Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Wisdom in the Air of Israel

The Gemara in Bava Basra (158b) records a Machlokes between R Zeira and R. Eila on the question of who the legitimate heirs are in a matter concerning a wall that collapses upon a mother and a son and it is not known who died first. When R. Zeira went to Israel he changed his position and agreed to R. Eila’s position. And then concludes that he changed his mind because Avira D’ara Machkim, the very air of Israel makes one wiser.

Maybe that was true at the time of the Gemarah but I really question it now. I happened to read Chicago Jewish News publisher Joe Aaron’s weekly column over Shabbos. And I could not agree with him more. Indeed it seems that Israel’s air makes you stupider! Maybe it’s all that dust constantly being thrown up in the air by all the incessant construction. I don’t know. But it is clear that the secular leadership in Israel is far from wise: As Joe Aaron puts it:

“The man who was the previous president of Israel had to resign in disgrace after it was revealed he had taken bribes. The man who is the current president of Israel almost certainly will have to resign in disgrace, having just been indicted for committing rape. Rape. A president of the state of Israel. I truly don't get it. Two presidents of the state of Israel, one after the other, one a thief, the other a pervert. …It's one thing to have mediocre leaders. It's quite another to have criminal ones.”

Mr. Araon goes on to list many other stupidities which he says is only a partial list. And he further states that in part it is the fault or world wide Jewry, the Jews of Chutz La’Aretz… especially Americans who always give Israel a pass on its indiscretions. One might try to explain that we are just being Dan L’Kaf Zchus… judging favorably and choosing the most flattering of explanations when there are many to choose from. But we do Israel no favor by doing so because there are then no checks and balances and thereby encourage the very behavior we are now seeing. Israeli leaders know they are going to be supporeted and end up having a sense of infallibility or at the very least they believe mistakes will be “spun” in their favor. Mr. Aaron is right. We have an obligation to tell the truth to power. When they are wrong we ought to stand up and say so. If a Jew creates a clear public Chilul HaShem it ought to be condemned and not explained away.

But even though Mr. Aaron does not allude to it, the same thing applies to much of the excesses in the Torah world now taking place in Israel. Whether it is in the Charedi camp or in the Religious Zionist camp, excess seems to rule the day. A recent article in the Globe and Mail illustrates the extremes I am talking about at least as it applies to the Charedi world. The story contains a litany of recent edicts that can at best be characterized as not well thought out. And it describes activities by members of that community that can only be described as zealotry gone mad. I have written about all of them but just to mention a few: The Takanos about limiting Charedi women’s education, overly stringent edicts about Tznius (eg. Shaitels that are too long), mandating Tznius patrols by Avreichim, mandating a requirement to only patronize clothing stores given an official Tznius Hechsher.

And in the realm of zealotry: the beating of a woman on an unofficial Mehadrin bus, the spray bleaching of clothes on innocent passers-by in Charedi enclaves, and the torching of clothing stores deemed selling immodest clothing by Charedi standards. There many additional such examples of what can only call extremism, by both the Charedi rabbinic leadership in the form of expected behavior, and by overly zealous members of the Charedi community.

If one contrasts the edicts by American Charedi rabbinic leaders and even zealotry of their Charedi Amercian counterparts, the Americans pale in comparison. Although there is plenty to be criticised on the “American side” too, there is no contest.

If this is how the air in Israel makes one wiser, whether in the secular world or the religious world, I’d rather remain here and be stupid.

Of course, I do not really believe that the American system is stupid, although there is certainly room for improvement. And I don't think that the American rabbinic leadership thinks it is stupid either.

But... even though American rabbinic leadership has not instituted the excesses found in Israel they have not spoken out against them either. And they should. It is not in the best interests of Klal Yisroel to remain silent.

There is an understandable reticence to do so on their part. When asked about it Agudah, for example, will say they do not comment on the pronouncements of the Israeli rabbinic leadership. They probably feel that such public disagreement would be a sign of disrespect to the Gedolim of Israel.

But it isn’t so. There can be respectful disagreement between Poskim. And it ought to be forthcoming. Because without it, you have Shtika: acquiescence. And Shtika as we all know is K’Hoda’ah. It is tantamount to endorsement of Israeli excesses. By not speaking out against the policices of the Israeli rabbinic leadership, they are in essence saying it is OK for them, because they are “holier”.

Before you know it such thinking will find its way back here and because of the never ending quest for increased Kedusha, all manner of Chumra that exists in Israel will be adopted here. To some extent it is already happening. At some point a policy of no secular studies at all for boys could eventually be institued here in the Yeshiva system.

Such schools already exist. It’s not yet universally the case. Far from it. But I can see it happening. And can anyone imagine going taking a walk in Boro Park and getting spray bleached? It could happen. Is this truly a prescription for a great Torah society? Is modern day Charedi Israel our model for behavior? I don’t think so.