Do Charedi politics in Israel resemble Jewish politics in interwar Poland? Should they?
Some within the Charedi community would likely give a positive answer to both questions. This, for instance, is the firm impression one receives upon reading Avraham Kroizer’s (a senior adviser to former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat) Tzarich Iyun article [Hebrew] on the nature of local Charedi politics. For Kroizer, the exclusive aim of Charedi politics, like that of Jewish politics in Poland, is to promote the internal Charedi interest. Kroizer points out that while this characterization of Charedi politics causes significant tension at the national level, at the local level (his expertise is Jerusalem) there remains ample room for cooperation in achieving “housekeeping” goals common to all groups.
In a clearly exaggerated statement, he proceeds to write that even if Haredim would become the majority group in Israel, their political modus operandi would not shift, focusing on “the internal interests of Charedi society.” This might be hyperbole, but the underlying premise is clear: Charedi society is by definition a minority group, looking out for itself rather than for the majority. Even as a majority, its politics will continue to be sectarian. Or as then health minister MK Yaakov Litzman stated in a 2016 interview, “there will never be a Haredi prime minister,” and “Charedim will never be the majority in Israel.” For Litzman, like for Kroizer, this is axiomatically the case; sectarian, minority identity is encoded into the community DNA.
In my opinion, our attitude toward politics in the State of Israel, as Jews in general and as Charedim in particular, ought to be, and thankfully is, very different from that of interwar Poland
I strongly disagree with this approach. In my opinion, our attitude toward politics in the State of Israel, as Jews in general and as Charedim in particular, ought to be, and thankfully is, very different from that of interwar Poland. On the “is” side, I will argue that notwithstanding occasional rhetoric, Charedi representatives in the Knesset do not function in such a limited, sectarian capacity. On the “ought” side, moreover, I will claim that perpetuating the “eternal minority” doctrine places us in a condition of profound moral distortion. Added to these, I will touch on the Torah approach to the question at hand—an issue that requires an article in itself, and will only be addressed briefly herein.
I should note that I do not dispute everything entailed in the approach I am critiquing. With respect to the common Charedi attitude, I recognize that political activity as self-preservation is a commonly held view. I am also ready to acknowledge that the primary loyalty of Charedi representation must be to its voters—the Charedi public. Yet, precisely because of these truths, I believe there is a need to articulate and clarify my dissenting position.
Reality: Poland vs. Israel
Does our present-day reality support the claim that Charedi political activity is exclusively directed at protecting Charedi society’s interests? A closer look at the landscape suggests that the answer is a resounding “no.” In practice, Charedi political efforts extend far beyond the preservation of sectarian independence and securing its community needs. True, this may be its primary mission. Elected representatives see themselves as duty-bound to advocate for the needs of their constituents, which in the Charedi case means preserving Charedi autonomy in education and communal life and procuring financial support of relevant community institutions. Nevertheless, the pursuit of these aims is only part of the picture.
For one, the Charedi public considers itself the gatekeeper of Israel’s Judaism and Jewish character. For example, the ongoing controversy surrounding train maintenance work performed on Shabbos, which in September 2018 rocked the government’s stability, was merely a repeat of the August 1999 “turbine affair.” At that time, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak decided not to capitulate to Charedi demands that the turbines not be transported on Shabbos. A year later, Barak paid for his refusal with the collapse of his Knesset coalition government. Charedi politicians have also weighed in on other Shabbos issues quite unrelated to internal Charedi life, such as when to hold soccer games, the matter of public transportation, the “Grocery Stores Law,” and others. Litzman even quipped that if he cannot protect the sanctity of Shabbos, then “I have no reason to be in [government].”
Charedi political involvement is manifest in several additional areas: kashrus arrangements, disruption of graves, defining “Who is a Jew” for purposes of the Law of Return, the conversion issue, public Chametz on Pesach, the authority of the Rabbinic courts, and issues surrounding marriage and divorce. These are all public issues that barely affect the Charedi community internally. Historically, the Religious Zionist Party (Mafdal) saw itself and acted as the gatekeeper of religious affairs in the state; today, it seems the “official kippa” of the state is very much a black one.
In other words, in both matter of religion and those not necessarily related thereto, Charedi representatives labor as part of their Knesset portfolio on behalf the state and all its citizens. This should hardly be considered earth-shattering news
As elected members of the Knesset, Charedi representatives are also involved in issues unrelated to Charedi society or even religion. As health minister, Yaakov Litzman must of course engage in issues of larger public interest; indeed, his worldview informs which topics he chooses to focus on, including matters of medical cannabis, waiting times for an MRI scan, or an extensive reform of the dentistry industry. It is not for naught that the cover of Calcalist’s supplement on January 14, 2016, showed a large picture of Litzman accompanied by the caption “Chilonim (secular Jews), who really looks after you?” In other spheres, MK Moshe Gafni has been deeply involved in environmental legislation (Gafni was ranked no. 1 as a “defender of the environment” by environmental protection groups), MK Yisrael Eichler has worked to strengthen Knesset governance, and Shas has maintained an extensive social agenda as part of their platform for many years.
