Friday, April 02, 2010

Seeing Secular Zionism in a Positive Light

I often get very frustrated by those in the Charedi world in Israel who look at secular Jews in Israel as Torah bashers. Or Charedi Bashers. Or just plain bashers of any observant Jews whether Datim or Charedim.

I believe that attitude is based largely on the misconception about Charedim as anti religious. Especially its leadership.

That hatred starts at the historic top with modern Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl. Mention Herzl to a Charedi and you might as well have mentioned Hitler!

OK. I know about Godwin’s Law. This 'Law' is attributed to Mike Godwin. It means that as any internet discussion grows longer the chances of a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis is inevitable. Godwin meant his 'Law' as a deterrent to Reductio ad Hitlerum. The idea behind this is that people should give thought to what the holocaust really was and not use it so cavalierly in argument.

But I used the comparison judiciously here. That is in fact how some people think of Zionism’s founder. They see him as a destroyer of Jewish souls – a worse attribute than Hitler’s destroyer of Jewish bodies. For many Charedim Herzl has become the poster child for the Zionist Jew who hates Torah.

According to the dominant attitude among most Charedim - by default all the philosophical heirs of Herzl are haters of Torah. Zionism is a Torah hating philosophy. Anything that flows out of Zionism is anathematic to Torah including Religious Zionism. One cannot therefore be religious and a Zionist. They are mutually exclusive terms. So, no matter how observant one is Zionism is a false god. Rabbi Aharon Feldman recently expressed a similar view in his new book “Eye of the Storm”.

But this is a mistake. A major one which in my view is in large part responsible for the animosity between secular Jews - also known as Chilonim - and Charedi Jews. Of course there are many specific issues of contention between them. But I believe that there is an over-riding attitude by Charedim of disdain for Zionism and its heirs. Which include secular Jews in Israel. They see secular Jews – not just as unobservant. They see them as anti religious!

If the Charedi attiude were right - one would think that generations of Jews raised in an anti Torah educational system would have rejected every last vestiage of Mitzvah observance and would have become Lehachisniks’ - those who violate Halacha for the sole purpose of defying the Torah. Secular Israelis would be a population that despises Mitzvah observance as an archaic opiate of the masses which prevents progress in the modern world.

Some Charedim – like Satmar and Neturei Karta go so far as to say that it would have been far better had Israel never been founded than to have it led by Torah hating Jews.


Let us see what has happened since the founding of the Zionist State. With perhaps a few exceptions, the founding fathers of modern Zionsim did not hate the Torah, least of all Herzl. They did not want to obliterate all traces of Judaism.

Herzl whose assimilationist background made him completely ignorant of Torah - took a decided turn towards tradition when he discovered anti Semitism was alive and well in his supposedly enlightened European world. Anti Semitism caused him to re-examine his roots. His early “solutions” to world-wide anti Semtism of mass conversions to Christianity or setting up a State in Uganda are a reslut of his ignorance and not - as is often portrayed by his detractors - proof of his anti Torah stance.

The truth is that he respected religious leaders and went to them for approval of his plan of a mass return of the Jewish people to the holyland. They rebuffed him because they did not want to give any kind of leadership position to a non observant Jew. Herzl- undeterred - took his cause elsewhere and the rest is history. But obliteration of Torah and Mitzvos was not his goal.

That said - there are many stories of anti religious activity among some of the early Zionist officials. Mostly having to do with ripping families apart during mass immigrations to Israel from Middle Eastern countries.

I question how wide spread that really was. How much of that is exaggeration? I don’t know. I have no doubt that there was some of that. But obliterating any traces of Judaism was not the goal of Zionism. Just – some - Zionists. The primary goal was and still is Aliyah -to encourage all Jews to return to the land of Israel and help develop it physically.

One of Herzl’s early protégés was David Ben Gurion. He is the founding father of the modern State of Israel. He did not want to obliterate observant Judaism at all. He wanted the opposite. He knew that Jewish state without Judaism would not fly. He realized that if there were to be any longevity it would have to include religious Jews – even those who rejected the very philosophy of modern Zionism.

That’s why early in the state’s history he went to meet with Agudah leaders. He wanted to strike a deal where he could have his State and religion too.

