Is Another Purim Around the Corner?
Purim celebrates a second acceptance of the Torah – this time with no trace of compulsion. The nature of the day is complete reversal – nahafoch hu – so only in retrospect can the concatenation of events be discerned. But nevertheless hints to the potential dramatic change in the spiritual state of the Jewish people were present even before the decisive victories of the 13th and 14th of Adar – i.e., in the three-day fast of the Jews of Shushan before Esther approached Achashveirosh.
Now, no one would be so brazen as to predict a recommitment of millions of Jews to Torah on the level of Purim. Yet still it is possible to identify some converging trend lines in Israel that give cause for optimism about many more Jews drawing close to Torah.
The first such trend line is that there is a great curiosity in the Israeli non-observant world about the chareidi world, and thus the possibility of dramatically increasing contacts between chareidi and non-observant Jews. Those relationships are the bedrock upon which drawing closer to Torah is built.
When a young avreich named Yehudah Shein unfurled a long banner with the inscription, "Chareidi and chilonim refuse to be enemies," at the social protests of 2013, the reaction on social media was overwhelming and immediate. That gesture repeated a number of times since has led a number of major Israeli organizations to reach out to Shein through the Be A Mensch Foundation.
The leaders of the 80,000 strong Israeli Scouts movement recently contacted Shein and asked him to create programming for a series of meetings between the Scouts and groups of chareidim. The first pilot project of senior Scouts and chareidi women is already under way in Beit Shemesh, and a number of groups are being set up in Jerusalem and Ashdod.
Yad Sarah has also approached the Be a Mentsch Foundation to lecture to both Scout groups and Israeli high school students on volunteerism. The mere fact that the lecturers will be chareidim, even if the lectures are not laden with explicit Torah content, breaks down stereotypes in ways that create the basis for a deeper relationship going forward.
There is, however, one condition for a positive outgrowth from the interest of non-observant Jews' in the chareidi world: When contact is established, non-observant Jews must feel that we are not looking down at them. On a flight from Israel to Los Angeles last week, Mrs. Zila Schneider of Kesher Yehudi was seated next to a non-observant woman. The later told her that she had been part of a group that met with chareidim in the same professional field, but that she had gone away feeling that the chareidi participants looked down at her.
Mrs. Schneider replied that she wanted to be her friend, and a group soon gathered around the two women for an informal symposium on how the Torah is the common possession of all Jews. Mrs. Schneider invited those gathered around to count how many Jews of different backgrounds were learning Torah or reciting Tehillim, in the middle of the night. They counted forty. What other text, modern or ancient, exerts such a powerful pull? she asked.
An even more important development than the widespread interest in the chareidi community is the general thirst for some genuine connection to the Torah itself. The former provides an opportunity to create relationships; the latter provides the basis for those relationships: our shared heritage of Torah. Israeli Jews face an unequalled magnitude of threats. Within little more than a decade, unless stopped militarily, Iran will possess nuclear weapons and be tempted to act upon its oft-expressed goal of excising the cancer of Israel from the Middle East. Iran's wholly-owned subsidiary, Hezbollah, has more than 100,000 missiles aimed at Israel, many of them highly advanced.
Faced with such threats, Israeli Jews need to have a strong sense of why the collective existence of the Jewish people matters if they are to go on living here, sending their sons into battle, and bringing children into the world. (Currently, Israel's fertility rate is far in excess of any other developed country in the world.) And they increasingly recognize that the answer to why the Jews as a nation matter cannot be separated from the Torah.
That realization hit me full force on a Jerusalem bus the morning of July 4 1976, when news of the successful Entebbe rescue operation broke. The pandemonium and rejoicing on the bus that morning was unlike anything I have ever experienced before or since. On that bus, I asked myself: Why do I feel so much closer to everyone on this bus than I do to fellow passengers on the New York subway? Why does "We are all Jews" resonate so much more powerfully than "We are all Americans?" What was my connection of the Yemenite Jew I saw in one corner, whose ancestors were on the Arabian Peninsula well before the destruction of the Second Temple?
