Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Independence in Black and White: On Charedim and Jewish Nationalism

Independence in Black and White: On Charedim and Jewish Nationalism

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Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer Editor-in-Chief, "Tzarich Iyun"

For decades, Charedi society denied the significance of the State of Israel and advocated isolationism. And it still does. Yet, recent times have brought about new trends, both in Charedi society and in Israeli, non-Charedi society, that herald significant change. This change is replete with both challenge and opportunity.

Elul 5778, August 2018

The Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv handed a proposal to our holy Rabbi the Hazon Ish to allow marriages on the 5th of Iyyar. Since he feared revealing his true reason for the proposal, he argued that this is the time when soldiers get leave and can get married. Our holy Rabbi said: If so, I tend to permit this from the beginning of the month of Iyyar until Lag Ba’Omer. Tel Aviv’s Chief Rabbi claimed that this is excessively lenient. Our holy Rabbi asked: Why am I being lenient while you are being stringent? Finally, the Chief Rabbi was forced to admit that his true reason was that he wished to lift the mourning practices customary during the Sefira in honor of the Israel day of “independence.” Our holy Rabbi responded sharply: Surely it would have been worthy to make it a fast day! (Notes of Rabbi Moshe Sheinfeld)

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Since the 1950s, and especially from the 1970s until today, this quote has characterized the public rhetoric common in Charedi society regarding the “Zionist Independence Day.” Every year, the mockery of Yated Ne’eman’s journalists vis-a-vis the “holiday” of independence (scare quotes in original text), including expressions of contempt and dismissal of the state and its achievements, remind us of the lingering tension between the camps.

Alongside marking the “celebrations of heresy” of the State and its reliance on “my strength and the power of my hand” (Devarim 8:17), the Charedi editor will draw attention to some recent scandal, material or spiritual, that reached the public awareness. As if to say: celebrations of independence not only contain heresy, but also a healthy dose of foolishness—what is there to celebrate? In its editorial section on the eve of Israeli Independence (1.5.17), Yated Ne’eman published a piece of the “disaster” of Israeli independence and its dire ramifications for the Jewish people.

The sharpness of expressions used against the public holiday varies by sub-sector. The abovementioned approach is subtle compared to the sledgehammers of Edah Charedis publications, where we are told that any Jew who celebrates Independence Day is a “devout heretic.” On the other hand, the rhetoric of (Eastern bloc) Shas leaders is quite different. Even if Independence Day is not quite celebrated (many do), it is certainly recongnized as a fact of reality, and an attempt is made to transform it into a “day which is all Torah.” This follows the tradition initiated by Shas leader Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef.

The more working Charedim there are, the more celebrate Independence Day. Though they are unlikely to say Hallel during the morning prayer, they will tend to enjoy the free day, to take pride  in the state’s impressive accomplishments, and if invited will also light a torch for the glory of the Zionist state.

However, rhetoric must not be confused with reality on the ground—which is quite another matter. In reality, a Charedi individual working for a living and getting a day off for Independence Day will tend to enjoy it like any other Israeli. The more working Charedim there are, the more celebrate Independence Day, whether at a traditional barbeque or with other forms of leisure. Though they are unlikely to say Hallel during the morning prayer, they will tend to enjoy the free day, to take pride (like the overwhelming majority of Charedim in the country) in the state’s impressive accomplishments. In the unlikely event of being honored by an invitation, they will also light a torch for the glory of the Zionist state at the televised ceremony—provided this does not clash with too delicate a position for Charedi sensibilities.

Two years ago, MK Israel Eichler declared that it is actually impossible to celebrate Independence Day “while a government of heresy has occupied the nation of those who believe in God.” According to Eichler, it is Shavu’os which warrants an exclusive title as the “Jewish day of independence.” Concerning the first part of the statement, thousands of Charedim clearly disagree. But what about the second part? Does the debate hang on the technical matter of taking a vacation day, or is there a deeper dispute here?

A Central Religious Component

Customs of Independence Day among a Charedi minority open a portal into a question that often occupies the Charedi space, and which stands at the heart of the recent internal strife that has shorn asunder the Lithuanian community—a split the like of which has not been seen for many a year. The core issue is the attitude of Charedi society toward the State of Israel and its various institutions. This complex issue may not be new, but it has morphed and changed form over the years, and is now stands at the center of a crossroads at which Charedi society stands.

