Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > The Simchat Torah War > Charedi Awakenings of the Gaza War

Charedi Awakenings of the Gaza War

We returned to our homeland, the only one we have, yet we chose to withdraw from the labor of building the Jewish state. Today, as we enter a new phase of much-needed renovation, we are duty-bound to take full responsibility for our home.

Cheshvan 5784, November 2023

Our instinctive tendency upon encountering a range of incidents and occurrences is to strengthen existing positions and frame the events as a reinforcement. For instance, this has been true for decades concerning murderous terror attacks, to which reactions were known in advance: one side blamed weak security policies, while the other side blamed the occupation.

Today, following the unprecedented events that have overtaken us, it seems that the different sectors of Israeli society are going through a process of awakening that has been dubbed “the shattering of preconceptions.” Of course, not everybody is included. Many are declaring that “what was will not be,” and many others shout back that “what was will always be.” I side with and strengthen the former. The months leading up to the terrible pogrom in the south led the country towards a low point to which we must never return. Deep change is required.

Within the context of breaking preconceptions, the book that has accompanied me since the Simchat Torah calamity is Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtel’s unique work, Eim Habanim Semicha. Rabbi Teichtel is a rare example of a person who entirely deviated from the familiar model of strengthening existing prejudices. Up against the unspeakable horrors of the Shoa, he made a 180-degree about-turn from his previous position.

In this piece, which will focus on the “Charedi conception”—one of several that are challenged by the Simchat Torah massacre and its aftermath—I will draw inspiration from the aforementioned book, both in the transformation itself and in the core messages.


The Burden of the Spirit

Rabbi Teichtel was a distinguished Torah scholar, Dayan, teacher, and author of important books who lived and worked in Hungary and Slovakia in the first half of the 20th century. He grew up in the Torah academy of Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira zt”l, the Rebbe of Munkatch, and, true to his environment, he adopted harshly anti-Zionist views. In the wake of the Holocaust, he became occupied with matters of Jewish exile and redemption and changed his mind regarding Zionism and immigration to the Land of Israel. In his Eim Habanim Semeicha, which was written under impossible conditions and published in 1943, he lays out his doctrine concerning the obligation to make Aliyah to Israel (then mandate Palestine), claiming that the troubles of the Holocaust constitute a Divine instruction to leave Europe and immigrate to the Promised Land.

Throughout the book, Rabbi Teichtel urges his Orthodox readers to join the movement for the settlement of the Land. By so doing, he argues, the entire movement will be elevated within a framework of holiness and a connection to Hashem. He expresses bewilderment—”this I cannot understand”—over rabbis who believed that we must not participate with the Zionists because “it is better that we leave the Land in their hands, allowing them to do with it as they desire, than that we participate with them with our hands and spirit.” He explains that even in the Aliyah of Ezra the Scribe from Babylon, the refusal of many to ascend caused the redemption to be incomplete, “and had they ascended a great holiness and purity would have appeared among the Jewish People, even the worst of the nation would become righteous, and all would be rectified.” In the same vein, “all this is true of our own time, for if the entire people would join the process, the holiness of the land will be perfect.”

Tragically, many would not or could not heed his cry, and Rabbi Teichtel, too, was murdered by the Nazis in 1944. Yet, Europe was, indeed, emptied of its huge Jewish population, and our national center of mass relocated to Israel. Nonetheless, we are still far from achieving the goal that Rabbi Teichtel charted.

The State of Israel rose and prospered, but it did so without the significant involvement of Charedi Judaism. As Yated Neeman articles testify time and again, Charedi Judaism is not a partner in the running of the state, and “all we are allowed to do is to take up positions that can rescue from the lion and the bear […] in procuring the needs of the community of the faithful and guarding the holiness of Israel.” On one occasion, Yated Neeman even published similar statements about the Chief Rabbinate: “The only defense for the Chief Rabbinate is to save what is possible from the state.” Elsewhere, an editorial noted that Charedi political activity stops at “lobbying [shtadlanus] alone, the way Jews have operated throughout the generations in standing before the nations of the world and the outspoken haters of Israel […] Moreover, our current situation is no better than exile among the nations.”

