The Price of Disunity
by Jonathan Rosenblum
December 24, 2008
Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, at the beginning of his commentary Oznaim LeTorah on parashas Vayeishev, explains the juxtaposition between the chronicles of the descendants of Yaakov and the brief enumeration of the tribes of Esav at the end of parashas Vayishlach. The Torah, writes Rabbi Sorotzkin, seeks to explain why the descendants of the Esav merited to establish a kingdom, with an orderly succession, for eight generations before Yaakov and his descendants succeeded in doing so.
He answers that the tribes of Esav, for all their individual corruption and wickedness, at least had a measure of internal unity. Though they descended from different mothers, the tribes of Esav were able to settle on a single king without recourse to warfare. The children of Yaakov, by contrast, were divided among themselves and even came to the point of fratricide. And thus they had to be purified in the crucible of Egypt before they could establish their own kingdom.
The Lutzker Rav's vort struck with particular force this past Shabbos, following, as it did, the headlines in the weekend chareidi press about the disunity in chareidi ranks ahead of the coming elections. Both Degel HaTorah and Agudath Israel announced last week that they are planning to run as separate lists in the upcoming elections. Each side, needless to say, blamed the other for the breakdown in negotiations.
The chief stumbling block to a unified list – at least as far as one could gather from news reports – is the issue of the placement of representatives of the various factions on the Knesset list. Ideological differences, if any, it seems play little role in the failure to agree on a common list. In this context, one is reminded of a classic vort of Rabbi Moshe Sherer on one of his periodic missions to Israel to try to resolve some of the perpetual infighting in Agudath Israel. Then, as now, the issue was placement on the Knesset list. In those days, when Knesset members still had the power to allocate monies to individual institutions of their choice, the order of the various factions' representatives could determine which institutions remained open and which closed. And so placement on the Knesset list was always bitterly contested.
In the midst of one particularly heated meeting, Rabbi Sherer said that he now understood a Gemara that had always bothered him. The Gemara in Berachos (28a) relates that on the day that Rabban Gamliel was deposed as Nasi, they had to add a large number of safsalim in the beis medrash – according to one opinon 400 benches and according to the other 700. Why, Rabbi Sherer asked, does the Gemara refer to the additional numbers who entered to learn in terms of the benklach on which they sat?
He answered that the great increase in the numbers learning was because of the rescission of Rabban Gamliel's order that only those who were tocho k'boro could enter. And when you are dealing with those who are not tocho k'boro, they will end up fighting over benklach. Thus the Gemara refers to the increased numbers in terms of the greater number of benches in the beis medrash.
The present failure to agree on a single Knesset list is another painful reminder of how much disunity continues to plague chareidi Jewry, if any were still needed after the recent Jerusalem mayoral elections. (In this context, Reb Aharon Leib Steinman's success in putting together united lists in all the chareidi municipalities, prior to last month's elections, appears more and more like the exception to the rule.)
THE DISUNITY AND DISARRAY in the world of chareidi politics might be of little concern if things were swell, and we had nothing to fear. That, however, is hardly the case. It is a bit hysterical to say that Klal Yisrael has never been in greater danger than today. Such statements betray a rather short historical memory. But it is true that the social structure of the Israeli chareidi community that has been in place for at least thirty years – a social structure based on long-term kollel learning for all men – has never seemed so fragile as it does at present. And if that whole structure were to collapse, it would do so with dizzying rapidity leaving no time for preparation or gradual readjustments. The social dislocations would be enormous.
Jews in Eretz Yisrael have not yet fully grasped the nature of the situation that we are facing, unless they are among those who travel frequently to the United States collecting for their mosdos. The head of one of the largest kiruv organizations told me upon his recent return from the United States that in a week he barely covered his plane fare. Another rosh yeshiva said that everywhere he went he met only depressed and broken Jews. The only thing that kept him going was the thought that every closed door was undoubtedly lessening his Gehinnom. "Al pi derech hateva," he told me, there is no way to open the doors next month.
There is a widespread feeling that large institutions and organizations cannot possibly just close their doors. We assume that the future cannot be that different than the past. Yet all around us we see clearly that is not so. What baby-boomer, who grew up hearing about the Big Three automakers, can imagine a world without them? But such a world is today more than just a remote possibility. Hundred year-old firms with billions of dollars in assets – Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch – suddenly disappeared or exist in a completely different form.
Can we say with confidence that the same fate cannot possibly befall one of the large mosdos haTorah? And if it could happen to the very largest mosdos, with huge pools of alumni, how much more so hundreds of small kollelim, who are no donor's top priority. Maybe the promise that Torah Yidden exist above nature will somehow keep all these institutions afloat, but, in the meantime, the responsibility of providing food and paying staff is draining the lifeblood of those who bear it.
At a time like this, the Torah community of Eretz Yisrael needs a forum to gather its best minds to address themselves to the future of the community, to analyze possible courses of action, to assess the dangers of action and the dangers of inaction, and to collect information to understand the scope of the challenges that we face. And what do we have instead? Bickering about Knesset seats, while Jerusalem burns.
But the latest bickering is only one more reminder of the failure over the last fifty years in Eretz Yisrael to develop a functioning professional organization serving the interests of the entire Torah community.We totally lack a professional staff to help provide the gedolei Torah with the best possible information prior to their decision-making and with the ability to execute their directives. Not by accident were the two major recent initiatives outside of the political sphere – BeTzedek, a legal organization representing the Torah community in the Israeli legal system and Temech, a program to develop employment possibilities for chareidim – both projects started by Agudath Israel of America.
No comparable professional organization ever developed in Eretz Yisrael because the various factions that comprise the Agudath Israel electoral list have been too busy constantly jockeying for position vis-à-vis one another. When positions are parceled out based on factional affiliation, when rotation agreements replace demonstrated competence in the allocation of important public positions, when all activists are paid functionaries and there is no grass-roots constituency whose involvement extends past voting for a certain slate of candidates (and of late perhaps not even that far), the chances plummet of marshaling all the community's resources for the achievement of concrete goals.
Torah society in Eretz Yisrael faces a multitude and magnitude of threats that the present generation has never known. And unfortunately, we have hamstrung ourselves in our ability to even confront those challenges.
Since this article was published, Degel HaTorah and Agudath Israel came to an agreement on a joint Knesset list.
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