I write to you in your capacity as one of the leaders of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of Israel, often referred to as the haredi movement.
On a flight last week from Israel to New York, I had a rather disturbing conversation with one of your of disciples. The individual was an ultra orthodox Jew and a successful Swiss real estate developer who resides in Jerusalem with his wife and seven children. He was on his way to New York for the wedding of a relative. I was returning home from Israel where I had spent the day attending the funeral of the father of a dear Israeli friend of mine from Yale, where I am the campus rabbi. I had met the deceased last year at his son’s wedding in Caesarea, where I was honored to officiate. On a subsequent trip to Israel I had put Tefillin on with this 77 year old man, preceded by an in-depth theological conversation about his Judaism and beliefs. On this return trip to Israel it was at the Shiva house where, upon meeting many of the members of my friend’s F16 squadron, a troubling conversation began. This was a conversation that crystallized on the flight back to New York while talking with your disciple.
Israeli air force pilots are in their mid-20s and 30s, a ripe time for young people to be seriously dating and in many instances newlyweds. It was ironic yet promising that despite being in the shiva house of my friend, we found ourselves discussing weddings and choices of rabbis. Here I was, surrounded by Israel’s bravest military officers, who held the most coveted spots reserved for only the brightest and best, that I began to hear about one particular pilot’s wedding. He had just returned from a trip to the US where he got married in a civil marriage ceremony in City Hall of NYC. He explained that he, like many of his friends, had done so because they had nothing in common nor any dialogue with the rabbis of Israel. I reminded him that on that particular morning we had witnessed three Israeli rabbis bury our friend’s father, a total stranger. I continued to point out some of the many great things rabbis were doing in Israel. In vain, I tried to shed some light on the rabbinate and build a bridge to this rather secular group of Israel’s elite.
Listening to him describe the gap that sadly divides the secular “chiloni“ and ultra-orthodox “haredi“ leaderships of Israel, I was dismayed and saddened by how far this split has actually wedged a division among our people. Could we have reached such a low point in our history that Jews living in our ancient homeland were flying across the world to avoid having to engage with our very own rabbis? How ironic I thought it was that I, an American rabbi, had flown to Israel first to marry and now bury a son and father of the most secular type of Israelis. Would this young pilot’s first encounter with an Israeli rabbi be at his own funeral?
Harav Kanievsky, I am convinced that the fault lies largely with us, the “religious,” and less so with them, the “secular. “ In fact I don’t believe there is an “us” and “them.” I was born a Chabadnik, where we are taught that there is only one Jew in the world. Yes, one Jew. But it wasn’t until the conversation with your disciple on my return flight that I began to comprehend the mindset that actually fuels this terrible divide. It is for this reason, and with hope of healing this terrible National wound, that I write you this letter.
“You look like a Chabadnik,” he started off, as he leaned across the aisle of our ElAL plane, “so tell me a story of your great Rebbe.” Not sure if I was sensing sarcasm or sincerity in his tone, I told him about my experience of once praying with the man I had just buried and how this person carried a photo of The Rebbe in his wallet for 20 years, despite claiming to be an agnostic. The truth is that “Rebbe miracle stories” were never really my forte, so I figured I would challenge him to a more serious theological debate in this final hour of our cross Atlantic flight. After all, I don’t get to meet many “haredis“ on the sprawling campus of Yale University. “What will you do about the pending proposed military draft?” I curiously asked my flight mate. “Well if it actually passes,” he said, “they will have to put a million of us in prison, for how can a pork eater, the son of a pork eater, tell us G-d fearing Jews to close the yeshivas and serve in the army? These Jews need to be despised and excommunicated for the way they treat the religious community.”
I was so shocked by the venom he was espousing in front of his wife and 16 year old son that I felt like stopping the conversation right there just to avoid embarrassing him. This verbal assault on the majority of Jews alive and the Jews who I consider my dearest constituents was not going to pass without a fatal blow. One, of course, I would have to deliver with love.
This man was by no means a Torah ignoramus, nor lacking in any level of sophistication. He was clearly a successful businessman, philanthropist, and learned Torah scholar. “I’m not sure you can blame a Jew for eating pork if that is what he was brought up eating,” I replied. It was an elementary response to such a loaded attack.
“After all,” I continued, “doesn’t your son [who was sitting next to him on the plane] eat what you eat?”
“How can you preach such hatred of a Jew,” I asked, “when the Torah explicitly says, ‘Thou shall not hate your brother in your heart’? Is that verse any less a part of the Torah you embrace?”
