VaYikra 5773 -- Israelis Seek to Fill The Black Hole of the Soul; Extraordinary Ordinary People
by Jonathan Rosenblum
March 15, 2013
Israelis Seek to Fill the Black Hole of the Soul
A few weeks back, I wrote of the importance of the chareidi community offering a coherent vision of our role in an Israel in which we are no longer a small minority but rather a substantial percentage of the population. Since then the need for such a vision has become more and more evident, as we see strands of arguments often advanced by various chareidi spokesmen twisted out of shape and used against us.
Last week, for instance, Moshe Halbertal, a Hebrew University professor of philosophy, wrote a long piece in Ha'aretz, in which he acknowledged that chareidi leaders were quite right to view Zionism at its inception as totally alien to their world view -- as a thoroughgoing attempt to redefine Jewish identity. He even acknowledged the wisdom of chareidi leaders today in refusing to cede any authority to the government to regulate chareidi education. He opposed as too costly and unlikely to succeed all efforts to force more chareidim into the army, and even opposed any attempts to punish individual chareidim with the loss of national benefits, such as child allowances, for refusing to serve in the IDF. But from these sympathetic premises, he concluded that the State should cut off funding of charedi yeshivos..
Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon's maiden speech in the Knesset posed a similar type of challenge. I can remember hearing a brilliant chareidi lecturer defend the deferment for yeshiva students more than thirty years ago on the grounds that the rest of the population is not fulfilling its national obligation of Torah study. In her opening speech, Calderon sought to turn that argument on its head by envisaging an Israeli society in which all Israeli young people study Torah and engage in military or civilian service.
Calderon, the founder of several secular "batei medrash," does not mean by Torah study what Rav Chaim of Volozhin meant in Nefesh HaChaim. But my point has to do with the rhetorical skill with which she appropriated traditional chareidi arguments.
TAKEN BY ITSELF, Calderon's speech could be viewed as a hopeful moment in Israel's history. A representative of a party routinely described as anti-chareidi, she introduced herself to the Knesset as a secular Israeli who awakened one day to find something fundamental lacking in her life: "I felt, I knew, something was missing. Something in the common new Israeli identity . . . was absent. I was lacking a depth, a vocabulary, stories, heroes, places, and drama." She described finding that missing depth and vocabulary in the study of Talmud. She eventually received a doctorate in Talmudic Literature. Referring to the Talmud, she said, "No one took it from us. We cast it aside with our own hands. But now it is the corner waiting for anyone who wishes to come and take it for themselves."
The bulk of her speech consisted of explicating in both Aramaic and Hebrew a Talmudic passage concerning Rabbi Rechumei and his wife (Kesuvos 62b) from a Gemara given her many years ago by Yair Lapid's mother.For fifteen minutes, Calderon held the Knesset members present spellbound. When she was done members from both ends of the political spectrum rushed to congratulate her.
In her description of what she had had been lacking, Calderon gave voice to what Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld once called the "black hole of identity" in modern Israel. "The major sickness of Israeli society," the non-observant Appelfeld told Ha'aretz interviewer Avi Shavit, "[is] that so many have cut themselves off so completely from their past. They have amputated their past, [and in the process they] have amputated the internal organs of the soul."
Appelfeld accused modern Jewish movements of having internalized the hatred of Jews: "Modern Jews don't want to be Jews. They flee from being Jews. Everything that makes them remember that they are Jews makes them flinch."
Calderon's embrace of Talmud study and Naftali Bennett's description of Torah as the source of the national identity that has preserved the Jewish people throughout the millenia, in his maiden speech, are expressions of an awareness of Appelfeld's "black hole" and the desire to fill it.
Though Calderon is not suspected of harboring any great love for the Torah world -- a point confirmed to me by at least two friends whom she verbally attacked upon first meeting them -- it strikes me that the Torah community can take some satisfaction from her speech. Had we not endlessly proclaimed our intense love of Torah and its value far beyond thousands of coins of silver and gold would Ruth Calderon have looked to the Talmud for what she found lacking in herself?
