Haredim in absentia
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 27, 2007
One group was conspicuous by its absence from the recent Jewish People Policy Planning Institute Conference in Jerusalem: the haredim.
When asked about the lack of haredi representation, one French delegate helpfully explained that there is a "nearly unbridgeable cultural gap between the types of people attending the conference and members of the haredi community." He added that it is nearly impossible to find a haredi representative with a "good grasp of geopolitical realities."
In the four years of planning for the conference, it apparently did not occur to anyone to seek the participation of haredi figures. I cannot say that none were invited. I can say no great effort was expended on securing their presence, and no one viewed their absence as a major loss.
The exclusion of the haredim is an old story. In 1996, Commentary published a symposium entitled "What Do American Jews Believe?" which surveyed the beliefs of professional theologians - pulpit rabbis, officers of rabbinical organizations, presidents of rabbinical seminaries, professors in those seminaries and a smattering of lay activists. Even when dealing with matters of Jewish belief, Commentary's editors apparently felt no need to obtain responses from any of dozens of possible haredi contributors.
Certainly the absence of haredi representatives had nothing to do with the community's irrelevance to the main topics of the JPPPI conference, including Jewish continuity and Diaspora-Israel relations. While the overall Jewish community in the Diaspora continues to shrink, the haredi community in both Israel and the Diaspora grows rapidly. The same week as the conference, a study projected that nearly a third of Israeli elementary school children will be studying in haredi frameworks by 2012. The haredi community in the Diaspora, including those who define themselves as non-Zionist, remains almost as intensely involved with Israel as their modern Orthodox brethren.
HAREDIM were not the only ones absent from the conference. The organizers also failed to invite George Hanus of Chicago, who has plowed millions of dollars of his own money annually into promoting the idea that the Jewish community should make a Jewish day school education available to any child who wants one. He has alternately badgered and cajoled federations into setting up endowment funds to support day-school education, and pushed the idea that Jews should leave 5 percent of their estates for Jewish education (the 5% solution) in his monthly newspaper, which reaches nearly a quarter of a million Jewish homes.
The haredim and Hanus (who is Orthodox, but not haredi) would likely have brought a similar message to the conference, and it is not one that the organizers wished to hear. That message is: There are no gimmicks. A 10-day trip to Israel at 19 or 20, for instance, may be a very powerful experience, but it can never be a substitute for a decade of Jewish education.
The mainstream Jewish community continues to search for a magic formula that will guarantee a Jewish future without placing any demands on us as Jews, and which does not rest upon a connection to Torah. One of the documents produced for the JPPPI conference, for instance, includes this memorable sentence: "If ritual is not followed, Jewish identity... may survive if there is a commitment to history and a sense of mission."
That is a wish masquerading as a fact. For where will that sense of mission come from if not from the Torah? What answers will we provide to our children's most basic questions: Of what importance is my Jewishness? Why does it matter if I continue to view myself as Jewish? What claim does the Jewish people have on me other than that it has been around a long time?
We better provide something better than Jews consistently vote Democrat in higher percentages than any other ethnic group.
Philanthropist Michael Steinhardt's blend of fierce Jewish pride and self-professed atheism cannot be transmitted indefinitely. A brief survey of "Where are they now?" of the offspring of major Zionist and Israeli leaders is enough to demonstrate the lack of viability of a Jewish identity severed from Sinai.
IF ONE assumes that there no longer exists one Jewish people but two - one defined by its fealty to halachic observance and the other pluralistic and adverse to all boundaries, even the basic distinction between Jew and non-Jew - then the absence of haredim from the JPPPI conference makes perfect sense.
Indeed it might even be seen as a compliment from the pluralists to the haredim: "Your future is secure; you don't need this conference."
Such thinking is found not only among the pluralists for whom haredim - even the professors and professionals - are like aliens from another planet, but among Torah Jews as well. One haredi response to exclusion - "Let them have conferences; we'll have babies and see who wins" - betrays that sense of the Jewish people as two competing brands.
But Torah Jews must banish such thoughts. Nahmanides writes that the Temple was a physical representation of the unity of the Jewish people at Sinai, when the entire Jewish people accepted Torah "as one man with one heart." That unity was the precondition for the dwelling of the Divine Presence among us.
The loss today of millions of Jews through intermarriage and assimilation constitutes an amputation of a limb from the collective Jewish people, and the loss of the unity upon which the end of mourning on Tisha Be'av depends. If we Torah Jews fail to recognize that loss as our tragedy, it shows how distant we are from Sinai and from the Temple, and how far from having properly mourned the destruction of the Temple this Tisha Be'av just passed.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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