Sunday, May 08, 2022

Where Are We Going? A Gloomy Reflection.

Guest Commentary by Paul Shaviv 

R' Y.C. Sonnenfeld and R' A.Y. HaKohen Kook (Wikimedia Commons)
The long thread(s) of Comments on the blog’s “Israel at 74” posting deserve some attention in their own right – mainly, at least in my opinion, for the light they shed on current attitudes and knowledge within the Orthodox community.  

Before going any further, and perhaps forestalling comments on this piece (although I doubt it!), may I point out that I am very familiar with the arguments, the history and the literature of religious anti-Zionism. I wrote a mini-thesis on it way back, and have followed it with great interest ever since.  I have a great respect for many of the figures involved – R’Yosef Hayyim Sonnenfeld and R’Moshe Blau especially, and somewhat separately, the Hatam Sofer. Studying the Old Yishuv and its personalities was formative in my thinking. I also know that they were far more nuanced personalities than is generally believed. 

But this piece is not about them. 

It is depressing beyond belief to read the nonsense – and it is nonsense – on which some contributors to the Comments base their beliefs and arguments. The version of European Jewish history, including the astounding claim that every shtetl (many of them 20 families or less) had a learned Rav, a Dayan, and a coterie of full-time students, is wildly fanciful. 

The general idea that all was religiously hunky-dory until “the Zionists” arrived is similarly nonsense; as is the notion that before 1648 all was learned and peaceful.  Apart from ignoring such phenomena as Sabbateanism, let alone Frankism, or the background to the rise of Hasidism – or the wholesale flight out of traditional Jewish society once Emancipation was granted – there is a retroactive wishful thinking of how “we would have liked things to have been”.  

I am not going to go into a book-length description of Jewish society in the Middle Ages and after – you can read Jacob Katz’ classic works, ‘Tradition and Crisis’ and “Out of the Ghetto’ for excellent surveys, and for further up-to-date broad scholarship, Sorkin and Feiner; or a dozen other fine scholars.

The question is: Why are so many Orthodox Jews so badly-informed, or uninformed, about Jewish history and Jewish affairs generally?  Even allowing for a spectrum of views and interpretations – a basis of civilized discussion – you cannot take a position on these questions from a standpoint of ignorance. 

A great part of the answer is reflected, conveniently, in the blog post following the posting on Yom Haatzmaut. It is that contemporary Orthodoxy deliberately cultivates an anti-historical stance, and deliberately prevents its adherents from acquiring even the basic tools of literacy to investigate and/or think about the world outside their ‘Dalet amos’. This is predicated on the belief that these individuals – and their communities – can exist completely independently of their surrounding societies. Essential services – medicine, law, technology etc. can be purchased. 

How many of those offering views on the history of Jews and Zionism have read a serious history book (and I don’t mean Berel Wein)?  How many have read Herzberg’s ‘The Zionist Idea’? Indeed, how many have read Moshe Blau’s autobiography, or the volume of his collected writings? How many have read the recently-published book of essays by Jacob Katz on Orthodoxy? Or Haym Soloveitchik’s ‘Rupture and Reconstruction’? How many have read serious historical studies of the Shoah? Friedlander?Yehudah Bauer?  Or some of them? Or all of them? 

The end result of all of this, bearing in mind the rapid increase of Haredim as a proportion of the total Jewish community in Israel and the USA, is a sort of collective cultural suicide. Israel, the magnitude of whose achievement (and the almost-25,000 deaths suffered in its defense) cannot be denied, is ignored or sneered at. It’s builders, different from our community, are belittled.  

The Shoah, a civilization-changing episode of history, doesn’t count; nor do its theological implications apparently cause many people to stop and think.  (Try reading Teichtal, Fackenheim, Yitz Greenberg, George Steiner, Richard Rubinstein). 

Many products of the Haredi education system, in my personal experience, have no idea of what actually happened in the Shoah – they may have a fragment of tragic family history, but no overall view. (“Ben Gurion stopped the Israeli Air Force from bombing Auschwitz”, as one ‘avreich’ once screamed at me – a sentence culturally equivalent to ‘Noach im sheva shgiot’). 

“Secular Studies” – a singularly non-religious phrase, IMHO – aren’t necessary.  Scientists are fools.  Medical researchers have no idea.  All science is ‘only theories’. Women – we can relegate them to slave status, teaching our kids via picture books that they don’t exist The IDF are hated, and rabbis stand by without comment as young kids call them and Israeli police “Nazis”. An obscenity.  

The rule of law – ignored when convenient to do so.  In general – similar to 1984 (do you get the reference?) – “black hat good, everyone else – who cares?”   And we haven’t even begun to discuss attitudes towards other communities, other religions…… 

What sort of Jewish community are we heading towards?  It fills me with fear.