“It’s not our fault! You, who sent us to live in such crowded conditions, it’s your fault! And you even have the nerve to attack us, when none of this is even true!” So responded MK Moshe Gafni, speaking from the Knesset podium, to the distressing scenes that were broadcast from Charedi neighborhoods over the past week. Gafni was under some pressure, and I can think of some semi-decent excuses. Yet, after all’s been said and done, the truth needs to be stated: Gafni’s statement is appalling and quite astounding. It speaks volumes about where we’ve come to.
Gafni, who has declared multiple times that he’s no right-winger, thus fell headlong into the seductive trap of identity politics, which automatically blames the dominant majority for minority failings. The phenomenon is well documented in faraway shores of the United States, and the message is clear: criticism of Charedi society is by definition wrong, and insofar as it has any foundation it must be that “you” – the state, the non-Charedi majority, the secular – are at fault. As MK Avraham Ravitz once proclaimed (in an internal-Charedi context), “We exist because we exist.” That’s just how it is; now cope with it.
After an annus horribilis of covid-19 – of remarkably high rates of infection, tragic and ostensibly preventable deaths, deadly weddings and gatherings, deep animosity between Charedim and the rest, and anti-establishment violence on our streets – it has become clear that something has to change. And whatever it is, it has to come from within, in a way that does not threaten the integrity of Charedi society and the core values we hold dear
It’s a trap that’s all too easy to fall into, and its damage can be immense. Though it causes harm all around, the damage to the minority group is inevitably greater, since it precludes its fundamental right to take responsibility for itself. The results are all too prominent. After an annus horribilis of covid-19 that has seen high rates of infection, tragic and ostensibly preventable deaths, deadly weddings and gatherings, deep animosity between Charedim and the rest, and anti-establishment violence on our streets, it has become clear that something has to change. And whatever it is, it has to come from within, in a way that does not threaten the integrity of Charedi society and the core values we hold dear. But how can this take place? From whence shall come our salvation?
The key, in my humble opinion, is education. Education is our future, and there seems to be an element in our education system that has not received sufficient attention and requires stronger emphasis. Chazal called this element derech eretz. For want of a better word, I will call it civic virtue.
Derech Eretz: Beyond Working
Chazal teach us that there are four matters that require strengthening, constant chizuk. These are “Torah and good deeds, prayer and derech eretz” (Berachos 32b). For each of the four, the Gemara adduces a biblical verse; the difference between them indicates a distinction between the first three principles and derech eretz. For the other listed matters, the noted verses refer to the works of an individual: he needs to study Torah, perform good deeds, and pray before God. For derech eretz, however, the adduced verse refers to the general public: “Be strong and let us be strengthened for our people and the cities of our God. Hashem will do what is good in his sight” (II Shmuel 10:12). By contrast with the other virtues of Torah, good deeds and prayer, the matter of derech eretz relates specifically to a public virtue (see Rashi and commentaries).
Working for a living is also termed derech eretz. This, indeed, is very much the way of the world: a person cannot sustain himself without working. But the meaning transcends the individual and applies to society as a whole: society cannot exist without people working, each one in his chosen occupation, so that all our needs are collectively met. Working is thus part of what we call “good citizenship.” As the Rambam teaches (Moreh Nevuchim 2:40), human beings are political creatures, unable to sustain their needs without grouping together as a political entity. Moreover, since we are different from one another in our dispositions and our characters, we require a political mechanism with laws and regulations that “erase natural distinctions by means of common agreement, so that society will be settled” (ibid). The Rambam even maintains that the purpose of some Torah laws is to ensure a stable and efficient social order (1:28).
Charedi society has occupied itself with the first three pillars with the utmost intensity. Nobody can deny that it is replete with Torah, prayer, and good deeds. Indeed, it can be said that this has been the primary occupation of the Jewish People for two thousand years, an occupation that has maintained us over the course of a long and often devastating exile. By contrast, the fourth pillar of derech eretz has been widely neglected
I thus wish to translate the principle of derech eretz, one of the four pillars that Chazal declare requires constant strengthening, as modern-day “civic virtue,” or simply “good citizenship” – a society-wide partnership that grants us both rights and duties. Charedi society has occupied itself with the first three pillars with the utmost intensity. Nobody can deny that it is replete with Torah, prayer, and good deeds. Indeed, it can be said that this has been the primary occupation of the Jewish People for two thousand years, an occupation that has maintained us over the course of a long and often devastating exile. By contrast, the fourth pillar of derech eretz has been widely neglected. This neglect is eminently understandable, as I will elaborate below; yet, it is no less dangerous. Today, we are paying a heavy price for it.
