An Open Letter to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and the Charedi Leadership

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 16 maart 2018

Our country finds itself again embroiled in major controversy concerning the conscription of Charedi yeshiva students. Whether or not it will ultimately cause the government to fall and call for new elections, we will have to see. We all know that even if a temporary solution to this problem is found, it will not take long before the matter will again explode.

I therefore turn to you with a request to rethink your positions and I beg you to consider the following.

First to Minister Liberman:

Let me introduce myself.

I am a convert, the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. I come from a completely secular background with no Jewish education, but with a good schooling in secular philosophy where Kant, Hume and Wittgenstein reigned supreme. When I ventured to take a look at Gateshead Talmudical College, the most famous Charedi yeshiva in Europe, with the intention of learning Talmud, I did not know what was awaiting me. I expected a Jewish university for Talmudic studies where enlightened teachers and students would discuss the latest problems in theology and Talmudic historiography. But nothing was further from the truth. This was not even Yeshiva University. It’s not just that there were no secular studies and no talk about Plato’s theory of immortality or Leibniz’s famous theodicy; this was an altogether different planet. There was nothing but one supreme endeavor: learning Talmud, combined with Rabbi Aryeh Leib Heller’s classic Ketzot ha-Choshen and Rabbi Yaakov ben Yaakov Moshe Lorberbaum’s Netivot ha-Mishpat, two brilliant Talmudic works.

There were 300 of us, and we slept in our overcoats in what some people called a bedroom, where the temperature was far below zero. Our neigel vasser – the water jug near our bedside to wash our hands upon awakening – was frozen over in the morning. There was no lobby in the yeshiva where we could relax, nor was there a cafeteria. We knew that the food we ate was practically taken from the mouths of our Roshe Yeshiva. Our Menahel Ruchani (spiritual mentor), Rabbi Chizkiyahu Eliezer Kahan z”l, was as poor as a church mouse but looked like a king in his spotless frock coat and with his long, carefully combed white beard. He was a “Novardoker” – a student of the famous Novardok Yeshiva (called after a city in Lithuania) of pre-Holocaust Europe, which was dedicated to strict discipline and unfailing religious devotion. The non-Jews of Gateshead knew that when Rabbi Kahan, who walked as upright as a soldier, passed by in the afternoon, it was exactly 4:00 p.m. – not a minute later and not a minute earlier. They could not help but take their hats off to this remarkable human being, this great and majestic tzaddik.

When one entered the yeshiva, one was no longer sure of which century one was living in – the 5th, 12th, 17th or 20th? This was a world unto itself, made up of singularly focused people. There was no walking out to the street for a few minutes to get some fresh air; no option of going to a kosher restaurant to get a cup of coffee or to have a falafel; no chance of meeting a religious girl studying at the famous Gateshead Seminary. Although 150 of them studied right around the corner, they might as well have been light-years’ distance away from our yeshiva.

Not only was it dangerous to walk in the streets, since so many drunken people wandered around, but no one even had any interest in doing so. It was considered bitul zman (a waste of time). There was one supreme goal: shtaigen in lernen (excelling in learning). The Roshe Yeshiva showed incredible integrity, deep religiosity and a total absence of any personal agenda. There was no competition between them, no scandals and no quarrels. Just Torah in all of its splendor. What counted was the service of God through learning the Talmud, a holy text of infinite sublimity.

This monumental text took them back to Mount Sinai, and through its pages they relived the greatest moments in all of Jewish history. There was much naiveté, a withdrawal from the world, which made the rabbis seem like human angels while studying the laws of damages and injuries. There were also mussar shmoozen. These were not intellectual discourses like Kant’s sophisticated insights about ethics; they were emotional, often spontaneous, outbursts of love for God and man. Through the singsong chants, they would lift us up to heaven and ask of us to be supreme human beings and Jews. Nothing in this world comes close to those religious experiences.

I spent 12 years in Charedi yeshivot, and then completed my Ph.D. in philosophy. Today, when I speak with many people who reject the yeshiva world and criticize it harshly for its faults, I realize that although I agree with many of their critical assessments, they fail to understand the inner music of these institutions. They do not realize that this introverted but remarkable world somehow lifted the Jews out of their misery throughout history and gave them the strength to survive all their enemies under the most intolerable conditions brought on by anti-Semitism. It was this denial of time that made the Jews eternal. The yeshiva world was no doubt very small compared to what it is now, but until the emancipation it was the pride of the entire Jewish world. The Talmud afforded the Jews wings, enabling them to fly to other worlds; to return to the past that no longer existed; and to look toward worlds that were still to come. It became the Jews’ portable homeland, and their complete immersion in its texts made them indestructible even as they were tortured and killed. The Talmud became their survival kit, which – and this should never be forgotten – ultimately empowered their offspring to establish the State of Israel, nearly 2000 years after they were exiled from their land. This is unprecedented in all of the history of humankind.