We left Europe and returned to our homeland, following the track that Rabbi Teichtel outlined. Yet, Charedi Judaism refused to take an active part in the administration of the state, its branches, and institutions. Although we might not be in exile among the nations, we remain in “exile among Jews.” When the Shinuy party sought to curb the power and funding of Charedi institutions, Yisrael Spiegel (editor of Yated Neeman) wrote that “perhaps this mischance fell upon us because we forgot a little, in the heat of the moment, that we have not yet come out of exile. Indeed, we are still deeply immersed in it, and the present version of “exile among Jews,” which can distract us from our exilic consciousness, is the gravest of all. It is astounding that one can dwell here in Israel and yearn for better exiles of the past.

In the early days of Charedi Judaism in Israel, there was an urgent need to build an internal world of Torah and religious devotion. All energies were thus invested in building synagogues, yeshiva institutions, communities, Chassidic courts, religious services of all kinds, educational institutions, and even designated neighborhoods and cities. “We” were occupied with our domain of Torah and religion, and “they” with the state and its core institutions. However, it is implausible that Hashem brought us back to our homeland so that we could replicate our diaspora life upon the Land. Over time, given the enormous growth in demographics, political power, and self-confidence in the Torah way of life, it becomes our duty to take deep responsibility for what surrounds us: for the Jewish people and for its political expression—the Jewish State. We are not here to “rescue” money from others but to establish a society and state whose essence and everyday function are Jewish.

As Rabbi Teichtel emphasizes, the demand for full partnership is not merely because the absence thereof has become a Chillul Hashem and dishonor of the Torah but also (and above all) because only thus can we bring the extensive activities of Israel into a framework of a connection with Hashem. Refraining from this is a perpetuation of exile, our national exile that is also an exile of the Torah. Fateful questions arise at any given time, and especially these days: how to fight against an enemy that uses civilians as human shields, which areas must be evacuated due to danger, what is the right balance between the imperative to rescue hostages and defeating the enemy, how government offices should function on Shabbos and holidays, and so on. Our lack of involvement ensures that the Torah voice we must proudly sound remains silent.

I am not blind to the complexities of the task. We are used to “playing it safe” by means of an isolationist model, and partnership with the state will require a reevaluation of its boundaries. Yet, our boundaries are already deeply challenged, and it’s up to us to take an ostensible weakness and turn it into an opportunity.

As far as this issue is concerned, it seems that the Simchat Torah War may be a turning point.


The Jewish Awakening

The Shoa taught us that we have no place in Europe. Our place is upon our Land. The Simchat Torah calamity teaches us that arriving and dwelling in the Land is not enough. We must complete the labor of establishing the Jewish state, and this task rests on everybody’s shoulders. Including ours. The Shoa took the Jews out of Europe. Now, we need to extricate Europe from the Jews.

As many have noted, the disaster of Simchat Torah involves an over-adoption of foreign values, sometimes referred to as values of liberal humanism. The popular notion that there are really no “good and bad people,” only human beings who respond to incentives and interests that can be traded, collapsed with the devastation that struck us.

Aharon Barak’s well-known statement in prohibiting torture, whereby a democratic state must fight “with one of its hands tied behind its back” (but the recognition of individual freedoms “strengthen its spirit and strength and enables it to overcome adversity”), crashed against a wall saturated with Jewish blood. “The fear that our verdict will prevent us from effectively handling concerns us,” Barak wrote. The realization of his fear should teach us something profound about the character of the State of Israel and our role in shaping this character.

And behold, the Jewish people are awakening. “I was brought up that the kibbutz is the safest place and all our neighbors want peace,” wrote Chen Maanit from Kibbutz Be’eri in Haaretz. “Something deep inside me is broken. […] Our educators and parents taught us that all of our Arab neighbors want to live with us in peace and that Israel is almost exclusively to blame for the conflict with the Palestinians. The Hamas invasion shattered this illusion among many of the leftists in the kibbutzim.” “We all thought 1973 was the year in which our greatest conceptions as Israelis were shattered,” wrote Lilach Volach in the same newspaper. “But nothing prepared us for the way our most closely held present-day beliefs about our safety and strength would come down crashing 50 years later, with Hamas’ border assault on October 7.” Yes, the Israeli left has also realized that it is no longer part of the enlightened liberalism that continued to support the Palestinian struggle even as our infants were slaughtered.

