Avraham Edelstein
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The ripples of a stone in Beit Shemesh: A Haredi response

A Haredi response to extremism: Judaism is soft and gentle and kind, let's join hands and begin to talk

A few days ago, an IDF soldier was driving his car through Beit Shemesh. A resident of an extremist Haredi sect pelted his car with rocks, one of which went through the windshield causing him to lose control and crash into a pillar. Thankfully he sustained only minor injuries though this could have ended much more badly. This group of Haredim are an extension of a group living in Meah Shearim and have succeeded in giving all Haredim a bad name.

I am on record speaking publicly against Haredi violence of any sort. I am utterly opposed to a new sect, called Peleg Yerushalayim, that has blocked traffic with their protests. I know as an insider that my disgust at the Beit Shemesh incident and others like it is shared by the vast majority of Haredim.

It was just one hooligan who threw the stones, but we know that such incidences emerge from a context. These extremist societies do not appear to be internally violent. Despite the fact that they might be labeled lower socio-economic, they do not suffer from drugs, violence, and other symptoms of inner-city ghetto life. They have, however, fostered a certain hatred of the outsider, where the word “Zionist” is a catch-all that lets them cast their web of venom over almost anyone who doesn’t look like them. This is a great principle of hatred — once you unleash it it has its own momentum.

There are those who say, “Well why do the rabbis not speak up more against this phenomenon.” I think they speak up more than the average Israeli realizes, but I doubt whether the stone-throwing crowd will ever listen. Hence, I am more interested in another voice being heard: The voice that Judaism is about: loving our fellow man; the voice that says that if we want the broader Israeli public to love their Judaism, then we the Haredim have to sanctify the Almighty in our every word and deed; the voice that says that the place for making the State of Israel more Jewish is in the social arena, through modeling behavior and not by making more laws in the Knesset that force people to do things that they don’t want to do; and the voice that says that Judaism is soft and gentle and kind.

Holy soldiers

The Haredi attitude towards our holy soldiers is often confused and conflated with their desire for an exemption for full time Torah learners. Once, a student in the Kol Torah Yeshiva in Jerusalem, approached his Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and asked permission to go and pray at the graves of righteous people in the Galil. Rav Auerbach answered, “In order to pray at the graves of tzadikim, one doesn’t have to travel up to the Galil. Whenever I feel the need to pray at the graves of tzadikim, I go to Mount Herzl, to the graves of the soldiers who fell ‘Al Kiddush Hashem,’ for the sanctification of G-d.”

The Haredi position on Haredim going to the army is also confused. For those Haredim who are not sitting and studying full-time in a yeshiva, the late Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the great sage of the generation, was clear that these people have a choice – they can leave Israel or go to the army.

Indeed, an increasing number of Haredim have chosen to go to the army. The army has special frameworks for them that includes Mehadrin Kosher food, prayer times and an hour of Torah-study every day. I have visited one of these camps and interviewed these soldiers. I can say with confidence that rather than the army compromising the Judaism of these soldiers, they have probably saved their Jewish observance by giving them a solid framework to express themselves as productive human beings.
The issue of Haredim and the army remains, as we know, hugely contentious and I do not intend to debate this issue per se. What is clear is that all Haredim should be thanking the State of Israel for creating the various laws that have allowed for the yeshiva exemptions since its inception and thanking the army for the special programs that accommodate those who do serve.

Haredim recognize that the foundation of this State was a series of miracles. The UN vote, the ’48 War of Independence, and subsequent wars. A Haredi who grew up in the courtyard the Slonimer Rebbe in Mea Shearim told me that after ’67 they were all dancing in the streets, men and women (separately of course).

Integration is the reality

This miracle-State has contributed to making Israel the greatest center of Torah study on earth. Not only has Torah flourished in Israel, but the State has actively supported this. Overall, the State has made massive financial contributions to Torah educational initiatives of one sort or another. It has allowed all-Haredi neighborhoods, and entire Haredi towns to develop — significant populations where everything, from the makolet-man to the mayor, are steeped in Torah values.

