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Who Are "Torah Jews"?
Labels for communities are useful. Sure, labels are generalizations, but there's nothing wrong with generalizations, as long as everyone knows that they are generalizations. So, we have labels such as "Religious Zionists" and "Modern Orthodox" and "Charedi" and they are all very useful labels.
Now, the term "charedi" is sometimes interpreted incorrectly. Last week Rav Gershon Edelstein, the most prominent Torah leader in the Litvishe charedi world, was in the news for his explanation of why charedim suffered the most from coronavirus. Rav Edelstein claimed that this was because God punishes charedim for their sins more strictly than Jews who are "tinokos shenishbu," who sin out of ignorance. Yet this begs the question: where do Religious Zionists fit into this?
I asked some people what they thought. One person told me that Rav Edelstein was using the term "charedi" simply to mean Orthodox Jews. Of course, the problem with this is that non-charedi Orthodox Jews did not suffer from such a high rate of coronavirus infections. But another person, a charedi rabbi, told me that Rav Edelstein meant exactly what he said: non-charedim, including dati-leumi people and rabbis, are tinokos shenishbu. Amazing! He is saying that they didn't suffer so much from coronavirus because, although they are shomrei mitzvos, even though they might live in communities that are seriously focused on Torah and mitzvos, their Zionist perspective so fundamentally perverts their religious outlook that they are rated as tinokos shenishbu for all the sins that they do. Still, while offensive, this presumably is what Rav Edelstein meant (since religious Zionist communities were not hit hard by coronavirus). Some people are just uncomfortable with it, and therefore try to distort the meaning of the term "charedi."
Nevertheless, by and large, the term "charedi" is usually used and understood correctly. But there's one label that's become increasingly popular, yet which is often used problematically. That label is "Torah Jews," and its associated term "Torah community."
There are two problems with this label. One is that its intended definition is at best ambiguous and at worst deeply problematic. Does "Torah Jews" refer to Jews who are particularly passionate about learning Torah or about living Torah? After all, we wouldn't describe a non-Jewish scholar of Talmud as being a "Torah" person. By the same token, if you have people who are obsessed with learning Torah, but don't live up to the basic ideals of Torah in terms of creating a high-functioning society of people who fulfill their responsibilities to their families and their nation, perhaps they should not be described as "Torah Jews."
The second problem with the label "Torah Jews" is that it's ambiguous in terms of which Jews it is intended to refer to. Does "Torah Jews" refer to religious Jews or specifically to charedi Jews? If you look at the writings of someone like Jonathan Rosenblum, you'll see both usages (see, for example, how he uses the term in this article and this one - sometimes changing the meaning of the term from one paragraph to the next).
I have noticed that "Torah Jews" is sometimes used in a way that superficially appears to mean all committed shomrei mitzvos, but which is actually being used to mean specifically charedim. This deceptive usage is done (sometimes subconsciously) in order to manipulate a point.
A few years ago I received an unfortunate letter from a neighbor and former friend, Rabbi X, who has a fairly influential role in Jewish education. He wrote to try and convince me of the error of my ways in writing all the "lashon hara" on this blog:
"I think that you need to be aware of how the Torah world views you and what you are doing..."
The "Torah" world?! Of course, what he really means is the charedi world. Among Religious Zionists and American non-charedim, pretty much everything that I write is normative and largely obvious.
Rabbi X proceeded to warn me about how by constantly criticizing charedi society, I risk my children leaving Orthodoxy:
"I certainly don't wish anything bad for your family, G-d forbid, but I am worried about what will happen with your kids if you continue your single-minded bashing of the Charedi/Yeshiva world at every opportunity... Is there some community that your kids feel they are a part of? They can't merely be bombarded with the problems in the Torah world, they need to see the enormous good there as well."
Well, yes, there is a community that my kids feel they are a part of. It's the religious Zionist community. My children davven in a religious Zionist shul and go to religious Zionist schools (with religious Zionist rebbeim) and will go to religious Zionist yeshivah gedolah and maybe even religious Zionist community kollel. And my children are fully aware of the problems with the charedi world, partly because they live in Ramat Beit Shemesh and see the worst of it. Since they don't identify as being part of the charedi world in the least bit, it's not a problem for them to be aware of its flaws - just as Rabbi X doesn't feel that his children being educated in charedi yeshivos about the problems of Zionist society is going to harm their religious identity.
The terms "Torah Jews" and "Torah community" are often used as an attempt to sideline and negate non-charedi communities such as religious Zionists and centrist/modern Orthodoxy. (Or sometimes people explicitly say, as Rabbi Shafran did a few weeks ago, that the charedi world is the "mainstream Orthodox world.") In fact, many people within the charedi world don't even really grasp that non-charedi frum communities exist! They simply don't consider that there are communities of religious Jews and yeshivos and kollelim and rabbis and Torah scholars that are not charedi. But such communities of people do exist - and as far as I'm concerned, they are the real "Torah Jews."
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