Increasingly, I am a man without a country – or rather, a hashkafic home.
I have been thinking about this topic for a very long time. I discussed it in several articles in the past, but despaired of making a dent and gave up writing about it. Nevertheless, recent events have once again shown the crying need for people to speak out and reclaim the spiritual mooring that has been taken from us. We, the middle-of-the-road men and women who grew up in ordinary yeshivah-oriented homes and yeshivos, have been shunted aside and now struggle to find a hashkafic home.
Two recent events in particular have triggered this feeling:
In America – there was the fiasco regarding the rally in Washington. This rally, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews from across the spectrum came together to strengthen support for Israel at this crucial time and against the frightening rise in anti-Semitism, had an abysmal showing from the chareidi community. This was no accident. On the very eve of the march (after an initial halfhearted approval of the event by Agudath Israel), statements came out from several g’dolim forbidding attendance at the event, pronouncing it as “chazir treif” and bitul Torah, and explaining that one must not go because “the main speakers are a mixture of people whose entire essence is the opposite of Torah and yir’ah and tz’nius.” Not only that, one of the speakers at the rally was a Christian pastor, the rally generally supported Zionism and the glorification of Israeli soldiers and, therefore, was not a place for b’nei Torah.
In Israel – amid the great general unity that has taken place among most Israelis as we face the war together – there were many fine examples of prominent chareidim and rabbanim who sent out positive messages and calls for appreciation of IDF soldiers. At the same time, too many statements emerged disparaging those who “glorify soldiers,” blaming the terrible events on inadequate Shabbos observance, and condemning those who are volunteering to serve in the army. One rosh yeshivah responded, when asked by his students to clarify our obligation to be grateful to IDF soldiers, “What are your obligations to be grateful to the garbage collectors who take away your trash? They are both just doing a job…” (Admittedly, this rosh yeshivah received much criticism from within the chareidi community for his outrageous statements. But in truth, he was stating a widely held opinion, albeit in a repulsive manner.) Furthermore, the business-as-usual accusations about a general conspiracy by the secular against the Torah, supposedly based on anti-Semitic hatred of Torah and religious Jews, has not abated.
These are just recent events. There is a long history of spokesmen, including those considered important rabbanim, taking increasingly extreme positions and dismissive of what used to be mainstream ideas in the frum world. Chareidi leaders tell us that these opinions, once limited to the fringe, are now considered mainstream in the chareidi world, and have, in fact, always been so. Moreover, all those associated with Agudath Israel and any part of the “black hat” community are now all considered “chareidim” and are obliged to follow these opinions as a matter of daas Torah.
I don’t know about you, but I find this all very uncomfortable at best; “maddening” and “disappointing” are better words to describe my feelings. After all, many people might classify me as chareidi. I wear a black hat, I identified as a member of Agudas Yisrael, I went to “black hat” yeshivos, I looked to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah as the voice of Torah authority, I do not say Hallel with a brachah on Yom HaAtzmaut, I have a son and several sons-in-law who learn in kollel, and so forth.
Nevertheless, I feel thoroughly distanced from most of the pronouncements of chareidi spokesmen, both rabbinic and political. I cannot listen to any of the statements above with anything but revulsion. I know that they are not in line with the m’sorah that I grew up with – with the Torah I heard from Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l and others of that generation and that of my rebbeim. More importantly, I daresay that there are, at the very least, tens of thousands of people who feel similar to me hashkafically, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, whether or not they say it out loud. What has happened? Where did our m’sorah go?
Please permit me to draw on my personal experience. I grew up in Monsey until my parents moved to Yerushalayim when I was 14. Like most with whom we associated, my family did not consider ourselves “chareidi.” In fact, we had never heard the term. Rather, we knew that there were three major groups within the Orthodox world, each containing various factions: (a) Modern Orthodox, (b) the so-called Ultra-Orthodox, and (c) a large group in the middle. These are rough, simplistic definitions:
Modern Orthodox – tended to be Religious Zionist, identified with Mizrachi and Yeshiva University, were very open to secular culture, saw great value in secular education, were careful about basic observance but not anything perceived to be a “chumra,” except for the more serious individuals, some of whom were serious talmidei chachamim. Most adults gave lip service to serious Torah study, which was usually limited to attending a weekly class by the rabbi.
Ultra-Orthodox – tended to be mostly chasidic (Satmar), were very opposed to Zionism, not identified with Agudah, closed to secular culture, were proud to say that they had little or no secular education, they honored Torah learning, and they placed a high value on rigorous observance and adopting many chumros.
In the middle – people who were not Zionist and quite critical of the secular government and the State of Israel and did not celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, while at the same time (whether or not expressed overtly) were deeply concerned about the welfare of the State of Israel and were quietly proud of some of her accomplishments. They generally identified with Agudah, were open to some aspects of secular culture, and were interested in sufficient secular education to qualify for a well-paying job. Many did not seek a university-level education, and those that did, usually do so only after several years of full-time yeshivah study were completed. They were careful about observance, and they placed a high value on Torah learning.
