Think Again: Jews under threat in Israel

The rapid demographic decline and weakening identification with Jews under threat in Israel of non-Orthodox communities worldwide is just the most recent chapter of a long saga.

Jews celebrate succot 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jews celebrate succot 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A well-known midrash compares the Four Species to four types of Jews. The etrog has both taste and fragrance, representing those Jews who possess both Torah and mitzvot; the lulav has taste but no fragrance, representing Jews who have Torah but are lacking in good deeds; hadassim are fragrant but lack taste, representing those Jews who are rich in good deeds but lack Torah; and aravot lack both taste and fragrance, representing Jews who lack both Torah and mitzvot.
Some spend hundreds of dollars to purchase the most beautiful etrog, lulav and hadassim, yet if the lowly (and relatively cheap) aravot are halachically deficient, they have still failed to fulfill the mitzva of the Four Species. The message: Jews lacking Torah and mitzvot are still part of Klal Yisrael, and we cannot do without them.
The same theme runs throughout the month of teshuva in Tishrei. The Yom Kippur service begins with a formal proclamation by three elders of the congregation granting permission to include in the prayers even those whose sins were so serious that they were banished from the congregation. The presence of such serious transgressors is not just permissible but desirable. The furthest removed Jew is an essential part of the prayers of the day, as our sages teach, “Any public fast in which Jewish sinners do not take part is no fast.”
The Alter of Kelm used to emphasize the importance of identifying with the People of Israel to the judgment of Rosh Hashana. Every year in Elul, a yellowing poster hung in the Talmud Torah of Kelm, on which was inscribed the main message that the Alter wanted to imprint upon his talmidim as Rosh Hashana approached: “All the Rosh Hashana prayers are designed to glorify the Kingdom of Heaven, and we, for our part, are called upon to crown Hashem [God] as King of Kings. With what shall we crown Him? With love for others and charitable acts, as Moses said in his parting blessing: “There will be a King in Yeshurun when the leaders of the people gather together, with the Tribes of Israel as one” (Deuteronomy 33:5).
Harmony between Jews is both a precondition for recognizing God’s sovereignty, as in the above-quoted verse from the Malchiot section of Musaf, and an outgrowth of true love of God. If the servants of the King fully devote themselves to His service and His purposes, the Alter taught, there would be no room for conflict among them.
FOR MOST of the two millennia of exile, Jews needed no reminders that they share a common fate. Their Christian and Muslim neighbors were only too happy to remind them if they ever forgot. And to some extent, constant wars, terrorism and the threat of a nuclear Iran help preserve recognition of that common fate, at least among the Jews of Israel.
But the fundamental interrelationship of all Jews, hinted at by the Four Species, goes much deeper than a common fate or shared victimhood. The basis of the connection between Jews lies in a common mission assigned to us at Mount Sinai – to bring knowledge of God to the entire world. The prayers of the High Holy Days bid us to contemplate a world permeated with knowledge of God, in which each created being acknowledges that God is its Creator.
Because the Torah offers the deepest perspective on the interconnection of all Jews – a shared mission in which each Jew has a role to play – ultimate responsibility for preserving awareness of the interdependence of all Jews falls upon Torah Jews.
Unfortunately, the Klal Yisrael perspective has become attenuated among Torah Jews as well. That is most evident among groups who have been fighting a pitched battle against Zionism in the Land of Israel for well over a century. In war, it is easy to forget that those on the other side are also Jews, or at least that they are Jews who count. How else to explain tactics that often seem tailored to make the Torah and those who uphold it as alien as possible to the vast majority of world Jewry?
But the phenomenon is not limited to the precincts of Mea She’arim. In the more than two centuries since the ghetto walls began to fall, Torah communities often had to fight to preserve themselves.
Those that followed the Austritt principle of separation from larger communal frameworks were usually the most successful in preserving their Torah identity.
But that success also came with a cost, in terms of a diminished Klal Yisrael consciousness. To some extent, Jewish statehood, which inevitably pits groups of Jews against one another, has exacerbated the problem of exclusive identification with one’s own small subgroup.
CIVIL WARS have different rules of engagement: They are literally wars between brothers.
So too with conflicts between Jews.
Religious Jews cannot forget that those whom we perceive to be on the other side are also our brothers, and that what they think of Torah and its adherents is critical to our most cherished goal – a world filled with knowledge of Hashem.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim once quoted to me his teacher Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky, the late chief rabbi of the Eda Haredit, to the effect that the ultimate redemption requires some spiritual awakening (though not necessarily full mitzva observance) on the part of all Jews. When Torah Jews act in such a way as to make that awakening less likely – Pappenheim was referring specifically to violent demonstrations – we therefore push away the redemption.
The classic Torah sources speak only of the entire Jewish people being redeemed.
Either we will all be redeemed or none of us will be. For a Torah believing Jew to act oblivious to the impact of his actions on the perceptions of Torah of his fellow Jews does not just make it harder, as it were, for God to bring the redemption. It is tantamount to giving up hope for the coming of the Messiah, belief in which is one of Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of Faith.
BUT IF Torah Jews dare not forget that without the aravot there can be no fulfillment of the mitzva of the Four Species, the metaphor of the midrash is no less relevant for non-observant Jews.
Without Torah and mitzvot, the Jewish people cannot sustain itself. Jewish history is replete with communities that were once great centers of Torah learning that subsequently withered and died, after the Torah learning stopped.
The rapid demographic decline and weakening identification with Jews under threat in Israel of non-Orthodox communities worldwide is just the most recent chapter of a long saga.
Of all the Four Species, the aravot are by far the most fragile. They dry up quickly, and most people have to replace their aravot at least once during the week of Succot.
Every religious Jew has an obligation to ensure that the aravot among us receive all the moisture they need and do not dry out completely. But the aravot also need to sprinkle water on themselves. ■
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.