Saturday, November 6, 2010

Our Boys in Captivity

"Our boys in captivity need help! They need our tefillos! And they need financial contributions to assist in efforts for their release. Please open your hearts, for this critical mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim!"

That was the gist of a full-page ad on the back page of Mishpachah magazine that I just saw. Who are "our boys in captivity"? It was referring to the unfortunate yeshivah bochrim that are imprisoned in Japan for smuggling what they thought were antiquities but which turned out to be drugs.

It's certainly a terrible situation. But let us indulge in a thought-experiment. Japanese prisons are certainly not fun places in which to be incarcerated, but imagine if these students were, Heaven forbid, being faced with torture and execution. Can you imagine how much greater would be the outcry in the frum community?

Now, imagine if these boys were not even guilty of knowingly smuggling anything at all. Wouldn't we feel even more sympathy for them?

And imagine if, not only were they not guilty of smuggling anything, but at the time of arrest they were on a dangerous mission on behalf of the frum community. Imagine how much more we would be up in arms over the fate of such heroes!

Well, there is such a person in such a situation. Gilad Shalit is being held by Hamas, captured while on duty in the IDF, protecting Israel. And how much do we hear about him in the Charedi media, in the charedi yeshivas, in the charedi shuls?

Virtually nothing!

No articles in the newspapers. No major fundraising/lobbying campaigns. No Yom Tefillah. No learning in his zechus. No mishberachs in shuls. (In the non-charedi shul where I usually davven on Shabbos, they say a misheberach for him, whereupon the one charedi mispallel religiously takes out a book and sits down to read it.)

Sure, there is the odd exception. In the Aish Kodesh shul in Ramat Bet Shemesh, the very special Rav spoke about Gilad Shalit before ne'ilah on Yom Kippur. But he is an unusual person, and very much the exception. Amongst American charedim, you might hear Shalit's name mentioned here and there, but nowhere near as much as the celebrity captives such as the boys in Japan, Sholom Rubashkin, and, in the past, "Reb" Martin Grossman. Amongst Israeli charedim, you virtually never hear Shalit's name. Why?

Now, I have heard it argued that the cases are different in that with the bochrim in Japan, it is clear what needs to be done and how to use the money raised to accomplish that. With Shalit, on the other hand, it's not clear what to do. Should we be pressing the Israeli government to exchange terrorists for his release, or not? Many people are against such a trade, or are simply confused as to what is best.

But that argument is insufficient. First of all, there are plenty of ways that funds could clearly be used for his good - such as lobbying in the international media, which puts pressure on Hamas to, at the very least, keep him alive and in good health. Second of all, aren't we religious Jews? What about prayer, performing mitzvos in his merit, keeping his fate in the public consciousness - showing that we care?

The answer is that the yeshivah students in Japan are seen as "our boys." Shalit, a secular Israeli soldier, is not "one of us."

Now, to a certain extent, that is understandable. Human beings always care more about those with whom they identify more, and they identify more with those in their community. Countries care more about their own citizens. You care more about your family and neighbors than someone you don't know.

Yet while that is somewhat of a limmud zechus, it is not a justification. Everyone should be striving to care about the fate of every Jew - certainly someone in such a terrible situation, captured while serving the people. Furthermore, one must wonder by what measure exactly the yeshivah bochrim in Japan are seen as being "our boys," but not Shalit. Certainly many American charedi Jews are no closer culturally to chassidishe Israelis from Mea Shearim than to a secular Israeli. And it's not just a matter of religion; if Shalit were dati-leumi, I don't think it would make a difference. How religious was Martin Grossman? But his "teshuvah" led him to be adopted by the charedi community and subsequently his fate was identified as being a charedi cause. I suspect that the problem with Shalit is not that he's not shomer mitzvos; it's that he's in the IDF. God forbid to show that we care about an IDF soldier - it might send the wrong message to the community, and before you know it, our young men will be going to hesder!

