(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
I was asked recently to speak to a group of foreign journalists about the haredi community in Israel and take them on a tour of Mea She'arim. I refused the second request. A tour of Mea She'arim alone, I explained, would only reinforce one of the most common misconceptions of the haredi world - that Mea She'arim typifies haredi Jewry or, at the very least, represents the haredi community in its unsullied, uncompromised form.
Mea She'arim is in many respects sui generis - linguistically, behaviorally and in terms of the historical memories that shape the community. Outside the hassidic world, Yiddish usage is in steep decline in the haredi community. Most present-day Israeli yeshiva students, for instance, do not speak or understand Yiddish. But it remains the lingua franca of Mea She'arim. The overwhelming majority of haredim eligible to vote in national elections do so, whereas most denizens of Mea She'arim do not.
Most importantly, the mindset of Mea She'arim has been shaped by a different history. Its residents represent the so-called "Old Yishuv" that has been locked in battle with the Zionist interlopers for well over a century. It is a community that views itself as being under siege from the outside world.
Though the rest of the haredi community was also ideologically hostile to Zionism, its historical memory has not been shaped to nearly the same degree by the Old Yishuv's hundred-year war with Zionism. Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (universally known as the Chazon Ish, the name of his multivolume halachic work) arrived in Palestine from Europe in the 1930s and quickly established himself as the ideological leader of the "New Yishuv." He once referred to the self-proclaimed "zealots" as Jews from before matan Torah (the giving of the Torah). By that he meant they had been rendered incapable of balancing a multiplicity of factors as demanded by the Torah.
The Chazon Ish's successor as the ideological leader of the yeshiva world, Rabbi Elazar Menahem Shach, noted that a too-great focus on the battle with Zionism, no less than a too-great focus on the sanctity of the Land, inevitably leads to a distortion of the Torah.
THE FOREGOING historical background is necessary to understand a battle being waged within the haredi community. On one side, there exists a small minority that does not factor in the reactions of its fellow Jews before acting. That group has for so long viewed itself as a besieged minority that it has lost the sense of connection to the larger Jewish people. The consequences of its members' actions on the general perception of the Torah and Torah-observant Jews are of little concern.
Their focus is instead on the protection of their turf from alien intrusions. In recent decades, they have been involved in stone-throwing on the Ramot road and were at the center of the confrontations on Jerusalem's Rehov Bar-Ilan which did so much to make the entire haredi world anathema in the eyes of the broader Israeli public. And more recently, a younger generation that has moved from Jerusalem to Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph has been involved in a number of violent confrontations that have placed them at odds not just with their secular and national religious neighbors, but even with their haredi neighbors up the hill.
The Chazon Ish, who deliberately chose to make his home in Bnei Brak, took a diametrically opposed approach. He stressed the responsibility of mitzva-observant Jews to draw their fellow Jews closer to Torah. And he made it clear that today - in a period where divine providence is no longer manifest - that can only be done with cords of love.
A rabbi once asked him whether he should permit Shabbat desecrators to be called to the Torah in his synagogue. The Chazon Ish replied that the custom of not calling Shabbat desecrators applied in the past, when only a few Jews violated the Torah and so denying them an aliya might cause them to repent. But when those who flaunt the Torah's commands constitute the majority, such a response will only further arouse their hatred.
Similarly, he ruled that one particularly harsh approach mentioned in the Talmud toward those who publicly violate the Torah only applied when miracles were common and violators were in open rebellion against God. When God's presence is hidden, that approach would be viewed by the larger public as an act of cruelty. Since the entire purpose of the approach was to repair breaches in the fence of mitzva observance, it does not apply when it would only widen those breaches. All that is left to observant Jews, wrote the Chazon Ish, is to show our brethren the light of the Torah to the best of our abilities.
TODAY, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv has proclaimed that instilling in students that "the name of heaven should become beloved through your actions" should be one of the primary goals of haredi education. (Rabbi Elyashiv, incidentally, is a lifelong resident of Mea She'arim; we are discussing archetypes only roughly denoted by a particular geographic location.)
No one would claim that any segment of the haredi public has perfectly fulfilled the talmudic dictum he cited. Nevertheless, the outcome in the clash between these two opposing approaches within the haredi world is of vital importance, not only for the haredi world itself but for the larger Jewish community that desperately needs to be touched by the haredi passion for being Jewish.
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