No understanding of haredi society is possible without an appreciation of the preeminent place of Torah learning in the pantheon of Jewish values. We begin our morning prayers with the affirmation that ``the study of Torah is equal to all [the mitzvot]."
All mankind is commanded to subjugate the world (kivshuha); the Jewish people alone were given the unique task of studying the Torah. Though we recite a blessing over a great gentile scientist, we would not do so over even the greatest Jewish scientist, like Einstein, for his principle purpose in life is the attainment of Torah, not secular knowledge.
When we view a great Torah scholar, we recite the blessing ``. . . Who has shared His wisdom with those who fear him." Upon viewing a great gentile scientist, however, we make a completely different blessing: ``. . . Who has given His wisdom to flesh and blood."
The two blessings are different because Torah and secular knowledge are qualitatively different. Only through the study of Torah does one attach himself to the Divine Will. That is the meaning of the well-known Zohar that ``the Holy One Blessed be He and the Torah are one." Thus God ``shares" His wisdom with a Torah scholar; a bond is forged. By contrast, secular knowledge creates no ongoing relationship – it is ``given" and the relationship ends.
WHILE this view of the transformative impact of Torah study on both the one who studies it and the entire cosmos will strike many as mumbo-jumbo, it defines haredi society. Yeshivot are not just one more institution of that society; they are its very raison d’etre.
In no society does everyone live up to the society’s highest ideals at all times, and haredi society is no exception. But the emphasis on the ideal of Torah lishma (for its own sake) has produced a dedication to Torah study unparalleled by any other community. That dedication is evident in study halls packed late at night and during the yeshiva semester breaks. Nor is it accidental that the lion’s share of outreach work everywhere in the world has been done by haredim who burn with a passion for sharing the Torah with their fellow Jews.
No serious Torah scholar considers himself non-productive. On the contrary, he believes his Torah study transforms the entire world. Our Sages interpreted the verse, ". . . If not for my covenant day and night, Heaven and Earth I would not have established, " to mean that if the study of Torah were to cease for even a moment, the world would return to its original formless state.
The Talmud is replete with statements about the protective power of Torah. When King David went to battle, for instance, he did not do so like any other general. For every combatant, he enlisted another Jew to engage in full time Torah study.
ADMITTEDLY present day haredi society has no historical precedents. There has never been a Jewish community in which every male was engaged in full-time Torah study. On the other hand, the general Jewish society today is also historically unprecedented. Virtually the entire world of Torah scholarship was wiped out in the Holocaust. For the last sixty years, the leaders of haredi society have viewed our period as one of ``a time to act for Hashem [because] they have voided your Torah," as they attempted to recreate the vibrant Torah learning of Eastern Europe before the War.
(The halachic principle of ``a time to act for God," incidentally, underlies the rejection by the overwhelming weight of halachic authority over the past 500 years of the passage in Maimondes quoted at length by Itamar Marcus as normative halacha.)
Present day Jewish society is historically anomalous for another reason. Never before have such a small percentage of Jews been mitzvah observant or literate in classic Jewish sources. Haredi society has become the ``tribe of Levi" described by Maimonides at the end of the Laws of Shmittah. Maimonides explains that because the Leviim were the teachers of the Law they were removed from all mundane pursuits and therefore did not inherit the Land. Maimonides further adds that whoever understands the supreme importance of teaching Torah can separate himself from all mundane matters and attach himself to the Leviim, and nothing could be more praiseworthy.
IN the process of fashioning itself into a modern day tribe of Levi by placing such a heavy emphasis on the primacy of Torah learning, the haredi world has inevitably given less importance to other important values, even important Torah values, such as the physical defense of the Jewish people.
One can never maximize all values simultaneously. Anyone who thinks, for instance, that there is no tension between his identity as a Torah observant Jew and full participation in Israeli society is extremely naïve. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the most eloquent modern proponent of the importance of demonstrating the relevance of Torah to every aspect of life, was under no such delusion. His writings are filled with the necessity to remove oneself immediately from any pursuit that threaten one’s belief or actions as a Torah Jew.
Hesder yeshivot are most often cited by those who believe that a magic formula exists for resolving all tensions. And indeed one is filled with awe for the young men who use every spare moment on the battlefront to snatch another bit of Torah study.
Yet it is worth noting that most of the greatest Torah luminaries identified with the national religious world – including Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neriah, Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, and Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook -- ardently defended the deferment for full-time yeshiva students.
For all the uncontested contributions of the hesder yeshivot, they have not succeeded in spreading a passion for Torah learning to the broader national religious community. The percentage of graduates of religious high schools continuing on to hesder yeshivot is in rapid decline, with more graduates each year going on to the military academies or straight into the army.
A 1999 Bar Ilan University study found that only 69% of graduates of the high school yeshovot are religious, even by their own liberal self-definition and even before they start army service. Approximately twenty years ago, all haredi rabbis were kicked out of the yeshiva high school system. Today, as the Bar Ilan study noted, those yeshiva high schools find themselves in crisis, and haredi kollelim are being brought back in to infuse students with an enthusiasm for Torah learning.
At any large gathering of national religious youth, one is instantly struck by the number of secular wannabees to judge by dress and hairstyle. Habbakukianism (an acronym for Habad-Bretslav-Carlebach-Kook) has become the spiritual elixir for religious youth whose spiritual needs are not being met through mitzvah observance and Torah study.
I NOTE these facts not because I believe that haredi society has no vices or other religious approaches no virtues. Both propositions are patently false. Rather my intention is to point out how complex is the problem of balancing different Torah values and how difficult to navigate the shoals of modernity while leaving the Torah unsullied.
To strike that balance, the haredi community seeks the guidance of its greatest Torah scholars. Haredim do so precisely because they do not view the Torah as merely a checklist of ritual rules; nor do they limit rabbis to ruling on mixtures of milk and meat, with everything else to be determined by the politicians. Because haredim see the Torah is a guide to all of life, they turn to those who have most fully made themselves one with the Torah.
The balancing of different Torah values changes in every era. Within haredi society, for instance, there is a growing recognition that the battle to rebuild what was destroyed by the Holocaust has largely been won. With respect to the army as well, we could be entering a new period. Until now, the most ardent advocates of drafting yeshiva students, like Ran Cohen of Meretz, have freely admitted that the army neither needs nor wants haredi recruits. Their stated goal has been to remove yeshiva students from the study halls in the name of equality.
Today, however, it is possible to envision a situation in which every able-bodied male would be needed for the army or civil defense, and then the calculus would change. One thing, however, is clear. The primacy of Torah study will always be the defining value and purpose of haredi society, and any threat to it will be rejected.
THAT there are a number of approaches among religious Jews is hardly a secret. And it is even understandable that different religious groups might point out the failures of other approaches as part of their internal educational program. The Jerusalem Post, however, is not the forum to be hurling selected religious sources or epithets at one another. As we enter the three weeks prior to Tisha B’Av, we would all be better served by focusing on what needs correction in our own homes than in building ourselves up by putting others down.