This sort of phenomenon was one of the factors in my dissatisfaction with being in the charedi community (even before the ban on my books). There are good reasons for insularism, but when it comes at the cost of identifying with klal Yisrael (or rather, redefining klal Yisrael as "the charedi community"), then I think that something is seriously wrong. To be sure, there are exceptions, such as Uri Lupolianski and Yad Sarah, etc. But, in general, and as highlighted by the inequality between the concern for "our boys in Japan" and the lack of concern for Gilad Shalit, the charedi community simply does not adequately see itself as being part of the Jewish nation.

Ironically, it is this sort of attitude that caused the tragedy of the yeshivah boys in Japan. As Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, editor of the late Jewish Observer, once told me, lack of respect for civil law is a great problem in the charedi community. But what is the cause of this? In part, it's probably a cultural hangover from Europe, where the government really was the enemy. But that's not all of it; another component is the very insularism which characterizes the charedi community. When you don't see yourself as being a citizen of a country, you have less respect for civil law. There was a notorious Kupat Ha-Ir campaign which told the "inspirational" story of how someone decided to donate money to Kupat Ha-Ir, and as a result managed to smuggle items into Israel without being caught! And I once saw a cartoon in a Charedi magazine which showed a Chareidi schoolbus, overloaded with children, outwitting a policeman by having them hide on the floor - silly chiloni! With such an attitude being prevalent, is it any wonder that it was so easy to bribe some young men into smuggling?

We need to appreciate the importance of not just being a part of our micro-community, but also members of Am Yisrael and citizens of the State of Israel, as well as inhabitants of planet earth. We need to care about all our boys in captivity - but most of all for those who are innocent heroes, and who are in the worst situation.

(To find out more about Gilad Shalit, see this website)


  1. I very much identify as a Zionist (albeit, a "far-right" one), and yet think publicly davening for Shalit is somewhat absurd. If you want him out, pressure the government (or better yet, form a party that will take over the government) to kill 10 Hamas terrorists in prison every day until Shalit is released.

    That is what should be done (or something like it). Public prayer generally should be reserved for times when one is helpless. To publicly beseech Hashem when you have all the tools in your hand to solve your own problem makes a mockery out of prayer.

  2. 1. Gilad Shalit is frequently in the Yated and HaModia, that Netanyahu should make him a condition in peace talks, etc. Therefore, your conclusions about the Chareidi community are based on false premises.

    2. The Charedi community represents one part of Klal Yisroel. Just like other portions of klal yisroel, they also have an important role to play (especially those who are teaching and learning material concerning becoming a better person, such as Rav Wolbe's writings, and Rabbi Leib Kelemen's classes - both charedi individuals).

    3. If you have anything negative to say about any parts of klal yisroel, I think it is best to keep it to yourself (especially since they could be based on false premises, as I have shown above).

  3. I have very little smapathy for the boys in Japan. The completely ignored act is that they intended to commit a crime; smuggling antiquties. The mes rea was there. That they wound up commiting another crime, is almost beside the point. None of their hareidi defenders acknowledges the fact that these kids were up to no good from tehe get go, and until they do, all efforts to free them are morally suspect in my eyes.

  4. Thank you for this powerful post. We should be uncompromisingly dedicated to protecting the fate of all Jews in danger because that's what Hashem wants of us. Shavua tov.

  5. "We need to appreciate the importance of not just being a part of our micro-community, but also members of Am Yisrael and citizens of the State of Israel, as well as inhabitants of planet earth."

    Interesting. Of course it's all relative; I don't recall having seen any posts about Darfur.

  6. 1. Gilad Shalit is frequently in the Yated and HaModia, that Netanyahu should make him a condition in peace talks, etc.

    Glad to hear it. But I'm talking about spiritual and worldly hishtadlus, not news and editorials.

    Of course it's all relative; I don't recall having seen any posts about Darfur.

    Hmmm... good point.