My argument in this article is that in today’s circumstances, we would do well to implement the Talmudic instruction to strengthen our derech eretz, executing the words of the Pasuk: “Be strong and let us be strengthened for our people and the cities of our God.”
More Than a Secular Obligation
Derech eretz is not just a secular matter alone, an obligation to establish a well-structured society that will ensure efficient function for the benefit of all. It is also a matter of kedusha. The famous adage of “derech eretz kadma la-Torah” (derech eretz precedes the Torah) makes a basic normative claim: the Torah is the “second floor” of the great edifice that Judaism means to create, while the “first floor” is derech eretz. A holy society, a society of Godliness, cannot be founded in the air. Just as the covenant of Avraham Avinu did not abrogate that of Noach, but was rather built upon it, so too a holy society is built on the foundations of derech eretz.
This lesson is embedded in the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael. Maseches Kiddushin (29a) includes the famous teaching whereby a person is obligated to teach his son a trade, yet in the Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael we find that this duty is a full Torah obligation: “By Torah law, a person must circumcise his son, redeem him, teach him Torah, teach him a trade, and wed him to a wife.” The source for the Torah obligation to teach one’s son a trade is not given by the Mechilta; yet, it is noted in the Yerushalmi (Kiddushin 1:7), citing from the same Rabbi Yishmael: “Rabbi Yishmael taught: ‘choose life’ (Devarim 30:19) – this refers to a trade.”
Derech eretz is not something to be suffered, a bedieved concept that we have to begrudgingly accommodate. It is something to be cherished, a lechatchilah concept that the Torah describes with the words “choose life” – no less
When I first encountered the scriptural interpretation it literally took my breath away. The relevant verse notes the most central and principal choice that God presents to each person: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – so you and your offspring shall live.” The next verse explains that the choice of life is a choice in God and His Torah, which promises us longevity upon the Land: “to love Hashem your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that Hashem swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them.” Despite this, Rabbi Yishmael interprets the words “choose life” as referring to the seemingly mundane matter of teaching a trade. How is this possible? How can we understand this bizarre interpretation?
The answer to this lies in the insight of combining Torah study and derech eretz. Rabbi Yishmael’s approach to this combination is to find Torah within derech eretz (“hanheg bahen minhag derech eretz“). Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai disputed this, maintaining that the Torah student must invest the entirety of his human resources in Torah study, and rely on Divine Providence for his sustenance. Centuries later, the normative halacha was decided by the Talmudic Sage Abaye: “Many did as Rabbi Yishmael instructed and succeeded; as Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai instructed and did not succeed” (Berachos 35a; see also Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 155:1).
Derech eretz is not something to be suffered, a bedieved concept that we have to begrudgingly accommodate. It is something to be cherished, a lechatchilah concept that the Torah describes with the words “choose life” – no less. Rabbi Yishmael’s weltanschauung is Hashem wishes us to combine Torah with the ways of the world, that Torah cannot be detached from our earthly reality but must rather be integrated into the full richness of human life. In the starkest possible contrast to the Catholic ideal, it is incumbent upon us to live a life awash with human affairs – the very first Torah instruction is to procreate, to engage in the ultimate activity of being human – and to imbue this earthly life with Divine elevation: the elevation of our relationship with God, latent in the Torah and its mitzvos. Derech Eretz precedes Torah, and the choice of life, much as the body-soul combination that defines life itself, is the choice to combine the two.
Based on the above, it is hardly surprising to find that Rabbi Yehuda Na-Nasi (Rebbi) makes an addition to the list of matters that the Torah obligates a person toward his son: “Rabbi says: even yishuv ha-medina [settlement of the state].” It is a Torah obligation, according to Rebbi, to teach one’s child civics. The Mechilta does not mention the source for this obligation, but it seems safe to assume that the same verse from which Rabbi Yishmael derives the matter of earning a living is extended by Rebbi to include even yishuv ha-medina. Derech eretz includes earning a living in its more personal manifestation, and good citizenship in its broader expression. The Torah exhortation to “choose life” includes both.
