Think again: Sinai and Jewish unity

Of all the many sterling qualities of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community in Israel, I suspect no one would list public relations acumen near the top.

Mount Sinai 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mount Sinai 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Of all the many sterling qualities of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community in Israel, I suspect no one would list public relations acumen near the top. And of the many public relations failures of the community, none looms larger than the widespread perception that haredim are indifferent to the fate of their fellow Jews and feel no connection to them.
That perception is not only wrong, but demonstrably so. Haredim founded many of Israel’s largest volunteer organizations: Yad Sarah, the country’s largest volunteer organization, which assists the sick, the elderly and the disabled; Ezer Mizion, which maintains, inter alia, the largest Jewish blood registry; Ezra Lamarpeh, a worldclass medical referral service directed by Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer; ZAKA rescue and recovery organization; Chesed v’Zimra, founded by the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, which brings a little bit of music and joy to those confined to mental institutions; and a host of organizations serving childhood cancer patients and their families.
As the late Sam Orbaum once wrote in these pages, “the charity, social consciousness, good deeds, communal welfare, and human kindness [of the haredim] may be unparalleled among the communities of this country.”
He was not just referring to intra-communal hesed.
Orbaum’s paean was triggered by a group of yeshiva students who rushed to donate blood when they learned of his need and a haredi health fund clerk who rushed vials of Orbaum’s blood after hours to a downtown laboratory to expedite the receipt of vital test results.
Nor is haredi involvement confined to hessed (loving-kindness)-related activities. Tens of millions of dollars are spent annually on efforts to enrich the Jewish knowledge of Israelis who would describe themselves as secular or traditional. The Shuvu school system, serving children from Russian-speaking homes, is one example; Hidabroot Jewish television programming is another. There are dozens of organizations reaching out to different segments of the Israeli population: those in pre-army programs, university students, at-risk youth. If there were no feelings of a common bond, there would be no reason to reach out.
The failure of haredi yeshiva students to do army service is most responsible for the perception of haredi detachment and indifference. But even here, the inference is wrong. Haredim do not claim that they have no responsibilities to their fellow Jews in Israel (though they are far more likely to frame those duties as owed to the Jewish people than to the State of Israel). Rather, they believe that their Torah learning is a vital component not only of national security but of national prosperity.
Given Israel’s remarkable achievements in both the military and economic spheres, those claims cannot be rejected out-of-hand.
Those who do not share the haredi belief in the power of Torah learning to arouse Divine favor will not be convinced that haredi students are pulling their weight, and they may argue that haredim should not be allowed to determine what form their national service will take. But still those cavils are very far from establishing haredi indifference or detachment from the fate of their Jewish brethren.
INDEED, IT would be surprising if haredim lacked any feeling of common bond with their fellow Jews or of responsibility toward them. Just the opposite should be the case. The more intensely one relates to the giving of Torah at Sinai (which we celebrate on Shavuot) as an actual historical event, the easier it is to articulate a common bond between Jews: We received the Torah as one people – as one person with one heart – and, as the recipients of the Torah, we were given joint responsibility for revealing God to the world.
Haredim inhabit a Judeo-centric universe, in which what Jews do and what happens to them is the prime moving force of human history. Every haredi child learns from an early age that the fate of the entire universe hinged on whether the Jews would accept the Torah on the sixth day of Sivan (Rashi, Genesis 1:31). Had they refused, the world would have returned to its original chaos.
Discussing the splitting of the sea, the great medieval commentator Nahmanides wrote that God only performs open miracles on behalf of the Jewish people. In a typical passage in Nefesh Hahaim, viewed as the single most important statement of the worldview upon which the Lithuanian yeshivot were built, Rabbi Haim of Volozhin, the leading disciple of the Vilna Gaon, wrote that God’s entire connection to the created world is dependent on His chosen nation’s Torah learning, mitzva observance and prayers, but for which it would cease to exist.
Such ideas are foreign, even anathema to most Jews today; they appear to fly in the face of the universalism and egalitarianism to which they subscribe. But these concepts do lead to greater identification with haredim’s fellow Jews and greater concern for what happens to them.
