Charedi society has experienced three major tragedies in two years: our disorderly (to put it very mildly) response to Covid-19, the Meron disaster, and the Walder affair. All three were tremendously painful. All three were covered by the secular press and accompanied by reports, commentary, critique, and responses of both hatred and compassion from the general public. All the while, the Charedi world itself showed confusion and embarrassment. The scandalous character of Charedi behavior, where it was indeed so, was either denied or covered up by members of our own community. Only marginal voices called for soul-searching and house-cleaning.
Taken together, the three tragedies falsify the oft-repeated claim that Charedi society is led by Gedolim—Torah luminaries who guide us on all matters of public policy and behavior. The silence of our putative leaders and their clear lack of public guidance cry out to the heavens. The vacuum of leadership is embarrassing, to me and to many other peers, colleagues, and friends.
The scandalous character of Charedi behavior, where it was indeed so, was either denied or covered up by members of our own community. Only marginal voices called for soul-searching and house-cleaning
I don’t question the fact that Torah giants still walk among us. I have been privileged to meet some of them first-hand. For more than twenty years, I was close to Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt”l, who lived a life of true Torah greatness. Precisely because I have faith and trust in Gedolim (though not necessarily in how they’re marketed through fixers, journalists, and politicians), the deficiencies of their response to our crises so disturb me.
Gedolim of Our Times
In the past, when I would hear complaints about how “there are no longer any Gedolim,” I would respond that in actual fact “there are no ketanim [small people] today.” In other words, when Gedolim make a statement we disagree with, we simply ignore them—and then complain that there are no Gedolim. For instance, the Lithuanian Gedolim have been rallying for years against the awful custom of bachurim demanding an apartment from prospective fathers-in-law, yet their cries have fallen on deaf ears. Explicit letters were signed by Rabbi Elyashiv zt”l, Rabbi Steinman zt”l, and all the Gedolim to whom we constantly pledge allegiance, yet in practice nobody pays them heed.
All this is in the past. In the past two years, I have found myself desperately seeking leadership, and not finding even an attempt to provide it. I do not hear voices of talmidei chachamim explaining, guiding, and instructing. Scandals at home and attacks from outside multiply by the year, and none purports to show the way forward.
Our world—to which we are exposed today far more than in the past—is more confusing than ever. Values, principles, and ideals that seem positive are exaggerated into totalizing articles of faith that trample any conflicting values.
Take feminism. Its underlying principle of decent treatment and choice for women is surely a good thing, and its voice has a place even within our own camp, certainly in such simple matters as fighting exploitation of women in the workplace. But on the other hand, feminism also threatens the Jewish family, our Holy of Holies. Or take individualism. It is of course good to allow room for the individual, and certainly to do so within the Torah world (“A person should always say that the world was created for me”). But ignoring the frameworks and commitments that take individuals beyond themselves threatens everything we hold dear and holy.
Clear Torah statements on such issues are particularly needed during and after the kind of tragedies we’ve experienced in the last two years. Communities in extremis demand responses from even ordinary people
Where good principles conflict with other good principles, I hope for Daas Torah to clarify our hierarchy of values, make necessary distinctions, and set communal boundaries. There will certainly be many views within the beis midrash, as there always are, but we should at least be hearing Torah voices, rather than a silent refusal to address confusing matters of public import. Clear Torah statements on such issues are particularly needed during and after the kind of tragedies we’ve experienced in the last two years. Communities in extremis demand responses even from ordinary people, who are required to make decisions for themselves and their families. In such moments, we need vocal and principled leadership, and for talmidei chachamim who provide a responsible, measured voice.
I remember how after Yitzhak Rabin’s murder our community was divided between horror at the murder and a sense of “he had it coming” on the other hand. At his weekly talk at the Beis HaMussar, Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt”l addressed the issue and shouted: “A Jew takes the job of the Sanhedrin into his own hands and condemns his fellow Jew to death?!” His words cleared up my own confusion, helping me to make sense of my own views.
Over the past two years, however, I’ve had no authoritative voice to help me make sense of things. Around me, I’ve heard bnei Torah turning to the secular public discourse to figure out their own hashkafa. And it’s hard to blame them. None of our leaders offered a clear and coherent approach to our travails, incorporating considerations for which the secular world has little or no appreciation. The only voices I heard were like a din from the netherworld—vague fragments of instructions, unconvincing justifications, and lots of whitewashing, mostly about clashing with the secular media, with “them.”
