continue.

Tevet 5784, December 2023

In his article “Between Isolation and Alienation” [Hebrew], Rabbi Pfeffer describes a troubling phenomenon of indifference to the current plight of the Jewish people among certain segments of the Charedi public. While the majority of the Jewish population in Israel experiences the war very personally, including large parts of Charedi society, there are areas within it where there is a sense of detachment, a “parallel universe,” as Rabbi Pfeffer terms it.

In fact, there is a clear inverse correlation between the level of conservatism of a given sub-community and its degree of emotional solidarity and involvement with the military campaign. It seems that not insignificant groups, particularly among the most religiously conservative factions of Charedi Judaism, view the sense of unity accompanying the war as a danger and distance themselves consciously from emotional solidarity. This point raises many questions and thoughts in my mind.

Can one maintain a deep and uncompromising commitment to the observance of Torah and mitzvos and the Charedi way of life while also fostering deep solidarity with the rest of the Jewish people?

Can one maintain a deep and uncompromising commitment to the observance of Torah and mitzvos and the Charedi way of life while also fostering deep solidarity with the rest of the Jewish people, at the very least in times of distress or crisis? From a very young age, we are taught the importance of shared responsibility and instilled with a profound sense of belonging to the Jewish people. Charedi education teaches us that we are, first and foremost, Jews.

How, then, is it possible for us to feel detached from the Jewish people in times of trouble? Has our emphasis on distancing ourselves from the state and the secular world created the troubling side effect of disconnecting from the Jewish people? If so, what can be done about it? Is it an inevitable cost of the necessity of setting ourselves apart?


When Mean Become the Goal

As we know, isolationism is a fundamental tenet of Charedi strategy vis-à-vis the modern world. The ability to preserve a distinct way of life with a clear purpose within a secular, materialistic world that cherishes individual liberty is maintained by means of this basic strategy. Isolationism is such a crucial element of Charedi life that outsiders might even perceive it as a fundamental principle and a defining characteristic. However, those who have been raised in a Charedi environment know that the most defining purpose of a Charedi Jew is to be a faithful link in the chain of generations of the Jewish people.

Our most basic and profound connection is to the entire Jewish people, not just the narrow Charedi community in which we live

Our most basic and profound connection is to the entire Jewish people, not just the narrow Charedi community in which we live. It is only the abandonment of tradition by most of the Jewish people that has led us to isolate from the broader public and live in an “enclave society” of protected communal frameworks.

Besides the ideologies that chop and change over time as a reaction to Zionism and the Jewish state, Charedi individuals are imbued with ancient, deep, and foundational Jewish values. In times when enemies of Israel rise to annihilate us, a natural emotion of Jewish solidarity awakens deep within. Yet, alongside this natural and fundamental emotion, we are also hearing warning messages lest the sense of unity blur the lines of separation breed a sense of unity that goes one step too far.

For decades, the state has been perceived as the primary threat to Charedi education. Reacting to the danger of secularization, we built shelters, tunnels, bunkers, and underground passages meant to emotionally and practically disconnect us from a sense of partnership with the state and its citizens. We attempted to create an abstract distinction between “Am Yisrael” (the Jewish people) and “Ezrachei Yisrael” (Israeli citizens) – to feel a deep connection with every Jew as part of Am Yisrael, but alienation and estrangement toward the Israeli citizen of the Jewish state.

The war, however, is demonstrating how hard it is to maintain this division in practice, which has created a complex dissonance in the more conservative-leaning parts of our society. The heart feels connected, while the intellect seeks direction and rationalization in maintaining the all-important isolation.

I listened recently to a passionate lecture and conversation delivered by Rabbi Avraham Moshe Kirshenbaum, among the Rashei Yeshiva of Yeshivat Nachlat Leviim, to a group of Beis Yaakov schoolteachers. The central message was the duty of solidarity with all Jewish people of Israel in these times. I was impressed by the effort Rabbi Kirshenbaum made to clarify matters but was amazed by the confusion and confoundment the teachers expressed. How did we forget? How is it that many among us think it’s okay to remain indifferent when our brothers are falling in battle to protect us?