Moreover, these are days of a multifaceted national-Jewish awakening. One of the symbols of this war will undoubtedly be the tzitzit garment, which was requested by tens of thousands of soldiers, and not necessarily the religious among them. While public army prayers were censured in the past, moving scenes of soldiers praying on the threshold of the Gaza Strip have become commonplace. “Even if the Jews of the country began to follow a life of indulgence and luxury,” wrote the Arab-Israeli writer Mahmoud Abu Rajab, “this pogrom woke them up from their slumber and false delusions of peace with Hamas. […] This spirit of Zionism began to pulsate in them anew after many Jews had abandoned it.” Author and journalist Omer Barak posted that “as part of my reckoning and beliefs I once held and today think differently, three words come to mind that I had previously refused to say: I am Jewish.”

From our point of view, as Chevron Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi David Cohen said (in an interview he gave shortly after Simchat Torah), the message must be directed inward. If Israel has become too much like Europe, it is because we abandoned the arena. Like Noach, who failed to act to save his generation and bore partial liability for the flood (the Sages state that for this reason, the flood is called “Noach’s waters”), so have we evaded responsibility. Several rabbinic figures have emphasized that the message of the disaster (and the IDF’s failure to defend citizens) is that “we have no one to trust but our Father in Heaven.” But this cannot be the only message. Along with relying on Divine compassion and an understanding that “when I am to myself, what am I?” we must also internalize that “if I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

Like Avraham Avinu, who fought against mighty kings because he trusted Hashem, our own hope and hope in the Creator should inspire us to stand and fight against the evil of our enemies. So sang King David: “Blessed be Hashem, my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle. He is my loving God and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues peoples under me” (Tehillim Chap. 144). Hashem, indeed, is our strength and our fortress, but this does not mean that we should sit idly by. King David recognizes human frailty—”what is mankind that you care for, humanity that you consider”—yet he is strengthened by his trust in God, who gives him power and might. Only from here, from his trust in Hashem, does he draw the strength to fight his enemies.

In this, we are the offspring of Avraham. Unlike Noach, whose weakness of faith drove him to withdraw from the world, Avraham’s perfect trust in Hashem instilled within him the courage to fight evil and give full expression to Divine goodness. We, too, are in the process of moving from our own Noach’s ark To Avraham’s earthly labor. This is the path the disciples of the Vilna Gaon followed, hearing “the voice of the turtledove in our land” and working to reestablish the Jewish settlement in Jerusalem. Today, it is our turn to continue their journey.


Renovation of the Jewish home

Since the terrible day of Simchat Torah, we have witnessed an extraordinary mobilization of Charedi Judaism for the war against our enemy. This mobilization is evident, first and foremost, in the army itself: thousands of Netzah Yehuda soldiers, both in regular and reserve army units, fighting fiercely for the defense of Israel. It is evident in the heroic work, no less, of Zaka volunteers, members of the military rabbinate, and all those who stepped up to handle the unimaginable task of identifying victims and bringing them to burial. It is evident in the voluntary activity of much of the Charedi public for the sake of soldiers, seeking to supply food, equipment, and entertainment to multiple bases and assisting thousands of displaced families from the South and the North. And it is evident in the early return to Torah study in multiple Yeshiva institutions, at which Torah study continues with special for the benefit of the collective campaign.

Moreover, it is evident in thousands of Charedim over the age of 26 (and therefore exempt from military service) who have approached the recruiting office and asked to enlist as a part of the war effort. The impact of the sheer presence of hundreds and potentially thousands of uniformed Charedi soldiers in Charedi neighborhoods cannot be understated. After years of neglect, many are suddenly quoting Rav Shach’s statement that those who are not engaged in full-time Torah study must enlist in the army, and failure to do so undermines the Yeshiva world. Charedi Rabbis have paid visits to IDF bases to encourage our soldiers, and others recorded warm greetings for them. Even the CEO of Kupat Ha’Ir, the largest Bnei Brak charity fund and a symbol of the Charedi mainstream, visited Netzah Yehuda bases and made a significant donation towards soldiers’ needs. In an unprecedented move for a mainstream Charedi group, the Belzer Rebbe gave the instruction to recite the Chief Rabbinate’s prayer for the soldiers. Our soldiers.