For nearly 2000 years, the Talmud made Jews view life sub specie aeternitatis – from the perspective of eternity. Indeed, it allowed them to leave behind ordinary history and become ahistorical. Jews stepped out of history because it was the only way to survive in history. And so the yeshiva world, like the earlier rabbinical academies such as Pumpedita and Sura in Babylon, gave the Jewish people a tool for survival, which no one could match for the last 2000 years. Had the yeshiva world not done so, the Jewish people would never have endured, the State of Israel would not have been created, and no Jews – neither religious nor secular – would have lived in this wonderful country. All Israelis owe their lives to the wondrous world of the Talmud, whether they like it or not.

With the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews were forced to re-enter history. But after 2000 years of living like yeshiva students, it is a painful transformation. Most of our leaders, our government, and the Roshe Yeshiva have not yet realized that we are still hanging in suspense. We live with one foot in the world of the yeshiva, and the other foot on the ground with all its challenges and harsh realities. Our political leaders want us to come down and stand with both feet on the ground, while the yeshiva world wants us to stay in the bet midrash of ahistorical substance – in heaven.

It is much too early to decide whether we should come down with both feet on the ground, or continue to stay with at least one foot in heaven. We still find ourselves at a crossroads. One is reminded of the story told about a former premier of China who was asked what the impact of Caesar’s wars had been on modern European history. His reply was, “It’s too early to say.”

What our political leaders have to ask themselves is whether it is already possible to fully return to history. Our enemies surrounding us are getting stronger and stronger. Their hate increases daily. On one end of the spectrum Israel now finds itself in an unprecedented and precarious situation, more and more isolated, reminding us that we are “a nation which dwells alone” as Bilam, the non-Jewish prophet stated in Bamidbar (23:9). On the other hand, we see signs that matters are getting better and that Israel has started to become more and more influential in the modern world, often in ways that are quite unprecedented. All is still in a state of flux and it is not at all clear how it will end. The big question is whether or not we can really afford to fully enter into history, bound by its normative rules, only to then discover that we have been defeated by those very rules. Wouldn’t it be better to stay with one foot in the world of sub specie aeternitatis, outside of history?

In fact, isn’t the very existence of the State of Israel a bit too miraculous to fit the norms of history? Perhaps we should make sure that some of our people – our yeshiva students – continue to live outside of history so that they can rescue our nation if history does not accept us as real players. Otherwise we would disappear. Isn’t it true that we are treated as a people with no history, as the United Nations and many European countries constantly want the world to believe? Is it not true that some former American administrations used double standards when judging us, not allowing us to be part of conventional history?

We are still living through the birth pangs, as yet unable to say what the baby will look like.

This, Mr. Liberman, you must take into account when deciding on how to deal with Charedi conscription. You are dealing with a community which looks to Jewish history in ways totally different from your own, and I am afraid that you may lose this fight however much I personally understand and respect your point of view.

Let me now turn to the leadership of the Charedi Community:

Radical change has taken place in the Jewish world after the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. We have been shown that in the long run it is impossible for all of us to stay outside of history. The Holocaust has taught us that we cannot survive ad infinitum without entering history. We have too much eternity and too little geography. To argue that our yeshiva students are the ones who really defend us against our enemies, and that we do not need soldiers, is an escape from reality and as anti-halachic as can be. It is a rewriting of Judaism. And you know this.

Sure, Torah learning is of ultimate importance to the survival and the success of the State of Israel. It is the very soul of our people. One does not need to be religious to realize this. But that does not mean you have permission to falsify the facts.

We also know that those who argue for equal military service for all live in an illusion. There is no such thing as equality in the army. Some soldiers risk their lives, others do not. If all were equal, the army wouldn’t function. But we do know that those soldiers who under normal circumstances are not risking their lives may also suddenly be sent to the frontlines even if only to provide the fighters with food. We also know that there is serious draft evasion in the secular Israeli society which gets little attention, but that does not mean that your refusal, even when the law is on your side, permits you morally to evade the army. It is and stays dishonorable and leaves a black spot on your souls. After all, you will never be in a position to risk your lives while you sit in the bet ha-midrash. And that makes all the difference!

Still, I want to give you the benefit of the doubt.