The teachers in the room represent a profound problem: the tension between the isolationist consciousness on which we were raised and the sense of belonging to the Jewish people. In a sense, it is the choice between identifying with the long history of the Jewish people versus identifying with the short and charged history of Charedi opposition to Zionism. To put it bluntly, the sense of solidarity with IDF soldiers currently fighting in Gaza causes some of us to experience internal conflict. Our Jewish instinct makes our hearts leap with every headline, fills us with hope for victory, and imbues us with endless concern for our soldiers on the battlefield. However, our Charedi sensor cannot allow such thoughts to pass unopposed. It whispers that there is something wrong with this feeling of belonging. It raises a deep sense of dissonance.

Our need to place a stop sign to counter the spontaneous feeling of identification with our own people raises concern about the direction the community is heading

I do not mean to belittle the principles upon which Charedi isolationism is founded. The question is whether or not it has gone too far. Our need to place a stop sign to counter the spontaneous feeling of identification with our own people raises concern about the direction the community is heading. It raises the possibility that the isolationist trend has, indeed, gone too far, becoming, in essence, the very kind of problem it aimed to solve.


Navigating Our New Solidarity

This concern intensifies in light of the changes taking place in Israeli society today. This country is no longer characterized by the militant secularism that prevailed in the early days of the state. Those days are long gone when “Do not fear, O Israel, do not fear” served as the anthem of a religious population experiencing discrimination and suppression. Today, that same chorus has become the war anthem of the entire nation.

Our Jewish soul cannot remain indifferent when hearing Shema Yisrael before marching into battle

This small and symbolic change tells a larger story. Videos emerging from the cracks in the separation wall between Charedi society and the rest of Israel depict an army filled with warm Jewish pride and determination. Our Jewish soul cannot remain indifferent when hearing Shema Yisrael before marching into battle. It is very difficult to remain emotionally detached from an army infused with Jewish faith, from a young and orphaned member of Kibbutz Be’eri returning to his burned childhood home to light the twisted Chanukkah menorah that survived the inferno (of two Holocausts).

And precisely today, when the majority of the country, and certainly the fighting army, is imbued with a Jewish-traditional spirit and reconnects with our ancient roots, a renewed call for isolationism is emerging in our Charedi society. Is this not a sign that we are mistaking the means for the end? At times, it feels like isolation has become an involuntary reflex, distancing us from our brothers even when there is no reason to withdraw and separate from them.

Certainly, the situation remains far from rosy. The challenges posed by the secular world are significant, and the state is certainly far from operating within a genuinely Jewish system. The institutions, army, legal system, and politics are distant from a Torah-oriented perspective. However, alongside this lingering distance, there is also much common ground – far more than in the past. To a significant extent, we are the state. The religious and Charedi majority of the current government carries sentiments not adverse to Torah and mitzvot. Quite the opposite. However, our instinct of separatism does not distinguish between friend and foe. We isolate ourselves as if anyone who is not Charedi is an enemy of Judaism and wishes us harm.

The fear of blurring of boundaries is understandable. If the sense of solidarity with the general public strengthens, our educational system may lose its autonomy. I understand the Rashei Yeshiva and educators who feel the need to emphasize the dangers of identifying with the state. Ultimately, the state is still a secular entity, and continues to pose a threat that could engulf us under the rod of its authority. However, I believe it is possible (and imperative) to distinguish between a governmental apparatus that doesn’t align with Torah values and a deep sense of solidarity and partnership with the Jewish people in times of trouble. The Israeli public’s inclination toward Jewish tradition should prompt us to consider (or reconsider) when and how to raise the walls rather than embrace them rigidly with uncompromising religious commitment.

