During Chanukah we will tell the story of Mattisiyahu and his five sons, whose rebellion against the mighty Seulucid Greeks began with Mattisiyahu killing a Hellenized Jew bowing down to an idol. And it was the kana'us (zealousness) of Pinchos that turned Hashem's wrath from the Jewish people, after Zimri and Kozbi defiled the Mishkan. So there is a form of kana'us that is not just permissible but praiseworthy in the extreme.
Yet the Torah clearly recognized the dangers of kana'us. The din of kanaim pogi'im bo is a halacha that is not taught – if you need to ask, you are not the one to act. The Torah specifically relates Pinchos's descent from Aharon HaKohen, writes Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, to teach us that only one filled with Aharon's quality of pursuing peace and overwhelming love of every Jew can fill the role of the kana'i. Anyone who does not act out of that closeness to Hashem or lacks the quality of being a rodef shalom is a murderer pure and simple.
My guess is that of the ratio of acts of true kana'us to those that deserve the most forceful condemnation is about one in a thousand. One clue: the overwhelming preponderance of teenagers, including, unfortunately, American yeshiva bochurim joining in the "action," whenever violence breaks out. I doubt that a fifteen-year-old ordering an eighty-year-old great-grandmother to move to the back of the bus is primarily moved by his care for shemiras einayim, or that those chasing religious little girls down the street and calling them filthy names are filled with the requisite ahavas Yisroel.
Second clue: the refusal of the self-styled kana'im to listen to daas Torah. Even Rav Elyashiv has been assaulted in Meah Shearim. Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Rosh Yeshivas Ner Israel, once told me how he and a group of other distinguished rabbis were laughed at and ignored by a group of kids throwing rocks at cars on the Ramot Road on Shabbos.
That lack of deference constitutes one of the two greatest dangers of contemporary-style kana'us: Those who view themselves as the sole protectors of the "Truth" make it harder for our Torah leaders to fulfill their role as the einei hador (eyes of the generation). Even Rav Schach, zt"l, used to say, "I'm afraid of the stone throwers." Those stones can be real, or take the form of pashkevillen, or even editorial pages. We have witnessed great Torah leaders disparaged or given the "silent treatment" by certain organs.
A few years ago, I asked a gadol whether he had addressed certain socio-economic problems in a new work on contemporary issues. He told me that he could not do so because if he did the kana'im would say he was not really a gadol. In other words, he could not address pressing issues because if he did he would become so discredited that no one would listen to him anyway. And then we complain that there is no leadership.
THE SECOND GREAT DAMAGE wrought by the kana'im is that they distort the Torah and make it ugly in the eyes of those far removed from Torah observance. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenhein of the Eidah HaChareidis, an outspoken and brave opponent of the kana'im, frequently quotes his own rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Dushinsky, zt"l, to the effect that those who make the Torah ugly push off the geulah. And he notes that Rabbi Amram Blau, the founder of Neturei Karta, modeled all his protests on Mohandas Gandhi's non-violent approach.
Often when I'm struggling with a particular middah, Hashem seems to send me little hints as to how off-putting is the behavior I'm trying to correct by exposing me to others in need of the same behavior modification. If as a community we want to understand the negative impact of kana'us, we have to look no further than the reaction this week to the attack on an army base (however exaggerated by the media) by a group of hilltop youth. The media talked about nothing else all week, and leading politicians and former IDF generals took to the airwaves to say that the IDF should have shot to kill. Spokesmen for the residents of Judea and Samaria spent the entire week condemning the hilltop youth in the sharpest possible terms in order to mitigate the damage to their cause.
The backlash in Europe against Muslim immigrants who have turned areas in which they are the majority into no-go zones for government officials provides another example from which we can learn. Islam is a territorial religion, which divides territory between that under Islamic sovereignty and that which is not yet under Islamic sovereignty. Judaism is not territorial in the same sense. But frankly, a lot of contemporary Israeli kana'us – e.g., attempts to impose standards, often by force, in what we view as "our neighborhoods" --smacks of a similar territorial impulse. The resulting secular fear of being under chareidi control constitutes one of the greatest barriers to chareidim seeking to purchase housing in non-chareidi neighborhoods.
THE MORE FREQUENT MANIFESTATIONS of kana'us in Israel has less to do with the spiritual elevation of Eretz Yisrael than with certain historical and sociological factors. Most of the kana'us comes from the community centered in Meah Shearim, which has been waging a hundred year war with Zionism and is in perpetual battle mode.
From the pre-State days, Israeli society has been marked by a certain strain of lawlessness and an admiration of those who establish facts on the ground without undue attention to legalities. Violence has often proven effective in various political struggles, and that success has encouraged further resort to violence.
Finally, as the Brisker Rav once pointed out to Rabbi Amram Blau, even the fiercest anti-Zionists often act as if they were living in a Jewish state, in which they need not worry about harsh responses such as they would receive in chutz l'aretz. Satmar Chassidim in Williamsburg do not try to impose their standards of modesty on the gentiles with whom they share elevators in high-rise apartment buildings because doing so could prove life-threatening.
KANA'US THAT DOES NOT DERIVE from an inner closeness to Hashem, like that of Pinchos, not only damages the chareidi community, but the kana'im themselves. In a certain ba'al teshuva yeshiva, with which I'm familiar, students are forbidden to wear hats, lest they confuse donning an external garb with having achieved a certain internal spiritual level. That is a profound insight. Kana'us that does not come from a deep connection to Hashem is by definition a purely external action. The Chovos Halevovos writes that such external actions designed for their impression on others are in some ways worse than avodah zara. A worshipper of avodah zara serves only one false god; a person who acts out of a concern for the impression of others serves thousands.
Of course, we anti-kana'im have the opposite challenge: We can become overly sensitive to what those far removed from Torah and mitzvos will say, and, as a consequence, cold to the sight of Hashem's mitzvos being trampled underfoot. Combatting that danger requires eternal vigilance. For that reason, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt"l, the gentlest of souls, used to cry out "Shabbos" to himself when he would see people driving on Shabbos.
This response was part of a symposium on kana'us in Mishpacha Magazine parashas MiKeitz. Rabbi Moshe Grylak's article in the same symposium also deserves a wide audience. One of the questions was directed at the greater levels of kana'us in Eretz Yisrael.