In other words, whether in matters of religion or those unrelated thereto, Charedi representatives labor as part of their Knesset portfolio on behalf of the state and all its citizens. This should hardly be considered earth-shattering news. As a large portion of the state’s population, the fate of Israel’s Charedi residents is tied to that of the rest of the country. When it comes to such large segments of the state, and given Charedi society’s deepening involvement in many public institutions, the boundaries of sectarianism necessarily thin out. Charedim, too, are citizens of the state, and in these examples, alongside many others, Charedi politicians function no differently than any other elected representatives.
This is not to say that Charedi representatives do not view state interests through the prism of their voters’ worldview; they do, just as other politicians incline to do. Their primary interest is, indeed, internal. Litzman, as housing minister, focused his activity on Haredi housing projects, and even as health minister he was ever on the lookout for the interests of Charedim generally and Ger Chassidim specifically. Charedi society has not adopted the concept of civic duty as understood in Western democracies, which of course impacts the nature of Charedi politics. However, it does not negate the fact that Charedim feel a deep responsibility, in their own way, for Israel.
Some argue that we are still in exile and that this fact should relegate Charedi political activity to the pursuit of narrow self-interest alone. Adherence to “diaspora” rhetoric justifies the Charedi habit of refraining from political involvement in religiously or socially sensitive issues, and it reflects the doctrine of disengagement from worldly affairs that stands at the core of the Charedi ethos
Some argue that our continued exilic status should relegate Charedi political activity to the pursuit of narrow self-interest alone. Adherence to “diaspora” rhetoric justifies the Charedi habit of refraining from political involvement in religiously or socially sensitive issues, and it reflects the doctrine of disengagement from worldly affairs that stands at the core of the Charedi ethos.
However, empirical reality demonstrates that the question over the exilic or redemptive nature of modern Israel is not the determining factor of Charedi political involvement (aside from those groups who refuse outright to participate in the Israeli political system). Leaving aside the messianic hope of a perfect Torah society, the Charedi public is party, even today, to the Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Extensive involvement of Charedi elected representatives in every aspect of politics and governance, above and beyond the expected intervention in religious matters, points to a great distance between Jerusalem and Poland.
Machiavelli in Jerusalem?
Niccolo Machiavelli was known as the man who separated morality from politics. According to Machiavelli, Christian morals, represented by the duty to “turn the other cheek,” cannot serve as a handbook for the political battlefield. Many have argued that Christianity leads humanity to wars. Machiavelli argued the opposite. Not only does religion not cause wars; it encourages people to flee from conflict, dooming societies to weakness and preparing them to conquer only the World to Come. Conquest of the earthly present must be left to others.
Machiavelli’s claims were directed primarily at the religious morals of his Christian milieu. By contrast, it seems that Jewish morals are not subject to the same arguments. In the Christian (primarily Catholic) moral vision, the human and the earthly are often depressed. The ultimate role model is the monk, entirely detached from the world, who neither weds nor owns earthly possessions. By contrast, Judaism generally accepts humanity and its world as a given; it seeks not to negate them, but to rectify and elevate them to a level of holiness and sanctity. Where Christian morals might identify the monk as the ideal human archetype, the Torah (based on Talmudic interpretation) classifies him as a sinner, for he refrains from indulging in God-given gifts. Even the more moderate version of monasticism—the Torah nazir who abstains from wine alone—is deemed a sinner. Separating from the world, even for the lofty purpose of self-restraint, is a departure from the ideal.
Consistent with the ethos of detachment from the world, including a distance from human intuition and an earthly sense of justice, Christian morality also advocates an extreme universalism, demanding that people love even their enemies. But Jewish morals dictate that when you need to choose between your life and your friend’s life, your own life takes precedence. Even the commandment “Love your fellow as yourself,” which Rabbi Akiva claimed is “a major principle of the Torah,” is predicated on self-love and limits its extension to “your fellow.”
To generalize, Jewish morality is real and earthly, accepting humanity as is and seeking to sublimate and elevate our character and deeds. From the outset, it forgoes the aesthetic beauty of universal unity, a utopian ambition that does not comport with human experience, in favor of the functional pragmatism of moral life. While the Christian directs his vision toward the afterlife, the Jew strives to excel here and now. The deeply conflicting birth stories of Jesus and Moses serve as a good illustration of this disparity: one is entirely supernatural; the other is utterly human.