Certainly, finding the right way to do this is not a simple task. It is the leadership’s responsibility to take the initiative and provide clear guidance when needed. The problem is that, in my opinion, there hasn’t been real leadership that directs the ship of the Charedi public for years. It seems that we operate on autopilot. Reality drives social processes without any steering hand attempting to navigate them. The Coronavirus epidemic, the Meron disaster, the Chaim Walder affair, and now the Simchas Torah war – these dramatic events have affected us in recent years without any voice of clear leadership. Significant processes have emerged in the Charedi field without a directing hard. Inertia and instinct are the forces at play, rather than a leadership attempting to rethink the path in light of seismic events and changes. The building blocks of Charedi society – preserving educational autonomy, social isolation, and political partisanship – now appear as independent forces acting without differentiated responses in the face of changing reality.

The vacuum will not remain empty. Something always fills the void. If Charedi leadership does not present relevant answers to pressing issues, the vacuum will be filled, and not always in a balanced and controlled manner.


6 thoughts on “Are We Separating Ourselves From the Jewish People?

  • It is fascinating how in the American galut virtually every rabbinical school, regardless of denomination (with the exception of YU) produces rabbis who are at best indifferent to Zionism and the Jewish State, and more often – hostile to it. So, yes, in a horrifying way there is achdut among the denominations, just consider today’s rabbinical products of:

    In Israel this hostility is true just of haredi yeshivot. But then, it certainly seems as if they are living in an imported galut of their own.

  • “There hasn’t been real leadership”, “without any voice of clear leadership”. This sounds like an indictment of the Gedolei Yisroel revered by the Charedi public. Living as I do outside of Eretz Yisroel I cannot comment on this. But it seems to me that the writer of the article, and Rabbi Pfeffer, are obliged to clarify their positions on this.

    • Should we be davening for soldiers? Should we participate in various operations for their benefit? Should we attend funerals and make Shiva visits? What’s our vision for the future of Israel and our part within it? Do I need to go on? Yes, there is no leadership in the Charedi space, nobody giving answers. We revere our Torah Gedolim, but we don’t see them as leaders, and neither do they. The era of Rav Shach is long gone. (Perhaps the exception is Rav Landau, but his approach is so extreme – don’t forget he came out against Rav Shach – that it cannot be the accepted line, though other leading figures won’t speak out against him.) So what we have is that each Rosh Yeshiva says his own thing. Ask any thinking Charedi in EY and he’ll confirm this.

    • The “leadership” situation is well-reflected by the Charedi Knesset members, who almost always bring rabbinic voices to the public arena (as they did during the Covid-19 crisis). In the case of the war, they have been totally silent. Not a word. This is understandable, given the sensitivity of Charedi non-service in times of war. However, it leaves Charedi society in a state of confusion and confoundment. When you speak with Haredi individuals in Shuls and streets, the lack of leadership is abundantly clear.

      Without mentioning names, everybody knows that different leading rabbinic figures have different opinions on our approach to the war/soldiers/Israel. Still, they just won’t say it publicly, leaving the public alone to deal with the hugely conflicting approaches of R’ Bunim Schreiber (“we have no connection with them”) on the one hand and R’ Pinchas Goldwasser (“we are all brothers”), and the many practical questions that hinge on them. You choose.

      An example of this is the confusion in the US over the Washington rally and the unfortunately botched Agudah approach. It’s the same in Israel, just magnified several times over.

      I don’t think there’s room for “blame” here. It’s just a transition to a different leadership model that allows other figures (not conventional “Gedolim”) to enter the arena. Charedi media characters tend to fill the void, but other, more Torah-oriented figures are also stepping up to take responsibility. Time will tell how this plays out in the broader sense.

  • This is an excellent article. It is written with great care and shows the complexity of the problem.
    I am waiting from the Gedolim to say like the brothers of Joseph : we are guilty אנחנו אשמים

  • It’s human nature to view all new events and situations according to our pre-existing point of view. In science, theories that don’t fit the facts need updating or replacement, although inertia and vested interests can hold change back.

    An Israeli Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Dan Shechtman, spoke about his struggle here:

    One of his US champions, Dr. John Werner Cahn, spoke on the nature of science here:

    But Torah differs! Torah applies eternally., and needs no revision. only proper, timely, well-focused application.
    Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch Z”TL found effective ways to apply eternal Torah to changed social circumstances. Do we have leaders like that? Will they step forward against opposition?

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