Monday, August 18, 2014

The New Guardians of the Gate

Charedim protesting the arrest and imprisonment of one of their own (Forward)
I don’t get it. I mean really... I just don’t get it. The minute there is even the slightest attempt to offer the Charedi world in Israel some salvation from the dire poverty many of them go through by virtue of their lifestyles of eschewing secular education in favor of full time  Torah study, there is hell to pay from the ‘guardians of the gate’. No I don’t mean Nerturei Karta, whose name translated means the same. I mean the other guardians.  More about that later.

I can only assume that a group calling itself the ‘Committee to Save the Torah World’ fall into the category of zealots. They are hard-line Charedim – followers of Rav Shmuel Auerbach that believe themselves to be the saviors of Judaism. They  have the same zeal for their issues that Neturei Karta has for theirs.

Not that zeal properly used doesn’t have its place. As the Torah tells us, Pinchas acted with zeal in killing a prince of Israel who committed an indecent and immoral act in public with a Midianite princess. So valid was his zeal that God rewarded him with eternal life for his act. Pinchas took the initiative and did not wait for Moshe to act. From this we learn the principle of ‘B’Makom Chilul HaShem, Ein Cholkin Kavod L’Rav’ – when there is a Chilul HaShem, we do not give honor to a Rav.

But misplaced zeal is often a Chilul HaShem in and of itself. That is the only appellation I can think of to describe what happened in Israel in reaction to two issues affecting the Charedi world.

The first one involves renewed resistance to the draft laws. (So much for all the accolades about the Mesiras Nefesh of the IDF and the sense of unity we just experienced.) The Jerusalem Post reports that the arrest of a Charedi student for refusing to register with the IDF resulted in protests in several locations, including Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Bet Shemesh, and Kiryat Sefer. 

The protests were not peaceful.  They were violent.  This student had been arrested and imprisoned before for the same reason. Which resulted in similar protests at the time. He was released after serving 20 days and later asked again to show up and register for a future draft. He resisted again. And he was arrested again. Hence these violent protests.

How violent? I was told by a young American Charedi that a Charedi relative of his in Israel who is a follower of Rav Auerbach actually tried to drop a rock from a balcony onto a police officer who was scuffling with a Charedi protester at an earlier (pre Gaza war) protest!

Although Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman is also opposed to the draft laws, he wisely mandated that when Charedim are called to register, they should do so. Rav Chaim Kanievsky backed him up, calling him the Gadol HaDor. he forbade students from following  Rav Auerbach considering it an affront to the Gadol HaDor and a Chilul HaShem. And yet the consensus among students seem to be swaying in favor of Rav Auerbach. I have to agree with R' Kanievsky. To those who feel obligated to follow R' Auerbach - I would apply the dictum of ‘B’Makom Chilul HaShem, Ein Cholkin Kavod L’Rav’

How can it be that a path of violent resistance is chosen over the path of peace? Is this how God’s chosen people are supposed to act? Especially when there is a peaceful alternative sanctioned someone who is considered by many to be the Gadol HaDor? This makes no sense to me.

The other major issue affecting Charedim is even more perplexing that the draft issue.I can understand resistance to a draft. Even though I believe that even peaceful resistance is misplaced, it is a natural reaction to forced changes in a system they believe to be the essence of Judaism. Changes that many feel are not necessary claiming with some justification that the army does not need or even want Charedim. They believe (erroneously in my view) that this is a ploy by the government to destroy the Torah world.

But when it comes to offering an educational option to the Charedi world, the strong opposition is mind boggling. Not one Charedi is being forced to attend such a school. It is there as an option for those who seek an education that will enable them to support their families.

Hochmei Lev, a new Yeshiva high school opened up in Jerusalem last year. It offers secular studies as part of its curriculum. It is headed by R. Bezalel Cohen – a product of the Charedi Yeshiva system. It was founded by Charedim - for Charedim.

Hochmei Lev is similar to Ma’arava and a few other Charedi Yeshiva  high schools that offer a secular curriculum in addition to the regular Torah study curriculum. This is the first one established in Jerusalem.  Other than offering a secular curriculum everything else about it is strictly Charedi.  The municipality had provided them a group of trailers located in the Charedi neighborhood of Ramot Aleph, a mostly Charedi neighborhood. They were about to begin their second year. You can guess what happened next.  From Ha’aretz: 
The combination of religious and general subjects in a yeshiva for boys goes against the official Haredi stance, and this was enough to ignite an all-out war against the yeshiva, which previously operated in an area far away. 
…opponents have been considering publishing a letter against him in the name of Lithuanian Haredi leader Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman – a move that could spell a mortal blow for his institution, and perhaps also spark a crisis in Barkat’s coalition. So far, Cohen’s opponents have published an article against him in the Haredi newspaper Yated Ne’eman, a special pamphlet attacking him personally, put up posters against him, and mounted other efforts to prevent his children from being accepted into yeshivas. 
The letter from the rabbis of Ramot, disseminated in the neighborhood two weeks ago, said the municipality intends to give buildings to Hochmei Lev, “an institution whose leaders publicly defy the great sages, who scorn our heritage and, we were aghast to hear, also work in cooperation with and with funding from Reform organizations.” 
Ever the politician afraid of losing power, Mayor Barkat has given in and asked for the keys to those trailer buildings. Of course he promised the school that he would find them another location. And we know just how much a promise from a politician is worth (although he did make an attempt).

Why protest a school that is only an option and not a government requirement? No one is being forced to go. Is it so terrible for the Charedi world if some of its young men choose to be trained for the workplace? 

I know that changes the tradition of no secular studies. But why is that holy to them? These traditions are not Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai - handed by God directly to Moshe. They were put into place in a different time under different circumstances. When conditions change and an existential threat to the Jewish people arises we are not only permitted to make changes we are required to do so. Isn't an unsustainable lifestyle a Hora;s Shah - an existential threat?

Speaking of guardians, an earlier guardian of great stature, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld (The Guardian of Jerusalem) knew that way back in pre-sate Palestine. He actually requested help from a distinguished and lettered educator who was observant to set up schools that offered secular studies curriculum in Jerusalem. 

Are today’s Charedi zealots smarter than R’ Sonnenfeld? Isn’t it a Chilul HaShem to see was and act accordingly in the face of what is - the current existential threat?  Shouldn’t we look toward the future and change things in order to prevent the collapse of the Charedi system? In my view it is.