Whose Certainty? A Response to Shaul Magid

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April 1, 2012
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Yehiel Poupko

There is another perspective on the criminal behavior of a small group of highly insular Haredim in Beit Shemesh. Traveling to Israel recently on a rabbinic mission of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago were nearly two dozen Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform rabbis. We met with Yair Ettinger, who covers religious affairs for the Israeli daily Haaretz. In December 2011, he wrote an article based on an interview with a former spokesman for the Eda Ha-Haredit (the governing council of the Ashkenazi Haredi community), Shmuel Chaim Pappenheim, who is a member of the Toldot Aharon community. Ettinger writes: “Two decades ago, Eda rabbis were already permitting young fanatics from Mea Shearim to move to the increasingly ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh. The extreme Lithuanian courts of Toldot Avraham Yitzhak, Toldot Aharon, and smaller groups … are all sending members to the new neighborhoods there. They have done a remarkable job of establishing a fanatic ghetto. The ‘Sicarii’ [from the Latin ‘Sicarii,’ the name of the Jewish zealots who attacked both Jews and Romans in the period leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple] within this ghetto are terrorizing Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet as well as the rabbis. No one in the ultra-Orthodox camp is willing to clash with them.”

Based on his interview with Pappenheim (who also met with our group), Ettinger notes that the criminal behaviors (which were not directed toward Israelis in general) were a response to the growing wave of change within the Haredi community — including vocational and higher education for men and women, participation in the army, and women entering the larger workforce (a response to the recognition of the need for “work with honor”). If Yair Ettinger and Shmuel Pappenheim are correct, this is good news. It means that a growing number of Haredim are heeding the call of normalcy. The summons of Judaism is the sanctity of normalcy, building civilization through the quotidian according to the mitzvot of the Torah. The Beit Shemesh criminals are well aware of the changes that are taking place. They experience these changes in their own families, and we can expect more criminal behavior as these changes become more prevalent in the Haredi community.1 As Ettinger notes, many Haredim who pursue “work with honor” are defying their rabbinic leadership. Personally, as the grandfather of six Israelis, I look forward to the draft, gainful employment, and taxation of about 55,000 Haredi men who at the moment choose to “learn” rather than to work.

Now to the heart of Shaul Magid’s essay, where he outlines how he is certain of my uncertainty. I am not uncertain. I believe, therefore I am. My belief is nonnegotiable. Magid accurately describes the current state of belief among many Jews and Westerners. This description does not include me or many other Orthodox Jews. My faith affirmations are absolute truth claims. When I say, “I believe,” it is by definition an exclusionary statement. Some Jewish faith affirmations deny something sacred to me as a believing Orthodox Jew. The same is reciprocally true for my faith affirmation.

Though Haredim and Modern Orthodox Jews make the same faith affirmations, there is an important difference between them when it comes to Jews outside of orthodoxy. While this distinction has existed for nearly two centuries, it intensified after the destruction of European Jewry. Modern Orthodox Jews and Haredim looked at the destruction of European Jewry and saw the same thing, but drew different conclusions. They both recognized that so many who were so learned and so very pure in their observance of mitzvot and in their avodat Hashem (serving God) had been destroyed. Haredim looked at that circumstance and, in effect, said, “Given that is the case, then everything has to be done to protect, safeguard, and nurture ud mutsal mei-eish — that flickering  ember, that remnant from the fire. Therefore,  ever higher walls of separation are needed between the traditional Jewish world and the rest of Jewry and the Western world itself.” Modern Orthodox Jews reasoned differently. They figured that everything possible must be done to connect even more intimately with the rest of the Jewish people and to foster a sense of family among us. While the Haredi Jew theologically and halakhically views the non-Orthodox Jew not much differently than the Modern Orthodox Jew does, nevertheless, the Modern Orthodox Jew will seek ever better relations and ever more opportunity for collaboration with all kinds of Jews.

In the world of faith affirmations, there is no room for pluralism. I believe, therefore I am. I would not believe it and act on it if I were not certain it is the truth. If by pluralism it is meant that there are multiple “truths” with equal legitimacy, then I do not subscribe to current notions of pluralism. I am a believer, not a sociologist or an anthropologist. Thus I profess my belief; I do not describe it as one among many available faith options. As I write today, it is the week before Parashat Yitro, when I will once again thrill to the record of God’s revelation and Torah giving, the written Torah and the oral Torah. The record of the latter I will continue to learn from the pages of the Talmud and Midrash, and for its life imperatives I will turn to the Shulkhan Arukh.

This certainty is anachronistic for many. Today, people do not take well to orthodoxies of any type. Why is this so? What does this lack of ease with the Orthodox tell us — not about those who embrace orthodoxies, but about those who critique them? At a time of growing Christian orthodoxies in America, we Jews continue, as we have for two centuries, to be powerful forces of secularizing and modernizing. Church attendance is up; synagogue attendance is not. Why is this so? Does our contemporary discomfort with orthodoxies affect the way we look at the criminal behavior of a few Haredim? Are these badly behaved Haredim of Beit Shemesh a convenient surrogate through whom to express general discomfort with all the Orthodox?

The lived life of the Jewish people expresses religious ideas. A document written and endorsed by a group of Chicago Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform rabbis asserts that the three movements “affirm that Judaism is an indivisible amalgam of God, Torah, faith, familial peoplehood, land, and language.” Noting the history of promise, slavery, and redemption, the document continues: “We further believe that after the Exodus, God and Israel met at Sinai… At Sinai, the covenant of peoplehood blossomed into the covenant of mitzvot.” This covenant expresses the shared uniqueness of Judaism among Jews of differing beliefs and practices.  Our commonalities are at least as powerful as our differences. In the face of more than 4 billion Christians and Muslims whose monotheistic beliefs we respect, we stand witness to Sinai at this, and in this, moment.

Both Haredim and Modern Orthodox Jews share the the emuna p’shuta, the simple belief in Torah min hashamayim — that the Torah was given to the Jewish people at Sinai as God’s word. We believe in its covenantal binding for all time. By the time World War I came around, a majority of Jews no longer fully observed the mitzvot. Nevertheless, large majorities remained powerfully attached to the Jewish people and to some of the basic ideas and experiences of the Jewish tradition. They were and are possessed of kedushat Yisrael (the sanctity of the Jewish people). It is inherent and immutable. It endures irrespective of practice and belief. Thus, my attachments to and a lifetime of work with all sorts of Jews irrespective of their beliefs and practices has nothing to do with social cohesion or political convenience. It is the imperative of Israel’s entry, at Sinai, into the covenant that establishes kedushat Yisrael. Jews who believe and practice differently than I do are by virtue of that very belief and practice affirming of that brit (covenant). We are family. Family may not always mean unconditional like, but it does mean unconditional love. This is the lesson of umibsarkha lo titalam: Do not callously turn away from your flesh.

1 See the work of Menachem Friedman, professor emeritus of sociology at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, in order to understand the complexities of Haredi culture.

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