  7. Assuming there is favoritism in the charedi community toward "our boys in Japan" (which is a reasonable observation), I wonder how many dati leumi shuls say a misheberach for Shalit and not for those boys? Granted, it may be for reasons other than favoritism...

    Which brings up another question - for whom is it "appropriate" to make a misheberach in shul? Who qualifies as shvuyim? Do we care if they "deserve" to have been taken captive or not? How do we regard heroism which came as a result of crime to another country? There is the 1) criminal/hero, 2) criminal/not a hero, 3) hero/not a criminal and 4) not a criminal/not a hero. There's even debate as to where to classify some people (e.g. Pollard).


    Would you say that saying "Barech Aleinu" makes a mockery out of prayer as long as it's within one's capacity to go out and earn a living? I'd imagine not.

    I think what you're saying is the problem is when prayer comes instead of action "on the ground". When it is done simultaneously, not only is this traditional (e.g. Yaakov in preparing to meet Esav) but prayer is a great motivator to rally people to action.

  8. "But, in general, ... the charedi community simply does not adequately see itself as being part of the Jewish nation."

    Or, maybe they don't adequately see the rest of the Jewish nation as being part of the Jewish nation. (Not sure if there's much of a difference between these two ways of framing it.)

  9. David Bar-Cohn,

    I believe that public prayer rallies are very different than regular tefillah.

    You wrote, "[P]rayer is a great motivator to rally people to action." I actually believe the opposite is true.

    Come to think of it, I think I would be comfortable with the following type of prayer service: One in which everyone prays for the success of specific measures -- which should be announced right before the tefillah -- that are being taken to accomplish x, y, and z. (A call to action preceding the tefillah would also be in order.) I don't mind if people then also pray for Hashem to accomplish x, y, and z in another way other than those mentioned if necessary or if He so wills.

    But just to pray in general is I think very "ghettoish." Sorry to use such an anti-galus term, but it's late and the only word I can think of right now. It also accurately reflects what I'm trying to say.

  10. Out of curiosity, is the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim even applicable to the boys in Japan? After all, they were arrested not because they were Jews but because they were smuggling drugs.

  11. Might I add something you haven't thought of?

    A soldier will always get less sympathy than a regular Joe. He was in the IDF, he was taking part in a dangerous mission he was captured but could have been killed. Soldiers die. Soldiers get captured its a fact of life and a part of warfare. Of course we care but Baruch Hashem we know he is in good condition because Hamas knows that if they hurt him or kill him they lose major points in the world sympathy area.
    These kids in Japan were basically innocent naive idiots. Yeah they aren't particularly intelligent and definitely not worldly and come from a poverty you and I should never know and were conned by the money and the fact that they thought a guy they knew would never betray them. Then they get caught with drugs and at first faced a possible death sentence. Of course the community feels moved to get involved and try to help. Amazing that you can take a good thing and "spin" it into something negative. With your creativity in "interpretation" of a simple news event it leads one to believe that maybe some people are just not intellectually honest even if they are bright.

  12. The person who sits and reads while others are praying for Jewish captives violates "le titgodedu". One is not supposed to overtly demonstrate in their presence that one is doing differently than the rest of the congregation.

  13. It goes without saying that the Haredi world should be davening for Yehonathan Pollard as well.

  14. Yehudah,

    I'm not sure if this was your point, but I could see saying that prayer can lead to a person's feeling they are "yotzei" - they've davened, and now they can put it out of their minds rather than take other action. That would be a reasonable argument.

    In that case, I'd say two things: 1) Better to have expressed care/solidarity and done nothing "concrete" than to have done neither, and 2) maybe we need to modify our routine to achieve a more "Yaakovian" approach, whereby prayer (personal, communal, or mass-communal) is accompanied by a committment to action, or at least the attempt to formulate a plan.

