Rabbi Moshe Grylak's column last week on a new phenomenon of "invisible kippah" wearers was indeed encouraging. Especially encouraging was the feeling among those interviewed that they are the vanguard "of a major sea change in the spiritual life of Israeli society."
The phenomenon described is another aspect of the thirst for a connection to Torah among many Israeli Jews that I have been writing about for some time. And it is one that calls for action on the part of Torah Jews as individuals and as a community.
Yet, there are aspects of the phenomenon that should give us pause as well. As described in the Makor Rishon article upon which Rabbi Grylak drew, the typical wearer of the invisible kippah "wants Judaism, but does not wish to be associated with the existing frum society, which is not especially popular in his circles." He wishes to pursue his religious path "while determinedly steering clear of the dati and chareidi establishment."
To some extent, I can sympathize with that desire to forge one's own path. Unquestionably, many Israeli ba'alei teshuva have suffered from premature attempts to assimilate into chareidi society at a stage in their development when such integration was not yet possible either for them or their children. In recent years, the emphasis has switched to integrating ba'alei teshuva into the local religious communities in the places where they live and work, rather than encouraging them to move to all-chareidi enclaves like Kiryat Sefer. New school systems have been also been crated to serve their needs.
And yet it would be a tragedy, first and foremost, for the "invisible kippah" wearers themselves, if they deliberately cut themselves off from the existing frum community. For one thing, Torah is lived in a community. Without a community, one's Jewish life is inevitably truncated. Moreover, without a community framework, it is much less likely that one's individual path will include one's spouse and children. Those described by Rabbi Grylak seem to understand that, and have made tentative steps at creating their own communities.
The vitality of one's life as a Jew depends to a very large extent on one's connection to Torah learning. Few, if any, newcomers will be able to learn how to learn by themselves. Lectures in Jewish mysticism and the like cannot substitute for a thorough grounding in Chumash, knowledge of the prayerbook, and, for men, the taste of Talmud. To cut oneself off from access to those most qualified to teach Torah, and who bring the greatest fire to their Torah learning, is, again, to consign oneself to an unnecessarily limited life as a Jew.
BUT THE DEEP AVERSION to any identification with the chareidi world should also concern those of us who identify with that world. The "invisible kippahs" grew up in secular Israel, and still pass in that community as members in good standing. And among the shibboleths of Israeli secular society are negative stereotypes of chareidim.
Rabbi Grylak quotes Professor Asher Elhayani's description of a trip to Majdanek, with a group of high school honor students. They felt guilty about their negative feelings towards Arabs, and were eager to work on those feelings. But about the chareidim they all agreed that "there was no chance of having any kind of relationship."
Perhaps the most common stereotype about chareidim is that they care only about themselves and have no interest in or concern for their fellow Israeli Jews, a feeling exacerbated by the fact that most of us do not serve in the IDF. I believe that characterization to be false, but it behooves us to ask why it persists.
It is belied by the thousands of Lev L'Achim volunteers who donate hours every week to learning Torah with secular Israelis; by the more than 500 volunteers of Kesher Yehudi, avreichim and avreichot (wives of avreichim) who travel to one of eleven pre-military academies for one-on-one learning once a month and commit to maintaining a relationship with their learning partners during their years of military service; and by the couples of Ayelet HaShachar, who live on secular kibbutzim and moshavim.
Health Minister Yaacov Litzman's campaign against sufganiot, as part of his larger effort to improve the health of Israeli's diets, reflects his own deep concern with the health of all Israelis, even at the risk of being ridiculed for being "modernish" in his own community. Not for nothing does he regularly top the list of most effective ministers in polls. Similarly, MK Moshe Gafni has used his perch as chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee to advance many causes, including environmental ones, having nothing specifically to do with the chareidi community.
Still, there is more we can do. If I had to identify one common thread running through all the great Torah figures about whom I have written biographies it would be their concern with Kiddush Hashem in matters great and small. They actively looked for opportunities to bring honor to the Torah and those who learn it.
With their example in mind, I'd like to suggest that there be attached to any exercise of political power by the chareidi community a figurative Kiddush Hashem impact statement. By virtue of the fragile nature of the governing coalitions chareidi political power is often disproportionate to our percentage of the Israeli population.
The environmental impact statements used in America for major construction projects, for instance, provide a model for ensuring that particular issues are considered in the decision-making process. Environmental impact statements do not guarantee that no project will ever damage the environment only that the consideration of the likely impact will be part of the deliberative process. And similarly, the figurative Kiddush Hashem impact statement to assess the impact of particular exercises of chareidi political power – e.g., will it reinforce the image of the community as being concerned only with its own interests -- will not be dispositive of what should be done. That will inevitably depend on a multitude of factors. Rather, it would only insure that the image of Torah and Torah Jews be considered in the deliberative process.
THE POOR PUBLIC IMAGE of the chareidi community also shows how important it is to advance those initiatives that build relationships between chareidim and secular Israelis. Nothing does more to dispel negative stereotypes of chareidim than actually knowing one personally. These meetings need not be lovey-dovey to be effective. An organization called Plugta arranges hundreds of meetings annually between groups of chareidim and secular Jews to discuss and debate contentious topics based on Jewish sources.
The more the contact is face-to-face and ongoing the greater its impact on dispelling stereotypes. Those involved come to view their opposite numbers as multi-faceted human beings, not exclusively defined by the label "chareidi" or "secular."
The points of contact between Torah Jews and those who view themselves as secular in Israel are multiplying, as more and more chareidim are entering the workforce. That contact constitutes an opportunity, not just a challenge. Mrs. Zila Schneider, the founder of Kesher Yehudi, has spoken to me often about her dream of creating a course for every chareidim going into the workplace. While that remains a dream, it is an idea whose time has come.
Such a course would inevitably address the multitude of challenges chareidim experience in an often times alien environment. (That issue has been the subject of two important studies carried out by Machon Hareidi, a think tank under the direction of Mishpacha publisher Eli Palay.) But its central message would be that the increased contact with secular Jews also constitutes an unprecedented opportunity to change perspectives on what it means to be a proud and faithful Torah Jew.
That contact also provides an opportunity to expose fellow Jews to a Torah perspective and to convey that the Torah is their heritage as well as ours. The willingness, even eagerness, to engage our fellow Jews is the clearest proof of their importance in our eyes.
The old football adage, "The best defense is a good offense" applies here as well. The more optimistic we are about opportunities to interact with our fellow Jews the less susceptible we are to being negatively influenced. "That which gives off does not absorb," is not just a rule of kashrus, but of life.
Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch celebrated the fall of the ghetto walls as an opportunity to put the full panoply of Torah teachings into action and to display those teachings to the world. A touch of that Hirschian optimism would serve us well today.