Exile and Good Citizenship
Long years of exile decreed upon the Jewish People an embedded distance from affairs of state. The great challenge, with a capital C that occupied virtually the entire page, was survival physical and spiritual. When your mindset vis-à-vis the state is survival there is precious little room for civic values; when all you can think of is how to endure the state mechanisms you can hardly be expected to take part in them. This attitude began to change in the heady periods of enlightenment and emancipation, as huge swaths of Jews adopted hyphenated versions of Judaism, each with its own redemptive story. Orthodox Judaism, which would later galvanize into its modern, Charedi variant, refused the offer to participate in the options for redemption that modernity had made available. Over the multiple messiahs it could choose between, it chose exile. Its simple message was continuity, perpetuation, conservation. We are here to pass on the torch from one generation to the next. Nothing more, nothing less. While other streams of Judaism happily accepted the benefits and duties of citizenship, Charedi society remained exactly where it had been. Survival remains the overriding objective, and with flight mode perpetually turned on there is no capacity for civic engagement. Yet, the face of our exile has changed dramatically over time, raising a two-pronged dilemma that has begun to haunt us.
While other streams of Judaism happily accepted the benefits and duties of citizenship, Charedi society remained exactly where it had been. Survival remains the overriding objective, and with flight mode perpetually turned on there is no capacity for civic engagement. Yet, the face of our exile has changed dramatically over time, raising a two-pronged dilemma that has begun to haunt us
In a hostile state, such as many of our host countries over the generations where we suffered terribly from the plague of antisemitism and blatant discrimination, there could hardly be a moral expectation of civic participation on the part of Jews. On the contrary, it was a great mitzvah to circumvent any kind of civic duties, not least tax burdens that were both prejudiced and crippling. But when the state is (overall) fair and just, refraining from theft, oppression, and persecution, there arises a simple moral duty to reciprocate with the same fairness that the state exhibits. Several halachic authorities note this duty in the personal sense. For instance, the Aruch Hashulchan writes that “in our times, in all of these states, it is a Torah prohibition to employ any type of fraud or trickery, and there is no distinction in this matter between Jew and Gentile” (Choshen Mishpat 348:2). But it is also true in the broad sense of good citizenship: paying taxes, complying with laws and regulations, and generally playing by the civic rules of the game. When Rabbi Yaakov Blau zt”l was asked whether or not it is permitted to steal from the State of Israel, he replied that it is certainly forbidden, and (at the questioner’s request – he had heard differently) proceeded to explain: “If at inception there was a concern for despotism on the part of the State, over the years we have learned that these concerns were unfounded, and the State treats us fairly.”
But the dilemma we are faced with is not moral alone – the problem of “no benefits without duties.” It is also a deeply practical problem. We are all aware of the phenomenon of the decrepit apartment building. Once, when everybody used to pay their monthly dues, the building was kept in good shape; residents even took pride in living there. But then one neighbor claimed that he has no interest in paying the cleaning company, and prefers to take care of cleaning the area by his door on his own – and refused to pay. Within a couple of months, a second neighbor claimed that his years-long claim for reimbursement of payment for fixing a leak had not been met, and he, too, was leaving the communal arrangement. Six months later the building committee had called apart and the building quickly became dirty and unkempt. The moral of the story should be obvious. City planning and development, the ordered function of organizations, timely and fair payment of employees, road safety, quality of the environment, and far graver matters concerning criminal law, are all contingent on good citizenship and on actual care and concern for the upkeep of regulations intended for our good. If we collectively see laws and regulations as hurdles to be overcome then we will be the first to suffer – a glance at the state of some Charedi concentrations demonstrates how sadly true this is. And as we grow in size and distribution, the entire State of Israel will suffer together with us – which is precisely what happened during the covid-19 crisis.