These descriptions were only partially useful when our family moved to Israel, as the divisions differed somewhat. In Israel, there were: Dati Leumi – identified with Mizrachi and Yeshivot Bnei Akiva, Chareidi – tended mainly to live in Meah Shearim/Geulah/Bnei Brak, including groups such as Satmar, Neturei Karta, and the Eidah Chareidis; and those in the middle group (MG). These people were non-Zionist but not anti-Zionist, thankful for many of the accomplishments of Medinat Yisrael, interested in its welfare, and appreciative of government-provided services such as the Army, Police, and National Insurance. Generally identified with Agudah, many learned full-time a few years after marriage, after which they would briefly serve in the Army before going to work. There was little interest in secular education beyond elementary school.
There was a fairly straightforward division as to which g’dolim belonged to which camp. The Satmar Rav, the Brisker Rav and the Eidah HaChareidis led the chareidim. MG looked to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisrael. The Dati Leumi group looked mainly to several roshei yeshivah, notably Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, Rav Shaul Yisraeli, and the Chief Rabbinate.
In America, as well, different g’dolim were looked to by the various streams, with the Satmar Rav on one end, Rav Yosef B. Soloveichik on the other, and many in the middle, particularly Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Aharon Kotler, and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky as the leading lights of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. One could never imagine, for example, that Rav Moshe would be considered authoritative in Satmar or that the Satmar Rav would be the guide for MG; it was clear that these were different streams with different shitos and hashkafos.
Interestingly, the MG did not “self-identify” as chareidi. They saw significant differences between themselves and the Eidah Chareidis. MG would usually call themselves “yeshivati” (yeshivish), “Litai” (Litvish), “chasidi” (chasidish), “Sefardi” (Sephardic), or just “a frummer Yid” or “black hat.”
Somehow, that large middle group has disappeared. I awoke one morning and found that my family and I were now considered “chareidim.” We were now identified as part of a million-strong group that includes a vast spectrum, from college-educated professionals engaged in successful careers on one extreme to anti-Zionist and anti-modern Eidah Chareidis and even Neturei Karta on the other. All of them – all of us – are referred to with one term: chareidim.
It is not entirely clear why this happened. In a lengthy article I wrote a decade ago (tinyurl.com/LostHashkafa), I discussed some possible causes. However, whether these or other factors caused the demise of the middle group, it really doesn’t matter. The point is that this has occurred and left people like me bereft of a hashkafic home.
There are certainly benefits to being considered chareidi. It is good to feel at home in the warmth and geshmak of a variety of yeshivah and chasidic communities. Moreover, when beautiful things happen, like all the chesed groups, Hatzalah, ZAKA, and the Siyum HaShas, and a myriad of other beautiful things, I can feel pride that my people, the chareidim, are responsible for them. Unfortunately, however, it has a very negative side. Besides the pronouncements mentioned earlier, it is no secret that it means being labeled as chareidi in Israel is to be considered complicit with many negative actions, attitudes, and even violent attacks that “my fellow chareidim” have engaged in. Attitudes and actions that have caused chareidim to be among the most reviled groups in Israeli society, as I discussed in Part I of this article.
If only there were a different group that I could be publicly associated with! One that looked for its Torah guidance to the many great rabbanim who teach and speak in the true m’sorah of the great g’dolim of my youth and do not share these extreme hashkafos but (perhaps because of this) are not widely seen as the g’dolei ha’dor. A group that stood firmly for sh’miras haTorah and dikduk b’mitzvos, but also for inclusiveness, moderation, and the cardinal need for us to focus – in word and deed – on “making the name of Hashem beloved through the model you present” (Yoma 86b). Indeed, it is time to publicly and clearly redefine and contrast the two broad groups as separate hashkafic entities with different mindsets and worldviews.
If that were so, I would not be subject to criticism of my group by the secular media and public, who conflate all chareidim and tar them with the same brush. Let those who espouse certain views and condone associated actions live with the results of their choices while allowing the rest of us to follow a different path, unencumbered by that association. It is patently ridiculous and unfair that the great majority of the “middle group,” who are abhorred by many things that happen in the chareidi world, have to feel defensive because of their “fellow chareidim.”
Finally, I must admit that I debated whether this was the time for this article, as it was such an unusual time of Jewish unity. But first of all, in Part I of this article, I discussed how fragile that unity is. Moreover, I am talking about an issue already being hotly debated in the public square, with many, many people upset about the issues I pointed to at the beginning of this essay.
In the inaugural issue of the late Jewish Observer, Rav Nachman Bulman zt”l penned a vital article, “What Price Unity,” regarding relations between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox. In it, he spoke of the tension between the need for peace and unity among Jews and the need for clear distinctions when significant matters of principle were concerned, citing Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, who championed Austritt, the absolute right, and requirement of religious Jews to not be represented by those whose views were antithetical to them. Similarly, Rav Joseph B. Soloveichik famously articulated the distinction between k’lapei panim and k’lapei chutz, our internal vs. external disagreements. It is crucial to stand together against external threats. But we must not be cowed into accepting what we perceive as a distortion of our banner of Torah. While, in general, Jewish unity is vital, our tradition teaches us that it is not always so. We need achdus, but we also need havdalah, when unity comes at too great a cost.