It’s Sober Wisdom, Not Blind Folly
We are in times when politicians have been trying to divide us by demonizing and caricaturing “the other.” Often a “fact” is distorted into an unrecognizable caricature of reality. The reasons for this kind of demonization are varied. Sometimes it’s political: hatred gets votes by getting voters excited. Sometimes it is a way of avoiding one’s own shortcomings. And it always serves to distract from real issues such as the corruption and moral bankruptcy of the haters. This is a tactic used by entire countries: If Cuba and Iran can blame America for their own oppression and brutality, America will be used as a convenient scapegoat. To be sure, all this is nothing new. This kind of scapegoating has been used by anti-Semites against Jews for thousands of years. Unfortunately, today this scapegoating card is also used right here in Israel to demonize the Charedim (the “Ultra-Orthodox”).
There are so many slanders and smears bandied about by Israeli politicians and the media about Charedim that it is unsurprising that some people who are unfamiliar with actual real-life Charedim and their beliefs and customs have come to believe the lies. As an infamous propagandist once responded, when asked why he repeated the same slanders over and over again, “Why should I not repeat [the lies]? I will repeat [these lies] until the last person, the dumbest person, nods his head and says, ‘I understand.’” The peddlers of slander and smears are not particularly bothered by untruths and distortions of reality. One of the biggest slanders of all is that Charedim are nothing more than a herd of lemmings, marching, plodding blindly to the commands of their rabbinical leaders, who are portrayed as misguided unenlightened primitives who do not understand modern life. Yet these smears are themselves a disconnection from reality, as we shall discuss here.
That is not to say that everyone in Charedi society is acting as they should. In no conceivable society is everyone upright and virtuous. The non-religious felon is not representative of the law-abiding non-religious citizen. Thus, it is not a valid argument to find a misguided Charedi individual or small subculture and generalize to Charedim as a whole. If this were done to Jews in any other context, it would be called anti-Semitism.
The Personal Rabbi and the Leaders of the Generation
One of the sources of the distortion comes from the rabbinical role in Charedi society. Rabbis serve as educators, counselors, scholars, and leaders of all kinds. For our purposes, to counteract the “lemming” smear, we need to distinguish between two of these roles: the personal rabbi and the leader of the generation. There are commonalities between the two: Both are Torah scholars. That means becoming educated in the ancient source of wisdom that is the Written and Oral Torah, the latter including both the Babylonian Talmud (and often the Jerusalem Talmud) and the tradition of Jewish law and interpretation that stretches back in an unbroken chain to Moses himself.
Unlike most branches of human knowledge, Torah is not designed to be solely technical: It is not electrical engineering, it is not quantum physics, nor is it accounting or law, medicine or metaphysics. It contains all of these branches of technical knowledge and more. But its main object is the regulation of the human being’s relationship between him- or herself and fellow human beings, the inanimate and animate world, and the Divine that is the source of the Torah itself. Thus, unlike other branches of human knowledge, Torah knowledge is designed to be holistic, to encompass human life and to allow us to lead – to borrow Plato’s expression in The Apology – the ultimate form of “the examined life.” The awareness that Torah creates is a holistic awareness of the interconnectedness of the human being with the world in its fulness including (not least) with the Divine source of the world.
An individual Charedi’s personal rabbi is a person who is imbued with that holistic Torah knowledge but – crucially – is also someone who knows well that Charedi individual on a personal level, and often also his or her whole family. That personal rabbi is not only wise, but also a person who has worked on himself to achieve a level of elevation in his personal traits of character – working typically on such qualities of character as temper, sensitivity, and kindness in its many forms. The personal rabbi can thus be described as a wise and well-rounded advisor who can help guide the Charedi individual who seeks his counsel to grow and flourish throughout the many challenges that life inevitably presents.
