In what follows, I wish to discuss “Israeli citizenship” from a Torah and Charedi perspective – a central issue in these days of heated debate over the place of Charedi society within Israel. Alongside certain rights, citizenship delineates duty and responsibility. For a Torah society, it defines the contours of public Torah responsibility. One of the great challenges facing us today is discharging this public responsibility in the Torah sense. The trigger for writing this short piece on the subject is an editorial recently published in “Yated Ne’eman” (from Friday, 23.12.22), which outlined, for me, a disappointing attitude to the question of our citizenship and responsibility. Below, effectively, is my response.
What is the Torah position concerning the great questions of human-political existence, whether general or specifically Jewish? What defines the role of a sovereign state in the lives of individual citizens? What should be the relationship between the centralized government and the local government? How should a criminal punishment system look? How should the “climate crisis” be handled? What are the appropriate arrangements for matters of religion and state, given the reality of a non-observant Jewish majority? How should we resolve the tension between the values of equality and freedom? Should economic policy reflect personal responsibility or public compassion? Is it appropriate to make huge investments in medical research? How should a Jewish state treat its non-Jewish minorities?
The answer to these questions, according to an editorial in the newspaper, is that there are no answers. “We are neither Right nor Left!” shouted the column. “We are Daas Torah! We are ‘You shall comply with all that you are instructed.’” It turns out, Heaven forbid, that the Torah has nothing to say about the big questions of human existence. The Beis Midrash has to limit itself to dealing with questions that pertain to the Jewish kitchen and traditional areas of personal life alone. The Beis Midrash has no occupation with matters that affect our core existence as individuals and as a nation – a nation that now possesses a sovereign state. For such matters, we can only make decisions, albeit by Torah elders, based on local and instrumental considerations.
Is it possible that precisely here, in the big questions of life and human society, we have no engagement and position?
I find this position untenable. The basic thrust of the Torah is life – life that is good and elevated: “You shall observe My decrees and My laws, which man shall carry out and by which he shall live – I am Hashem” (Vayikra 18:5). The Rambam expands on this and states that the core significance of mitzvos and halacha is that “they are the great good that the Holy One, blessed be he, has done to settle this world” (Foundations of the Torah 4:13; the continuation of his words is “in order to have life in the world to come”). That is, the role of the mitzvos is to order a working and elevated society, as the Torah mitzvos instruct us. Is it possible that precisely here, in the big questions of life and human society, we have no engagement and position?
How did we reach this level of Torah bankruptcy? How did we reach a situation in which we declare the withdrawal of the Torah from the most significant areas of life? The answer, as I will explain shortly, lies in how we define the arena. The relevant Yated Ne’eman authors, and probably some of the Charedi representatives, define their “arena of life” narrowly, and this definition has enormous ramifications for questions of Torah, society, and of course, politics. It is important to recognize this.
What is Our Arena?
In a similar Yated Ne’eman piece, penned by editor Yisrael Friedman some twenty years ago (Mussaf Shabbat, 11 Cheshvan 5863), the same claims were made in greater detail:
Bnei Torah, as well as those forced to leave the benches of the Beis Midrash but whose umbilical cord of belonging has not yet been severed, cannot belong to the outside world. For a Ben Torah, there is nothing in the world but four cubits of halacha. A student of Torah cannot be the one to bring into his Beis Midrash worldview the wandering winds that blow from outside. A Ben Torah takes the Beis Midrash with him even when he is outside, carrying the walls of the protective fortress with him, blocking his field of vision and preventing him from grazing in foreign fields.
This passage does not refer to young Yeshiva students alone. In the illustration attached to the piece, we find an Avrech leaving his Kollel institution into the “big world” – he is depicted as walking on an entire globe – while attaching a gas mask (from the Gulf War era) to his face and wearing a hermetic nylon cover, his list of “urgently necessary arrangements” in hand (for why else would he leave?). The unmistakable statement is that our arena – the setting for every Charedi person’s life, even those whose Torah is not their full-time profession – is the arena of the Beis Midrash alone. Outside its boundaries, there is simply no air to breathe, it is outside (so to speak) the pale of settlement. No life can flourish there. And if there is no life, then there is no halacha either.
