Two Different Universes
Charedi vs. Dati-Leumi ideas about being Jewish
I don’t generally have time or interest to even read every single comment that appears on my posts, much less respond to them. But among the over 400 comments to the previous post, there was one exchange which I thought was fascinating and extremely revealing. It encapsulated a key difference between charedi and dati-leumi (Zionist-religious) understandings of what Torah and avodas Hashem is all about. It also peripherally relates to the divide between rationalism and mysticism.
There were a few participants in this back-and-forth. Representing the charedi perspective were someone called Shulman, who is polite, sincere and fairly open, accompanied by the usual trolls who would delight in condemning me as an am haaretz and heretic if I said 2+2=4. Countering them were David Ohsie, Ephraim and myself. I’m not reproducing the entire thread, just snippets that I am lightly editing for ease of understanding. The subject matter was how the Jewish People should respond to Oct. 7th and whether charedim should join the army.
Shulman explained that the only response to Oct 7 has to be teshuvah, which specifically refers to everyone’s individual spirituality:
…we just have to look inward and fix our connection… "fixing the problem" by societal changes has nothing to do with teshuva. that is the way non-Jews respond to tragedy - "we're in charge and we'll fix it." We say, no, "I'm not in charge, Hashem is, He'll fix it. while I do my part and live a more Godly life…" If a soldier fights because it is God's work, and he uses this opportunity to get closer to Hashem, that is teshuva, sure. But protecting without that is nothing but hishtadlus, not teshuva.
Ephraim responded by noting that restricting avodas Hashem and teshuvah to one’s personal spiritual growth is not consistent with classical Judaism:
You should clarify, because it sounds like you're denigrating כָל מִי שֶׁעוסְקִים בְּצָרְכֵי צִבּוּר בֶּאֱמוּנָה, implying that they would be better off if they'd ignore communal needs and engage in a self serving מצוה. There's a reason why פנחס gets that unique reward/blessing- because he put the community before his own spiritual connection to הקב"ה.
Shulman, ignoring the larger point, countered that learning Torah is also something which serves the entire community:
I'm not sure why you guys think that learning is a self serving mitzvah. It's bringing the shechina into this world which benefits everyone.
Here’s an example of the overlap with rationalism vs. mysticism. According to the mystical approach, an individual learning Torah benefits everyone, and is thus helping society in the best possible way. According to the rationalist (and classical) approach on the other hand, the first issue to consider is what everyone’s obligations are. If the obligations are something other than learning Torah - such as serving in the army or doing chessed - then learning Torah is not going to help.
David Ohsie quoted and responded to some similar statements by Shulman as follows:
"The Rambam is quite clear that the response to an eis tzarah is teshuva."
Yes, of course. That is not at all the same as saying that only teshuvah will end the war in the best possible way. We should always be looking into our ways to see how we can improve.
"that means that we separate ourselves from the lives of physicality and base pleasures, we do not what we want, but what He wants. It is false to say that teshuva entails a complete refocus. that is true for someone who is totally off focus."
How do you know if you are doing what God wants? Did He tell you directly? …Maybe God wants you to focus less on your personal learning and more on helping others. Certainly one could draw that lesson from the kinds of things that are needed now. God presents you a giant Chessed opportunity and you turn even more to your sefer? Is that really responding with Teshuvah to the situation?
"fixing the situation on the physical front is nice, and perhaps necessary, but that is not teshuva"
Why not? Most of us spend too much time focusing on ourselves and not enough time on others. Giving up your normal routine to help people who are displaced seems like a great tikkun for that. And risking your life to save others is just "nice, and perhaps necessary"? Are you saying that Teshuvah is only bein adam lamakom and not bein adam lechavero?
This is one of the differences between charedi soceity and dati-leumi society in a nutshell. In charedi society, the focus in avodas Hashem is about personal growth vis-à-vis Hashem and, at least for people in yeshivah, nothing else. In dati-leumi society, the primary focus in avodas Hashem is on what needs to be done for the nation, with a secondary focus on personal growth.
