Does Rosenblum Come To Praise The Gedolim, Or To Bury Them?
Jonathan Rosenblum is one of the most important writers in the Anglo-charedi world. He is a former staunch charedi apologist, who thereby gained great legitimacy and authority in the charedi world, being a star writer in establishment publications such as Yated Ne'eman and The Jewish Observer. But over the last few years, he has steadily moved in the post-charedi direction.
Rosenblum has written columns in the quasi- rebellious magazine Mishpachah in which he described the charedi community as having a "diminished Klal Yisrael consciousness." He once famously likened the kollel system to toxic chemotherapy. In another column, he called for wholesale reform in the charedi way of life vis-a-vis Torah study. And in yet another column, he declared that we all need charedim to get academic education and professional employment.
In his latest column for Mishpacha, he returns to these themes. After writing about great changes taking place in the world and the disastrous leadership options facing the United States, he segues into how all this relates to charedi society:
...AS WE SURVEY the fast-changing world around us we should not imagine that societal change has somehow bypassed the chareidi world, or that our status as the eternal people exempts us from the need to deal with and respond to changing circumstances.
The Israeli chareidi world of today, for instance, bears no resemblance to that of the Chazon Ish's day. Every Yovel (fifty-year period) represents a new historical epoch, and the Torah leadership of each generation must respond to changing circumstances. Today's Torah leaders cannot just seek to imitate those of the past, for we are living in a different time, with different challenges. That is why Chazal tell us, "Yiftach b'doro k'Shmuel b'doro." Every generation needs its own leaders. (Note: That is not what Chazal's statement means, and I'm pretty sure that Rosenblum knows that! - N.S.)
Outside of the Old Yishuv of Jerusalem, the Lithuanian chareidi world of the Chazon Ish's day consisted of a few hundred families. As a tiny minority amidst a highly ideological secular majority bent on creating a "new Jew," who would be everything that the traditional European Jew was not, chareidi society adopted a policy of cultural isolation and separation to preserve its identity and flourish.
And that cultural isolation could be tolerated by the larger secular society because the small chareidi world was perceived to be almost irrelevant. David Ben Gurion granted the draft deferral for yeshivah students because, in his eyes, it did not matter that much. Within a generation the chareidi community would disappear, or so he thought.
Much has changed since then. Far from being a tiny minority, chareidim constitute at least 10 percent of the Israeli population, and, given the much higher chareidi birthrates, could reach 25 percent within a generation. The community is far too large to be ignored. Nor is it clear that the community could sustain itself in splendid isolation, even if it were permitted to do so (and the government were to continue building all-chareidi enclaves). That isolation is, in any event, ever harder to maintain, as modern technology renders the highest ghetto walls permeable.
The great task with which the Chazon Ish charged the post-Holocaust generation – rebuilding the citadels of Torah learning destroyed by the Holocaust – has been achieved many times over, at least from a quantitative standpoint. The chareidi community cannot be destroyed, at least not from the outside. There is no ideological enemy seeking to free itself from the shackles of Jewish tradition, as there once was (though there are still plenty of non-observant Jews to mekarev).
Nor has the internal chareidi community remained static. The community of nearly a million souls today is not just that of the 1950s writ large, but something quite different. Those who rallied to the banner of the Chazon Ish were a self-selected, highly idealistic group of individuals of a very high spiritual level and intense dedication. Today's community is of necessity a much more heterogeneous group. Its members were in most cases born into the community; they did not enlist in a great cause. The present-day chareidi community encompasses individuals of widely variegated spiritual and intellectual levels.
In his penultimate paragraph, Rosenblum drives his points home, beginning and concluding them with suitably frum terminology:
Among the many contemporary challenges facing the great Torah leaders are: responding to the needs of a diverse community; articulating new approaches to our non-observant brethren with whom we are coming into contact in a rapidly increasing number of venues and for longer periods of time; securing the basic level of economic well-being necessary to flourish; and above-all upholding the core values of the community upon which there can be no compromise and determining how they can be sustained in ever-changing circumstances.
But in the final paragraph, the frumspeak really rings hollow:
A tall order no doubt. But at least the chareidi community has one resource, which the United States can no longer claim: leaders who command reverence and awe (though internal machlokes has taken its toll on this precious quality).
If you were to accept his column at face value, you'd read him as declaring that the charedi community possesses great and wise Torah leaders, who command obedience and respect, and are going to successfully lead their community through the great transitions that are required. But, of course, if there were to indeed be leaders who can do that, Rosenblum wouldn't need to talk about it!
The facts are that it's perfectly clear to everyone, including (especially) Jonathan Rosenblum, that no such leadership exists. Rav Steinman came to my neighborhood and declared that secular education is entirely unnecessary, and that boys should be raised to go to kollel, not to work. As for girls, he once said that "it is better to steal money than for a women to attend college." And remember that Rav Steinman is the leader of the relatively moderate faction in the litvishe charedi world - Rav Shmuel Auerbach is even more extreme. Furthermore, it's not even clear that they are even leaders at all; as with Rav Elyashiv, much of the power seems to be wielded by shadowy figures behind the scenes.
In the past, Rosenblum has suggested (albeit not very convincingly) that [some] Gedolim do indeed want to change "the system", but are too weak to do so. Even if that is the case - and I'm fairly certain that Rosenblum knows it not to be the case in Israel - it would again refute his claim in this article that the charedi community has strong leadership that commands respect.
Jonathan Rosenblum and Mishpachah magazine are well aware that the Gedolim are not interested or not able to lead the charedi community through a transition - that's why, in Mishpacha's symposium on the topic of chareidim in the Israeli workforce, they did not interview any of the Gedolim or their spokesmen. So why does he declare otherwise? Presumably it's because in order to attempt to defray opposition to the societal reform that he is urging, he has to dress it up in Daas Torah clothing. But his columns have reached a point where you'd have to be very naive not to see what he really thinks about the leadership. His problem is that, unlike the situation with the US electorate, nobody in the charedi world dares say so explicitly. Hence his not-so-convincing subterfuge. Let's hope that he is successful!