Breaking down the wall between the Haredim and the religious Zionists
By Yitzhak Meir Yavetz | 27/05/2010
From the perspective of a Haredi Torah scholar looking at religious-Zionist society, Yitzhak Meir Yavetz hopes that the all-inclusive rejection of everything associated with religious Zionism will abate in the coming years. In his opinion, much of the dispute between the two camps is archaic, and in many cases, the battle is being fought over issues that have become irrelevant. The problem: Religious-Zionists can discuss their views and debate those held by Haredim, but Haredim cannot hold a discussion (not even with themselves) about their own basic principles, the ones that lie at the focus of their dispute with their religious-Zionist counterparts
Five years ago, Israeli society endured an extremely difficult and disturbing experience, one that further intensified the polarization in the nation. It was so traumatic that we cannot even agree on what to call it: Some call it the “disengagement,” while others refer to it as the “expulsion.” The voices that cried during those traumatic times were those of the people expelled from the Gaza Strip as well as the majority of religious Zionists. The right wing of the Israeli political map was clearly on one side while the left wing was on the other. The voice that I found to be missing at that time, the voice that thundered in its absence, was that of the Haredim. Despite the fact that it was obvious that Haredi society took considerable interest the subject, its voice could not be heard on the public level. The reason appears to be a sense of unease among the Haredi community regarding what happened in Gaza and a consequent effort to refrain from making any public statements on it.
With this in mind, the question arises: In the conflict between religious-Zionist and secular Israelis, where do the Haredim stand? On the one hand, the Haredim surely do not identify with either the left or the peace movement. On the other, the Haredi world has a long and fraught relationship with religious Zionism. The dream of a united religious bloc that would together stand strong against secularism was dashed already in the early days of the state. And throughout all the years since, there has been acute tension between the Torah-observant camps in Israel, both between the political leaders as well as the religious philosophies.
At this point, I must note that I have no pretensions of offering a tested evidence-based theory here; these are only my own personal impressions and feelings as a graduate of the Haredi-ultra-Orthodox system who is currently experiencing a certain sense of dissonance between the communities and observing the deeply entrenched Haredi suspicion and alienation towards anything identified as an other, especially a religious other.
What remains of the large gaps
Let me briefly introduce myself: I was born, raised, grew up and married within the “Lithuanian” brand of ultra-Orthodox-Haredi society, and also studied in its finest schools. However, alongside my advancement along the accepted path, I also engaged in a certain degree of independent thought and sought out intellectual-Torah diversity. After I married, the urge to see the world around me for myself, especially the world of knowledge, intensified even further. In the wake of a discussion held with a relative and close friend, I dared to ponder approaches located far outside the Haredi consensus. In my explorations and investigations, I discovered new and stimulating ideas, but at the same time also encountered the ferocity of the repugnance that my own community harbors towards these ideas, often out of ignorance.
I will present the situation that one might expect to prevail between the two religious camps, and on the other hand, the situation that in fact exists, and I will try to offer the reasons that in my opinion are the cause for this disparity. One might expect the Haredi individual to feel closer to the religious-Zionist than to the secular Jew. After all, they observe the same Jewish law – the halacha – the same commandments and learn the same Torah. The various observant Jewish communities appear to share a much broader common denominator that any one of them with Jews who do not observe the commandments. However, it is because they appear so similar that their relationship is all the more complex and entangled.
The Haredi Jew has no argument with the secular Jew. After all, they don't discuss the same subjects and have no common ground or language even to define the subjects of debate. The trenchant dispute between the Haredim and the religious Zionists, on the other hand, has resulted in such rancor and resentment that the two communities are unable to collaborate against secular Israel to fight for the principles they share. However, it has been many years since the opposing positions that caused the two sides to move so far apart have been thoroughly examined. In my view, the issues that caused the tension and conflict between the two camps are no longer relevant. In many cases, they are completely passé, and perhaps, if the two sides dared to actually talk things over, they might discover that they have a great deal in common.
If we examine the main bone of contention between the historic Mizrachi movement and the Polish Agudath Israel – cooperation with secular Zionists, who had renounced their observant lifestyle, in order to advance the Zionist idea, or the revival of the Hebrew language – we will find that there is no longer anything to discuss. If we examine the historic criticism as expressed by Agudath Israel against the Mizrachi-National Religious Party for joining the Israeli government, we will find that the actual points of disagreement have in fact almost completely disappeared.