We can summarize the public debate as a struggle between two values, both ancient, which have received new expression in recent decades. One is Jewish nationalism; the other is isolationism.

Despite various attempts at denial in the modern period, it is clear that Judaism has a central national component to it. Judaism is not just a religious community. Even in our private religious experiences, we combine a distinct national element.

Despite various attempts at denial in the modern period, it is clear that Judaism has a central national component to it. Throughout their years of exile, Jews prayed and continue pray for national redemption, for a Return to Zion, and for the establishment of a Jewish kingdom in the Land of Israel. Indeed, the covenant struck between Hashem and Avraham Avinu did not include a religious promise but rather a territorial one: “To your offspring I shall give this land.” Clearly, Judaism is not just a religious community, and even in our private religious experiences we combine a distinct national element. The prayer of Hannah, on which the Talmud bases many laws of prayer, begins with private salvation but ends with a national wish: “God will judge the ends of the earth and give strength to His king and raise the horn of His anointed” (I Samuel 2:10).

In this spirit, the People of Israel received the Torah at Sinai as a nation striving for national sovereignty in the Land of Israel, where the Torah was destined to receive its full expression. The verses of Devarim repeat this principle time and again: “And these are the commandments, the laws and the ordinances that the Lord, your God, has commanded to teach you, to perform in the land which you are going over to inherit” (Devarim 6:1). In this context, we can note the famous words of Rashi (on Devarim 11:18) and the Ramban (Vaikra 18:25), which emphasize the added value of mitzvah performance in the Land of Israel over their upkeep outside the Holy Land. Certainly, the national element of Judaism is integral to the tradition.

A New National Framework

Zionism took the value of Jewish nationalism as its founding principle. However, to Charedi eyes this Jewish nationalism exacted a heavy cost. The cost is not secularism itself; that preceded Zionism, a consequence of the European Enlightenment. The deep cost of Zionism was the transformation of Judaism itself by means of a nationalism that demanded exclusivity. Instead of a framework for a relationship with Hashem—as it was seen through the lens of tradition—nationalism became the be all and end all. Instead of a means for establishing the Kingdom of Heaven overflowing with Torah and spiritual content, nationalism became a purpose in and of itself. Indeed, it became the cornerstone of a new Jewish identity, detached from the traditional self-understanding that had maintained Jewish life for thousands of years.

The form of Jewish nationalism changed accordingly, becoming European and modern, and involved an attempt to adapt the new Israel to the familiar national framework of all nations. Peretz Smolenskin, among the founders of Jewish national thought, sharply criticized Moshe Mendelssohn both for his anti-national views and because of his adherence to the traditional ways of Judaism. According to Smolenskin, “The man who loves his nation will not spare and will not take pity even on those things that are foundations of the religion, if he wishes to bring good to his people in his work. … Every person who loves his nation will do this in the right spirit and with a giving heart” (“A Time to Plant,” Hashahar [Hebrwe] 1874). Since nationalism is key, and religion is in its service, the parts of religion that do not contribute to nationalism must be abolished.

The deep cost of Zionism was the transformation of Judaism itself by means of a nationalism conception that demanded exclusivity. Instead of a framework for religious and Torah content, nationalism became the be all and end all.

For most Zionists who actively built the State, this formula left precious little room for religion; Zionism did not invent secularism, but it was certainly a secularizing influence. And the apple of the State of Israel fell close to the tree of its Zionist parent. This is evident in the words of Education Minister Aharon Yadlin, who sadly noted (in 1977) the enormous gap between the Zionist worldview and Jewish consciousness, beseeching that “the sabras should see themselves not merely as Israelis, not just as the citizens of Israel, but as Jews!”

Religious Zionism, which hoped to infuse spiritual content therein, fully accepted the modern form of the new national framework. Even as it detached nation from religion, religious Zionism gave the new nationalism religious value. If Sa’adiyah Ga’on knew that “our nation is not a nation except in its Torah,” prominent religious-Zionist leader Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon stated that “we are one nation and a united people not only by force of religion, but by force of natural inheritance, by force of heritage from father to son, by force of the homeland, of race and of science.” The very title “national-religious” was heresy for the Charedi leader R. Abraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (the Hazon Ish): “As though religion and Israeli nationalism are two separate things, God forbid, which need to be brought together.”