  15. This was an EXCELLENT post. Thank you for speaking up about this.

    And I hate to say it but I have to agree with Pliny that my observations are (having lived in the Chareidi world for most of my life) that Chareidi Jews for the most part do not see Jews that are not "one of them" as being a legitimate part of Klal Yisrael. (Of course there are exceptions, as there always are. But the general rule is a most unfortunate one.) Other than those who are "kiruv material" there is a general attitude that Jews who are Conservative, Reform, or Secular (unaffiliated) are not an acknowledged part of Klal Yisrael. The line is generally drawn down the line of observance. Chareidim WILL recognize, when it comes to very extreme situations, that those who are Shomer Shabbos & Kashrus are to be respected. But it is unfortunately only in extreme situations, like when the terrorist massacre at Merkaz Harav took place. Chareidi leaders came to the levaya saying that the boys were Shomer Mitzvos and learning Torah and therefore deserve to be honored.

    How sad that this is the situation. Especially since enemies of the Jewish people make no differentiations between us.

    Thank you for this thought provoking post and for reminding us to do whatever we can to support the release of Gilad Shalit.

    I'm going to write letters to my USA senators, congressman and the UN now.

  16. I have to agree with Pliny and Michapeset that Charedim do not, generally, see Jews other than themselves as part of Klal Yisroel. Klal Yisroel, for them, is synonymous with unserer. It was this outlook, more than anything else, which led me become identify myself as a religious Zionist and make aliyah, because religious Zionism, for all its faults, recognizes a Jewish Nation which encompasses all Jews, warts and all. I would go so far to say that this is the sinah at the heart of charedikeit which pasuls it, notwithstanding its positive elements. Denial of the unity of the Jewish Nation is tantamount to a denial of God Himself.

    As to Darfur - yes, we need to balance our particularism against our universalism and respond appropriately to all of humanity's ills, but that does not mean that we shouldn't pay particular attention to the problems facing Jews.

  17. Neither the boys in Japan nor Shalom Rubashkin meet ANY of the prima facia criteria for "shvuyin" as laid out by the Rambam:

    1) Their lives are not in danger
    2) There is no concern of starvation
    3) There is no concern that they will be properly clothed.

    Gilad Shalit meets all of these criteria.

    This is does not mean that we should be concerned that the boys in Japan and Rubashkin are receiving fair sentences. But there is just no comparison.

  18. FWIW, I think that RNS is misrepresenting the particular issue. I read haModia and it does seem to fully cover the Shalit situation. A reader actually posted a letter claiming the gist of RNS's claim here, and it was rebutted by another letter the next week. Regardless of which letter one side's with, we can see that the issue is not being ignored.

    Furthermore, haModia has published a number of special supplements about Pollard's case, including one a week or two ago. One might counter that this is only because Pollard started wearing a kippa, but hopefully we can agree that this claim would be both spurious and insulting.

    Also consider that other than prayer, almost any practical action can be argued for and against. Increasing political pressure in any direction will inevitably increase pressure on Israel to release unrepentant blood thirsty terrorists.

  19. Just another possible limud zchus: there are many people (secular Israelis, etc.)who are--or theoretically should be-- keeping on top of the Shalit situation. But if Chareidim didn't take up the cause of these boys, no one would. I think Chareidim intuit this, and that's why they focus on these cases more.

  20. "Glad to hear it. But I'm talking about spiritual and worldly hishtadlus, not news and editorials."

    Good. But actually do list his name and advocate saying tehillim for him, and they do worldly hishtadlus by publicly encouraging peace talks for his sake.

    I suggest looking for the positives in Jews and what unites us (especially since the negatives you claim exist may not be real in the end, but a false perspective).

  21. My experiences are different. Maybe there's a difference between Israel and America, as I suggested.

  22. In response to the question of who qualifies as shevuim, the way I understood it the archtype is when Avraham went to save Lot. Lot basically had no zechut to be saved but it was a mitzvah to save him anyways.

