Wednesday, November 23, 2011


The Genius of Rabbi Berel Wein

I wish I had said this.

Well... actually I have. Many times. His words follow:

I think that one of the more difficult situations that exists in the Jewish world of today, especially, in my humble opinion, in the Diaspora, is the widening disconnect between the vast bulk of the population and the rabbinic leadership.

While there are many rabbinic pronouncements on the minutiae of Jewish law, customs and observance there is very little that is said and heard about the major problems that face the Jewish world – the security of the Jewish state, the dire financial situation that threatens the entire system of Jewish education, the astounding rate of poverty and unemployment (voluntary and involuntary) in religious Jewish society, children at risk because of one-size-fits-all educational institutions, growing rates of divorce and family dysfunction, an unhealthy and misogynic system of dating and marriage, growing anti-Semitism and a seemingly unstoppable rate of assimilation, secularization and intermarriage that guarantees a shrinking Jewish population in a few generations.

Rather than address these terribly difficult issues, Jewish leadership is engaged in fighting over – again - the battles that destroyed the Jewish world of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Whether we like it or not, whether it is theologically acceptable to us or not, the State of Israel is a reality where six million Jews live. The predictions by many Jewish leaders made in the 1950s that the state would not survive for twenty, thirty or fifty years have all proven to have been incorrect.

We have no choice but to support the state with all of our might, prayers, talents and resources. So why don’t we hear that call from our leadership, whether it be from any grouping of the Jewish people? The disconnect from reality is truly astounding!

The tuition rates for attending Jewish schools are rapidly reaching the breaking point. A small percentage of parents – those who pay full or almost full tuition at schools – are subsidizing the rest of the parent body who cannot afford the astronomical amounts that are termed full tuition. But that group of people – those who can and do pay full tuition – is a rapidly diminishing breed. Instead of addressing this problem – the true time bomb that threatens the future of Torah education – we spread our wealth so thin that we are unable to help the situation.

It may be important to help a father of a daughter to raise many thousands of dollars to buy an apartment for her and her prospective husband in Israel but it certainly is more important to provide for Jewish education to one’s own children and for one’s own community. This is part of the current disconnect – the inability to view the forest and remain fixated on the trees or even the bushes.

The fact that there is an enormous proliferation of small yeshivot, all of which are basically similar in curriculum, method and purpose is not only very inefficient and enormously costly but it has yet to prove that its educational accomplishments and scholarship are in any way superior to a large institution that would prove much less costly per student to maintain. Part of the problem is that there is such a surplus of kollel “graduates” who have no other employment potential except for yeshiva teaching so that somehow there have to be many such institutions simply to absorb some of this surplus of talent and scholarship. This is also part of the disconnect that exists in our world.

Having just recently completed the production of a documentary film about the Jewish world of the 1930’s, I am very concerned about the similarities of the anti-Semitic mood of the present decade to that past decade. It is much more insidious today because this anti-Semitism is encased in the pious cloak of anti-Israel rhetoric and policy. And unfortunately there are many Jews who are themselves entrapped in this self-destructive dance. And many of these Jews live in Israel!

But again all voices against this threat are muted and very little leadership is exhibited to address the problem. This is not merely a matter for the Anti-Defamation League to fight. We are all in a precarious and vulnerable position. Our leadership should warn us about this situation.

Again, silence is a great example of the disconnect that afflicts us. We should demand more from those that claim the ability and knowledge to lead us. Connection to the true large problems that face us is and should be a basic requirement of leadership and serious opinion.

Shabat shalom.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Great Orthodox Comeback

The following article by Lawrence Grossman in 'Jewish Ideas Daily' makes some profound observations in my view.

The resurgence of Orthodoxy may be the most profound, and is certainly the most surprising, transformation of Judaism in the past 60 years. Even more surprising, the most energetic part of it is not "modern" Orthodoxy but a culturally insular Orthodoxy—made up of Hasidic courts, men educated exclusively in Talmud, and a culture suspicious or even dismissive of secular society. This is the Haredi world.

The growing importance of the Haredim is especially evident in Israel, where Haredi political clout shapes public policy and antagonizes the less Orthodox. Even in America, where one form of Judaism cannot dictate to another, the Orthodox upsurge is palpable and has political implications: Orthodox Jews vote Republican even more overwhelmingly than other Jews vote Democratic.