After clearing away all the peripheral claims (there are many, which cannot be elucidated here), this is the main argument of Charedi Jewry against Zionism. Rabbi Dr. Isaac Breuer, one of the more successful formulators of the Charedi approach, argued passionately that Jewish nationalism can only exist by force of the Torah, and any national concept that does not derive its nature from the Torah is a foreign implant. Under the inspiration of Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman (“If nationalism is idolatry, then religious nationalism is service of both God and idolatry”), he defined Zionism as “a national home for idolatry with a small room for God.” Rabbi Uriel Zimmer, also a significant formulator of Charedi thought, stated in this spirit that “The core innovation of Zionism is changing the definition of Judaism. The definition of Judaism from the days of Mount Sinai until Zionism was: Torah; from now on the definition will be: nationalism, national belonging” (Judaism, The Torah, and The State [Hebrew], 1959).

Then as now, Charedi leadership fears a foreign nationalism that might empty Judaism of all religious content. They view Zionism as doing just this: placing modern nationalism at the core, while internal Jewish content loses its significance. In a trope that repeats itself every so often in Yated Ne’eman, we learn that the only thing there is to say of “secular nationalism” among the Jewish people is that “there is no such thing.” Countering the attempt at “normalization” made by Zionism and the State of Israel, the Charedim argued (and argue still) that the Jewish nation simply cannot be “normal.”

Separation from the Other

One thing is indisputable: Zionism succeeded. Big time. Against all odds, and in stinging contrast to the prophecies of doom that Charedi leaders voiced before and after the establishment of the state, the Zionist movement brought hundreds of thousands (and, later, several million) of Jews to Israel, founded the state, repelled Arab armies, became a regional economic and military powerhouse—and continues to reach great achievements in a wide variety of fields. It even brought about the renewal of the Hebrew language as a spoken, modern language. When even charity collectors from closed communities in the heart of Meah She’arim give their synagogue speeches in fluent Hebrew and without a foreign accent, it becomes crystal clear that Zionism has won a decisive victory in the struggle over language. To a large degree, and as I will explain below, the same is true even in terms of Jewish identity.

The principle of isolation is the driving force behind separate Charedi education, the avoidance of military and national service, residence in exclusively Charedi neighborhoods, the fear of academic studies and the entry into the general labor market.

The Charedi response to this success was not long in coming, and its main focus: deepening the isolationism concept already established in Europe. The Torah, and especially the Talmudic Sages, established the principle of isolating the Jewish People from their non-Jewish neighbors in general, and from idolaters in particular. However, “Charedi-ism” gave this value a renewed form. Charedi society invested and invests a great deal of energy to separate itself from the non-Charedi world, for fear of the latter negatively influencing the former. The principle of isolation is the driving force behind separate Charedi education system, the avoidance of military and national service, residence in exclusively Charedi neighborhoods, the fear of academic studies and the entry into the general labor market, the development of an alternative “Charedi culture” (literature, music, cinema), and more. But we should not think that separation is just a matter of distancing oneself and one’s group from secularism; far beyond this, it involves the founding of a Charedi identity.

When a proposal arose in 1996 for a “united religious front” in the coming elections, the response of Yated Ne’eman (by editor R. Zvi Friedman) was that the principle of separation must be preserved, as “It is the only way to prevent the transfer of infected bacteria into the Torah camp.” Due to this ideal, the creation of a common front must be avoided, for “Forming a covenant with the Mafdal [the religious-Zionist party] will lead to the blurring of the unique identity of the Charedi world, and may lead—God forbid—to the destruction of the remnant of Israel.” The only cure for the bacteria of Israeli nationalism, in all its forms, is isolation. The alternative is no less than danger of extinction.

Both sides of the fence therefore have contrary values—Israeli nationalism versus Charedi isolation. But with time, it seems that the sharpness of the contrast is beginning to dull.