Had we not shown ourselves prepared to forego what the secular public considers the basics of life and to suffer all the scorn heaped upon us for our obstinate allegiance to the Torah, would there have blossomed in the State of Israel today an understanding that the very physical survival of the State depends on knowing who we are, and that who we are cannot be separated from Torah.
When Ruth Calderon proclaims, "The Torah is not the property of one movement or another. It is a gift that every one of us received," is she not proclaiming, at some level, perhaps unconscious, her belief in Sinai, where the entire Jewish people received the Torah as one.
I WAS BOTH MOVED by Calderon's speech and unnerved, as anyone raised in traditional yeshivos would be by the study of Torah detached from the performance of mitzvos she advocates. My friend Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein gave expression to my ambivalence. He pointed to dangers lurking in Calderon's call "to reappropriate what is ours, to delight in the cultural riches that wait for us, for our eyes, our imaginations, our creativity." Are there "forms of study so foreign to the nature of Torah that they cease to have any positive effect?" he asked.
In the end, Rabbi Adlerstein opted for cautious optimism, citing the famous passage in Yerushalmi (Chagiga 1:7) where Hashem expresses His preference that his children study His Torah, even if they abandon Him, for ultimately the study of Torah will bring them back to Him. I suspect that Rabbi Adlerstein's response has to do with his backgfound in kiruv, where the first objective is to get assimilated Jews to sit down over a Torah text and "check it out." "The Jewish bookshelf belongs to you too," we tell the newcomer.
But in those first encounters with Jewish texts, there is one party present who approaches the texts with reverence and views the Tannaim and Amoraim as guides to the Sinaic revelation on a level beyond our grasp. Not so in a secular "beis medrash," where the learning may be l'kanter -- in order to rip passages out of context to hold them up for ridicule or to extract new "halachos," diametrically opposed to Shulchan Aruch.
Rabbi Gil Student, a consistently thoughtful Modern Orthodox thinker, wrote a piece about Calderon's speech in which he discussed various definitions of learning lo lishma, and the Talmud's negative view of such learning. One of the dangers posed is that the aura that once surrounded Torah giants, even in the eyes of secular Jews, will be diminished by newly minted PhDs in Talmudic Literature? Can an unlearned public be expected to appreciate the chasm between someone who learns daf hayomi and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky?
If many Israelis today are experiencing the "void" that Ruth Calderon describes herself as once feeling, that is positive. All the more so, if.they recognize the source of that void as their lack of connection to Torah and what it means to be Jewish. The challenge for the Torah community is to make sure that when the broader public seeks to reclaim their priceless heritage they turn to us to help them do so.
Extraordinary Ordinary People
I recently spent five days in the house of one of my closest friends as he was preparing a case for trial. He is a top trial attorney so discussing the case and watching him prepare was for me a chance to contemplate the road not taken.
As far as I could tell my friend was doing the entire preparation alone in his study, and I asked him whether he had any assistance preparing for what promised to be a complex trial. He mentioned that he works with a former partner in his old firm. My friend hired the person in question as a clerk when he was still in law school, and he entered the firm after graduating. Eventually he became a partner, with responsibility for handling the firm's bank accounts.
In that capacity, he embezzled about $20,000 from the firm. After he was caught, my friend and his partners refused to file a criminal complaint. They learned that the perpetrator suffered from a psychiatric condition that led him to addictive behaviors, and they felt sorry for him.
Many years later, when my friend left his firm to practice independently from another state, he called up his former partner and asked him whether he would be interested in working for him locally. And they have been working together since then.
What astounded me as I listened to this story was the matter-of-fact way my friend related it. He saw nothing the least bit noteworthy about the fact that he had rehired someone who once stole from him.
The extraordinary goodness of "normal" people never ceases to amaze. In my friend's case, that goodness goes a long way to explaining how both he and his wife were able to become ba'alei teshuva in their mid-to-late fifties, and at the pinnacle of success in their respective professions.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Israeli Society, Jewish Ethics, Personalities, Social Issues
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