When I was a junior at Brandeis, I was accepted to the College Year in India Program. It began with a six-week orientation in Michigan. Although we learned how to read, write, and speak Hindi, the real purpose of the orientation was to teach us the different worldview of the Indians with whom we would be living. They were not sari-wearing, curry-eating Westerners. They viewed the world differently than we did. We had to learn to understand their way of comprehending everything, which would challenge our own ingrained Western assumptions.
A simple example: We were told about an American woman living in Delhi. She brought a house painter to her house to give an estimate. She accepted his estimate and asked him to start the work on the following Tuesday. He agreed. Bright and early Tuesday morning, she had duly covered all her furniture with sheets in preparation for the painting. The painter did not come. This was in the ’60s, when telephones were rare in India, so telephoning was not an option. He did not come on Wednesday. He did not come on Thursday. Finally, a few days later he showed up, ready to paint. The exasperated homeowner asked why he hadn’t come on Tuesday. He looked at her surprised and said, “I couldn’t come on Tuesday. My daughter was getting married that day.”
“Then why did you say you would come?”
“You wanted me to say I would come, and I didn’t want to refuse you.”
Our program leaders explained that in this Indian man’s mindset, a refusal to agree to a request is ruder than not showing up.
In Israel today, we need to understand that “the other side” in the conflict that is tearing apart our society does not simply hold different religious and political views. The two opposing sides see the world in completely different ways. Since I was raised and educated in the secular world and have been living as a Haredi Jew in the Old City of Jerusalem for the last 38 years, I think I am qualified to present the difference between the two worldviews.
Before I begin, there’s the problem in labeling the sides. In Israel, where over 70 percent of the Jews fast on Yom Kippur and light Hanukkah candles for all eight nights, I am loathe to call any Jews, “secular.” On the other side, I can speak of the faith-based worldview of the Haredim, but many Mizrahim who are not Haredim share that way of looking at the world, as it is deeply ingrained in their ancestral tradition. Therefore, inadequate as it is, I will call one side “science-based” and the other side “spirituality-based.”
The different worldviews play out like this: when a family member is critically ill, the science-based Israelis will feel that the chances of survival depend on medically measurable factors, having the best doctors, and utilizing the best medical treatments. The spirituality-based Israelis will feel that everything depends on God. Although they will press for the best doctors and treatments available as part of the fulfillment of the mitzvah to “choose life,” they believe that whether their loved one lives or dies is up to God alone. They believe that a Jew is obligated to “do hishtadlus,” reasonable effort in the material realm, but the hishtadlus is not the cause that saves the person’s life. Rather, God’s decree can be changed by the relatives praying, giving charity, and doing “tshuvah” (changing one’s deeds).
When a couple has been married for years without children, the same dichotomy in worldview applies. The science-based couple will go for repeated fertility treatments. The spirituality-based couple will do the same, but the latter believe that only God can give them children. So in addition to their hishtadlus with tests, fertility shots, and IVF, they will seek blessings from tzaddikim, pray at the graves of tzaddikim, and undertake spiritual rectifications that may make them worthy to receive the blessing of children.
In other words, the science-based worldview is horizontal. X efforts cause Y results on the physical plane. The spirituality-based worldview is vertical. Jewish monotheism means that there is only one causative force in the universe, and that is God. God’s decrees can be influenced by vertical efforts, such as prayer, giving charity, tshuvah (eschewing bad deeds for good), and Torah study. Giving charity to the poor might be seen as a “horizontal” effort between two human beings, but the spiritual worldview regards all interpersonal exchanges as part of a triangle where God is the apex. In the Torah God commands Jews to give charity. Whether that money will change the recipient’s fiscal fortunes is, like all results, up to God. We give charity (actually 10% of our income), like we keep Shabbat, as a way of serving God.
This brings us to the Big Issue: THE ARMY. Let me begin by saying that my only son served in the IDF, in Nahal Haredi (a special unit for Haredi boys). I believe that boys who are not learning Torah assiduously should go into the army. However, the purpose of this blog is to explain the worldview of the spirituality-based population to those on the other side.
Israel is surrounded by enemies who want to eradicate it. The science-based worldview holds that the only way to defeat those enemies is to have a large, well-equipped army to protect our homeland. This approach is so basic to the majority of Israelis that it is nearly impossible for them to conceive of another way of protecting our homeland.
The spirituality-based worldview holds that Israel has been protected by God, from its miraculous and hard-won win in 1948, through the spectacular victory of the Six Day War, and up to the present. The proof is the physical unlikelihood of winning in 1948, when the incipient State of Israel was attacked by five well-equipped, well-trained Arab armies. The 1967 war was an even more miraculous victory. Israel’s 240,000 soldiers were outnumbered by 465,000 soldiers from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Israel’s 800 tanks faced 2,880 Arab tanks. Israel’s Air Force of 450 planes was meager compared to the Arabs’ 810 planes. Yes, we all know that Israel wiped out Egypt’s air force on the ground during the first hour of the war. But all the factors that made that maneuver succeed (the Egyptian command center trying to decipher the warning of the Israeli attack that came in from Syrian radar using the previous day’s code, etc.) were themselves miraculous, meaning from God.
Even General Moshe Dayan, the Minister of Defense, when he visited the Western Wall soon after it was liberated by Israeli forces, put a note into the Kotel (promptly pried out by journalists) that quoted a line from Psalms: “This is the day that God has made; we will rejoice and delight in it.”
The Bible relates the story of Gideon, who organized an army of Israel’s tribes to fight the Midianites. Some 32,000 volunteers assembled for the war against 130,000 Midianite forces. God told Gideon that it was too many. “The people who are with you are too many for me to deliver Midian into their hand, lest Israel aggrandize itself over Me, saying, ‘my own strength has saved me.’” [Judges 7:2] Gideon sent home all the men who were afraid. Some 10,000 men remained. God said that was still too many. After applying the “water test” only 300 soldiers remained. With that small force, Gideon vanquished the Midianites.
The spirituality-based worldview is that God saves Israel. And what influences God to act on behalf on Israel? Prayer, mitzvot, and especially Torah study. In the spirituality-based worldview, depending on the IDF to save us is like depending on chemotherapy to save a cancer patient. Of course, you have to use chemotherapy — and every Haredi will use it. The army is necessary hishtadlus. From the very birth of the Jewish people, during the 40 years in the desert, God commanded them to fight militarily. The commandment to fight the Midianites stipulated a thousand warriors from each tribe. The phrase “a thousand from a tribe” [Numbers 31:4] is repeated. The sages commented: One thousand to fight, and one thousand to stand by the battlefield and pray. The Jewish nation needs both. And both those who fight and those who pray need to appreciate each other.
Another consideration: Just as chemotherapy poses its own dangers, so army service poses serious spiritual dangers. Too many Shabbat-observant boys who go into the army (excluding Hesder yeshivot) come out of the army desecrating Shabbat. This is considered by their families to be spiritual death. Sometimes chemo kills the patient.
Science-based Israelis believe that Haredim don’t serve because they are cowards afraid to risk their lives or they are lazy and would rather sit in yeshiva 12 hours a day instead of taking 60-kilometer hikes in the heat. Conceiving of a worldview different than your own is like removing your head and replacing it with a different head. Even after six weeks of orientation about the Indian people’s different worldview, plus a year of living in India, I never really understood them. But I did come to love them. Can Israelis do the same for the other half?