THE IMPACT of worldview can be readily ascertained by contrasting attitudes of Orthodox and non-Orthodox American Jews during the Holocaust and toward Israel today. Historian Raul Hilberg, in The Destruction of European Jewry, describes the response of mainstream American Jewish organizations during the Holocaust as one of “complete paralysis.” David Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews details how American Zionist organizations could not put aside their internecine battles to focus on rescue and relief for Europe’s trapped Jewish population.
The topic was barely discussed at the major conferences of American Jewish organizations in 1942 and 1943.
The Orthodox were the outliers. Only the Agudath Israel-affiliated groups broke a British boycott of Naziheld territory to send food packages to starving and typhus-ridden Jews in Polish ghettos. The Vaad Hatzalah and Agudath Israel ignored wartime currency restrictions to finance rescue operations in Europe; employed diplomatic pouches to expedite the receipt of information; purchased fraudulent South American passports, which were recognized by the Nazis. Mainstream Jewish groups would not dirty their hands.
Only the Revisionists among the Zionist groups put aside everything else to concentrate on rescue. They pushed for the creation of the War Refugee Board, which, in Wyman’s estimate, resulted in saving the lives of between 200,000 and 400,000 European Jews. And the Revisionists’ only allies were the Orthodox. The 1943 march of 400 rabbis on Washington, two days before Yom Kippur, helped galvanize congressional support for a rescue resolution in Congress, which caused president Franklin Roosevelt to agree to the creation of the WRB.
Revisionist leader Hillel Kook, a nephew of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook, told Wyman: ”The Orthodox rabbis [were] more courageous....
[They] were simply more responsive, more – more Jewish in a sense. They were more sensitive to the issue, and less affected by the environment. They operated on the old Jewish theological concept of ‘He who saves one soul, saves the entire world.’” Those same patterns prevail today. In a 2007 study by sociologists Stephen Cohen and Ari Kelman, over half of non-Orthodox American Jews under 35 responded that they would not view the destruction of the State of Israel as a “personal tragedy.” Almost 60% percent of American Jews have never visited Israel, according to a recent American Jewish Committee study. Well under 10% of American Jews say that policy toward Israel or the Iranian nuclear program will be the most important issue in determining whom they vote for in November.
By contrast, 80% of Orthodox Jews have visited Israel, and more than half of those have done so three or more times. I am confident that Israel’s security will be uppermost on the minds of minimally 70% to 80% of American Orthodox Jews when they cast their votes for president.
AMBASSADOR TO the United States Michael Oren gave an unusually frank address to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in Detroit two weeks ago. “Sometimes it seems to me that we, Israeli and American Jews, not only inhabit different countries, but different universes, different realities,” he said, referring to recent calls by Peter Beinart for a Jewish boycott of the Israeli settlements.
Oren did not focus, as Israeli ambassadors to the US might once have done, on Israel’s need for the political or even economic support of American Jews. Rather, he expressed his chief concerns as ones over the ongoing “unity of the Jewish people.”
His point was an important one. But in order to understand the phenomenon that he is describing, Oren would have to do no more than visit a few synagogues on Shavuot. Non-Orthodox ones will be sparsely attended.
For Torah Jews, Shavuot celebrates the central event in human history: the acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people.
But for most other Jews, Shavuot is the literally unknown holiday. Not that that is surprising. They do not believe in the giving of the Torah as a historical event. They observe few of the Torah’s commandments.
Of the wisdom of the Torah they know little or nothing.
Yet without a belief in Sinai, it is hard to fashion a coherent account of the Jewish historical mission or even to articulate why the continued existence of the Jewish people, and by extension the State of Israel, matters.
Yes, most Jews continue to care to some degree about their fellow Jews, and it is good that they do. But that concern diminishes with each passing generation, a vestigal holdover from ancestors who had an entirely different view of the role of every Jew in world history.
Until the importance of Sinai is appreciated, Ambassador Oren is merely identifying symptoms, not addressing their causes or providing cures.
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.