Menachem Schechter

Tevye, Esther and the Haredi-Zionist Divide

In an attempt to add a little spice, my Purim feast was blessed with a theme- Fiddler on the Roof. Why Fiddler? What do Tevye the Milkman and Esther the Queen have in common? Well, Tradition, of course. However, much to my surprise, pondering the connection opened a window to one of core contentions dividing today’s Jewish world.

Shalom Aleichem’s tales of the colorful denizens of the downtrodden town of Boyberik (renamed Antaveka in the stage and film adaptations), remain the quintessential story of the Jews in the Diaspora, scratching out a living, keeping their heads down against the gusty winds of history. By the Grace of G-d and with a little luck, Tevye and his neighbors would be quite content to live in Anatevka, making matches, weddings and eking out a living, much as their forefathers did. Much in the same way, the story of Esther is a static one; the Jews of Shushan begin as satisfied citizens of the Persian Empire and, at the Megilla’s end, remain so. Despite the hullabaloo of the Purim story, not much actually changed- not a Jewish hair was harmed. The undoing of an evil decree of the Czar or the local poritz by bribery, wit, or the wrinkle of a Tzaddik’s nose remains a common motif in classic Chassidic tales, of yesteryear and today. The fortunate shtetl Jew was born and died at a respectable age in his shtetl, be it in the Pale or in Persia.

On the other hand, the Chanukah story tells a completely different tale. Judah and his Hasmonean kin led a bloody socio-religious revolt, recaptured and rededicated the Temple, establishing a new Jewish monarchy. How did it end? Not very well, actually. The initial struggle demanded great personal sacrifice, including Judah himself, his brother Elazar, and perhaps his elder brother Yochanan, all killed in battle before the age of 40. And to what ends? The remaining two Maccabean brothers were assassinated amidst political contention, and the Hasmonean dynasty eventually decaying, weakned by Hellenization, intermarriage and internal strife.

If these two paradigms- the bold, risk taking Jew who endangers life and limb to build a new Jewish homeland, with all the risk, spiritual and physical, such an enterprise entails versus the exilic Jew, hoping to safely propagate their time honored traditions – sound familiar, this may be because this remains a central question dividing Israel. From the bitter opposition by a majority of the Orthodox establishment to the secular Zionist movement of the early 20th century to the current, acrimonious detachment of the Haredi community from the rest of Israeli society, the question remains the same. What is the ideal mold of a Jew, Esther or Judah the Maccabee?

Well, perhaps you are wondering- who is right then? They can’t both right? Well, you would be right too.

About the Author
Menachem Schechter is a gastroenterologist practicing in Jerusalem. He made aliyah with his family from New York.
Related Topics
Related Posts