He replied, “well Esau, despite being the son of Isaac the patriarch, was the enemy of the Jews,” as if to suggest that any secular Jew had the status of an enemy. I explained that the Torah explicitly tells us that Esau and Ishmael had abandoned the ways of their parents’ home and clearly attained the status of another nation early in our history. To suggest that every non-observant Jew in Tel Aviv born to non-observant parents, or simply brought up in a non religious home, was now the enemy, was ludicrous.
His self-righteousness and arrogance was so revolting that I knew I needed to win this debate before we landed. I reminded him that the Jewish people were a family first and called over the flight attendant who was not wearing a kipa, and clearly the type of Jew he was critiquing. I asked the man if he believed we were all part of one family, to which he replied, “of course.” “If the plane went down at this moment,” I continued, “do you think your prayers would be any different than this gentleman? Do you really think your cry of Shema Yisroel would sound any different than his? Have you ever considered the probability of living parallel lifestyles should you have been born into his family, and he into yours?”
He would not concede. “The Finance Minister of Israel [he refused to mention him by name] is a pork eater, the son of a pork eater, and will suffer for the terrible anguish he is causing our community. He is no different than Jesus whom, though born to Jewish parents, is responsible for the murder of so many Jews through European history.” I reminded him that according to one account in the Talmud, Jesus left the seminary because of the lack of sensitivity of his Rabbi and perhaps that was why Christianity started to begin with. I reminded him of the commandment to love thy neighbor as you love yourself–to no avail. As I sat there I started to comprehend why my new friend from the squadron had flown to NY to have his wedding. How could he have any respect for Jewish leaders that did not officially declare this type of talk absolute heresy? Who could stomach this unapologetic self hatred by a “religious” Jew. All in the name of Torah and G-d!
But then I digressed and mentioned one of the greatest Rabbis in our collective history. Reb Chaim of Volozhin. He is, after all, the icon and example of Torah Judaism, who embodied the ultimate divine manifestation of Torah in a human being. In addition to being the crown disciple of the Gaon of Vilna and the author of Nefesh Hachaim, he was also the patriarch of the great Saloveitchik Talmudic family dynasty. So in a final attempt at reconciliation I asked:
What if I told you that the current President of Yale is named Peter Salovey, short for Saloveitchik? Though he is not particularly observant by your standards, he is a direct descendant of Reb Chaim. He is a dear friend of mine and despite being of the more secular type, he is extremely proud of his Judaism. In fact, he proudly quoted the great Mishnaic authors in his inaugural address as President of Yale. Do you know that he often engages in Talmudic discussions with me and others of the Yale community? Would you dismiss, excommunicate, and forsake the grandchild of the holy Reb Chaim of Volozhin in your self-righteous pursuit of an Israel that excommunicates the non-orthodox Jew?
It was at this moment that he got out of his seat and approached mine with an urgency. He finally realized what we were actually talking about. We were talking about that one Jew, the Jew that he could never forsake for it would mean forsaking Reb Chaim Volozhin. And so I got up and together we stood near the emergency exit door as he softly whispered these words into my ear, but more so into my heart and into my soul:
I envy you so much my dear Shmully, because in the merit of showing unconditional love to his grandson, I assure you that when you die, the great Reb Chaim of Volozhin will be waiting for you in heaven, and he will single-handedly open the gates of Gan Eden for you to enter.
These final moments of my flight were an absolute affirmation that there is hope for our people. I could not hold back my tears and replied, “how ironic, that upon my death, at the moment I would have to face my Maker, I would not be greeted, escorted, and defended by my Rebbe, Reb Schneur Zalman of Liaidi, the founder of Chabad, but rather by his opponent, the prize student of the Gaon of Vilna, Reb Chaim of Volozhin.”
And then he said, “You know, when you return to Israel, I’m going to take you to visit our leader the great Reb Chaim Kanievsky. I want you to tell him what we talked about.”
Rav Kanievsky, I don’t want to wait until my next trip to Israel. I will simply ask you what I asked him:
What would Israel look like this Pesach if you asked each and every one of your followers today to invite one non religious friend for Pesach? How amazing would it be if 1 million non orthodox Jews came home tonight and told their spouse that their religious friend or acquaintance invited them to their Seder? What if we reinterpreted, “all who are hungry may they come and eat, all who are needy may they come and enjoy Pesach,“ to mean, “not only the physically or materially poor but those less observant than us”?
Just as I’ve been assured that Chaim of Volozhin will be waiting for me in heaven, I sincerely hope Schneur Zalman of Lyadi is waiting for you. Let us hope there will be no need to imprison 1 million Jews but rather have 1 million more guests this year at the Seder.
I look forward to embracing you on my next trip to Israel.
Shmully Hecht is the Rabbinical advisor of Eliezer: the Jewish Society at Yale and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org