  23. I agree wholeheartedly with Rabbi slifkin, but this video gives an interesting and depressing spin on all of it:

  24. "Furthermore, one must wonder by what measure exactly the yeshivah bochrim in Japan are seen as being "our boys," but not Shalit. Certainly many American charedi Jews are no closer culturally to chassidishe Israelis from Mea Shearim than to a secular Israeli. And it's not just a matter of religion; if Shalit were dati-leumi, I don't think it would make a difference.

    I think you have to be living on a different planet to think than an American Chareidi Jew is no closer to a Mea She'arim resident than to a secular Israeli. Some chilonim eat pork for goodness sake!

    And for that very reason, I do think being dati-leumi would make a difference. Maybe not a tremendous one, but a significant one.

  25. Speaking about Darfur, it appears that Jonathan Rosenblum has written about it:

    I'm not saying he wrote about it in the way we'd like to see more writings about Shalit.

    (Anonymous, please use a fake name, and not "anonymous.")

  26. There's for sure a difference between charedi USA and Israel. You should move to the US! At least make it clear that it is not non-charedi vs. charedi, but non-charedi (who are just as important) along with charedi (who are just as important) - some of which are different than others, i.e. USA vs. israel. All the readers should know this. Ahavas yisroel is the key to bringing us back as ish echad b'lev echad.

  27. Start by taking away their money:,7340,L-3974053,00.html

  28. Excellent post. You're right on-target---if anything you're being [typically] diplomatic---about the selective sympathies of the frum community. J.Pollard, e.g., rates indignant comments from 'heimishe' types in the US, but primarily as an illustration of their convenient "all the goyim are against us" worldview; in terms of praying, attending a rally, actually doing ANYthing for him, he scores far below Rubashkin, who's sometimes actually portrayed as being persecuted for acts of chessed, by the strained logic that much of his money goes to tzedaka and also that he "enables countless yidden to eat kosher!" (you'd think he was giving the meat away gratis!)
    Collectively, our once-admirable moral clarity has deteriorated quite a bit.

  29. sigh. i've heard ppl say this but...not where i live. I live in a wonderful small suburb of London. There is a wonderful mix of chareidi to modern orthodox and non observant. It is a beautiful kehillah. I, Personally, have not stopped praying for gilad ben aviva, yonatan ben malka, rubashkin and boys in japan (could never remember their hebrew names! ) i don't agree r. Natan. all my friends pray for all these men. you need to get out of rbs and get into a town similar to edgware. :)
    btw I love your books! and really enjoying the blog...never weighed in before. I just felt it was unfair to assume that you know who ppl pray for.

  30. It's true that there are many charedim who daven for Gilad Shalit's safe release. What is an important point however is that there is no public event, asifa, yom tefilla, etc. that ever included Shalit in their prayers.
    When the "boys" were caught, there was an immediate call to tefilla for yom kippur kotton; and this even before there was any money collection. This implies that there is something to accomplish by just davening. It is wonderful that individual people recognize this and daven for Shalit, but do we not owe him at least the same level of kehilla-inspired tefila that we prayed for the boys in Japan.
    Especially as this post points out, Shalit's life is in constant danger while the "boys" are sitting in jail in a democratic country. Not the most comfortable situation but compared to Shalit, at least they are not in fear of their lives.
    And most ironic is the fact that Gilad Shalit is in danger because he protected Am Yisroel in Eretz Yisroel while the "boys" were taking an all-expenses-paid bein hazmanim trip.
    I don't belittle the pain and suffering of the "boys" and their families, but does it not behove us to treat all of klal yisroel's shvuyim with the same concern? Should not the mothers of the boys when they come to America to speak and plead in front of thousands of women to strengthen their mitzvah observance, also include the names of our other shvuyim to pray for; even perhaps as a zchus for their own children's release?
    Hamodia daily prints requests to finish tehillim 1000 times daily for the plight of the boys, and prints their names. Have they ever included the names of the other shvuyim?
    To those who claim that this is just looking to find fault with charedim I say, we are a special people and we do special things. However we could use some critique now and then, no matter who gives it. This is not fault finding but m'fashpesh b'maasim which is incumbent upon us all.


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