This does not mean to express a vote of no confidence in the Torah world. I was raised and educated by Rabbi Wolbe zt”l, who made piercing statements about our own society while maintaining a complete trust in the Torah world. Time and again, he would mention the words of the Mir mashgiach Rabbi Yerucham of Mir zt”l, who, citing the Pasuk “May my ears hear when enemies arise against me,” used to quote from Rav Yisrael Salanter: “For even when those who wish you harm arise against you to speak words of hatred and calumny, still ‘may my ears hear’—become accustomed to listening and lending an attentive ear to their words” (Daas Chochmah Umussar II, p. 135).
We must be truthful with ourselves about our strengths and our weaknesses. Recent years have taught us how our failings are not merely cosmetic problems. They implicate our deepest concerns, including those of pikuach nefesh.
Tests of Public Leadership
If we ever thought that Charedi society is somehow united—indeed, we sometimes witness displays of unity at demonstrations or at national elections—such thoughts were surely dispelled during the Covid-19 period, which split Charedi society into communities, subcommunities, courts, and yeshivas, all waiting for the instruction of their specific rabbinic authority. In the street, the synagogue, and the grocery store people would stand with or without a mask, distancing from others or not, “each as is right in his eyes.” At a time demanding unity of purpose and behavior, there was very little of it to be found.
Tardy, vague, or even non-existent communication by those we look to for leadership cost our community dearly, most of all in needless victims of the virus
What became apparent over this period is that there is no central authority in Charedi society, no united leadership. Our authorities offered no specific message. All we got was a rumor mill running through courtiers. Tardy, vague, or even non-existent communication by those we look to for leadership cost our community dearly, most of all in needless victims of the virus.
As a father whose son studies in a Jerusalem yeshiva together with another 700 young men, I expected the decisions about whether and how to govern our institutions—yeshivas, schools, shuls—to proceed from a forum of Gedolim, who would consult will each other in a responsible, measured manner about what was best to be done. Is that not the role of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, on which sit our preeminent rashei yeshiva? If ever there was an event that ought to have occasioned such senior discussions, coronavirus was it. Sadly, no such process took place, and I was left wondering at parents sending their children to the yeshiva “infection incubator” based on rumor and rabbinic innuendo.
Then came the disaster at Meron—a terrible catastrophe that claimed 45 Jewish souls, more than any terrorist attack in Israel’s history. The Meron disaster forced us to confront dysfunctional management of our community’s institutions, manifest especially in the dismissal of safety warnings. This especially meant ignoring any instructions issued by “them”—state authorities, who (based to a common Charedi attitude) hate religion and do everything they can to undermine it.
In all likelihood, Charedi politicians and activists will denounce the report as “their” conclusion, and the ensuing regulations as the product of hatred of Charedim and religious life in general
We can blame the secularists and we can blame the police, the state, and others all we want. But what about considering our own soul-searching, or trying to ascertain the role our own community’s shortcomings played in what transpired at Meron. The main Charedi concern seems to be whether the state will allow the traditional ascent to Meron despite the recent disaster. Again, fortunately for us, a state inquiry commission was established and will ultimately publish its conclusions, after which new safety regulations will be implemented. In all likelihood, Charedi politicians and activists will denounce the report as “their” conclusion, and the ensuing regulations as the product of hatred of Charedim and religious life in general. The world will go on as usual, and we will do our part by strengthening our commitment to dressing modestly—the default response to every disaster.
Now, of course, we are trying to deal with the aftermath of a third event: the tragic Walder affair that rocked the entire community, from adults to children, in Israel and abroad, and which raises serious and piercing questions about how we handle sexual assault. We often find the Sages debating those who opposed Judaism from within or from the outside: heretics, philosophers, Gentiles, and so on. Oftentimes, after a Sage responds decisively to his questioner, students present at the debate ask the Sage: “You rejected him with straw, but what do you have to say to us?” (see, for example, Bamidbar Rabbah 19:8). In other words, while it might be right and expedient to be dismissive of a particular individual (who might be asking only for the sake of hectoring), we students need a real answer for ourselves.
