Do Charedi politics in Israel resemble Charedi politics in interwar Poland? And 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 when reading Avraham Kroizer’s (a senior adviser to former Jerusalem major Nir Barkat) Tzarich Iyun article 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 rightly points out that while this characterization of Charedi politics causes much significant tension on the national arena, at the local level—his discussion focusses on Jerusalem—there remains ample room for cooperation in achieving “housekeeping” goals common to all groups.
In a clear exaggerated statement, Kroizer writes 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 (and currently deputy-health-minister-acting-as-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 identity is encoded into the community’s DNA.
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
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, indeed, is—very different than it was in interwar Poland. I wish to focus on two areas in which this difference is expressed: empirical reality and basic morality. On the empirical side, is it true that Charedi representatives in the Knesset function in such a limited, sectarian capacity? I will argue that this is far from being the case. On the moral side, moreover, I believe that perpetuating the “eternal minority” approach leads us to a state of profound moral distortion. Added to these, I will also touch the core Torah approach to the question at hand—an issue that requires an article in itself, and will only be addressed briefly herein.
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, indeed, is—very different than it was in interwar Poland.
I should note that I do not completely dispute everything entailed in the approach I am critiquing. With respect to the common Charedi attitude, I certainly recognize that political activity as self-preservation is a widespread 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 feel there is a need to articulate and clarify my dissenting position.
Reality: Poland vs. Israel
Does 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 “no.” In practice, Charedi political efforts extend well beyond preservation of sectarian independence and securing its community needs. True, this may (and perhaps should) be its primary mission. As we already noted, elected representatives are duty-bound to advocate for the needs of their constituents; in the case of Charedi politicians these needs largely fall under the umbrella of preserving Charedi autonomy in education and communal life. Nevertheless, pursuit of these aims is only part of the picture.
For one, the Charedi public considers itself the gatekeeper and watchdog of the 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.
Shabbos issues may be the most prominent expressions, certainly in recent times, of Charedi involvement in preserving the country’s Jewish nature. Negotiations over holding soccer games on Shabbos between the government and Charedi representatives underscore the fact that activism regarding Shabbos goes well beyond internal Charedi concerns. To this we might add the matter of public transportation on Shabbos (which concerns exclusively non-Charedi population centers), the “Grocery Stores Law” (likewise), and many other examples. As (the aforementioned) MK Yaakov Litzman recently declared, “Shabbos is dear to us, and my greatest responsibility is to protect it. It is priceless. When protecting Shabbos is in the hands of government, we need to do everything we can to prevent all harm. If I don’t succeed in this matter, I have no reason to be in [government].”
Charedi political involvement is manifest in several additional areas: kashrus arrangements, disruption of graves, setting the dates of Daylight Savings Time, defining “Who is a Jew” and the conversion issue, public Chametz on Pesach, the authority of the Rabbinic courts, and of course the major issues surrounding marriage and divorce. These are all public issues that barely affect the Charedi community internally. Perhaps historically, when the Religious Zionist Party (Mafdal) saw itself and acted as the gatekeeper of religious affairs in the state, Charedi interests diverged even in the religious sphere and had to be represented by Charedi politicians. 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 deeply involved in issues unrelated to Charedi society or even religion. As heath minister Yaakov Litzman must of course engage in issues of larger public interest; indeed, his worldview informs which topics he chooses to focus on, whether it be related to medical cannabis, waiting times for an MRI, 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 along with the headline “Chilonim (secular Jews), who really looks after you?” We area also witness to extensive efforts in a variety of areas. For example, 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, 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 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 authorities and 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 the general interests of the state through the prism of their voters’ worldview; they do, just as other politician incline to do. Naturally, they will do nothing that explicitly conflicts with Charedi interests, and will demonstrate zealous adherence to their mission when a clear Charedi public interest is at stake. However, between the extremes lies a broad range of activity that affects all citizens, including of course Charedim.
Some argue that we are still in exile, and that this fact should relegate Charedi political activity to a more subdued pursuit of narrow interests. 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 we are still in exile, and that this fact should relegate Charedi political activity to a more subdued pursuit of narrow interests. 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 version of Jewish sovereignty restored 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 morals from politics. According to Machiavelli, Christian morals—the moral duty to “turn the other cheek”—cannot serve as the 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 man to flee from conflict, dooming societies to weakness and preparing them to conquer only the World to Come, with no place in the earthly world of the present.
Machiavelli’s arguments were directed at religious morals as he understood them. But Jewish morals are not Christian morals. Christian (primarily Catholic) morals tend to repress the human and the earthly. Its hero is the monk, entirely detached from the world, who neither weds nor owns earthly possessions. By contrast, Judaism accepts humanity and its world as a given, seeking to rectify and elevate them to the degree we can. Where Christian morals might identify the monk as the ideal human archetype, the Torah sees classifies him as a sinner, for he refrains from indulging in God-given gifts. Even the more moderate version of monasticism—the Torah the nazir who abstains from wine alone—is deemed a sin. 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, Christian morality also advocates an extreme universalism, demanding that people love their enemies and give their abuser the other cheek to strike. By contrast, 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 thy fellow as thyself,” which Rabbi Akiva claims is “a major principle of the Torah,” is limited to your “fellow” or “colleague.”
