Misreading the Chareidim
by Jonathan Rosenblum
November 17, 2004
A famous wit once said that there are two things no consumer should every watch in the preparation: sausage and the news. No Torah Jew consumes sausage, but most of us do indulge from time to time in the news. That being the case it is occasionally worth reviewing the production process, particularly as it concerns news of the chareidi world, to avoid being duped.
The American presidential election was the dominant international news story of the past few months. A great deal of media attention focused on the overseas vote, which, it was argued, could be crucial in what promised to be a very close election. One of the catchier stories in the latter category turned out to be the voter registration drive in the chareidi community in Israel. Fox News TV devoted an entire segment to the subject, BBC World News did a number interviews with those involved, and on election day Israel’s Channel Two morning news show devoted half of its pre-election coverage to the vote of American chareidim living in Israel.
So it was obviously a big story when Associated Press reported that Rav Elyashiv, the world’s senior posek, had endorsed President Bush. The AP story quoted a figure said to be close to Rav Elyashiv. The chareidi weekend tabloids, which compete fiercely and require banner headlines of scoops to fill their pages, quickly picked up the story.
So Ha’aretz’s Shachar Ilan can be forgiven for thinking that he was on to a big story. Ilan has a well-deserved reputation for being the most dogged pursuer of the chareidi community in the Israeli media. At the same time, he has over the years tried to learn his subject, and has established wide contacts within the community among a certain class of "informants." Not content to be a mere reporter, Ilan fancies himself something of an academic student of the community, explaining the deeper significance of events within the community both to his Ha’aretz readers and the chareidi world itself.
That theorizing bent was on full display in his column on Rabbi Elyashiv’s alleged endorsement. The endorsement, said Ilan, represented a radical departure from the "galus mentality" of Rabbi Elyashiv’s towering predecessor as leader of Lithuanian yeshiva world, Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach, zt"l, and reflected the sense of "kochi ve’otzam yadi" of the modern Israel chareidi population.
Ilan quoted Professor Menachem Friedman of Bar Ilan University, the most widely cited academic researcher on the chareidi community: "They [i.e., the chareidim] feel the Zionist state has redeemed them. They no longer feel they have to be so cautious about not annoying the gentiles." Professor Friedman went on to argue that the fact that the question was directed to Rav Elyashiv in the first place proves that there is a major leadership crisis in the American chareidi world.
Rarely has such a mountain been made out of a molehill. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the chareidi community would have realized that Rabbi Elyashiv had no desire to endorse any presidential candidate. Had he wished to do so, his opinion would have appeared on the front page of the semi-official Yated Neeman. When the Rav lent his support to the idea of American citizens registering to vote, he did so in Yated Neeman through Rabbi Dovid Morgenstern, one of his closest confidantes. And he specifically refrained from indicating a preference for any candidate. He would never choose a fringe figure or the AP news wire to convey his opinion.
In response to a private query from Rabbi Morgenstern, posed by some individuals living in Israel, Rabbi Elyashiv said no more than, "If yenner (so-and-so) is an oheiv Yisrael, then vote for yenner." He specifically avoided mentioning any candidate by name. And there is no indication that the Rav intended his response to go further than those who posed the question.
The fact that a few individuals living in Israel solicited the Rav’s opinion does not reflect any leadership crisis in the American chareidi world. The entire voter registration campaign began with public proclamations written and signed by leading American roshei yeshiva on their own initiative. Only subsequently did Rabbi Elyashiv express his public support for the idea. Nor did American rabbonim or communal leaders seek Rabbi Elyashiv’s opinion as to whom Jews should vote for – a subject about which few chareidim appeared to be in doubt. In America itself, rabbonim, by and large, refrained from any public endorsements, and yet chareidim voted overwhelmingly for President Bush.
Finally, nothing about Rabbi Elyashiv’s muted private response about how to vote suggests any attitudinal departure within the chareidi world. American gedolim going back to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, zt"l, long ago urged chareidim to vote in American elections. Moreover, Rabbi Elyashiv’s response was fully consistent with the statement from Rav Shach quoted by Shachar Ilan: "[W]ithout the help of the United States, we would not be able to survive even one month on our own, and all those who speak so arrogantly, that we will be victorious, are despised by the L-rd."
Rabbi Shach said that Israel cannot afford to ignore American opinion, and Rabbi Elyashiv said that American Jews should vote for the American candidate who shows himself to be "an oheiv Yisrael." Thus Rabbi Elyashiv did nothing more than acknowledge the crucial role of the United States in preserving Israel’s security, just as Rav Shach did in his day.
So the next time you read some deep thinking about the chareidi community, take it with a grain of salt.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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