It is hard not to be moved by these phenomena. Certainly, major reforms are required so that Charedim, thousands of youth who are not engaged in full-time Torah study, can be effectively integrated into the army. Along with the military arena, there is a need for rabbis to join with people in the field and consider what Charedi partnership with Israel—a partnership that doesn’t undermine the core values of Charedi life—actually looks like. For now, in a time of war, we must draw strength and encouragement from this new spirit that sees us, those who are charedim lidvar Hashem, as part of the Jewish-national awakening and partners in the collective mission. We must mourn the fallen, cry over the terrible losses of Shabbat Simchat Torah, and strengthen the awakening that we have all experienced.

Following the Holocaust, we left Europe and moved into our own home. The home, the only one we have, is in need of major renovation. We need to take our part in it.


Photo: Charedi soldiers (Stage II) complete their basic training.

6 thoughts on “Charedi Awakenings of the Gaza War

  • “we have no one to trust but our Father in Heaven.” But this cannot be the only message.
    Actually I think it could be if properly interpreted. It’s not a cry of despair but a realization that if we do what our Father in Heaven asks, then it will all be OK (much like a roller coaster-just keep your hands and legs inside the ride at all times). What you are suggesting is that we do our hishtadlut in the natural worls, which I think many believe to be exactly what our Father in Heaven wants (but if the einei haeida disagree?)
    Hashem Oz Lamo Yiten Hashem Yvarech Et Amo Bashalom
    יְֽקֹוָ֗ק עֹ֖ז לְעַמּ֣וֹ יִתֵּ֑ן יְקֹוָ֓ק׀ יְבָרֵ֖ךְ אֶת־עַמּ֣וֹ בַשָּׁלֽוֹם:

  • Are there enough leaders yet who are tuned into this reality and are ready to push hard in the right direction? Not looking for their peers’ approval all the time? Not worrying about their stand’s effect on shiduchim?

  • Your analysis in quite cogent, and on point in many respects. Where it falls short, and is even demeaning to the Charedi world, is your insistence on using Rabbi Teichtel’s position as an a-priory fundament to be followed. Moreover, it undermines your main points, at least as far as the mainstream Charedi world -who would otherwise be receptive to it.
    I have his sefer, but nonetheless, my first reaction upon reading your opening paragraph was to skip the rest.
    I decided to read it, as I have appreciated and been receptive to other commentary of yours in the past. I found your analysis to be a compelling argument. but i am at a loss to understand why you need Rabbi Teichtel to bolster your case. Additionally, as someone who does follow Daas Torah, (however you define it) making the case that all the gedolim who didn’t agree with Rabbi Teichtel were incorrect, is an insult to them, and only weakens your case.

    • Thank you for the comment, but I don’t see what can be demeaning about citing Em Habanim Semeicha. Moreover, I am not even claiming that his critique of his Charedi peers is right – I think such judgment is not for us, and we don’t have the perspective of eighty years ago. However, I think that the book provides a wonderful springboard into thinking about the current moment, and that his insight of eighty years ago, irrespective of the blame issue (which I do not get into), is very relevant for today.
      Best wishes and may we know besoros tovos.

  • I would think that logic tells us that Gdolim erred in the resultant genocide that may have been mitigated had more of their followers escaped to Israel instead of being exterminated…
    But a more important point I wish to make is the following:
    Preceding Simchat Torah, the vicious divide, which undoubtedly contributed to the tragic gzar din grom above had multiple contributors. There was great anti religious sentiment, which culminated in violence at minyamin in Dizingoff on Yom Kippur. I knew then, that something ominous was due to come. And when it came so many people saw it is a direct punishment for our division and hatred.
    But all along, while the haredi politicians pushed to pass a law awarding all yeshiva students with stipends equal to those awarded to combat soldiers whose lives are placed at risk, they were adding fuel to the flames of hatred. If you represent Torah, you need to sanctify God’s name, not the opposite.
    Also if you believe that s righteous Jew is divinely protected at war ss opposed to a shabbat violator, would you not prefer to see righteous boys fight Israel’s battles?
    I know the haredi community volunteered a lot during this period, but it does not come close to the sons in Gaza, some of who hadn’t showered in many weeks, suffer from the cold, and see some of their fellow soldier fall as they continue to fight.
    Also before this war, the army actually believed that technology allowed for a small army. Now we know better. If the army was once happy to do without the haredi sector, they no longer can, as army service will need to be extended for all.

    • This is terrible seeing chareidim join the army just for the fact that it’s not our role our tafkid especially in a place that is anti religious Zionist and believes in kochi v’etzem yodi it’s something to be sad about

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