As a metaphor, let's take the variations on the symbolic piece of clothing that differentiates the Torah-observant Jew from the secular Jew, as well as the various observant communities from one another: the kippa. Perhaps this metaphor is indeed all that remains from the great gulfs between these communities. They are the colors of the identity card, according to which the wearer of the black kippa identifies himself with Haredism and the wearer of the crocheted kippa with religious Zionism.
A religious-Zionist remains a religious-Zionist
What is Haredism? Although difficult to define in a single sentence, all Haredim share a fairly broad common denominator, which includes the meticulous observance of the most minute details of Jewish law; the refusal to accept that the State of Israel has any religious-faith-based value; the positioning of the study of Torah ahead of all other priorities; isolationism and the refusal to recognize modernism and Western culture; non-service in the military; a conservative worldview that keeps a distance from any innovation or change – these can be defined as the basic principles of the Haredi approach.
Of course, this is far from an exhaustive or even completely accurate description – an impossible task in just a few lines, or even an entire article. I doubt that the Haredi philosophy can be comprehensively summed up at all. Just the same, it seems that when one encounters a person wearing a black kippa, it would be reasonable to assume that that individual espouses most of the principles listed here (if not in fact and lifestyle, at least on a declarative level). And even if we qualify these remarks and acknowledge the fact that the Haredi public can be categorized into many different and diverse communities with different approaches, for the purpose of this discussion, we can say that it would be rare if not unheard of to find a Haredi voice that would be willing to clearly and vocally deviate from these principles.
The crocheted kippa, on the other hand, does not lend itself to a similar generalization. Religious Zionism is far more pluralistic than Haredi society. One would be hard-pressed to find even a single religious-Zionist that would agree with all the above principles, but which ones would they reject and which would they categorically accept or reject? That is where most of the major and essential differences lie.
There are members of the religious-Zionist bourgeoisie who are people of the world in every sense, except for the fact that they observe the Torah and its commandments at varying levels of strictness. For many of them, the Torah commandments are a spice that is added to real life and conceptually come after the fact. They view themselves as an inseparable part of the Israeli experience and its culture, within the constraints that halacha and their commitment to it impose on them.
Then there are the circles of Yeshivat Merkaz Harav and its offshoots, and they are characterized mainly by their meticulous observance of the commandments (sometimes even more strictly than in some Haredi circles). For this group, the ideology that espouses the full integration into Israeli society and the practical modern world, if it exists at all, is far less important and less realized. They look at Western culture with a critical eye, and their perspective on it stems from their recognition of the superiority of the Torah-observant society, and a sense of mission, responsibility and a desire to give.
The circles that are associated with Yeshivat Har Etzion – the “Gushniks” as they are known in the terminology of the religious Zionists – believe in complete integration between Torah and modern life, based on a constant striving to contend with the challenges and tension that this integration invites. They perpetually strive to create a synthesis and harmony between life and its meaning, between the sword and the book, the Torah and practical life that came down together from heaven and took root in the earth.
And there are, of course, many different varying degrees between all of these types of religious Zionists.
What is interesting is that in the eyes of a member of Haredi society, a crocheted kippa is a crocheted kippa. To the casual observer, there is no conceptual connection between a yeshiva student studying in Yeshivat Har Hamor, who lives off a stipend for yeshiva students and has never seen the army outside his mandatory visit to the military recruiting center and the young people raised in the religious kibbutz movement, a member of Meimad, or any a kippa-wearing, Shabbat-observant Israeli Jew. Indeed, the differences between them can be no less intense than those that divide the religious and Haredi camps. Nevertheless, from the Haredi perspective, the identity card in the form of a crocheted kippa is stronger than any internal or even external cataloging. Whether or not a woman covers her hair completely, or only partially or not at all – a religious-Zionist remains a religious-Zionist. It is as if the Haredi sees a continuum in his mind's eye, on one end of which is the Haredi, on the other end of which is the secular Jew – with all the wearers of crocheted kippot somewhere in the middle.