While Haredim may wish their non-Haredi brethren were closer to Judaism, the broader Israeli population is much closer to Torah values than any other major Jewish population around the globe. Over time, Israelis are getting more religious, not less. Study after study shows that the vast majority of Israeli Jews say it is important to celebrate Jewish holidays in the traditional manner. The majority do not mix meat and milk, and I have yet to find a “secular” Israeli who is not shocked by the intermarriage rate in the Diaspora.

But, just as the non-affiliated have been getting closer to Judaism, the Haredim have been getting closer to fuller integration with the State. We have today Haredi political parties who have ministers in the government, Haredi journalists, social workers and computer programmers, Haredim working for all kinds of government ministries, and so on. The government has passed an affirmative action law in favor of Haredim, and Haredi politicians monitor it for compliance.

Virtually all the primary social services to Haredi communities are government funded to a significant degree. Our water, electricity, military defense — none would exist without the State. Even services that we attribute to local municipalities are often subsidized by the State.

We travel overseas on Israeli passports, and we dish out our ID numbers many times every month. We travel on buses and taxis that are regulated by the government, on roads and railways that are paid for by the government. Our yeshivot, other organizations and private businesses pay taxes to the government. If we are employed by any of these we are protected by laws of the State of Israel, which include protections against unfair firing, maternity leave and pensions. These are upheld in every Haredi Beit Din court. We pay amazingly low medical costs, thanks to the government health system, and we have the most marvelous social safety net, thanks to the national insurance.

In other words, by living in the land of Israel, we are totally intertwined with and dependant on the state. These are facts for even those few who do not take state money for their educational institutions, as if cutting out that one element means that now they are completely independent of the thousands of other state services and infrastructure investment from which they benefit daily.

Haredim have to rid themselves of any vestiges of entitlement and victimization. We have to up our gratitude for what we are receiving. We have to stop attributing nefarious motives to those who are providing these services and appreciate what we are getting. Haredim who do not serve in the army should express their gratitude to the soldiers who do by making food packages, visiting bases on chagim and Yamim Noraim, helping with sederim on Pesach and tefilot on other occasions, and saying to their children “Look! There goes a holy person. He is protecting us. May HaShem protect him.”

Needed: A broader definition of patriotism

Who cares whether the Haredim wave the Israeli flag on Yom HaAtzmaut or not? Who is going to dictate what constitutes loyalty and dictate the text? In America we don’t judge a citizen’s loyalty to the State by whether he is a flag-waver or not. In a world where so many secular Israelis consider themselves post-Zionists or some other new title, we need to come up with broader definitions of what it means to be a proud member of the State of Israel as a vehicle that serves the Jewish nation. If we set the bar too high or too narrowly, we make it unfairly and unnecessarily uncomfortable for whole groups to say that they belong. We shoot ourselves in the foot with our elitist and outdated attitudes.

Non-Haredim have to invite the Haredim to become a part of the healthy (and always passionate) debate about what this State should look like, instead of having them look in as outsiders. Haredim have to become more comfortable with the facts of their situation and not to fight the battles of yesteryear. Non-Haredim should nurture and facilitate trends towards work and army that are already underway, instead of making easy political capital by trying to solve it in one fell swoop with legislation. Haredim should continue to value Torah-study above all, but ensure that they have the material means to support their values. Non-Haredim should remember that for 2,000 years it was almost exclusively Haredim who kept a continuous presence on this land, often at the expense of their lives. Haredim should know the sacrifices that our non-Haredi brethren have made to hand us the wonderful gift of this country. Non-Haredim should tap into the deep love of Israel — of its land and its people — that Haredim have in spades.

So in contrast to the Beit Shemesh stone-thrower, and the distorted Judaism that produced him, I say to all Jews living here: Come my brother, let us join hands and begin to talk! L’chaim to this wonderful people and its magnificent country. I have never regretted the thirty-seven years that I have felt this was my home! I love all the Jews who live in this country. And I look forward to getting closer and closer to you over time.

Rabbi Avraham Edelstein is the director of Neve Yerushalayim. He is also a founder and director of the Ner LeElef Institute for Leadership Training, and a founder of and Senior Advisor to Olami.

About the Author
Rabbi Avraham Edelstein is the educational director of Neve Yerushalayim College for Women and is the executive mentor of Olami. He is the author of ‘the Human Challenge – on Being Jewish in the 21st Century.'
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