The “four cubits of halacha” are thus reduced to four cubits of life in the Beis Midrash
The “four cubits of halacha” are thus reduced to four cubits of life in the Beis Midrash. Of course, we also need to eat in the Beis Midrash, so we must be occupied with laws concerning meals and other matters and actions that take place within. However, there is no place in the Beis Midrash for the great questions of human society or the State of Israel. These questions belong to the world outside – outside of the Yishiva Noah’s Ark. And there, after all, it is impossible to live.
In this context, the editorial continues to cite the position of the Brisk Rav zt”l concerning how we ought to act were Charedi society to become a majority. His response was that:
Even if I were to become the Interior Minister and Rav Yechezkel Avramsky the Defense Minister, because these are matters of supreme import and decisions relating to going to war – and this is a matter of Pikuach Nefesh (danger to life) concerning which we have no instruction from the Shach and the Taz – we would still not be able to run the state and take responsibility.
According to the Brisk Rav, even if the outside world becomes ours by virtue of our becoming a majority, it would still not be ours. We have no right to take responsibility for matters outside the narrow halachic tradition; they are by definition foreign and estranged.
Of course, the depiction is extreme and abstract. Achieving a Charedi majority was very far from the mindset of the Brisk Rav zt”l, and the editorial is clearly unreflective of the complexities of actual life. In real life, there are many Charedi individuals, even those whose “umbilical cord of belonging has not been broken,” who frequently experience in-depth encounters with the outside world, and these encounters impact the internal social dynamic of Charedi society. However, even a pure ideal has consequences. One of them is the Torah occupation with big questions. A related issue on which I wish to focus is the matter of citizenship.
Wresting the Spear from the Egyptian?
While waiting to board a Newark flight back to Israel, I noticed the range of expressions used by frum English speakers Jews do denote our little area of Land in the Middle East that houses so many Jewish. These included Modern-Orthodox Jews, Litvish Jews, and Hassidim. For Modern-Orthodox Jews, the exclusive name was “Israel.” Among the Chassidim, the exclusive designation was “Eretz Yisroel.” By contrast, the Litvish sector used mixed nomenclature, Sometimes Eretz Yisroel and sometimes Israel. Here, I thought to myself, we have the range of worldviews condensed into a single word. For the Chassidim (to stereotype and generalize), “Israel” simply does not exist. For the moderns, “Israel” is everything, subsuming even the “Land of Israel.” The Litvish, by contrast, have it both ways: sometimes Eretz Yisroel, sometimes Israel.
However, while less absolute for the Litvish community of the States, the matter of Israel versus Eretz Yisrael seems clear, at least according to Yated Ne’eman, for the Israeli counterpart. The current editorial states emphatically that we are not citizens of Israel: “The question of which side of the political map we are on is valid concerning Israeli citizens, for whom the elected government is sovereign. We, however, are citizens of Eretz Yisroel, whose sovereign is the Sovereign of the World (Ribbino Shel Olam).”
This definition arises from the basic position as described above towards the world outside the Beis Midrash. Insofar as our world is constrained by the boundaries of the four cubits of halacha, we can only be citizens of the Beis Midrash – the halachic “Land of Israel” rather than the non-religious State of Israel. And citizenship has consequences.
Being a citizen defines a set of rights and duties: a duty of loyalty to the state and the right to receive its benefits, including the protection of rights and financial benefits. The statement whereby “we are not Israeli citizens” is coherent for those who do not receive benefits from the state and certainly don’t participate in its politics, such as Brisk Rav zt”l as quoted above. It is less coherent for those who take advantage of their citizenship status to enjoy full civil rights and even send representatives to the Knesset to maximize them, yet avoid the other side of the coin – fidelity to the state as an ordinary citizen. How can this position be honestly maintained?