Like those students, I look to the Sages of my own day and pray for their guidance concerning Covid-19, the Meron disaster, and the Walder affair. These are real and very complicated issues that require serious discussion as well as practical instruction; they cannot be simply brushed aside with a couple of slogans. Our Torah is a Torah of life. and we need to learn and apply it accordingly.
When Gedolim speak and the public ignores them, the result is disgrace for Torah and its greatest carriers. I assume that this is often a reason for the silence of Gedolim
I am aware that in our generation, leaders have difficulty earning their followers’ esteem and compliance. I am also familiar with the Sages’ saying that “just as it is a mitzvah to say something that will be heard, so it is a mitzvah to refrain from saying something that is will not heard” (Yevamos 65b). This dictum applies most of all to communal matters. When Gedolim speak and the public ignores them, the result is disgrace for Torah and its greatest carriers. I assume that this is often a reason for the silence of Gedolim. But still, in difficult times, when the entire community is confused, we can only look to our Sages for advice, hoping to fulfill the Torah instruction “You shall do all you are instructed to do.” To do so, we need instruction. We need to hear the voice of the Torah.
Aspire to Be a Man
The three tragedies and their embarrassing mismanagement by Charedi leadership caused me to think there’s no avoiding a situation of “truth shall grow from the land”—from below, from the field. We cannot sit on our hands and hope for some “awakening from above.” The responsibility to fix things must be taken up by ordinary people.
The proper leadership of the Jewish People is, indeed, “The heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, every man of Israel” (Devarim 29:15). Rashi explains: “The prominent come first, and then every man of Israel.” Even today, we certainly believe that it is good that the Gedolim lead our community with a strong hand. But given present circumstances, we may have no choice but to do as the Sages say: “Where there are no men, try to be a[n important] man” (Avos 2.5). As Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains, where public affairs are managed properly then humility is proper, and why should a person supplant those who might be more talented and more suited to public duty that he is. But where public needs are neglected because of mismanagement, then we are beholden to represent and manage public affairs with whatever skill, diligence, and wisdom we have, and humility would be misplaced (Ateres Zvi on Avos).
As the student cited in the Gemara, we would not be stepping out of place by demanding answers to the tough questions that plague so many of us. We need to demand answers
Anyone touched by these issues should air his or her concerns, demanding that our institutions and culture be repaired. As the student cited in the Gemara, we would not be stepping out of place by demanding answers to the tough questions that plague so many of us. We need to demand answers, to find those suited to answer them (Gedolim of our generation) and ensure they speak a loud and forceful voice of Torah and reason. It seems that this matter is up to us.
Such a demand for guidance does not amount to hostile criticism, God forbid. The request for answers and instruction, when coming from a place of respect and authenticity, does not amount to hectoring or the promotion of some outside agenda. Coming from a love of Torah and fear of God, and based on an honest and true desire to fix and improve things, such an attempt to end silencing and coverups is not illegitimate; it is what we need.
Were It Not for the Awe of the Government
The three tragedies I have been discussing raise the issue of how the Charedi community acts towards a state run by secular Jews in accordance with secular principles rather than religious ones.
Our delayed adherence to state instructions at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the blasé attitude towards safety instructions at Meron, and the handling of the Walder affair have led to a renewed discussion of Charedi “autonomy” within the state. Our community’s alienation from state institutions exacts heavy costs from time to time. At any rate, the stance towards government deserves serious reexamination.
In Maseches Avot, Rabban Gamliel warns us: “Beware of the authorities, for they do not bring people close but for their own needs, appear as loving when they benefit and do not stand for a man in his time of need” (Avos 2.2). In other words, governments are fundamentally self-interested. They seem to be loving but in fact do not stand up for their people in their hour of need.
But we find a somewhat different saying in the next chapter: “Rabbi Hanina, the deputy of the Priests, says: Pray for the sake of the government, for were it not for its awe, people would swallow each other alive” (Avos 2.3). This Mishnah expresses a positive, favorable approach to government: as bad as government is, things would be far, far worse without it.
Although our own government does not necessarily provide justice, honesty, goodness, and charity, and is certainly not adored by Charedi Jews living under its rule, it still provides order, ensures compliance with laws, and does much good besides (including massive support of Torah story). It allows human society to survive and thrive. The very fact that people do not take the law into their own hands, do not “swallow each other,” so that we are able to go to bed without fear of violent disorder, requires that we pray for the government. Rabbi Hanina believed our duties applied even the wicked government of Rome: “Thank you, government, may you continue to rule.”