They struck a deal called the Status Quo. As I understand it that meant that religion would not be expanded at the expense of Chiloni interests and secularism would not be expanded at the expense of religious interests. The status quo at that time would be where the lines would be drawn. The Chazon Ish later got a commitment from Ben Gurion that all Yeshiva students as would all religious women would be exempt from army service.

So how has that worked out for them? Has Zionism been a boon to Torah or a detriment? Are Zionists “the Great Satan” that Charedim make them out to be?

If the goal of Zionism was to obliterate any traces of Torah observance, it has failed miserably.

Observance has not been obliterated by Zionism. It has been enhanced by it. Not only has there been an explosive rise in numbers of religiously observant Jews, Chilonim who supposedly have supposedly been influenced by Zionism to abandon all observance – have not.

Witness the a recent poll reported in Ynet:

Asked whether they planned to eat chametz on Passover, 69% said no and 19% said they would only do so in the privacy of their own homes so as not to offend the religious public. Only 12% said they would eat bread in public.

When separated into sectors, the poll revealed that 49% of secular Jews would not eat chametz, a surprisingly large figure. As expected, 100% of haredim polled said they would not eat bread.
To the question of how they planned to celebrate Pesach, 63% said they would hold a traditional Seder, which includes reading the entire haggadah, while 23% said they would only read up to the dinner part. Just 4% said they would not read the haggadah at all.

So much for the Chiloni hatred of religious Jews.

Zionism has not undermined observance of Torah and Mitzvos. It has done the exact opposite. It has encouraged Jews to stay Jewish. Even secular ones. I do not believe that this would have happened had not the Jewish people regained their land after 2000 years of exile.

I think that Ahavas Yisroel would go a long way if Charedi Jews would see Zionism in this light rather than in the light of evil.

I will end with an excerpt from a book containing inspirational stories, “A Daily Dose of Kindness: Stories From The Heart — A Response To Terror” compiled by Shmuel Greenbaum. It was reviewed by Alan Jay Gerber in The Jewish Star.

My father was Rabbi Nachman Bulman. He taught Torah in Jerusalem for the last twenty-five years of his life, and counseled thousands of people from all walks of life.

Yesterday, when I lit my father’s yahrtzeit (memorial) candle at the onset of the Sabbath, a story came to mind that he once told me. It was a small incident, but worth remembering. About twelve years ago, when my father was the spiritual leader of a community in Migdal Ha’emek, he underwent surgery in nearby Haifa. There were complications. My father was very ill; he drifted in and out of consciousness for two or three days. My mother, or one of my brothers, stayed with him almost constantly, but late on Friday afternoon, my mother went home to make the Sabbath and my father found himself alone. As far as anyone knew, he was unconscious, but in fact, he was partly awake at times.

He knew that it was close to the Sabbath, and he was very, very depressed. He was thinking that he was all alone in the hospital and that there would be no Sabbath for him — nothing to make this day different from any other day in the ICU. While he was immersed in black and gloomy thoughts, two nurses came into his room.

One of them said, in Hebrew, “I am going to light candles in here.”

The other one said, “What for? The patient is unconscious, anyway.”

The first nurse said, “Even if he is, he is a big rabbi and spiritual leader and would want Sabbath candles in his room.”

Although his eyes were still closed, my father heard her light the candles and say the blessing. She said, “Shabbat Shalom” and left the room. At that moment his spirits were enormously lifted, and the oppressive gloom was gone.

My father recounted this story as an example of how a seemingly small act of kindness can help someone in a very big way. It was also, for him, an example of the kind of thing that distinguishes life in Israel. That nurse was not religious, though she was perhaps traditional, but she had respect for a rabbi and sensitivity to what he needed, beyond his immediate medical needs.

My father was tremendously grateful to her. He could not pray or make the Kiddush blessing on the wine on the Sabbath or do anything for himself. Without that nurse’s thoughtful gesture, he would have had no Sabbath at all.

Most nurses I have met exude kindness and compassion - Jew and non Jew alike. But I totally get his sentiment. Mi K’Amcha Yisroel.

Updated: 4/4/10 - 9:00AM CDT