According to Machiavelli, Christian morals—the moral duty to “turn the other cheek”—cannot serve as the handbook for the political battlefield. Many have argued that Christianity leads humanity to wars. Machiavelli argued the opposite
Jewish morality is real and earthly, accepting man as he is and seeking to sublimate and elevate his 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 view towards 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.
Attitudes towards politics are a central consequence of these divergent moral dispositions. Machiavelli correctly concluded that politics is necessarily separate from religion; yet his reference point was of course specifically the Christian religion, whose morals demand that man transcend the normal human condition. In Judaism, the opposite is the case. Halacha includes rules governing how one wakes up in the morning and rules for kings and their wars; discussions regarding proper salting of meat are found (for instance, in R. Moshe Sofer’s Shut Chasam Sofer, a classical work of halacha) alongside rulings that address the conduct of city notables and the procedures of local elections. All of these are included in the framework of the “four cubits of halacha.” Jewish morals 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 carry the banner of an authentic Jewish ethos, we are duty bound to adhere to the basic 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, don’t do to your friend.” Charedi values—the gentleness of soul and nobility of spirit that we expect of bnei Torah—must be expressed, with appropriate adjustments, in public-sphere activity.
Jewish morality is real and earthly, accepting man as he is and seeking to sublimate and elevate his 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
Based on this fundamental 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, the Charedi representatives need to look after the good of all Israeli citizens. Failing to do so would render those politicians as 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 gentile nations, whose status appears codified in Halacha, we find several halachic rulings suggesting that our attitude should change with shifts in the character and custom of surrounding nations. For instance, many have argued that the laws regulating theft or loan expropriation from Gentiles are different today from those laid down by the Sages. 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 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 towards them also needs to change.
We are very far indeed from interwar Poland. The moral imperative laid at our doorstep a far cry from that of several generations ago
This is surely truer still when it comes to the State of Israel, where our neighbors are our very own brothers and sisters. 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 ongoing matter of 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 desire—then they should also represent the community’s commitment to fulfilling its civic obligations. That means that Charedi Knesset representatives must do whatever they can, as indeed some do, for the benefit and welfare of all the citizens of the state. They must challenge the image of the Charedi public as a group demanding rights while avoiding obligations. Clearly, such acknowledgement of responsibility for the State and its citizens will take a rather different form than it does for general society. These differences will be manifest in charged and complex issues such as military service, education, employment, and the like. Accepting civic responsibility does not entail dismantling the walls of separation that protect the identity, independence, values, and culture of Charedi society. But the fundamental premise is that if we share rights, then we also share responsibilities—differences in practical expression thereof notwithstanding. Acceptance of shared responsibility needs to have a clear voice in Charedi politics. Disavowing it, 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 position teaching Torah 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 that I had not expected to hear. In addition to the usual discussions about mission, the position, 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 there is importance and necessity in spiritual-Torah work abroad, similar work in the Land of Israel is of greater significance.
His comment reminded me of the famous words of R. Moshe Sofer, who wrote that agricultural work in the Land of Israel is itself a Torah mitzvah, adding that any other labor which assists in settling the land could be included in this. The Torah instruction to settle the Land of Israel includes the development thereof in all the aspects of human life. This is true with respect to 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.
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, while noting it as an additional and significant reason to distinguish between Poland and Israel.
Summary: The Values Question
In the comments above, I have tried to explain why Charedi politics need not adopt a sectarian and defensive posture. On an empirical level, this common assumption about Charedi politics does not seem to hold water: Haredi representatives deal with fateful and central decisions at the national level and are involved in many areas of civic life. Moreover, I believe that a sectarian approach of exclusive concern for internal Charedi needs is morally indefensible, and that Jewish ethics urge us to abandon such a position. A third point, which is not sufficiently developed, suggested we need to consider the fundamental difference between political activity on behalf of Poland and the same activity in the Land of Israel.
In conclusion, I wish to close with an important note: that political activism ultimately reflects values and value-based decisions.
By its very nature, political activity is comprised of weighing competing values against each other. Values of freedom and responsibility, liberty and duty, compassion and independence, utilitarianism and essentialism, conservatism and progressivism—all these are reflected in daily decisions made by the 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—activity 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
It is the matter of these values that needs to be thoroughly investigated and understood. First, there is no 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 these phenomena are 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 or philosophical 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 and halachic 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 and complex contemporary political ethos based on Torah values and our 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