My turning point
Today, some of the abovementioned principles are not completely internalized on the Haredi side either. There are wearers of the black kippa – even if unwilling to admit that this is so – who do not completely accept some of these principles, and a scrutiny of their lifestyle will demonstrate that in fact they feel and live differently. Many Haredim identify with the State of Israel and feel that it is their state. Deferral of military service is no longer a matter of pure ideology among many yeshiva students, but rather an arrangement that no one bothers to devote much thought to, perhaps out of fear of the conclusion that they might arrive at. Military service per se is not viewed as a sin, but rather as a distant, alien norm. It is simply not part of life.
On the other hand, for many religious Zionist, the value of the study of Torah is no less central than it is for the Haredim; in wake of the events of Gush Katif, some no longer view the state as a religious-theological instrument; as for the military – universal conscription is not always the norm; and it is in the Zionist yeshivot that some of the most trenchant halachic debates are being held.
Some will say that I am referring only to a very specific sector of religious Zionism, the one known as Haredi-Zionist – or Hardal. They themselves define their lifestyle as Haredi, with the addition of nationalism, and their opponents within religious Zionism view them as having left the path in favor of a different brand of Haredism. But it is not only to them that I am referring. The religious-Zionist yeshivot that do not set their benchmark by Haredism are in no way inferior to Heradi yeshivot in their seriousness toward Torah study and the primacy they assign it and its commandments in their lives. When my friend, a graduate of a Hardal yeshiva, quipped about a certain yeshiva in Gush Etzion that rather than face Jerusalem, “its holy ark faces Bar-Ilan university,” I answered: “And yours faces Ponievez in Bnei Brak.” He took it as a compliment, but as I see it, both are genuine yeshivot.
If so, then perhaps it is time we removed the separation line represented by the color of one's kippa, and look at each person individually. Sadly, however, the separation line is solid on one side and dotted on the other. The religious-Zionist is able to discuss his philosophy and confront the Haredi one, whereas the Haredi is unable to hold a debate at all (not even with himself) on his own basic principles, those that lie at the basis of the disagreement he has with his religious-Zionist counterpart.
In the religious-Zionist yeshivot, heated discussions are being held, especially in the past few years, about their path, ideology and the mistakes that may have been made, for example in the history of their relationship with the Haredim. But a Haredi yeshiva that placed subjects such as these at the focus of discussion would by definition be shedding its Haredi identity, because in doing so it would be undermining a fundamental principle of conservatism, which includes the acceptance of every principle exactly as it was handed down, without examining it to see if it is correct or still relevant. That would be a forbidden reform. Even worse – underlying such a discussion is the implicit recognition of a possible religious alternative that might challenge the unique nature of the Haredi doctrine and its exclusivity as the sole true representative of traditional Judaism.
Allow me to illustrate this point with a personal story: My own critical turning point, the moment when I began to be able to really see the different shades in the religious world, occurred during a casual conversation with a friend, who happened to mention a certain aspect of a particular issue. I immediately lodged a vehement objection to what he said with the following argument: “But that is an approach that only a religious-Zionist would take!” My friend challenged me with his answer. “And what if it is? What if they are right?” That statement stung me and wouldn't let me go until I realized that indeed, all the issues should be explored on their own merits, and I must let other ideas and people into my debate with myself. From that point forward, the door was open to a re-examination of my own identity.
As for that separation line, the picture looks entirely different, depending on which side of the line one stands. On the religious-Zionist side, diversity and varied options, including the Haredi one, are possible. While religious-Zionists of course reject this option in practice, they are willing to recognize and debate it as one of the possible alternatives. On the Haredi side, a completely different picture emerges. For Haredim, there is only one authentic Judaism, theirs, whereas all other types are forgeries on different levels. Anyone who is not Haredi cannot by definition be directly continuing genuine Jewish tradition, but is rather compromising, is basically “secular to a certain degree.” Since, there is nothing to discuss or debate with those who are semi-secular, there can certainly be no justification to feel any solidarity with this type of semi-Judaism.
The possibility of exchanging one kippa for another
This barrier between the Haredi and religious-Zionist camps appears to be impassible. It has serious implications for the relationship and possible cooperation between their political parties and makes sure that a safe distance is maintained between the two camps' yeshivot. On the public level, there is no desire to foster a closer relationship and unify the ranks of observant Jews. But on the individual level, there may be room to reconsider the matter. The members of the second and third generations of the ideologies on both sides are not necessarily as certain and as fully accepting of the path into which they were born, with all its components, particulars and fine details. Here and there, younger Haredim, especially those in their twenties, have questions and want to learn and investigate matters of faith and principle with a new eye. They may discover that the religious-Zionist philosophy is something that appeals to them, whether in part or as a whole.
