Monday, April 15, 2013

The Winds of Change?

Everything stops as a siren sounds on Yom HaZikaron
Last night I stumbled into a program on public television that documented a historical event I was not fully aware of - the founding of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO). This was a story not only about Israel, but about the Holocuast.

A little known hero (outside of the music world in Israel) by the name of Bronislaw Huberman - a Jewish violin virtuoso - had a vision of creating a world class orchestra in pre-state Palestine. This was in the mid 1930s.  Jews were already being persecuted in Nazi Germany.  And yet it was difficult for them to get into the holy land. Because of a British White Paper small quotas were established.  Certificates were needed for entry.

Limited in number Ben Gurion who headed the Jewish Agency gave out those certificates sparingly. He wanted people who would work the land. He had no intention of giving any to musicians that he thought would leave soon after they came. Long story short, via the efforts of Chaim Weitzman – Huberman not only brought in the some of most talented European musicians to Israel, his perseverance ended up creating one of the finest orchestras in the world. Its first conductor was the world renowned Arturo Toscanini. The IPO maintains its world class reputation to this day.

One of the most moving portions of this documentary was a scene I have seen dozens of times. It never fails to move me when I see. It is the moment in 1948 when Ben Gurion stands up and declares the establishment of the Independent State of Israel. I almost always tear when I see it. As I do when I hear the Israel’s national anthem in this context. It was one of the first pieces of music played by the IPO in the late thirties. Anyone who has even the slightest awareness of what that day means to survivors of the Holocaust should feel the same way. I have no doubt that they do.

There are some who might say that the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is not important to the Jewish people. That cultural achievements are of little significance compared to the observance of Mitzvos and the study of Torah. While I agree that these are of the most paramount importance, I strongly disagree with the notion that cultural institutions like a national orchestra are not significant.

The physical and emotional well being of a nation are important too. Cultural institutions are an important contribution to these aspects of a nation. It is also important what image it projects to the world.

Israel has not only cultural achievements it has other achievements outside the Torah world too. As I have in the past noted the number of Nobel Prize winners per capita in Israel is far in excess than the per capita Noble Prize winners in other countries. Israel’s contributions to the world in the fields of medicine, science, technology, and art were things that President Obama noted as well during his recent trip. This is what a nation of motivated Jews can do – even when they are under constant threat of attack and even annihilation by its enemies.

Today is the 5th day of Iyar on the Jewish calendar. That is the date in history when Israel was declared a state. Although it is being celebrated tomorrow in Israel for technical reasons having to do with the sanctity of Shabbos - those who say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut as my Rebbe Rav Ahron Soloveichik did say it today.  Israel is today observing Yom HaZikaron – its memorial day for fallen soldiers.

I am proud of what my people have accomplished in this land. Even with some of the real problems in there including but not limited to the Charedi world, it cannot be denied that Israel has grown into perhaps the greatest Makom Torah in the world.

Israel truly has it all. I only wish that those segments who see value only in their own world would recognize the contributions of the other. Although I think the ice is beginning to thaw a little bit in that department.  Not all Secular Jews think Charedim are a bunch of non contributing parasites. And not all Chjaredim think that secular Jews are rabid destroyers of Torah. As has been pointed out here many times, Israelis are far more observant than Charedim have ever given them credit for. From the Huffington Post:
A recent poll (2012, by the Guttman Institute and the AVI CHAI Foundation) found that 85 percent of Israeli Jews say that it is important to celebrate Jewish holidays in the traditional manner; 63 percent don't mix meat and milk, and 35 percent do not watch TV on Shabbat.
What is also true is that many Charedi writers like Jonathan Rosenblum and Moshe Grylak realize that.  And devoutly secular Jews like Yair Lapid have conceded that ‘the Charedim have won’… and said it non begrudgingly. He asked only that they take their triumph and contribute to the national welfare not only in Torah but in sharing other burdens as well.

Which brings me to the rejectionists led by people like the Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel. I can’t help saying this but his views on the state of Israel actually make me physically ill. From Matzav - here in part is what he said last week:
Rav Aharon Teitelbaum of Satmar this past week addressed the attempts to draft Israeli yeshiva bochurim into the IDF, calling it “a gezeirah worse than the annihilation of the Jewish people.” He said that the supporters of the move are “worse than those who murdered us.”
This was matched earlier this year by brother, Rav Zalman Leib Teitelbaum who:
...called the State of Israel and Zionists “the generation’s Amaleik,” adding that “the Zionists came from the seed of Amalek. There has never been such a sect that caused so much damage to the Jewish people.”
I doubt that the two Satmar Rebbes will observe Yom HaZikaron or Yom Ha’atzmaut… since their uncle R’ Yoel Teitelbaum considers the existence of the State of Israel an affront to God and calls every miracle in all its wars the work of the devil.

Fortunately there are plenty of Charedim who increasingly reject this attitude. Among them a very thoughtful Charedi writer by the name of Mendel Horowitz, a self-identified ultra-Orthodox Jew – complete with beard and peyos. He writes in the Jerusalem Post:
For the first time in my 17 years living in Israel I plan to observe Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, not because I am Israeli – I am not – but because I am Jewish.
For me there was always a difference. Come April 15 I will escort my visiting American students to Mount Herzl where we will hear eulogies for those fallen. We will recite Psalms and grieve…
Then there is another Charedi writer by the name of Avraham Edelstein who writes in the Huffington Post:
Haredim recognize that great miracles were performed in the founding of the State... And that those miracles were followed by the miracles of '67 (especially), '73 and pretty much every war we have been through or suffered under since. We deeply appreciate the enormous sacrifice that the early pioneers made to create the miracle of the land, and I marvel to this day the encroachment of green fields into the Negev. We all derive tremendous benefits from living in a high-tech, well run economy; a thriving democracy where we can all give our utmost passion to our causes (almost) without anyone killing anyone.
Yes, perhaps things are changing. It’s really too bad that there are some rabbinic leaders like the Satmar Rebbes who think that Israel’s founders, current leaders and supporters, are worse than the Nazis. Or Amalek. Hopefully their own Chasidim will reject what their Rebbes say and finally join the growing trend to recognize that what Israel has truly become - a modern day miracle.