Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Evils of Civic Responsibility and National Pride?

A rabbinic colleague of mine recently purchased a Hebrew illustrated children's haggadah, Me-Avdut LeCherut, published by Yefeh Nof, to study with his youngest child. The copyright page includes a "hechsher" - an emblem announcing that it is a "kosher sefer," under the "Committee for the Kashrus of Books" established by a Machon Eshnav in Bnei Brak. The copyright page further includes not only the name of the "Torah editor," but also the person involved in the "Spiritual Oversight" (pikuach ruchani). Each of the cartoon illustrations, we are told in the introduction, brings to life various lessons that are taught in Torah sources.

With all this stress on the theological kashrus of the material, you'd expect it to be a very "safe" book. But my friend got to the first page, illustrating the cruelty of the slavery in Egypt, and was horrified. As am I.

The Egyptians are depicted as evil taskmasters with whips, maliciously lashing their Jewish slaves. But the statements they are uttering are not about how the Jews must suffer undue hardships and suffering. Rather, they are about basic civil responsibility - in particular, the statements commonly uttered in contemporary Israeli discourse. "You need to contribute to the state," says one taskmaster, "not just study Torah all day." And another Egyptian, with a snarl on his face as he raises his whip, says, "There needs to be an equal sharing of the burden!" The Hebrew phrase used, shivayon be'netel, is the phrase instantly recognizable to all Israelis as referring to the need for all Israeli communities, including charedi communities, to share the burden of supporting the economy and serving in the IDF.

I'm not sure which is worse - that an ostensibly super-kosher haggadah for children is pushing a hardline political worldview, or that the editors think that civic responsibility represents the evil of Ancient Egypt. I'll bet that children educated with such messages would guess that phrases such as "Shall your brethren go to battle, while you remain here?" were coined by evil Amalekites like Yair Lapid, rather than by Moshe Rabbeinu. Even the charedi Mishpacha magazine published an article by Jonathan Rosenblum stating that we all need charedim to get academic education and professional employment, for the sake of funding the IDF as well as supporting the economy. Rosenblum is clearly fighting an uphill battle, when children are being taught that civic responsibility is an evil Egyptian concept.

But even Mishpacha is hardly teaching good lessons about being part of a nation. In a recent column, Eytan Kobre condemns people feeling national pride in Israel's accomplishments in entrepreneurship, scientific discovery and innovation, economic strength, and sports. He bases this off a wild expansion of a statement by Rav Saadia Gaon that “Ein umaseinu umah ela b’Toroseha — Our nation is not a nation other than by virtue of its Written and Oral Torahs.” In fact, the original Arabic refers to the commandments rather than the Torah, and Rav Saadiah is merely establishing why the commandments are always binding. But Kobre takes it much further:
"Nothing other than our possession of the Torah plays any role in our national character, nothing whatsoever. Not a common land, language, and culture."
Apparently Kobre has forgotten about much of Sefer Bereishis and the first part of Shemos, in which we are established as a nation, descended from the forefathers, with a unique culture (and perhaps even a unique language), and in which we receive a promise of inheriting the Land of Israel. All of these are certainly a role in our national character, and they were all before we received the Torah.

Kobre continues:
"Not winning four games, or 15, in a baseball competition. Not ranking on some non-Jew’s list as the world’s eighth-strongest power. Not being a world leader in hi-tech R&D or entrepreneurship or 21st century Nobel Laureates. Not even boasting one of the world’s best-trained and equipped fighting forces. Of course, we should hope and pray that Israel’s economy thrives, and feel great when it does — and thank the Reason for it, too. That means Jews will have parnassah. Of course we need to be able to defend ourselves against the wolves that encircle us. But there’s a world of difference between feeling good that Jews are secure and have parnassah, and one’s heart swelling with national pride and feelings of 'we’ll show them…' "
Rabbi Sholom Gold has already penned an open letter with a harsh and devastating critique of Kobre. There are an abundance of explicit pesukim in Tanach which state precisely the opposite of Kobre's claim - verses which clearly demonstrate national pride in military and economic achievements. Which makes it particularly amusing/tragic that Kobre claims to be explicating "the most important truth in all of human history, one that echoes off the pages of every book in Tanach." Has he ever even read Tanach?!

But you don't need to go back to the Bible to see how Kobre is perverting Judaism. We have a much more recent and "charedi" source: none other than Chasam Sofer, the founding father of ultra-Orthodoxy. He declares that in the Land of Israel, one does not only work the fields in order to make a living. There is also the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz, settling the land. In the same way as one stops learning Torah to put on tefillin, says Chasam Sofer, one stops learning Torah to farm the land, which is the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz. Chasam Sofer explains that yishuv ha'aretz does not just mean living in the Land of Israel; it means developing the country. He further says that not just farming, but all industries and professions, are part of settling the land and giving it honor - which includes concern about how it is perceived by the rest of the world.