However, on the other side, among the religious Zionists, this phenomenon is far more prevalent. But here the public issue once again comes in. although one can imagine a situation in which a young Haredi yeshiva graduate finds himself identifying with one or more aspects of the religious-Zionist approach, there is no practical way available to him to make a transition from one community to another. Whereas the move from being secular to becoming Haredi has become institutionalized (the teshuva movement has always existed in various and sundry forms, and a person seeking to become religiously observant will always find friends and community support), and the opposite path also exists (there is an unfortunate phenomenon of “dropouts” from the religious community), the wall between the Haredi and religious-Zionist communities is impassible. There are no emergency passageways in between. The possibility of switching one kippa for another simply does not exist.
And once again, the crocheted side of the wall is not entirely sealed. While there is no practical openness and willingness to enable defection, although it exists on the academic level, in every Haredi community, one can encounter a former “Mizrochnik” who “became strengthened” and moved over to the Haredi side. There are even a number of yeshivot and frameworks that specialize in generating exactly this kind of process; in Haredi jargon, this is known as “burning the high school kids.” However, a young Haredi that finds himself entertaining “Mizrochnik” thoughts and dares to express them in action, or even only in words, will soon find himself facing a reaction from his parents just as harsh as the one he would encounter were he to completely remove his kippa.
Is it possible to change this state of affairs? Is it possible to have a frank, in-depth discussion or to consider adopting principles from the neighboring camp? Can we look forward to freer movement between the camps? Speaking from the perspective of a member of the Haredi community looking in the direction of religious-Zionist society, I have two reasons to hope that my society's all-embracing repudiation of views identified with religious Zionism may soon be lessened.
One reason is the fact that as things stand today, young Haredim have no choice of how to live their lives. Thirty or forty years ago, it was not unusual to find two sons in the same family each choosing to go in a different direction – with one becoming Haredi and the other religious-Zionist. This freedom to choose one's own lifestyle created a sense of satisfaction. Even in those families in which this did not occur, in which all the children were uniformly Haredi, there was still a feeling of choice and acceptance of the chosen path, because on the horizon, a theoretical possibility of making a voluntary choice existed. Today, when there is little contact between the various camps and no feeling among Haredim that they have any choice, increasing numbers of young people are likely to feel dissatisfied with the framework into which they were born, and may decide on a different option.
The second reason is the absence of any discussion of current philosophical issues among young Haredim. Whereas Haredi girls are given the opportunity to hear lectures on various topical issues related to philosophy, religion and state, on how to live a Torah life, children's education and so forth (although these are by no means “trigger” talks and they leave no room for independent or autonomous debate), the young men in the yeshiva frameworks never encounter any discussion of such teachings in any of these subjects. Anyone asking philosophical questions such as how a society should be built; how the challenges posed by technology should be dealt with; or what the correct perspective on life and society should be would cause the asker to be referred to seminars for the newly religious or special treatment by an educational guide for the philosophically perplexed. This perhaps explains the superficiality of the generalization of religious Zionists into a single, uniform definition in the eyes of the typical Haredi. The only item that the Haredi identifies in the religious-Zionist is the colorful kippa on his head, which indeed contains all the various hues of his brand of Judaism. He has no inkling of religious-Zionist philosophy or debates and consequently has very little to say on the subject.
The result of this situation is that it is very easy to sell the philosophy of the school of thought of Rabbi Kook to an average young Haredi, as long as you quote it in the name of Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz – the Chazon Ish. The amount of knowledge and thought that the Haredi has accumulated during his years in the yeshiva in most cases will not equip him with the tools to uncover the deceit. This young Haredi yeshiva student, who is for the first time confronted with compelling questions to which he has no readily prepared answers, may find himself writing a worldview alien to his father on a blank page.
A growing number of these young people may ultimately break through the walls and once again enable members of Haredi society a freedom of choice on an individual level to choose the best path for a complete Torah life, whether it involves one path exclusively, or a combination of the best of both, or the consolidation of a completely new path or paths.