The Midrash (Midrash Shmuel) ties Rabbi Hanina’s statement to that of Akavia Ben Mehalel: “Consider three things [where you can from, where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give reckoning] and you will not come to sin” that appears in the previous Mishnah:
It may be that Rabbi Hanina meant to say that the three things Akavia mentioned are not sufficient to prevent sin, for the inclination of the human heart is wicked and he removes them from his heart, and therefore we need to pray for the sake of the government, who reproach with whips and scorpions to fulfill their stubborn and contemptible ways, and for fear of the government, the people will not come to sin and will straighten their crooked paths.
In a similar vein, Rabbi Hirsch explains that the three things taught by Akavia Ben Mehalel in the previous Mishnah are sufficient to prevent sin without need for outside intervention, yet this is only true for people who are morally upright. In a time of moral turpitude, they are insufficient. We thus need the fear of human authority. In our less-than-ideal situation, our continuous and peaceful development towards the salvation of humanity relies on the peace and integrity of human government.
Therefore, Rav Hirsch explains, it is incumbent on us to respect the authority of the state and pray for it wherever we are, as Yirmiyahu states: “And seek the peace of the city to which I exiled you, and pray for it to God, for with its peace, you shall have peace” (Yirmiyahu 29:7). “As he concludes, “If there is no supreme governmental authority, society will collapse into mutual strife” (Siddur Tefillas Yisrael, p. 379). It seems that the lack of authority, and its attendant “mutual strife,” is manifest is our own society. We do not accept the authority of the State of Israel, but we also lack any kind of working alternative.
Sometimes yeshiva institutions and talmudei Torah will be shut down, Shuls will be closed, and tisches and funerals and the like will be restricted. Yet, even here, the same rule stands: pray for the sake of the government
I knew the former Mayor of Emanuel, one of the many baalei teshuvah who lived there and who became sick of the patronage system that had inhibited the city’s development. He decided to run things differently. His stories from a traumatic term in office are truly hair-raising, demonstrating the menace of a situation in which “one person swallows the other alive.” Wars over budgets, decisions, actions, and apportionment of benefits based solely on “what’s in this for us”—each with his small sub-community and sub-group. He experienced narrow-mindedness accompanied by a lack of generosity and encountered few who considered the common good. Thus, alongside the flourishing city of Ariel, Emanuel wilted, frightening away productive and creative energies for the sake of a self-serving set of bickering groups.
The lack of a central authority is felt not only in matters of budgets and welfare but also and especially for emergencies. It is crucial for government to have not just the ability to decide but also the ability to enforce painful but necessary decisions at such times, ensuring, for instance, that everyone is locked down when necessary, with no one going out to run along the Tel Aviv boardwalk or setting up a minyan in a packed synagogue. Sometimes these decisions cut against our core values. Sometimes yeshiva institutions and talmudei Torah will be shut down, Shuls will be closed, and tisches and funerals and the like will be restricted. Yet, even here, the same rule stands: pray for the sake of the government.
If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that we lack an active Torah-based leadership involved in matters that affect the whole public. We lack responses, instructions, conclusions, and methods with which to fix what needs fixing, especially when it comes to the painful events mentioned above. If we had a leadership that at least considered the entire Charedi community—let alone the entire Jewish People—and managed to actively make decisions, maybe then we would have less need to pray for the sake of the government. In the present situation, it seems that we need such prayers more than ever. Our own leadership at present seems inadequate to the task.
In the meantime, our public cry must continue until we see the whole community—fixers, politicians, and even talmidei chachamim and Rabbis joining the cause and working to mend that which requires mending in our public life. The focus cannot be only so that “they”( the secularists) will not have an opening to condemn, bash, oppress, or feel schadenfreude at our situation, but so that Covid-19, Meron, and Walder disasters do not repeat themselves. So that the painful images do not return. So that the victims are healed and responsible systems are established to prevent or ameliorate the effects of such failures.
And perhaps what we need to conclude from all this is that we too need the “awe of the government.” Our government. Not just as a force making us do things against our will, but as a proper Torah tool, which can help us manage our lives and bring about a repaired world.
“For Zion, I shall not be silent, and for Jerusalem, I will not be quiet until its justice shines like a star and its salvation burns as a torch” (Yeshayahu 62:1).