Whether it's with children's' comics or supposedly sophisticated adult op-eds, the charedi community clearly has a long way to go in understanding the traditional Torah importance of civic responsibility and national pride.

43 comments:

  1. Perhaps you should look at it this way: An Israeli baseball team goes further in a world championship than anyone expected. Of course other Jews feel pride in them but what exactly is the difference between Jewish pride in the Israeli baseball team and Canadian pride in the Canadian team? I would suggest the answer is: nothing. And maybe that's the problem here. We are not meant to be just another nation, to feel pride in the same accomplishments as other nations, to set the same standards for achievement as other nations. Should I feel pride in a Jew who doesn't keep Shabbos or kashrus and never learns Torah but who wins an important chess tournament or stars in a major blockbuster movie? Why? What then makes me different from any other ethnic person on the planet?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Garnel, you are mixing all kinds of different things together.
      Should we feel pride in Israel's amazing economic/military/scientific successes? Yes, absolutely.
      Should we feel pride that many Jews are secular? No.
      Should we feel pride when a Jew stars in a movie? Depends on the movie.

      Delete
    2. What would you say about the (admittedly D'rash) interpretation of the following Pasuk as referring to astronomy? "וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם--כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם, לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים: אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת כָּל-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה, וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם-חָכָם וְנָבוֹן, הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה."

      Delete
    3. Well, one at a time:

      -Considering that the Israeli baseball team was mostly Americans, many of whom had little connection to Judaism, yes, I feel pride, at the very least, that Israel was able to bring that connection out in them and that they united for this cause. Added to that that the team did, ultimately, represent Israel (and Judaism- remember that during the playing of Hatikva, they took off their caps to reveal kippot), then of course I feel pride.

      -By movie star I assume you're referring to Gal Gadot. I know little about her and have never seen one of her movies, but I can tell you that she's raising a Jewish family in the Holy Land, and that on Friday afternoons she (and, cutely, her little girl) covers her hair, lights candles, covers her eyes, and says a bracha. I have pride in that, and that she's starring as an icon of American popular culture. Maybe I will see Wonder Woman after all. But probably not. :-)

      -By chess player I assume you mean Boris Gelfand. Here I can speak with a bit more authority (and bias), as he is my cousin, and a world-class mensch in a field not known for well-adjusted types. Here is a man who could have gone to the US- his parents and sister did- and chose to come, again, to this Holy Land, a country which, it should be pointed out, takes a very large share of his winnings. He represents it under its flag, he loves it, he is (again) raising a Jewish family here, and does his best to promote Israel in his field, bringing big stars here for matches, and to promote his field in Israel, teaching kids the game and encouraging it.

      None of that is nothing.

      Delete
    4. I could add two more points.
      1) Rav Kook, ztk"l, has a whole chapter on the importance of sports and exercise in Orot but the point is that healthy physical bodies are an important base for a healthy spiritual nation, not an end unto itself
      2) Rav Hirsch, zt"l, has a famous quote in his Chumash commentary: Israel is the land of God. Jews are the nation of God. That means that Israel is not the land of the Jews.

      Delete
    5. Ideally, a Jewish team should stir pride through extra impressive conduct on and off the field. But even if that's not so, why should something which helps other nations not help for the Jewish nation? What's so special about having a national currency, for example?

      Delete
  2. What does the "bad son" look like vs the "good son?"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The rasha is usually depicted as a soldier in older haggados. I wouldn't be surprised if in this one, he's an Israeli soldier.

      Delete
    2. I was reflecting over the holiday, looking at the various Haggadahs in my collection, how the Rasha appears differently in every country and in every period of time. In American Haggadahs for much of the 20th century, he was portrayed as basically Arnold Rothstein, complete with the big cigar. It would make for an interesting pictorial monograph to show the evolution of the Rasha across the exile.

      Delete
    3. My favourite is that Feldheim one where the wise son looks like a standard Chareidi yeshiva kid, the rasha is wearing a modern suit and Reform-style kippah and the tam has a kippah serugah on.

      Delete
    4. Monographs have, indeed, been written and lectures delivered.

      Delete
    5. We should print one where the chacham is a mizrochnik working in hi-tech in Ramat Hachayal, the rasha lives in Flatbush Brooklyn, the Tam is a russian immigrant She'eno yodea lishol is from Bnei Brak.

