Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
Torah for the Nation
Recently there was an appalling report about the principal of Lustig girl's school in Ramat Gan, who told his students that Religious Zionism is nationalism and is therefore idolatry. Twenty years ago, when I was a loyal charedi yeshiva bochur on track to become Jonathan Rosenblum's successor, my Rosh Yeshivah succinctly explained why religious Zionism was wrong: "The Zionists want to create a new type of Jew, but we believe that the old type of Jew was good enough." In my monographs on The Novelty of Orthodoxy and The Making of Haredim, I discussed several ways in which charedi Judaism is actually very, very different from traditional Judaism. In this post, I would like to explain why Religious Zionism is a crucial application of traditional Judaism to modern realities and reflects the original purpose of the Torah.
For various reasons, largely relating to the history of Jews in Europe (where the State was the enemy) and the reaction to modernity and secular Zionism, charedi Judaism has evolved into a way of life where the focus is very much on the individual. This has disconcerting results, aside from the major concerns relating to the economy and the military. I remember being in a car with a charedi yeshivah rebbe when we passed by a new recycling bin, and he dismissed it as "Zionist nonsense"; and I once raised a concern about pollution with another charedi yeshivah rebbe, who was mystified at my concern, and said "What do I care?"
During the many years that I spent in charedi yeshivos, I was given a very strong message that the very best thing to do in life is to be isolated and insulated in yeshivah, learning Torah, as an end unto itself. If someone is called away from yeshivah on a mission of communal importance, he has tragically "lost his license to learn." Someone once claimed to me that "a charedi avreich sitting in kollel is obviously acting much more closely in accordance with Hashem's will than a typical religious Zionist who is not as meticulous in his observation of halachah." I disagreed, and I felt that he was missing the wood for the trees.
Many people feel that being a good Jew is about ticking off a checklist of mitzvos (with Torah having the biggest checkbox). But they are mistaken. It's possible to be a naval b'rshus haTorah - somebody who is technically fulfilling all the requirements, but utterly going against the spirit of the law. There are certain values and actions that are fundamental to Judaism. Some of them are encoded in halachah. Others are the values that underpin many mitzvos, such as being a person who is a "giver" rather than a "taker." Still others were historically such a basic part of being part of society that there was no need to codify them - but modern society has enabled people to avoid them and eventually not even realize their fundamental importance. Historically, in order to survive, you had to work, which meant that you were contributing to the economy. Today, thanks to affluent benefactors and the welfare state, an entire culture has sprouted that encourages kollel, which drains from the economy rather than contributing to it, as being the preferred choice for most of its rapidly growing population.
Let's go back to the Chasam Sofer, who says that the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel includes developing its economy in all kinds of ways, and that one must even stop learning Torah in order to do this. What were his grounds for saying this? He points to v'asefta es deganecha, but it's hard to see that as being a clear directive for Israel to have all kinds of industry. Instead, it would appear that he is simply presenting a basic understanding of what nationhood is about. The Torah - you know, that thing we read every week and that charedim talk about all the time - is all about creating a nation in the Land of Israel, with agriculture/industry and a justice system and an army and all the other ingredients that make up nationhood, all run in the most ethical way.
If you live on a desert island, you only need to think about yourself. If you are part of a community, you need to think about the community. If you are part of a nation, you need to think about the nation. A nation needs an economy, with people in all kinds of different professions, as well as an army and other such institutions. On an individual level, people need to balance their own needs, desires and personal growth, with the needs of the nation. On a communal level, leaders need to think about how their communities are contributing to the needs of the nation.
Charedim have developed a mystical approach to Judaism whereby learning Gemara is the greatest thing that a person can do. They feel that secular education and the army is a serious threat to their way of life. And indeed it is. But there are bigger issues to consider, like the fundamental values of Judaism, the collapse of a exponentially growing community that is underemployed, and the needs of the entire country. 32% of first-graders in Israel are on an educational track that disdains secular education, professional employment, and military service, and the proportion is set to increase! How on earth do they think that the country can survive?
Charedi Judaism in Israel is simply utterly failing to address its responsibilities to itself and to the nation. Rabbi Wein said it well in a recent column:
Dealing with the State of Israel is an even more vexing issue for much of Orthodoxy. The creation of the Jewish state, mainly by secular and nonobservant Jews, and by political and military means was not part of the traditional Jewish view of how the Land of Israel would again fall under Jewish rule.
Since it occurred in the “wrong” way and was being led by the “wrong” people it again shook the mindset of much of Orthodoxy... the whole attitude of much of the Orthodox world is one of denial of the present fact that the state exists, prospers and is the largest supporter of Torah and Jewish traditional religious lifestyle in the world.
It is again too painful to admit that our past mindset regarding the State of Israel is no longer relevant. As long as large sections of Orthodoxy continue to live in an imaginary past and deny the realities of the present, such issues as army or national service, core curriculums of essential general knowledge for all religious schools, entering the workforce and decreasing the debilitating poverty and dysfunction of so many families, will never be able to be addressed properly.
And with regard to leaders of Torah Judaism needing to focus not on the Gemara-growth of people in their narrow communities, but on issues of importance to the entire nation, Rav Eliezer Melamed explains why the so-called Gedolim of the charedi world are not true leaders:
Gadlut beTorah (Torah greatness, eminence) necessitates an all-embracing, fully accountable handling of serious issues facing the generation, including: the attitude towards Am Yisrael in all its diversity and various levels – both religious, and non-religious; the attitude towards mitzvoth of yishuv haaretz (settling the Land) and the on-going war which has surrounded it for over a century; the attitude towards science and work, and the contemporary social and economic questions.
The term "Torah Jew" is often bandied around, but with a tragically mistaken definition. It is used to mean "someone who places learning Torah as the ultimate goal." But it ought to be used for those who live Torah - those who are creating the nation as described in the Torah. Far from being "idolatry," it's the very essence of what Torah is about.
See too this post: Rosenblum Nails The Problem With Charedi Society