Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Unity of a People Alone

R' Alter at Gush Etzion (Photo by Yonatan Shai Freedman)

I have to disagree with Merriam-Webster's word of the year. It should not be ‘authentic. The word of the year should be ‘unprecedented’. There have been so many unprecedented things that happened this year that I’m sure it was used more than the word ‘authentic. And I am going to use it again. 

What is happening in the Jewish world today is unprecedented. I’m not talking about the brutal massacre, torture and kidnapping of Jews by Hamas un October 7th. Nor am I talking about Israel’s response to that in Gaza. Or the increase in antisemitism all over the world -  not seen since the Holocaust. Or the protest that took place in Washington a couple of weeks ago. Or the divisiveness between right and left; religious and secular, both here and in Israel. Or the massive number of indictments of the immediate past President of the United States.

The list goes on. All of which are unprecedented events. I’m sure I’ve already used that word in all of those contexts - and more. What I’m talking about is  the silver lining that this unprecedented tragedy has brought about.

In a world where divisiveness is increasingly the order of the day, I do not ever recall the kind of unity among the Jewish people that I am now witnessing. It is almost as though my dream about the unity of the Jewish people - which I have longed for as far back as I can remember -is unfolding right before my very eyes.

One of the most divisive issues separating the Jewish people is how the IDF viewed.  Both in Israel and here. The Charedi world has long eschewed army service for their young. Instead of seeing the IDF as the defense force it really is (which is now clearly being demonstrated) they have consistently characterized it as little more than a secular Zionist social engineering tool whereby Charedim would be integrated into Israeli society - and ultimately disabused of their religious moorings. 

They refused to say the prayer for the safety of its soldiers because by doing so, they would be giving tacit legitimization to the secular Zionist state they saw as virulently anti Torah.  So opposed are they that even after October 7th massacre, many Charedi rabbis did not allow that prayer to be recited in their Shuls. Instead - relying on general prayers (Tehillim) for the welfare of all the Jewish people.

It appears, however, that the majority of the Charedi world that had consistently opposed praising the IDF  has changed their tune. They now openly support the IDF. As noted in a JTA article- this attitude has spread beyond the borders of Israel. This is a description of what happened at an Agudah event in the US. 

When 3,000 Orthodox men packed into a New Jersey event hall late last month to mark a milestone in their 7 1/2-year cycle of Talmud study, they added an unusual component to the celebration.

In addition to sermons from prominent rabbis and collective prayer and study, the men watched videos showing uniformed Israel Defense Forces soldiers studying, singing and dancing with haredi Orthodox men and visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem. 

Charedim in Israel that had up until now studiously avoided military service volunteered to serve in the IDF to the tune of 3000. As noted in the Forward: 

Since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, hundreds of Haredim have enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces, a phenomenon widely celebrated as a milestone in the integration of the community into Israeli society… 

In recent weeks some 360 Haredi men, of more than 3,000 applicants, have concluded two weeks of basic training and joined the IDF’s reserves. Israel mobilized about 360,000 reservists after Hamas killed more than 1,200 people in Israel last month, and kidnapped more than 330. 

Many Israelis have noted how Haredi rabbis have refrained from criticizing those who have signed up. The Haredim considered Torah study essential for young men, and Haredi leaders in the past have insisted upon the exemptions. 

This is truly an amazing turn of events. Recall that one of the main issues dividing Israel beofere October 7th was secular/Dati resentment at exemption from IDF of all able bodied Charedim. That no longer seems to be an issue: 

Israel’s opposition leader, Yair Lapid, suggested that these Haredi soldiers could build a foundation for a center-left government that includes Haredi parties.  

In yet another unprecedented event, Rav Shaul Alter, the leader of a a huge and growing ‘breakaway’ segment of the large Chasidus of Ger- delivered a Shiur in the Beis Medrash of Yeshiva Gush Etzion – the Hesder Yeshiva headed by the late Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. Where students alternate Torah study with military service. 

Never thought I’d see anything like that.

While there are certainly outlier Charedi rabbis that still do not value or appreciate the IDF, they seem to be in the minority and have been rebuked by Charedi leaders for expressing those views.  

It’s true that this is a grass roots effort inspired by the events of October 7th. And it may yet wane once the war ends. As was the case in an earlier tragedy. 

On that score - this is not the first time that the Charedi  world expressed a degree of unity with their ideological opponents in the religious world

Recall that the late Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv who was considered the Gadol Hador by the Charedi world joined the funeral procession of the 8 students murdered by Palestinian terrorists at Merkaz HaRav, the flagship Yeshiva of Religious Zionism. It took a tragedy then. And it took a tragedy now.

Rav Elyashiv’s gesture wore off after a while and the 2 sides went back to business as usual. Where neither side had anything to do with each other and rejected the legitimacy of the other.

But this time is different for several reasons. At least I hope it is. The tragedy of October 7th is exponentially greater than the one at Merkaz Harav.  It has also  opened up level of antisemitism not seen since the days of Nazi Germany. Jew hatred is directed at all Jews. Religious or not. Left wing or Right.

As Majority Leader, Chuck Schmuuer who although not observant reminded us yesterday in a speech delivered to the senate –We are an Am Levadod Yishkon. We are a people alone. 

We must all realize that we cannot rely on the good intentions of even the friendliest country to the Jewish people in the history of the world. A country I truly love. We must therefore be united in support of Israel at the most precarious time in its over76 year history. Encouraging its leaders not to be deterred from its mission regardless of the pushback by some of the political leaders in this nation its closest friend. To paraphrase the words of Hillel in Avos (1:14) If we are not for ourselves, who will be for us?! 

It is my sincere hope and prayer that all that old animosity between us will fade into oblivion. Never to raise its ugly head again! If there is anything good that can come out of this tragedy - it is that.