      And they are all women of course

      Delete
    6. Rabbi Leiman has one, for example. I'm not sure it's on the internet.

      Delete
  3. One of the essential hallmarks of the haredi worldview is, I am coming to believe, an utter lack of self-awareness. Otherwise, how can a spokesman for an ideology that elevates the cultural markers encoded in the acronym "shalem"--name, language and clothing--over every Torah value expressed by Chaza"l make a statement like,"Nothing other than our possession of the Torah plays any role in our national character, nothing whatsoever. Not a common land, language, and culture?" Simply mind boggling.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm curious if any explanation exists to substantiate pride in Israeli sports teams as Torah-valued. (Although I don't think that it is this aspect that R. Slifkin is criticizing).

    R Stefansky

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The focus on sports is misleading to avoid the real argument. Sport is not a Jewish thing so the national pride is just that - national pride. But building for a safe home for Jews with a welfare, health and educational system IS Jewish and worthy of pride As is having one of the world's most moral armed forces. As is having recreated a thriving Jewish homeland that grows daily from almost nothing in 70 (69...) years.

      There is much for a real Jew to be proud of. Or at least for a Jew that still sees himself as part of the Jewish people. Hardiman may have essentially excluded themselves from that.

      Delete
    2. I would say that it is Torah-valued in the same way that offering prizes for kids to learn is Torah-valued. It is not Lishmah, but if it encourages keeping a connection to Judaism for the masses of Jews who have no connection at all (or even for those who have a strong connection), then it is has "Torah-value". I don't see how it could be a negative, any more then kids pursuing Torah for prizes or adults pursuing it for honor is.

      Delete
  5. I think that this quote from one of the articles (h/t to the website you quoted) goes to confirm the aphorism: "The first thing a man will do for his ideal is lie":

    There’s more than a kernel of truth in the story told of a Jew who, flush with spiritual inspiration, decided he’d had his fill of the tumas eretz ha’amim and would instead make the Holy Land his home. He quickly wound up his affairs, gathered his kin and set out on his journey, his Russian hometown now a mere memory. Entering Yerushalayim, his heart quickened as he made his way swiftly to the Kosel Hamaaravi, the focal point of every Jew’s prayers.

    But strangely, as he prayed passionately for the first time before the ancient stones, he sensed a presence beside him. He looked up and – lo and behold! – it was the yetzer hara, right next to him at this holiest of sites. Stunned, all he could mutter was, “B-b-but I thought I left you behind in Russia!” Came the swift reply, “Silly one – who do you think brought you here?”


    Wow.

    ReplyDelete
  6. The gemara in sota suggests that the civil service argument was how the Egyptians enslaved us to begin with

    ReplyDelete
  7. ...which shows that it's a good argument! The problem is that the Egyptians were lying about everyone being involved!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not that I particularly agree with the Hareidi world, there is something to be said for the Hilonim arguing for sharing the burden whilst 50% of Tel Avivim get exemptions from military service....everyone is not involved in military service, despite their fantasies that they are.

      Delete
    2. (it is a real question not a will to contadict)
      If it is a good argument, what is the praise on Levi's tribe not getting involved in the first place ?

      Delete
    3. That's a libel on the dedicated Tel Avivians. 50% is a ridiculous number. Hard as it may be for haters to grasp, the vast majority of secular Israelis serve in the IDF, proudly, and that includes Tel Avivians. I work across the street from the Ministry of Defense, and every day I see countless secular soldiers, male and female, reporting for duty.

      Delete
    4. To reouven b, the obvious answer:

      That they realised they were going to be tricked in that the Egyptians had no intentions of actually sharing the burden.

      Of course this whole analogy is stupid. Western democracies are designed to protect the masses from such abuses. So much of our political discussion nowadays is about how to protect minorities and the less privileged. The analogy doesn't even deserve a response.

      Delete
  8. Whether it's with children's' comics or supposedly sophisticated adult op-eds, the charedi community clearly has a long way to go in understanding the traditional Torah importance of civic responsibility and national pride.

    I don't think this is quite right. I think they understand it quite well. The problem is that they either don't care, or they don't feel they are a part of the civilization in which they live, thus they have no responsibility towards it. Remember, Charedim are strong proponents of the views that in the post-Messianic era, non-Jews will be willing slaves of the Jews.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I'm not in the peleg, but it's clear to me that the army has an agenda and a huge budget to secularize the charedim. Forcing mixed units when all the evidence shows this degrades operational capabilities is a statement of priority, and I have no doubt that the inevitable consequences of this would be precisely what was intended. It's not unreasonable for children to be taught that the seemingly friendly world is actually quite dangerous, and the Egyptians are in any case not just a historical entity but the prime example of all the forces that seek to enslave us.
    Tali Loewenthal has an interesting talk on how the universalist message of the besht became a defensive one with the attacks of the reform. This is still ongoing today.
    I do look forward to a day when I can really have national pride, but it's not here just yet.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Please find even one example of a soldier forced to join a mixed unit. You've been listening to anti-Zionist propaganda for so long, you've never stopped to think that maybe people with an agenda aren't truthful.