Machiavelli correctly concluded that politics is necessarily separate from religion; yet his reference point was specifically the Christian religion, whose morals demand we transcend the normal human condition. In Judaism, the opposite is the case
This presentation is admittedly simplistic, lacking the nuance that a more thorough treatment could allow. For our purposes, it serves as a sufficient introduction for understanding how attitudes towards politics are a central consequence of divergent moral dispositions. Machiavelli correctly concluded that politics is necessarily separate from religion; yet his reference point was specifically the Christian religion, whose morals demand we transcend the normal human condition. In Judaism, the opposite is the case. Halacha spans rules that govern how one wakes up in the morning and those for kings and their wars, discussions regarding salting of meat alongside rules for city notables and procedures of local elections. Jewish morals thus cover all areas of life. Its legal system does not retreat from human life but rather seeks to address and improve the human condition to the extent possible.
This distinction between Judaism and Christianity is an important factor in understanding the role of “Charedi politics” at the moral level. The political arena is by no means private; as a public sphere, it has its own rules and its own internal moral logic. But as Charedim who proudly wield the banner of an authentic Jewish ethos, we are duty-bound to adhere to the principles of Torah morals: “You shall keep far away from lies;” “You shall do the just and the good.” We must cling to those ethics and morals by which we would want others to treat us: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend.” Charedi values—the gentleness of soul and nobility of spirit we expect of bnei Torah—must be expressed, with appropriate adjustments, in public-sphere activity.
Alongside the legitimate concern for the particular interests of voters, Charedi representatives must look after the good of all Israeli citizens. Failing to do so would render those politicians morally corrupt and all Charedim as freeloaders
Based on this moral imperative, the premise whereby the exclusive aim of Charedi representatives is to secure their community’s rights and services seems untenable. Such an attitude, which stresses civilian rights (“we deserve”) while ignoring concomitant civic responsibilities, is morally outrageous. We all consider somebody who benefits from the services of a local synagogue but fails to pay membership dues, or who benefits from the clean common areas of an apartment building while refusing to pay for its upkeep, as being morally flawed. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, for those who benefit from the country’s political opportunities but do not engage in its betterment. Alongside the legitimate concern for the particular interests of voters, Charedi representatives must look after the good of all Israeli citizens. Failing to do so would render those politicians morally corrupt and all Charedim as freeloaders.
We are very far indeed from interwar Poland. The moral imperative laid at our doorstep a far cry from that of several generations ago. Even when it comes to the non-Jewish nations, whose status is codified in Torah law, we find several halachic rulings suggesting our attitude should change with shifts in their character and custom. For instance, many have argued that laws laid down by the Sages regulating theft or loan expropriation from Gentiles do not apply today. Rabbi Moshe Ravkes comments (in his Be’er HaGolah glosses on the Shulchan Aruch) that today one must return a lost object to its non-Jewish owner—in contradistinction with the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch—and concluded by stating that “in their culture, a lost object is returned.” Since the custom of surrounding non-Jews themselves is to return lost objects, and they moreover do not treat us with abuses such as theft and exploitation, our attitude toward them also needs to change.
This is truer still when it comes to the State of Israel, where our neighbors are our very own brothers and sisters, and where Torah Judaism has thrived (with significant State support) at an unprecedented rate. If protecting the community in Poland, a land steeped in antisemitism, required political activism focused exclusively on the interests of the Jewish community, Charedi politics in modern Israel cannot follow the same model. Disputes, no matter how harsh, accompanied by the neverending friction over the new Jewish nationalism and the State founded in its wake, should not cause us to forget this simple fact.
If Charedi representatives wish to uphold the civil rights of the Charedi public—a well-justified goal—then they should also represent the community’s commitment to fulfilling its civic duties. This means that Charedi Knesset representatives must do whatever they can for the benefit and welfare of all the citizens of the state, and gravitate from the them-and-us attitude that has defined Charedi political activity for decades to an us-and-us attitude of working together for the benefit of all. I should note that accepting civic responsibility does not entail dismantling the walls of separation that protect the identity, independence, values, and culture of Charedi society. Yes, these walls cannot, and should not, undermine the premise that if we share rights, then we also share responsibilities.
Charedi acknowledgment of civic duties will not be on secular terms and will take a rather different form than it does for general society. This will be manifest in charged and complex civic issues such as military service, education, employment, and the like. But differences in practical expression thereof notwithstanding, acceptance of shared responsibility needs to have a clear voice in Charedi politics. Disavowing it, and effectively separating personal morals from political ethics, brings glory to neither God nor man.