The answer to this puzzle appears later in the editorial: “All we have received permission for is to fill positions in which we can save from lion and the bear, from the current of the sea and the flood of the river, to ensure the needs of the Jewish faithful and in standing guard over the holy of Israel.” That is, we are not really part of the game, and our participation is in appearance alone, to “save from the lion and the bear” in order to strengthen the Torah community. In the aforementioned article the wording is even harsher:
Even operating within a Charedi party requires the guidance of the pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire – the eyes of the community leaders. Even this step was taken solely on the orders of our great Rabbis to protect the walls of Judaism, to save from the lion, the bear, and the cheetah. For this purpose, the great leaders of generations had to snatch the spear from the hand of the Egyptian and function even in this arena. But all of this was allowed only when it was carried out under the umbrella of the great rabbinic leadership, and not because we are part of the political game. Absolutely not! Only because we comply with all that they instruct us!
The political arena, as we find again, is simply not our arena. We are not Israelis but rather people of the “Land of Israel,” and hence we are not part of Israel’s politics. We function within its framework but with the sole purpose of “wresting the spear from the hand of the Egyptian.”
There are two deep flaws with this argument. One is the lack of honesty and engagement in doublespeak. On the one hand, Charedi representatives constantly state on Israeli media that they seek the best for the State of Israel – its institutions, mechanisms, and citizens – while internally, they explain that their entire political occupation involves wresting the spear from the hands of the secular Egyptians who run the country. We don’t like it when other communities engage in this type of dishonesty, and we should be faithful to the maxim of “what you hate for yourself, do not do to your fellow.” The deeper problem, however, is that claiming we are not citizens is simply a lie.
We care a lot about the country. We care about its institutions, its mechanisms, and of course, its citizens. The political arena is definitely our arena. The coalition agreement signed by Degel HaTorah and Agudas Yisrael includes sections that improve the conditions of those serving in the army (sections 16-20), require “the establishment of hundreds of sports fields throughout the country” (section 64) as well as “original productions with an emphasis on issues of Zionism and heritage” (section 66), and even set high standards in regards to environmental issues – along with many other sections. We care about the country because it is ours, because we are citizens of Israel and not just citizens of the Land of Israel, and because the “Egyptian” from whom we need to snatch the spear is none other than ourselves.
We have one big problem: we just don’t know what to do.
The Approach of the Chazon Ish – Then and Now
The purpose of the Yated Ne’eman editorial was to justify the Degel HaTorah ideology that rallies against the more pragmatic approach of the Chassidic Agudas Yisrael. It was this ideological position that caused MK Moshe Gafni to give up the possibility of being appointed as Housing Minister in favor of Yitzchak Goldknopf, a representative of Gur Chassidism. It likewise provoked strident opposition to the proposal of Goldknopf’s participation in Israel’s security cabinet. In making these claims, however, the editorial conveys deep confusion.
Why should we not serve as ministers in Israel’s government? We cannot do this, the piece claims, because “the heads of state, those who despise religion, are unauthorized to make decisions, and we cannot trust their judgment and decision-making.” Because of this, “we must not be part of their decision-making, reinforce it or even make decisions for ourselves in matters of sending people to war.”
This statement raises an absurd situation. On the one hand, it is impossible to trust the secularists and their systems of consideration, and therefore it is also forbidden to serve as ministers. But on the other hand, we cannot trust ourselves because we do not have the power to decide questions related to war and to potential loss of life
This statement raises an absurd situation. On the one hand, it is impossible to trust the secularists and their systems of consideration, and therefore it is also forbidden to serve as ministers. But on the other hand, we cannot trust ourselves because we do not have the power to decide questions related to war and to potential loss of life. It thus emerges that we are entirely incapacitated to make political decisions in the State of Israel. There is no choice but to close down the state!