      Delete
    2. Also a lie "a huge budget to secularize the haredim". Baseless conspiracy ahoy!

      Delete



  10. רק לא הפרשה מספרת לי:
    הפרשה מספרת לי - אכן התמונות נהדרות אך התוכן מזעזע! אותי שבר סיפור הפרשה המספר על קבלת התורה (לא זוכרת אם בשמות או בדברים) בו הובא המדרש - ואגב, לא צויין שזה מדרש אלא סיפור הפרשה הרגיל - לפיו עוג מלך הבשן הרים את ההר ורצה לזרוק אותו על ישראל "כפה הר כגיגית" אך הקב"ה הביא נמלים שיכרסמו אותו וההר נפל על ידיו וכלא אותן בפנים וכשהוא רצה להוציא את ההר השיניים (!!!) שלו נתקעו בהר.... ה´ ישמור! לא הכרתי את המדרש הזה, ולא הייתי רוצה שהתמונות הענקיות של ענק מפחיד עם שיניים נעוצות בהר יהיה הסיפור הראשון שיכירו הילדות לעניין קבלת התורה.
    באמת זעזע אותי.
    ועוד - בחירת הסיפורים שם היא מאוד סלקטיבית, ובשום אופו לא מוציאים את בני ישראל "לא בסדר" כמו סיפורי קברות התאווה או לשון הרע שאמרה מרים על ציפורה. מה לעשות שזה כן חלק מהנרטיב היהודי בעולם, וחשוב שנכיר גם סיפורים אילו.
    לי חשוב בגיל צעיר למצוא משהו שהכי קרוב לפשט, ומממש לא מצאתי זאת בספר הנוראי ההוא. ויסלחו לי אוהבות הספר.

    ReplyDelete
  11. So finding a cure for a diabetes, or developing technologies that can enable people to drive on roads and drink clean water only has value for "parnoosa"?
    Kobre displays the typical crude and blinkered worldview that anything that has to do with human development can didn't come from his daily daf yomi only has value vis-a-vis money.
    Talk about playing to anti-Semitic stereotypes - but with people like Kobre writing, the stereotype apparently contains more than a grain of truth.

    ReplyDelete
  12. In the Torah, success and prosperity is described as something positive. One just has to remember that it comes from G-d, so one should be humble and give thanks to Him, instead of being arrogant and attribute the success to one's own powers.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Kobre's letter is basically tipshus, but it is representative of what ballei teshuvah and/or Artscroll readers [which are more or less synonymous] are taught to think. That quote from R. Saadiah Gaon has been repeated and perverted so often, its enough to make one ill. Anyone who quotes it can automatically be presumed to fall into the above category, i.e., unlearned.

    To quote the actual Torah to people like this, as R. Gold does, is a waste of time. Nay, more - to quote even the words of Shas, or rishonim or achronim like the Chasam Sofer, is also pointless. These people aren't interested. They have a lifestyle, and they'll just choose what they like and ignore the rest. (They're not the only ones like that, it just sounds worse because of the false piety which goes along with it.) The best one can say is that Kobre (et al) is not ignoring the vast portions of the Torah literature that demolish that warped point of view, but rather he is ignorant of it. To be ignorant is not to ignore.

    The only other possibility is that his BT/Artscroll paradigms have caused him to twist and pervert the words until they comport with what he has been taught. Its nearly impossible to shift one's paradigms.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Here is why it is not a waste. There are people who are more open to different possibilities, but because of Artscroll and others, they think that the "right-wing/Charedi" position is a more historically accurate form of Judaism and taking on more of any of "left-wing/modern/academic/rz" positions is a kind of reform. When they learn otherwise, their cognitive dissonance can be relieved.