Back to Shulman:
If someone is learning and there is a need to save lives and no one else can do it, he should stop learning. That is God's law from His mouth to our ears. Equally He tells us that if there are others to do the mitzva, keep learning. To tell thousands of bachurim to stop learning to do a mitzva, even a great mitzva of saving lives, is simply not such an easy thing to say. Halacha tells us to keep learning.
I was astounded to hear someone describe this as a “halacha,” and I asked which halacha it is. Shulman responded with a source that is indeed a halacha, albeit not explicitly applied to this case. It’s Rambam in Mishneh Torah, as follows:
If someone has an opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah, and also to learn Torah, then if the mitzvah can be performed by others, he should not interrupt his learning. (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:4)
Shulman was cheered on by a troll under the moniker of BANana, who said that it’s perfectly obvious that this halacha is the reason why charedim should not leave yeshivah to join in the army. There’s other people who can serve in the army, so charedim may not interrupt their study of Torah to do so. BANana added that this is an example of how we are coming from two totally different universes.
I couldn’t agree more with the latter sentiment. But allow me to explain why, although he thinks that his universe is the one of Torah, I think it’s the exact opposite. My response is based on the writings of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, ztz”l, which I think are representative on this topic for the dati-leumi perspective in general (and indeed of Chazal, and in fact of everyone until the modern phenomenon of charedi Judaism - and even then, perhaps until the late-20th century permutation of it).
In one Hebrew essay, he directly discusses the halachah from Rambam. Rav Lichtenstein indicates that the applicability of this to army service could be disqualified on technical grounds, if one considers army service as an obligation on every person, not just a task that needs to be done. But he does not go into that in detail, because he prefers to stress that this halachah is simply not applicable here on basic grounds of the logic of morality (especially, he adds, since the burden to be shared is not only one of time and effort, but also of danger). He quotes the concept of nehama d’kisufa, “bread of shame,” and points out that it’s simply immoral for a person to say that he wants to learn and therefore everyone else has to bear the burden and potential sacrifice of serving in the army.
In an English essay, Rav Lichtenstein elaborates on the idea that serving in the army is not just about a specific mitzvah of milchemes mitzvah, but rather a more fundamental idea of what Torah is all about:
….military service is often the fullest manifestation of a far broader value: g'milut hasadim, the empathetic concern for others and action on their behalf. This element defined by Hazal as one of the three cardinal foundations of the world, is the basis of Jewish social ethics, and its realization, even at some cost to single-minded development of Torah scholarship, virtually imperative.
Rav Lichtenstein quotes from Chazal:
“Rav Huna said, 'Whoever concerns himself solely with Torah is as one who has no God'.” (Avodah Zarah, 17b). The midrash (Kohelet Rabbah, 7:4) equates the renunciation of g'milut hasadim with blasphemy; and the gemara in Rosh Hashanah states that Abbaye outlived Rabbah because he engaged in both Torah and g'milut hasadim whereas Rabbah had largely confined himself to the former. When, as in contemporary Israel, the greatest single hesed one can perform is helping to defend his fellows' very lives, the implications for yeshiva education should be obvious… There is, then, no halakhic, moral, or philosophic mandate for the blanket exemption of Bnei Torah from military service.
After some further back-and-forth, Shulman did (to his credit) appear to grasp and accept this point. He acknowledged that real Gedolim would not always leave every task to other people to do, and he resorted to other (equally problematic) arguments for charedim not to serve in the army. But the fact that it took him so long to grasp it, and that BANana and others saw this halacha as a slam-dunk obvious argument for charedim not to serve in the army, goes to the core of the difference in worldviews.
From the charedi perspective, the focus is so narrow: What is my personal best path to spiritual growth? Are the various national needs something that I can pass on to others? Whereas from the dati-leumi perspective, the focus is (as also clearly seen in the Torah itself) on the nation. What does the nation need, and how can my society and I do the right thing in helping with that need? It’s two universes, indeed.
(Meanwhile, as this post goes out on the last day of 2023, I’d like to ask that if you’ve appreciated this blog, and/or you appreciate the educational and psychological value of the work that we do at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, please make a year-end gift at this link. Thank you!)
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