Spooked by the Haredim
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 23, 1997
Dan Izenberg has seen a ghost - the ghost of Torah Judaism - which, it was once assumed, would soon fade away. Instead, 17 percent of Israelis, according to a poll taken this month by Mina Tzemah, say they have become more religious in recent years.
Like a boy whistling as he passes the graveyard, Izenberg, in his recent series in this paper on hozrim b'teshuva, portrays this phenomenon as confined to the poor, uneducated and dysfunctional elements of society. His ostensible aim is to sound the alarm against haredi activists preying on the vulnerable in Israel's poor neighborhoods, ripping young children from their mothers.
But Izenberg's real purpose is to assure himself that Judaism is only for primitives. Better to carry on Jewishly illiterate, secure in the knowledge that the Torah was surely all refuted decades ago, than to confront the Torah intellectually.
The facts, however, will not fit Izenberg's sociological reductionism.
When I entered Ohr Somayach yeshiva 18 years ago, I was surrounded by top graduates of the world's leading universities - Harvard, Yale, Oxford, et al. (They are still there today.) In those days, groups of Israeli soldiers visited the yeshiva regularly to talk with students, attend a class or two, and, in general, have their stereotypes of the Torah and its adherents challenged.
The visits, however, came to an abrupt halt when the IDF found that even a lifetime of antireligious indoctrination was insufficient innoculation against a few hours of intellectual challenge. Too many officers were becoming religious.
(Amnon Danker lamented in Ha'aretz at the time that he was left alone, like the last apple hanging precariously from the tree, as all his friends - 'the cream of Israeli society' - became religious.)
Unable to prevail in intellectual combat, the secular world fled from the encounter.
In place of debate, the media conducted a hysteria campaign, describing the ba'al teshuva yeshivot as home to cults. Leading the campaign was Dan Mahler, head of Parents Against Teshuva (now the Association to Fight Haredi Domination), who has resurfaced as Izenberg's principal source for the current series.
Embittered that his son, today a respected Torah educator, had become religious despite his 'posh' upbringing and service in an elite army unit, Mahler cried foul all the way to the Knesset.
He knew that Ohr Somayach was no cult headquarters. He knew that his son had at all times been free to come and go as he wished, and that he was never deprived of sleep or subjected to love-bombing, only to the rigorous discipline of Talmud study.
But Mahler would not admit then, or now, that he had been defeated intellectually.
Izenberg's case against the current teshuva movement is rife with crude ethnic stereotyping; every observation is given a sinister twist.
If a former PoW's description of his religious awakening is emotionally powerful, or if another haredi speaker has a sense of humor, that is somehow malevolent. So is giving Crembo treats to kids in shul.
Yes, Amnon Yitzhak, just one out of dozens of well-known speakers, describes Hell graphically, albeit amusingly - but then so did Dante. Was he a primitve too? Is it more sophisticated to believe that God created a world in which the wicked prosper without being called to judgment?
One of Izenberg's articles concludes ominously that the 'movement's operative strategy' includes telling people to take on observance step by step. True. It is cults that do the opposite.
Izenberg admits that all Mahler's efforts to find one parent to bring suit against those who helped their children become religious have been in vain. And over five long articles, he did not manage to interview one adult ba'al teshuva, even though adults make up the overwhelming majority of today's teshuva movement.
Surely some discussion of their lives prior to becoming religious, compared to their lives today, would be germane to any evaluation of the teshuva movement.
HAD Izenberg really wished to expose naked religious coercion, he would have been better advised to examine the techniques used to turn the parents and grandparents of today's ba'alei teshuva away from religion in the '50s: Youth Aliya's separation of North African children from their parents, the denial of Histadrut work permits to parents who enrolled their children in religious schools, the enforced cutting of Yemenite children's sidelocks. (There were no Knesset committees then to hear the tearful testimony of mothers whose children were no longer religious.)
Or Izenberg could have examined the Christian missionary work that has gone on unimpeded for 50 years in poor neighborhoods, and which invariably involves cash payments to parents for their children.
Izenberg takes a dim view of the haredi community's refusal to confine its efforts to potential Talmud scholars alone.
I, however, am inspired by the hundreds of haredi men and women who devote a night a week to visiting and learning with nonreligious Jews in their homes. For them the command to 'Love your friend as yourself' requires sharing their most precious possession, the Torah, with their fellow Jews.
Today, any Jew in Israel who wants to discuss evolution, archeology, or the meaning of life, or who wants to study any aspect of the Torah, can find a religious Jew eager to talk or learn with him.
Now that's a story.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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