A Shrinking Distance

Close to the founding of the state, Martin Buber declared that the separation between the nation and religion was a founding “rift” in the character of the State of Israel. According to Buber, “a barrier has been erected between Israel and its foundational essence.” Buber wondered about the possibility of a Jewish culture developing in Israel, since “Where and when has a true culture emerged, without it adhering to such a foundational principle and employing it to light the way!” (“Judaism and Culture,” The Crisis of Spirit [Hebrew], 1953). Yet at the end of the day, nationalism is only a framework; like a vacuum, it will ultimately draw in some form of content. By contrast with the Buber era—a time of socialism, militant secularism and a boiling melting pot for the “new Israeli Jew”—it seems that recent years have seen that content becoming more and more Jewish.

By contrast with the Buber era—a time of socialism, militant secularism and a boiling melting pot for the “new Israeli Jew”—it seems that recent years have seen that content becoming more and more Jewish

Israel has thus become the global center of Torah, the greatest supporter in history of the study of Torah (albeit with the aid of political pressure applied by Charedim), and a significant factor preventing assimilation and supporting Jewish demographis growth—just witness the difference in birthrates between the growing Israeli Jewish population and the demographic disaster of Diasporic Jewry. The last point demonstrates the specific value of Jewish nationalism, even in its modern and secular form, in providing nonobservant Jews with Jewish identity. Across the sea, too, Zionism helps a secular Jew identify as such, and his chances of marrying a Jewish partner increase dramatically. Moreover, today many secular Israelis are returning to Jewish tradition, to the study of Jewish texts, and to the observance of a wide variety of Jewish custom. The huge Teshuva movement, in all its variety, is a distinctly Israeli phenomenon. In short: Israeli nationalism has indeed remained secular, but the distance between it and traditional Judaism—between nation and religion—is dwindling.

Charedi isolationism has also undergone significant change. Indeed, it is hard to speak of a isolated community when the person in charge of Israel’s nationalized healthcare system is himself Charedi. We also see the erosion of the walls of separation in the thousands of Charedim flocking to many college campuses, with graduates energetically entering the Israeli workforce, and in the opening up of frameworks for secular studies even for younger ages. More generally, it is hard to conceive of hermetically sealed barriers in an age of open information. The exposure to Internet has created social and cultural changes that cannot be denied. The popularity of the television series Shtisel among Charedim is but one example of the cultural and social influences that the new age of communications has had on the Charedi community.

A Natural Sense of Belonging

These phenomena point to a change in the character of Charedi isolationism—no longer a total separation allowing no contact with the outside world, but rather one that keeps its distance from secular society (which threatens the core of “Charedi-ism”) while avoiding the kind of segregation that unnecessarily rejects civic obligations.

Charedi society justifiably wishes to live in the modern era without blindly accepting the entire package of modern values—including Israeli nationalism. But alongside the healthy distance it must maintain, Charedi society has begun to take a significant and active role in filling the national framework with content, whether in political struggles that were once left to the religious-Zionist Mafdal (such as those over Shabbat in the public domain), organizations that have become nationally influential, or an increased public involvement at both municipal and national levels.

A variety of reasons underlie these changes, but one of these is nationalism itself. Ahead of its consideration as a value and ideal, nationalism is a natural human feeling, deriving from organic connections between people who share a language, territory, race, history, culture and fate. The average Charedi individual largely shares this list with his non-Charedi counterpart. We should therefore not be surprised at the trend of “Israelization” of Charedi society: it would takes a great deal of ideological energy to prevent the trend, and over the course of generations the initial drive that animated Charedi society naturally fades. Of course, there is an inverse relation between the degree of Israeliness and the degree of separation from Israeli society.

Another reason is religious. As time goes by, the religious, even if not messianic, significance of the State of Israel becomes harder to ignore. The fact of Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel; the settlement and the blooming of the Holy Land, as prophecized by Scripture; the miraculous rebirth of the Israel’s Torah centers and religious vibrancy—these, and much besides, are credited to a large degree to the Jewish State. Charedi attempts at explaining that these were achieved despite, rather than because of the State, are unconvincing—notwithstanding painful episodes such as the Yemenite Children Affair. The moral responsibility that comes with demographic growth joins this religious sentiment in forging an ever-closening connection with Israel.

Fate has determined that these two trends, one the Judaization of Israeli nationalism and the other the weakening of Charedi isolationism, have met at a single inn—the inn of the 21st century. Precisely when Israeli nationalism becomes more Jewish, “Charedi-ism” becomes less isolated.