If you want to defend your stance against army service and fight for its acceptance, you will need to use a totally different approach to make those who serve in the army – and most Israelis – respect you even when they disagree. You will need to create a lot of goodwill. Yes, a huge amount of it. After all, you are morally on the losing side. You owe the soldiers, who are fighting so that you can peacefully learn Torah, your infinite gratitude. And your gratitude is also owed to the government, which spends millions and millions to support you.

The first thing you need to do is to make sure that you turn into a highly respectable society in which your behavior, besides the army issue, is spotlessly clean. And that means that you have to clean up your own house. Any hint of corruption or even the slightest indication of possible fraud or dishonesty will have to be eliminated from your society.

You will have to remove all your representatives in the Knesset who are suspected of any misbehavior, bribery or tax evasion.

How, after all, can there be any trace of unlawful activity when you stand for Torah values, which condemns all this is in the most severe way? If you really stand for authentic Judaism, your foremost task is to make sure that the Charedi community is an outstanding example of integrity. Why then does this not happen?

How can it be that some members in the Charedi community even attack and ridicule religious and even Charedi soldiers? And if you do not agree with this behavior, why are there no huge outcries about it among your own community?

How can some of you organize illegal demonstrations and the blocking of main roads, which greatly upset the general populace, creating chaos and doing great harm? How can you convince yourselves that you do this le-shem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, when in fact it makes many good people abhor Judaism and all that it stands for? Are you aware of the damage you are causing? Not only are you giving our holy Torah a bad name, but you also create strife among us and show a tremendous lack of respect – in fact abhorrence – of all those Jews and Israelis who do not live your lifestyle. The incredible damage you do is beyond description. Is this what you want to achieve?

You will have to make sure that all the young yeshiva men who are not seriously learning but instead roaming around the streets smoking cigarettes, are disciplined and will otherwise not be accepted into your yeshivot. And if you are concerned that they will lose their faith if they are not surrounded by the yeshiva world, have you never asked yourselves what kind of Judaism they were taught that they would lose their faith so easily? Is Judaism not the most powerful, inspiring, indestructible, irresistible tradition ever to appear in this world? Or do you not believe that yourselves?

Why do you not devote much more time in your schools and yeshivot to teaching your students proper behavior toward secular Jews and gentiles? Teach them that they need to create a Kiddush Hashem wherever they go! Teach them to show pleasantness and be of help wherever possible!

You want this country to be run by Halacha. Okay, fine! So why do you not lay the foundation for this by unprecedented good behavior, concern and example? It would create a whole different image, and while many Israelis will still not agree with you on the issue of army service, at least you will have made yourself a respectable name and a lot of goodwill.

Several years ago you had an opportunity to make the biggest Kiddush Hashem ever and missed it entirely. You organized a demonstration in which up to 600,000 Charedi men and boys participated to show their love for Torah. One could hear a pin drop while your leaders were speaking; moments later the crowd burst out in a rapturous cry of Shema Yisrael. It showed enormous discipline and proved your dedication to Torah; something that few other Israeli communities can claim to have ever displayed.

That was the perfect opportunity to prove your love for our brave soldiers and all of Israeli society. By having 600,000 Charedim recite prayers for the welfare of the soldiers and all Jews in Israel, you would not only have created a great Kiddush Hashem; it also would have turned Israeli society around and healed much of the animosity between the Charedi and non-Charedi communities. How could you have lost this opportunity? Yeshiva students would have been seen in a totally different light.

Instead of having upset hundreds of thousands of Israelis, among whom many have lost their sons and daughters in combat, it would have created an entirely different atmosphere in the country. I have little doubt that most yeshiva students would have done it with great love. The failure to ask them to do so is not just a missed opportunity. It is completely irresponsible and a terrible tragedy.

When the world-renowned Charedi halachic authority Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach z”l was asked to which graves of tzaddikim one should go to pray, he said to go to the military cemeteries. There was no need to go Meron or Tzefat.

So why not organize this again and do what should be done? A gathering of 600,000 Charedim, praying for our soldiers and the wellbeing of all Israelis. There is little doubt that it would bring you a lot of goodwill. Many Israelis would feel differently about you afterward and it would plant within them strong positive emotional feelings about Charedi Judaism despite the army controversy. It would create a different spirit in our country and we will not have to waste so much time and money on a new meaningless election which will not solve any problems. And perhaps it will even win Mr. Liberman’s sympathy.

I have little doubt that you will win this fight once again and not get called up to the army. But at what cost? You may think that you have won but you may in fact be the biggest losers. And that would be a real tragedy.

The ball is in your court.

NB: Deze Open Letter werd zondag 18 maart integraal opgenomen in de Jerusalem Post.

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