The trouble, however, isn’t one specific infraction or another, but rather the general mindset. Once the law becomes a malleable object in the hands of any capable (or not) yeshiva student, it loses its capacity to order society, as covid-19 aptly demonstrated
Our exilic instincts, honed over long centuries of living in a harsh civic reality, have trained us to be clever with the law. Even when facing the halachic barrier of dina demalchusa, we know how to employ yeshiva-style distinctions, sometimes hair-splitting in their fineness, to allow us to circumvent the legal wall. The trouble, however, isn’t one specific infraction or another, but rather the general mindset. Once the law becomes a malleable object in the hands of any capable (or not) yeshiva student, it loses its capacity to order society, as covid-19 aptly demonstrated. After we decided we can break the law concerning (say) attending Shul during the Yamim Nora’im, or with regard to Torah study, or whatever, the law inevitably lost its authority even concerning weddings and other social gatherings. As Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l once replied to somebody who asked him whether he can make a false declaration for purposes of evading a local tax, “you begin by stealing from the local tax authority (the arnona tax) and you end up stealing from your neighbor. The mindset is what matters. And while the moral price of bad citizenship might have always been obvious, covid-19 clarified just how costly the lack of civic virtue can be, resulting in a tragic death toll, a hatred of Charedim that has spilled over to hatred of religion, and inexcusable behavior toward civil authorities whose educational cost is potentially immense.
It is high time we started to cut our losses.
Living in Flight Mode
When we established the Tzarich Iyun journal some four years ago, we decided on a policy of total transparency. In line with this policy, we wrote a mission statement that says who we are and lays out our basic principles. In the second clause, right after the first clause that sets out a clear commitment to Torah and Mitzvos, a short passage addresses the tension between Charedi isolationism and the need for civic responsibility:
From the outset, isolationism has been the basic Charedi strategy for preserving the values it cherishes: the sanctity of life, the sacredness of marriage, the imperative of having children, respect for parents and reverence for teachers, the centrality of Torah study, the authority of wise elders over the young, a preparedness to live a modest lifestyle, and more. The transmission of these values to future generations depends on placing some distance between Charedi society and a secular culture generally hostile to them. Yet, the isolationist impulse must be checked by the values it stands in tension with—the realities of modern life, participation in social debate, discharging civic duties, and belonging to the greater Jewish body. While we espouse a healthy distance from secular culture—itself no small feat in today’s world—we are thus not segregationist.
It seems to me that covid-19 has sharpened the urgency of this matter. Charedi society justifiably espoused a strategy of isolationism to preserve its core values, and it has paid the price of refraining from adopting a mindset of civic duty and virtue. This price was bearable for a small community. But the covid-19 crisis has taught us that from a painful yet modest cost, we have come to a point at which the lack of civic virtue exacts a terrible price, both within and without, reaching an inflation rate we cannot afford to ignore.
Charedi society justifiably espoused a strategy of isolationism to preserve its core values, and it has paid the price of refraining from adopting a mindset of civic duty and virtue. This price was bearable for a small community. But the covid-19 crisis has taught us that from a painful yet modest cost, we have come to a point at which the lack of civic virtue exacts a terrible price, both within and without, reaching an inflation rate we cannot afford to ignore
We thus find ourselves in a tight spot. On the one hand, a healthy cultural and social isolationism remains key to maintaining who we are and what we hold dear. We cannot simply turn off our collective “flight mode,” lest we are flooded by all we fear of western culture and values. At the same time, we are duty-bound to ensure that this healthy distance does not prevent us from discharging our civic responsibilities; recent times and events demonstrate just how crucial these are, both to ourselves and to Jewish brethren outside our communities. We need to reap the benefits of flight mode without succumbing to its pitfalls. A difficult feat to accomplish? Certainly. Impossible? I do not think so.
A good starting point is a recognition, as explained above, that civic virtue is not just a “secular” matter. The Torah requires us to teach our children yishuv ha-medina, and this comes with a concurrent duty to discharge our own civic responsibilities. If this was true in a foreign, non-Jewish politic, it is all the more true for the State of Israel, where the potential for building a “second floor” of Kedusha is so much more dramatic. The balancing act is tricky, the path fraught with pitfalls; but on many levels, the journey has already begun, and we can but try to make good. Our task is to “be strong and let us be strengthened for our people and the cities of our God.” As the verse continues, the rest is out of our hands: “and Hashem will do what is good in His eyes.”