The change taking place within Charedi society has not been welcomed by certain parts of the Charedi world, who hark back to a militant “Charedi-ism” that shares no commonality with broader Israeli society. The unruly demonstrations of the “Jerusalem Faction,” which are primarily aimed internally—toward other Charedim, rather than externally to the army or government—are an apt demonstration of Charedi objection to change. Whether their actions are a sanctification or a desecration of God’s name—this depends upon whom you ask—there is no doubt that the deep divide within the Lithuanian community points to deep processes with inevitably powerful reactions.

Fate has determined that these two trends, one the Judaization of Israeli nationalism and the other the weakening of Charedi isolationism, have met at a single inn—the inn of the 21st century. It stands to reason, moreover, that one trend fortifies the other. Precisely when Israeli nationalism becomes more Jewish, “Charedi-ism” becomes less isolated. The combination of these trends allows the Charedi public an easier and less threatening entry into the national field.

It may be that this will lead to the creation of a new “Charedi-national” society (unrelated to the national-religious version bearing the same name), one that will necessarily subsist in a complex and complicated relationship with original “Charedi-ism.” The more radical, Left-leaning branches of Charedi society are moving in this direction; observing some Charedi Facebook groups, one is led to think that this social group already exists, at least in a virtual reality. But we can also speak of the same “old Charedi-ism,” a natural continuation of the authentic Charedi model, which preserves its core values even as it enters the playing field of Israeli nationalism. It seems that such a group already exists, too.

Both options will require a significant educational effort to enable the preservation of Charedi identity, with its cultural uniqueness, despite the changes in question. We should hope—as many do, Charedi or otherwise—that one of the fruits of change will be a Charedi society that takes an active role in the Israeli public sphere, in the discussions and important decisions of all those who reside in Zion, and in infusing Jewish content into the Israeli national framework of which we are all a part—like it or not.

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Last year (2017), I was invited to a Charedi ceremony to mark Israel Memorial Day. Alongside testimonies of bereavement (from a Charedi perspective), the ceremony contained Torah content and musical accompaniment appropriate for Charedi events. The event left a strong impression. More than anything, the feeling was of national belonging. We, even those who did not serve in the IDF, felt an integral part of the national story. Deeper, we felt the burden of responsibility of writing the next chapter.

This sentiment leads inevitably to the conclusion of publicly expressing the moral obligation of gratitude to IDF soldiers who paid the ultimate price for our protection. The isolationist strategy is no longer able to justify the moral cost of silence. On the other hand, I have yet to be invited to a Charedi ceremony celebrating Independence Day. Even changing trends have their limits. And so they should.

In sum, it is tempting to make a comparison between the situation of Charedi society, and the processes which religious Zionism underwent for many years. I wish to avoid this comparison. Charedi society has unique characteristics at the religious, cultural, and ideological levels. Its starting positions, if you will, are fundamentally different from those of religious Zionism. Religious Zionism was always a part of Zionism. This provided it with a great deal of influence, but also exacted heavy costs. In contrast, some believe that the next significant Aliyah will be the “Charedi Aliyah.” Precisely because of this, it will be fascinating to see how these processes will affect Charedi society on the one hand, and Israeli society on the other. It will be more fascinating still to take an active role part in them.

One thought on “Independence in Black and White: On Charedim and Jewish Nationalism

  • Let us try to clarify a common confusion related to the revival of Israeli patriotism. The Zionist movement was divided between the revisionist movement, focused on the establishment of a Jewish democratic state and the socialist faction which aimed to create a “new” atheist Jewish community, part of an international affiliation to the Marxist faith. In the initial very difficult years of the establishment of the state mass recruitment in the socialist totalitarian style were probably adequate. In peace time of course socialism failed. Free enterprise and an open minded approach to life brought strength and prosperity. The National (revisionist) movement prevailed. The national Jewish foundation was based on the Jewish heritage, the ownership of Erez Israel and the centrality of Jerusalem. This foundation essentially was shared by the haredi community. The difference was timing and time is negotiable. The open question is the “coming of the Meshiah.” Many interpretation can be given to this notion including the position that it is a process to evolve into history. It is in this context an inclusive approach can be reached. For instance one can see participation of haredi men in the military supported by Torah studies while in service. I would like to suggest the possibility to add to our national pride Jewish patriotism, the love for our country and all its history and spiritual connections.

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