“On the Good Land”
Several years ago, I was offered a Torah position outside of Israel. Obviously, such an offer needs to be considered seriously, and my wife and I consulted with several rabbis to help guide our decision. One of them, since departed, raised a consideration I had not expected to hear. In addition to musings about the mission, family considerations, and so on, he suggested an additional angle: the difference between a contribution made in the Land of Israel and the work one does outside its boundaries. There is no comparing the two, he said; while spiritual-Torah work abroad is important and necessary, similar work in the Land of Israel is of greater significance.
His comment reminded me of the famous words of the Chasam Sofer, who wrote that agricultural work in the Land of Israel is itself a Torah mitzvah, adding that any other labor that assists in settling the land can be included in this category. The Torah instruction to settle the Land of Israel includes the development thereof in all aspects of human life. This is true with respect to the physical work of the land and the development of its economy and infrastructure; it is also true when it comes to spiritual work—building up Torah life in Israel.
Unlike in Poland, working for the material wellbeing of the Land of Israel fulfills a Torah instruction. At least in the material sense, there can hardly be any work more significant than political activity
It is clear to me that this is true even of political activity. Politics in Poland, and its outcomes, are different in kind from political involvement in Israel. Contributing to the economic prosperity of Poland is not the same as working to secure a durable economy in the State of Israel; nor is infrastructure development in Poland the same as it is in Israel. Unlike in Poland, working for the material wellbeing of the Land of Israel fulfills a Torah instruction. At least in the material sense, there can hardly be any work more significant than political activity. It is a tremendous zechus that ought to plot the contours of political life; I can only hope that our own representatives appreciate it.
Although this conclusion seems simple enough, it requires substantial elaboration, subject to inquiry and investigation into the attitude of Charedi society and halachic authorities to the Torah instruction of settling the land. This is not the place for such an inquiry. I will therefore suffice here by raising the issue; it is certainly an additional and significant reason to distinguish between Poland and Israel.
The Values Question
I have tried to outline above why Charedi politics ought not to adopt a sectarian and defensive posture. I have also argued that on an empirical level, the common assumption about Charedi politics being devoid of civic responsibility does not hold water. There is some tension between the two arguments, but its resolution is that the “is” remains fairly distant from the “ought” I have sketched. Haredi representatives do deal with fateful and central decisions at the national level and are involved in many areas of life in Israel; however, such involvement is often seen as a concession of sorts, and the rebuffing of non-Charedi charges of an ultra-sectarian politics requires much work.
In conclusion, I wish to close with an important note, namely, that political activism reflects our values, and that if we wish to strive for a more robust political engagement, then we also need to sharpen our values—a project that requires no small investment.
Engagement in the political arena, certainly on the non-sectarian level, requires a constant weighing up of competing values such as freedom and responsibility, liberty and duty, compassion and independence, utilitarianism and essentialism, conservatism and progressivism—all these are reflected in daily decisions made by legislative bodies of elected representatives. When it comes to Charedi parliamentary representation, it is sometimes said that the only values are those of Torah, as refracted through the words of the rabbinic leadership—the Gedolim. However, when Charedi politicians work on behalf of the broader population—work that takes place today tacitly and implicitly, if not sufficiently embraced—they do so within the confines of their own worldviews. Even when these matters are brought before the Gedolim, it is clear that “a sage’s question is half an answer,” and that there is no avoiding the biases of previously held values and worldviews.
We have simply not yet formulated a position, or even developed a deep Torah-based or philosophical discussion, on the broad issues that determine governmental and social policy in a wide range of fields
These values need to be thoroughly investigated and understood. First, there is a lack of transparency when it comes to the relevant values held by Charedi representatives, paralleled by a lack of consistency or even coherence. Furthermore, it seems that this phenomenon is but a reflection of the general state of the Charedi public. We have simply not yet formulated a position, or even developed a deep Torah-based discussion, on the broad issues that determine governmental and social policy in a wide range of fields. When the public itself participates in these issues, placing a Torah-based inquiry at the center of its discourse, its representative MKs will learn to speak the language of values and will work toward their implementation in parliamentary activity.
This is indeed a weighty challenge. It involves creating a new contemporary political ethos based on Torah values and tradition and in light of the needs of the moment. But however long the path is, we must set off on it now and not wait for the coming of Mashiach. Who knows? As long as the work is done properly, guided by talmidei chachamim and with clear Torah direction, it may even bring him one step closer.
photo: Jan Feliks Piwarski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons