How could haredim possibly attract anyone to Torah?
Negative images can render secular Israelis vulnerable when they meet haredim who are the antithesis of the images they’ve been exposed to.
Haredim in Mea Shearim [illustrative] Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
Several years ago, I encouraged a haredi friend of mine to get involved with a
program matching up mostly haredi women to learn Torah with secular Israeli
women. Recently, my friend challenged me with respect to this program. How could
I expect such a program to have any impact, much less attract anyone to Torah
observance, she asked, when the haredi community in Israel is so detested by the
rest of the population? Not a bad question, I thought, especially as it is one
that I have frequently asked myself. But it is what is called in Yiddish a
“kashe af a ma’aseh,” i.e. it is pointless to ask how something can exist if one
can see it in front of one’s face. Thousands of Israelis have become more
observant and undertaken more Torah learning under haredi auspices. And many
thousands more have chosen to enroll their children in haredi-sponsored learning
Many of these people come from traditional homes, but their
ranks also include fighter pilots and naval commanders, not to mention former
actor, director and comedian Uri Zohar.
Still, the question remains: How
could any secular Israeli be attracted to Torah through haredi guides despite
the overwhelmingly negative image of haredim in the media? Well, for one thing,
no one is attracted to the haredi community qua community. Rather, they are
attracted to specific individuals. And those individuals are not likely to be
drawn from the ranks of those who spit at little girls. Indeed, the negative
images can render secular Israelis vulnerable when they meet haredim who are the
antithesis of the images they’ve been exposed to, and cause them to doubt every
aspect of their received wisdom.
Most Israeli Jews at some point in their
lives experience some curiosity about the beliefs that allowed the Jewish people
to survive as a lamb among 70 wolves for millennia and return to our ancient
homeland. And when that curiosity strikes, they will often turn toward haredi
explicators out of some feeling, right or wrong, that they represent the
But the most important reason is that a Torah life
(as opposed to a haredi lifestyle) offers the possibility of a life lived in
harmony with the deepest yearnings of the human soul. And if one tastes the
possibility of such harmony and meets people who embody it, the discordant notes
become background noise to the primary experience.
INTERESTINGLY, ONE of
the most eloquent descriptions of that harmony comes from a non-Orthodox Jew –
Prof. Leon Kass, former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. In his
recent Irving Kristol Memorial Lecture to the American Enterprise Institute,
Kass began with a reference to a lecture Kristol gave 20 years ago, entitled
“The Cultural Revolution and the Capitalist Future,” in which he contrasted the
success of American free enterprise, which had vanquished all rivals in the
creation of a widely shared prosperity, to the nihilistic anti-culture of the
elites, hostile to religion, family, patriotism and traditional
Kristol did not view economic liberty as inevitably giving rise
to libertinism. But he worried about the long-range consequences of the lost
sense of “a world that possesses transcendent meaning, a world in which human
experience makes sense. Nothing is more dehumanizing, more certain to generate a
crisis, than to experience one’s life as a meaningless moment in a meaningless
Kass surveyed four areas in which meaning must be found in order
“to live a life that makes sense, a life that is worthy of the unmerited gift of
our own existence”: work; love and family; community and country; and the
pursuit of truth. In each case, I was struck by how Torah Jews take for granted
that which others struggle to find.
In the realm of work, he argues that
neither the economic aspect of a job nor even the virtues it produces is
sufficient. Beyond both lies the search for work that provides one with a sense
of “intrinsic meaning and purpose.”
Admittedly, the first term that comes
to mind when thinking about the Israeli haredi community is not “work ethic.”
But Kass’s ideal of work that fills life with a sense of meaning and purpose
applies to those engaged in full-time Torah learning. They view their learning
as revealing the Divine Will. Torah learning, in the haredi view, is repeatedly
described as the single most powerful means of opening the pipelines of God’s
blessing to the world.
One of the central Torah ideas is that mankind are
partners with God in Creation, charged with bringing the world to its final
realization of the Torah vision.
Even a Torah Jew who is not engaged in
full-time Torah learning has many opportunities to experience the fulfillment
inherent in that partnership. Every time that he models for the world what a
human being shaped by the Torah should look like, a person is a partner with
God. Every time he is involved in remedying some communal or individual need, he
is a partner.
KASS WRITES MOVINGLY of human love as “not merely
possessive and self-serving, a lack seeking to be filled; [but] also as generous
and generative, a fullness seeking to give birth.”
Echoing his justly
famous critique of human cloning, he describes children as “a gift of love, not
the product of our wills. . . [W]e are most fulfilled in their rearing when we
raise them to serve not our present ambitions but their future good, and indeed
the goodness of life itself.” Never are we more in touch with the eternal, he
writes, than when we see our children raising their own children.
vision of love and family is under siege today throughout the West (though less
so in Israel than anywhere else). Half of American adults today are single,
compared to 22% in 1950. The most common domestic unit is people who live alone,
which constitutes 28% of households.
Even more ominous than the
statistics of singleperson households and delayed marriage is the celebration of
the unencumbered life in works like Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and
Surprising Appeal of Living Alone by sociologist Eric Klineberg. Klineberg takes
it as self-evident proof of the good of the single existence that singles are
more likely to go to the gym, eat out, take music and art classes and attend
public events and lectures. He describes one of his divorced interview subjects
as enjoying his “unfettered existence...
staying out as long as he wanted
and not worrying about anyone else... Steve had grown to appreciate the virtues
of living lightly, without obligation.”
Reviewer Benjamin Schwartz,
writing in The American Interest, is struck by the juxtaposition of “virtue” and
“without obligation,” which makes it seem as though the greatest virtue is to
always be able to give priority to one’s own desires. Klineberg does not address
how those committed only to their own lack of obligation will raise children –
actually, he suggests substituting pets – much less transmit to another
generation any societal values.
Today’s singles need not even confront
such questions, Schwartz concludes, living as they do according to the “novel
conceit that selfishness is a virtue.”
How far removed this description
is from the Torah community. Marriage remains the universal ideal, and Torah
society is the most child-centered anywhere.
Every parent in the Torah
community views his or her primary task as the transmission of the Torah values
he or she inherited to successive generations, and all eagerly anticipate the
time when their continuity is firmly established through
Patriotism is the third area examined by Kass. Here, too,
he is dismayed by cultural elites who debunk every national hero, belittle
national achievements and magnify every sin. Military service is confined to an
ever smaller segment of the population. Fewer and fewer American youths – unlike
Israeli youth – conceive of their country or the defense of what it stands for
as something worth dying for. They lack a sense of “belonging freely... to
something larger and more worthy than our individual selves.”
Weinberg, the founder of Aish HaTorah, frequently pointed out that if one has
nothing for which he is prepared to die, then one also has nothing for which to
live. Though identification with Israeli society is hardly primary for haredim,
they certainly live with an acute awareness of being part of a community larger
than themselves – a community that extends around the globe and through history
– the Jewish people. That feeling of being part of a community is reinforced
through mass gatherings, like the 250,000 who accompanied Rabbi Yosef Shalom
Elyashiv to his final resting place or the 90,000 who gathered to celebrate the
The final element of a fulfilled life in Kass’s view is one
devoted to the pursuit of truth. He laments that so many Western students have
abandoned the search altogether, having been poisoned by their professors with
the “mind-deadening and self-indulgent poison that truth, like beauty, is in the
eyes of the beholder,” something to be freely constructed and deconstructed by
each according to his whims.
Again, the contrast to the Torah viewpoint
could not be sharper. No Torah Jew denies the possibility of objective truth, no
matter how difficult its ascertainment in practice.
The study of the
Torah is the pursuit of that truth.
Where love of work, family, community
and truth are found, Kass concludes, is where one will find hope. By “hope” he
does not mean mere optimism that things will turn out well, but rather the
possibility of “trusting that the world is still and always will be the sort of
place that can answer to the highest and deepest human aspirations.” Hope is “an
affirmation... of the permanent possibility of a meaningful life in a
I cannot think of a better description of a feeling of
harmony in God’s Creation accessible to Torah Jews.
The writer is
director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The
Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of
modern Jewish leaders.