The Monastic threat to Israel

Growing number of Jews who isolate themselves from society weaken Israel's solidarity.

haredi men black hats 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredi men black hats 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
What a wonderful week: Seven days escorting three rabbis and eight young Roman Catholic priests from Brazil, Argentina and Colombia around Israel—Jerusalem, the Galil, Tel Aviv and Arad. The program was organized by the Center for Jewish Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat (the first Orthodox center in the world dedicated to Jewish-Christian relations), the Latin American Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Diplomatic Corps.  
Throughout the week, Rabbis taught the priests about Jewish interpretations of Torah, the importance of Israel for Judaism and the Jewish people, and Jewish attitudes toward Christianity. Catholic theologians taught the priests about post-Vatican II Catholic teachings concerning the ongoing validity of Judaism and friendship with the Jewish people. The experience the priests most talked about afterwards, however, was being at Shabbat dinner with Jewish families in Jerusalem. The trip introduced the priests to a whole new world of Israel, Jews and Judaism.
While flying to America after the seminar I struck up a conversation with a bright haredi man sitting beside me. He was busily studying a fascinating rabbinic text, Mishnah Zevakhim, which details the laws of Temple sacrifices in ancient times. We talked, but I sensed that he was more interested in the text than in me. I found a way to end the conversation and we returned to our respective pastimes.
My airplane neighbor reflects where today’s religious life is hurdling toward at alarming speed. Our yeshiva students, adult men in kollels (Yeshiva for married men), their wives and their daughters inhabit a universe far removed from larger Israeli society. They engage in impressive acts of hesed (kindness) in their local communities, but they divorce themselves from responsibility for the welfare of the Jewish people as a whole, the Jewish State and its institutions, and from concerns for justice, society or building a better world. For the most part, they don't identify with anyone beyond their immediate observant circles. All this is done in the name of Judaism and its religious values.
Truth be told, however, this lifestyle represents an assimilation to the early Christian theology of withdrawal from society and the material world. This worldview was initiated by Jewish Essenes who influenced young Christianity, but these isolationist Essenes were forcefully repudiated by the Pharasees whose rabbis laid the foundation of normative Judaism and the rich Jewish heritage that our grandparents and parents gave us.
For most of our history, Jews have been fighting assimilation to Christianity that destroyed Jewish identity. During the Middle Ages it was conversion to the Church. After the European Emancipation it morphed into absorption into gentile society, though this was more acceptance of secular values than adoption of Christianity.
The real threat of assimilating to Christianity today, however, is adopting the worldview that God can only be found in isolation and personal contemplation –  not in the material world or human striving within society. This was the theology adopted by early Christian monks and ascetics—it is no longer  part of normative Christianity—and it stood in stark contrast to traditional Judaism. All of the great rabbis of the Talmud and medieval era participated in society and their communities, nearly all worked in professions unrelated to teaching or study, and all felt a religious obligation to contribute to the larger Jewish public good.
They lived the rabbinic adage, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” One Talmudic sage, Shimon bar Yochai, advocated a religious life of exclusive study and shunning society, and the Talmud unequivocally rejected him for this. It teaches that God angrily chastened Shimon and ordered him back into his cave until he developed healthy religious senses. To clinch the point, the Talmud tells us that Shimon later repented and grew to value human social activity as serving essential religious purposes.
What the Rabbis understood early on and what Shimon came to realize is that much of the Torah commands us to bring spiritual values into the material world and human society. In rabbinic parlance this part of the Torah is termed mitzvot she-b’guf (commandments of the body). Maimonides understood the deep significance of this category, interpreted it in the Guide of the Perplexed as “mitzvot toward the body-politic.”   
Although the rabbis over the ages rejected monastic isolation, this type of assimilation is growing rapidly today. Are today’s burgeoning population of yeshiva students—who have no desire to ever leave their study halls and are absorbed exclusively in individual contemplation—and religious Jews who cloister themselves in isolated neighborhoods and feel no responsibility to contribute to broader Jewish society, not just a version of Christian monks, albeit with families?
This new schism is ripping away at Israel’s social solidarity, politics and economics. Many see the split as a greater threat to Israel’s survival than are her Arab enemies. Sadly, too many rabbis and religious adults have lost interest in relating to the entire Jewish people in any real way. Their invocation of the ideal of Am Yisrael - the nation of Israel - is merely rhetorical. And many religious people today have even lost the vocabulary to deal with Israel’s burning challenges of defense, social policy, poverty, justice and building a civil culture.  
Jews have always rejected Christianity—in all its various forms. They held fast to Judaism’s original covenantal vision of bringing God and divine values into the material world and every arena of human endeavor, and of justly sharing society’s burdens and blessings. Surely we need to resist assimilation to alien ideologies that include monasticism and separatism, even when they are advanced in the name of Judaism and Torah. This is the only way we can remain strong as a people and be faithful to God’s calling to Abraham to “be a blessing,” so that “through you all of the nations of the earth will be blessed.”
The writer is North American Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat, and editor of the online journal, Meorot—A Forum for Modern Orthodox Discourse.