I concluded that we are all products of an unbroken chain of ancestors extending back millennia for whom their relationship with Hashem and His Torah was so powerful that it made it worth enduring the constant pograms and forced exiles, as well as resisting the blandishments of privileged positions in the dominant society that highly valued Jewish deserters. I began to wonder whether I, a newly minted law school graduate, could still tap into that same power. So too are non-observant Israelis realizing today that the survival of the Jewish people cannot be separated from Torah, and trying to tap into its power.
That is why four years ago the head of three pre-induction academies (mechinot), which focus on issues of Jewish and Israeli identity and attract many of Israel's most idealistic youth, approached Kesher Yehudi to develop a program of Torah learning, including one-on-one chavrusos with avreichim and wives of avreichim, for his students. Since then eight other mechinot have joined the program.
As soon as Plugta announces another forum to debate contentious subjects in Israeli society, based on Torah sources, the forum it is immediately filled. Last year alone there were close to 200 such meetings. Just among the various programs with which I'm familiar, I'm confident that over 10,000 secular Israelis are involved in Torah learning weekly.
PARALLEL TO THE CURIOSITY about chareidim and interest in Torah learning among the non-observant population, there are important attitudinal changes taking place in the chareidi world. Chief among those is a growing sense of responsibility for our non-religious brethren. In the 1950s, a small, embattled chareidi community, adopted a policy of isolation from the general Israeli society. The chareidi community of those days was generally thought to have a future of one or two generations at most. The government and Jewish Agency worked actively to separate young Jews arriving from Arab lands from the religious influence of their parents.
The situation is radically different today. The chareidi population is no longer threatened with extinction. It is a large, and ever-growing, percentage of the general population. Direct threats to religious observance are far fewer.
Nor can a blanket policy of isolation be maintained. Economic necessity has pushed more and more chareidim, both men and women, into the general workforce, and that percentage will only grow. In that reality, adopting a perpetual defensive crouch is counterproductive.
As they say, the best defense is a good offense. The more we approach our secular brethren with a desire to share our common Torah heritage and with confidence in the power of Torah to act on every Jewish heart, the better for all of us. A few weeks ago, 1,000 women volunteers and potential volunteers gathered at Jerusalem's Ramada Renaissance Hotel to hear Rabbi Yisrael Ganz's message: The greatest mitzvah bein adam l'chaveiro in our time is to learn Torah with our non-observant fellow Jews. When we do so, said Mrs. Zila Schneider, whose Kesher Yehudi organization sponsored the evening, we are not engaging in kiruv, we are engaged in hashaves aveidah, returning to non-observant Jews a priceless possession that is theirs no less than ours.
That message is resonating in the Israeli Torah community. Thousands of avreichim and chareidi women are teaching Torah every week under the banner of Lev L'Achim. Many thousands more participate in chavrusos, by phone or in person, through Ayelet HaShachar and Kesher Yehudi. And hundreds more participate in the lively and intense Plugta forums.
May all these efforts ignite an explosion of Torah learning among Israeli Jews, as in the days of Purim, when are ancestors accepted again with love the Torah they received at Sinai.
An Ironic Reminder
I'm writing now, after having returned at 3:30 a.m. from a two-week West Coast speaking tour. As I got into the cab from the airport, I noticed that the driver, who was not wearing a kippah, was listening to a shiur. But I was too exhausted by the long journey from Seattle to pay much attention, until the end of the trip, when I realized that the shiur was quite a complex one, drawing on both Bavli and Yerushalmi.
As I alighted from the cab, I asked the driver, whether he listened to such shiurim regularly. At that, he exploded. "Who created me?" he demanded to know. "Did you give the Torah?"
Grabbing the lapels of my black coat, then stroking my beard, and finally pointing at my black hat, he informed me emphatically and repeatedly, "You do not have a monopoly on the Torah."
Ironically, one of the themes of my speeches, including a couple on behalf of Kesher Yehudi, was that the Torah was not given in Meah Shearim or to any particular group of Jews, but to the nation as one. Still, I wonder whether that cab driver had accurately discerned some part of me that had not fully absorbed the truth I proclaimed. For sure, I will never speak of Torah being given equally to all Jews in the same way again.