By contrast, a rabbinical leader of the generation is one who deals with some of the larger issues that face Charedi society as a whole. They do not know any given member of Charedi society personally, but there are some basic societal issues that affect everyone, and these they address, again employing their deep holistic Torah knowledge and their honed traits of character, as well as the experience that comes with age and experience, to help guide Charedi society as a whole.
In that regard, it should be pointed out that the rabbinical leadership of the generation is concerned not only with single issues that may be hot-button issues of the day – such as the Novel Coronavirus – but also the holistic wellbeing – both spiritual and physical – of the generation. It demonstrates a certain level of arrogance for anyone with virtually no such holistic knowledge to claim to understand the thoroughly examined and thoroughly-informed calculations of such rabbinical leadership. But such is the arrogance of politicians, bureaucrats, and the media that that is precisely what has occurred recently.
Respect, Love, and Humility
What is common to both the personal and general rabbinical leadership is that they are objects of respect, love, and humility. This is far from blind followership. It is well-considered and well-thought-out. The rabbis have earned their respect. Respect, because they have gained great Torah and life wisdom and have used that knowledge altruistically to help their fellow Jews. They have earned love, because they have dedicated themselves with love and great self-sacrifice to help and to guide others. And humility because those who heed them understand that the rabbis themselves – compared to God Himself – are humble and realize their shortcomings, despite their great wisdom. Thus, those who heed those rabbis themselves feel humility as before a wise and kind – and indeed holy – person. This is the humility not of lemmings but of thoughtful, deeply sensitive individuals.
That is why the respect, love, and humility the Charedi public demonstrates toward their leadership – both personal and societal – is as far removed from the caricature of those who demonize the Charedim as can be imagined.
Firmly Within the Western Tradition
Another common canard of the present-day demagogues that smear the Charedim is that to heed rabbinical leadership is to place them into some mystical unreality far removed from the Western intellectual tradition. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
From the origin of the West itself, in Ancient Greece, Plato remarked – again in The Apology – that those with narrow branches of knowledge often imagine that they as individuals are wiser than they actually are, because they deduce false certainty about other areas of knowledge about which they are ignorant from a single area of knowledge about which they have some level of expertise. Thus, in The Republic, Plato postulates the need for what he terms “philosopher kings” who have a deeper and holistic knowledge required to guide humanity. This was a model at various times for theories of leadership, including, for example, in the United States (see for example, the discussion of the doctrine of separation of powers and federalism in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, where the more knowledgeable and more sober leadership of the more senior Senators is lauded).
Firmly Within Jewish History
It was always the rabbinical leadership that guided the Jewish people, as it does in the Charedi world until the present. For example, when Alexander the Great led his army to the gates of Jerusalem, it was the leader of the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem and one of the greatest rabbinic leaders of his generation – Shimon HaTzaddik – who went out to meet him to represent the Jewish people. Out of respect, Alexander dismounted from his warhorse and knelt before the venerable sage.
When the Holy Roman Emperor several hundred years ago considered whether to level harsh decrees against the Jews, it was one of the great rabbis of his generation, Rabbi Yosselman of Rosheim, who represented the Jews against those decrees, and out of respect the Holy Roman Emperor appointed Rabbi Yosselman as the aristocratic leader of his fellow Jews in the Holy Roman Empire.
And when Napoleon passed the synagogues on Tish B’Av and heard the rabbinic leadership leading their congregants in their weeping recitation of their traditional lamentations and sermons of inspiration to rectify ourselves and mourn for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Napoleon was shocked to learn that the Jews were mourning the destruction of their Temple that had occurred almost 2000 years before. He remarked that a people with such respect for their traditions would surely merit to see the rebuilding of their Temple.
It is only recently that through deliberate smears, ignorance, and defamation, the respect for rabbinic leadership has been broken. It is to be hoped that our time-honored rabbinical tradition will be appreciated and honored the more the citizens of Israel exercise a genuine Jewish skepticism and independence of mind by getting to know their Charedi fellow citizens – in reality and not via the smears and calumnies of politicians and the incautious media.