At the end of World War II, no one would have predicted this. The Nazis had destroyed Eastern Europe's great centers of Orthodox culture. Moreover, Orthodoxy had been in decline for more than a century. In central Europe, it fell victim to emancipation, acculturation, and emergent Reform Judaism. In Russia, beginning in the 19th century, many children of the Orthodox defected to socialism and secular Zionism while others emigrated, often abandoning religion altogether.

So, how to explain the Orthodox comeback?

The Orthodox themselves give a two-fold answer. They believe that Orthodoxy is the only sustainable Judaism because it is the only "true" Judaism; and, because they believe it, they work to make it true. Scholars who prefer more impersonal explanations see the Orthodox resurgence as part of the broader erosion of Western liberalism and strengthening of religious fundamentalism: Haredim are, mutatis mutandis, the Jewish equivalents of Islamists and Christian Evangelicals.

Perhaps both explanations are wrong, or at least incomplete. Although "great man" theories of history are out of fashion, Benjamin Brown of the Hebrew University contends that a single man played a strategic, perhaps dispositive role in Orthodoxy's rise. His case is impressive.

This single man is Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (1878–1953), known as the Hazon Ish (hazon means vision; ish means man and is the Hebrew acronym for the rabbi's first and middle names). Brown's new book about him, written in Hebrew with a five-page English abstract, is The Hazon Ish: Halakhist, Believer, and Leader of the Haredi Revolution. Based on Brown's doctoral dissertation, the book is massive, learned, and comprehensive. Brown is equally at home in the complex halakhic issues that the Hazon Ish addressed and the works of general legal philosophy and jurisprudence that provide context for them. Admiring his subject without necessarily sharing his views, Brown avoids the hagiography of much of the earlier literature on the Hazon Ish and presents an objective assessment of the man. It is not too much to say that this biography marks a new era of critical scholarship in the history of 20th-century Orthodoxy.

Karelitz was the home-schooled son of a small-town Lithuanian rabbi. Withdrawn and single-mindedly devoted to rabbinic scholarship, the young man was married off to an older woman who ran a store while he spent all his waking hours in study. The marriage was unhappy and childless. Until he was 55, Karelitz lived in Vilna. He published four books there but held no rabbinic office and remained out of the public eye. Much of what we know about his Vilna years comes from the great Yiddish writer Chaim Grade, who studied privately with him for several years and fictionalized him as Rabbi Yeshayahu Kossover in his masterful novel The Yeshiva.

Karelitz arrived in Israel in 1933 and began attracting attention with his steady stream of publications, including innovative responses to practical questions: Should Jews in East Asia take into account the International Date Line when observing the Jewish calendar? May Jews sell their Palestinian land holdings to Gentiles for the sabbatical year, thus exempting them from the biblical injunction that they lie fallow? How should we calculate the amounts of substances used for ritual purposes, such as wine for kiddush and matzah at the Passover seder?

After World War II, the Hazon Ish came to be acknowledged as the Gadol Hador—the great man of the generation, the pre-eminent authority on halakhah. The once-retiring Hazon Ish also took upon himself the religio-political leadership of non-Zionist Orthodoxy in Palestine, later Israel. This status was confirmed by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion himself, who, in an event that became legendary among the Haredim, visited the home of the Hazon Ish in 1952 hoping to formulate a modus vivendi between the traditional Orthodox community and the secular Zionist state.

While no actual modus vivendi emerged from that encounter, the Hazon Ish developed a communal strategy that was adopted by mainstream Haredi Jewry: neither to accede to Zionist nationalism nor, like Neturei Karta, to fight it actively. The Hazon Ish accepted the legitimacy of the state of Israel and directed his efforts toward what Brown calls "spiritual fortification": building a strictly Orthodox subculture within the state through a network of yeshivas and kollels. Brown believes that if Haredi Jews had not followed this "middle path," they would not be in the strong position they hold today.

Before his death, the Hazon Ish fought and won critical political battles to exempt yeshiva students from the army and to keep strictly Orthodox girls from any form of national service. Yet these very successes lead Brown to end his book on a doubtful note. The Hazon Ish crafted a strategy meant to provide an independent social space for Haredim within Israel, yet today it increasingly entangles them in Israeli secular life. When he called for army exemptions for the 400 yeshiva students in 1949, did he dream that the number would multiply to 62,500 by 2010, triggering intense resentment among their fellow citizens? Would he have been satisfied to see that many of the Orthodox women he tried to protect from the secular world have become deeply involved in this world to support their husbands learning Talmud full-time?

Perhaps the Haredi case is one more example of a recurring phenomenon, the revolution so successful that it betrays its architect.

Lawrence Grossman is the director of publications at the American Jewish Committee.