      Delete
  14. Eytan Kobre is an Agudah PR man whose writings are eminently forgettable. However, the children's Haggadah abortion is of greater concern. It illustrates the extent to which Israeli Hareidi figures strives to manipulate and poison young minds. I'm sure that the same false message of state oppression and of enmity to the non-Hareidi world and state is propagated by the teachers of these children. When these children become older, they will either rebel against the falsehoods taught them and the Harieidi lifestyle, or continue to believe in such nonsense. In the latter case, we will find an ever increasing number of Hareidi militants producing civil disorder. The only solution to such continuing and worsening disorder and weakness in the state is for the non-Hareidi public to give a secular party like Yesh Atid an election mandate to rule without the need for a coalition, or a coalition involving Hareidi or nationalist parties. Then the undeserved privileges that Hareidi leaders and institutions have enjoyed can be curtailed, and basic educational standards can be imposed. If that doesn't happen, I don't see how the state can long remain viable.

    Y. Aharon

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The only solution to such continuing and worsening disorder and weakness in the state is for the non-Hareidi public to give a secular party like Yesh Atid an election mandate to rule without the need for a coalition

      Sometimes, pressure from the outside backfires. The draft effort simply provoked an internal backlash without improving the situation. That said, I don't have an answer either.

      Delete
  15. I have this haggadah for my kids, it's published in English as "Let's Go Free with Miri and Tzvi." I actually thought that page was well done in that it showed how Paraoh really tricked the Jews to start working for him by using platitudes that encouraged civic responsibility. It was only later that his more sinister intentions were revealed. Perhaps these phrases have different connotations in Hebrew and English, but I didn't find them offensive in the English version.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's not that the phrases have different connotations in Hebrew. It's that the phrase used in the Hebrew edition has a very specific connotation in Israel.

      Delete
    2. Any Hebrew speaker would recognize them in a second.

      Delete
  16. I always understood the Saadiah quote as actually being humbling for the Jewish people- we're really no better than the non-Jews, it's just that we have a Torah...

    ReplyDelete
  17. RDNS, what do you think of that Haggadah portraying Egyptians telling Israelites that they shouldn't "learn Torah all day"? Do you think kids realize the impossibility of such a thing, or do you think it just goes over their heads? Do you think its wise to teach things that intelligent children will dismiss as nonsense? Should these type of midrashim be taught as though they were factual?

    ReplyDelete
  18. 1) Strawman. I haven't heard any Israeli talk about baseball; I'm not aware of anyone who really cares, let alone someone who sees Israeli sports as an important source of national pride. Perhaps Kobre is reading too many newspapers and not speaking to actual Israelis (who are actually more Torah conscious than Kobre would give them credit for.)

    2) "Not a common land, language, and culture". If we ignore the preceding sentence, we have a statement that echoes classic Reform Judaism. They replaced Hebrew with German. They rejected the Land. They rejected Jewish culture for a more universal culture.

    3) Land. This is plain ignorance. Look at the first Rashi in the Torah. The אבות only observed מצות while in ארץ ישראל. Even מצוות שהן חובת הגוף which are observed in חו"ל may be contingent on our eventual return to ארץ ישראל. Whatever happened to אין תורה כתורת ארץ ישראל? (But see RYBS in Thinking Aloud for a different view.) Does this mean that the Land has value independent on תורה ומצות? Of course not, the Land spews out those who don't observe תורה. But Kobre's utter rejection of the Land is without foundation.

    4) Language. שלא שינו את לשונם. Enough said.

    5) Culture. שלא שינו את לבושם. Even the least important aspects of culture, such as the color of shoelaces is a matter of life and death. What about חוקת הגוים? If we take the Gra's more expansive definition against the Remah, then all aspects of culture must be Jewish!

    6) Kobre is living in the past. Not the past of the חפץ חיים or the חתם סופר. But the past of the old secular Zionist era that doesn't exist anymore. Some 3/4 of Israelis fast on Yom Kippur. And you'll find similar impressive number for other religious observances. Many secular Israeli observe שבת and כשרות to some significant extent. There's even widespread observance of טהרת המשפחה. I heard that most Jewish Knesset members are שומר שבת. Even Israeli secular TV shows have an impressive amount of Torah content. (I have one friend, who is no longer Orthodox but still keeps kosher and שבת. No way he would be that observant in Brooklyn.) The world that Kobre fusses about simply doesn't exist.

    ReplyDelete
  19. ACJA says:

    "not just study Torah all day." Wait a minute. Was not the Torah given after the Israelites leave slavery ?. It makes little sense the Israelites had a copy of the entire Torah while in Egypt. Because then they would know exactly what was going to happen in all details before it happens and if so why would they do things that lead to their own deaths. Give me a break. I think it has been taught the the Torah preexisted the world, but give me a break - the Israelites had a copy while in bondage ? ACJA

    ReplyDelete

Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.

Another View On How Torah Protects

A few years ago, in a post entitled What Is The Mechanism Via Which Torah Protects? , I discussed the concept that Torah protects from har...