The truth is that we have long been full partners in the state – certainly, this is a feeling shared by large sections of the Charedi public – and today we are senior partners in its government. Its decisions are our decisions, and its responsibility is our responsibility. However, we also know the converse: we cannot be part of a “secular state” and cannot be partners with “secularists.” This, at any rate, is what we’ve always known, and nobody makes the effort to update the rhetoric because we just don’t know what to do. Given a situation of grave doubt, we continue to maintain both sides and live in a state of contradiction, acting as citizens but talking as though we were not.
The editorial mentions the position of the Chazon Ish, who, in sharp contrast to the position of the Brisk Rav (a contrast the author elegantly ignores, though he clearly adopts the position of the Brisk Rav), gave a different answer to the question of “what shall we do when becoming a majority”: “First, they should give us the power of decision, and then we will know how to decide the matter based on Torah law.” According to the Chazon Ish, it emerges that there is certainly a Torah position, not only Daas Torah actual Torah rulings, just as any other halachic issue demands. The state is certainly our arena, only that at the time – probably in the early fifties of the previous century –the question was not yet relevant. Nobody was asking us.
Today, in contrast, the question has become very relevant. The question is being asked everywhere, both in the religious-secular discourse and even in internal-Charedi discussions. We ask how it is possible to enter an in-depth partnership with the state while promoting Torah values and preserving the internal-Charedi values we wish to preserve. We ask how to imagine a Jewish state while a large part of the population remains non-observant. And we ask the basic questions posed at the beginning of the article. We ask these questions of ourselves, and since we don’t have answers, we recycle journalistic rhetoric that was relevant several decades ago but has today lost its steam.
Something needs to change. In the era of the Chazon Ish we faced the urgent and crucial challenges of re-establishing the Torah and Yeshiva worlds that were decimated in the Holocaust and restoring the community life of Torah-observant Jewry. Thank God, these tasks have been miraculously and remarkably achieved, far beyond any imaginable expectation. Today, it is time to deal with the big question that stands before us, with its countless consequences: How do we want to live here?
Following the victory of the right-wing bloc in the recent elections and the increase in the power of Charedi representatives, Eli Paley, publisher of Mishpacha Magazine and chairman of the Charedi Institute for Policy Studies, published a column expressing his hopes for our representatives. He wrote as follows:
The time has come for all political actors — whether they wear a black yarmulke, colorful kippah, or no head covering at all — to take a good hard look at the State of Israel of today and tomorrow and to realize that the time has come to lay the track for the train leading to Israel 2050: strategic plans for Chareidi society on all core issues. Because plans that respect the values of Chareidim while providing them with socioeconomic solutions will ultimately benefit the entire population.
Has the hope been realized? Can we rise above the temptation of short-term gain and think about the good of the country as a whole in the long term, or will the traditional lobbying – shtadlanus – that Paley rallied against win the day? The coalition negotiations did not do us much respect. Mahmoud Abbas’s representation of the Arab sector must not be our role model for us, and we cannot adopt the coarse vulgarities that appalled many over the course of the negotiations. The opportunity, however, remains before us.
These blessings came via the sovereign state of Israel, and a basic duty of fairness requires us to concede (proudly) that we are Israeli citizens, replete with the loyalty this implies, alongside being residents of the Holy Land. In doing so, we will take the first step towards taking the enormous responsibilities that await us
Perhaps it is appropriate to begin from a place of middos, starting with a sense of gratitude. Despite its flaws, the State of Israel is the biggest supporter in history of Torah study. There is no doubt about this fact. In addition, the state allowed and even actively contributed to the growth and prosperity of Torah society, and the results are before our eyes. These blessings came via the sovereign state of Israel, and a basic duty of fairness requires us to concede (proudly) that we are Israeli citizens, replete with the loyalty this implies, alongside being residents of the Holy Land. In doing so, we will take the first step towards taking on the enormous responsibilities that await us.