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 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredim in Mea Shearim 370
(photo credit: 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 frameworks.
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 authentic tradition.
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 morality.
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 world.”
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.
That 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 grandchildren.
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.”
Rabbi Noach 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 Siyum Hashas.
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 hospitable world.”
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.