The endless struggle within a wonderful people

In the Haredi world, you do what your rabbi tells you to do.

Former health minister Ya’acov Litzman with Prof. Ronni Gamzu at a news conference in October 2019. Litzman resigned as housing and construction minister to protest Israel’s High Holy Day lockdown (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Former health minister Ya’acov Litzman with Prof. Ronni Gamzu at a news conference in October 2019. Litzman resigned as housing and construction minister to protest Israel’s High Holy Day lockdown
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
His real name is Yossi. In order to preserve his anonymity, let’s refer to him as Y. He is one of the most naively sincere people I know, whose genuine faith and warm embrace of religious rules and practice fills his life. More than that, it makes him happy.
When I share an original take on a Biblical phrase with him, he tells me how his entire body thrills to hear it. And when he recites a blessing over such a simple thing as water or orange juice, his joyous gratitude for God’s gift lights up his face.
Once, though, we differed deeply. We had a month full of rockets from Gaza. Y came in, and in a devout whisper and wide-eyed (literally) beautiful faith said, “A miracle from heaven, no one was injured, a veritable miracle from heaven!”
At that point I snapped, “Really, Y, if Amir Peretz (then defense minister) hadn’t ordered the manufacture of the Iron Dome anti-missile system, and our military industry hadn’t made the missiles... Not a miracle! Iron Dome!”
Abashed, Y apologetically said, “How should I know? I only went to Talmud Torah (ultra-Orthodox school) I never received an education.” It was my turn to be abashed. I suddenly understood that my sweetly disingenuous friend read no daily newspapers, listened to religious radio and had no TV. And, thus, had no frame of reference but for haredi (ultra-Orthodox) synagogue gossip and learning sessions of Bible or Talmud.
Y had let the cat out of the bag. He is not the first ultra-Orthodox or ex-haredi man and woman who has told me the same thing. One man, still practicing and believing said, “I was robbed of an education.”
In my own family, we have an ongoing dialogue over a basic question. Is there a deep split between “modern” Jews and most ultra-Orthodox Jews – who learn nothing “external – based on who accepts and who rejects the Enlightenment. That movement, now a few hundred years old, enshrines human reason over transmitted religious dogma.
The difference is not between intelligence or non-intelligence, but stems from the prime teaching of ultra-Orthodoxy. In Hebrew, that fundamental tenet is emunat hakhamim, literally “belief in wise men” – and the term “wise men” is a synonym for rabbis. In simple words, it means do what your rabbi tells you to do. It applies to all segments of the fractured ultra-Orthodox communities; it is inculcated from earliest childhood at home and in school.
By the way, this does not mean revering everyone who calls himself “rabbi,” because in the ultra-Orthodox world, the title has been so debased each male calls his fellow male “ha-rav.” When I protested to a hassid, “I am not a ‘rav,’” he simply told me, “That’s how we do it.” On this background, we come to these coronavirus days. Rabbi Ya’acov Litzman, certainly a learned gentleman, is entirely the creature of the Gerrer Rebbe, hereditary leader of the largest hassidic and increasingly stringent-loving mass in Israel. Litzman heads the Agudat Yisrael faction of the United Torah Judaism Party. Agudah, let it be recalled, was born more than a hundred years ago to oppose Zionism.
He resigned from the government because – he wrote – the lockdown about to be imposed for the High Holy Day period would keep tens of thousands of Jews from synagogue, and that the lockdown was delayed until Rosh Hashanah for that very purpose. Surprise! I agree with him.
It was imposed to keep millions of Jewish children, women and men from crowding into synagogues. I just disagree on the reason. The lockdown was enacted to prevent crowding in shuls and large family meals where the ugly virus spreads quickly. The Gerrer Rebbe hath ordained.
So, too, Rabbi Yitzhak Pindros, who has been a political macher since day one. Of course, never having served in the army, he protested the security situation during the Second Intifada in a most idealistic way, certainly not at all motivated by the search for publicity. On Facebook, he has been called an “idiot” for his stance on handling the coronavirus. He is not at all an idiot, but a shrewd political operator who called upon “schools” to stay open in the “red” areas that were then supposed to be sealed off. Since most of these areas were in haredi towns or areas (and in Arab towns), he certainly was urging yeshiva heads to ignore the then regulations. He did say learning should be in “capsules,” which to me is just political cover, as anyone who has studied in a yeshiva knows that this is not easily done. Since he has been supported by both the Lithuanian (non-hassidic) and hassidic streams in UTJ party, it is unlikely that he did so on his own.
Let’s not forget in early September, 80% of all new cases were from haredi communities. This terrifying statistic is from the coronavirus “czar” Prof. Ronni Gamzu.
Neither Litzman nor Pindros is ignorant or unworldly. But, to return to our family’s discussions, they have never accepted any part of the Enlightenment, the movement that placed reason above thought control by divines. This holds true for all rabbinolaters, who place their religious leader above common sense. Let’s see the whole picture: this is true about many people from many cultures and religions who endow a pope, imam, guru, rabbi, or baba with infallibility. From this point of view, ultra-orthodoxy is as Catholic as can be: rabbinic infallibility!
All this brings me to a new book, The Lady of Hebrew and Her Lovers of Zion by Hillel Halkin. Toby Press should be congratulated for publishing this masterpiece, many chapters of which appeared previously in Mosaic Magazine. It speaks to a wide audience: history buffs, literature lovers, Jews and gentiles trying to understand or come to terms with belief versus modernity, doctrine versus reason.
This rich and readable book, to which our editor will surely devote more space in future editions, interweaves essays about, and brilliant translations of excerpts from 11 Hebrew novelists, essayists and poets. The first novelist in Hebrew, Jozef Perl, wrote about his struggle against dire poverty and yeshiva studies as he makes his way – under the influence of Moses Mendelssohn – from the Talmudic world to freedom of thought. This novel was published exactly 201 years ago.
From him to Agnon, all of these pioneer Hebraists dealt with or took sides in the painful clash between faith and modernity. This is the core issue, while the 11 protagonists played major roles in the rebirth of the modern Hebrew language, which resulted eventually in Israel being a Hebrew-speaking country. Most amazing, with all that content, I read the book with the excitement that possesses me when I read a fast-moving thriller.
Bottom line: Judaism has been an evolving culture trying to adjust and absorb or reject outside trends of thought since its first days. In the last few hundred years the cultural war has raged more sharply due to literacy, democratization and speedy communications. Israeli governments have created through subsidization, an immense ultra-Orthodox community, part of whose members adopt some phases of modernity and a greater part disdain it, under the determined leadership of regressive rabbis, rebbes and babas.
As a lifelong traditionalist and a free-thinker, the search for a balance is also – like many of us – my own private story. Although he may not be aware, it is Y’s too. 
The writer has studied in yeshivot and at the Jewish Theological Seminary as well as Columbia University. His life’s work in government and the Jewish Agency-World Zionist Organization has in great measure dealt with making Israel central to the Jewish people, while respecting tradition, pluralism and freedom of thought. Comments: [email protected]