Desecration of God and the Torah

The words of Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook on the disrespect shown to the Chief Rabbis in the Ponevezh Yeshiva in its early years * The weakness of the heads of the yeshiva against brazen students * From the seeds of calamity grew the rotten fruit of contempt and violence against the present heads of the yeshiva * Whatever happened to the big talk of abiding by the Gedolei Ha’dor? * Reinstating the value of derech eretz in its broader sense in the Haredi community * The connection between religious and traditional Jews should serve as a bridge for deepening commitment to Torah study and observance, without coercion * Sharpening the frank criticism against secularism estranged from Jewish values, the nation, and the Land

Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah’s Visit to the Ponevezh Yeshiva

My uncle, Rabbi Avraham Remer ztz”l related the following story: Once, our teacher and mentor Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook ztz”l, planned to travel to the Ponevezh Yeshiva in order to examine the writings of his grandfather’s uncle Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim (the ‘Aderet’) which were archived there. Since I found out he was planning on going alone, I accompanied him. Upon entering the Yeshiva, he told me that Rabbi Kahneman (Rosh Yeshiva of Ponevezh and among its founders), had a great merit in building this Torah institution, but that an enormous stain rested on the yeshiva because its students dishonored two Torah scholars – Rabbi Herzog ztz”l and Rabbi Unterman ztz”l (both were Chief Rabbis), and the Yeshiva’s response was not harsh enough.

Rabbi Kahneman greeted Rabbi Kook with great honor and friendliness, but said to him: “Let’s go into the building by a side entrance and not near the Beit Midrash (study hall).” Later on, Rabbi Kook said to Rav Remer that he understood the reason was because he feared that zealous yeshiva students might humiliate him, and Rabbi Kahneman would be placed in an unpleasant situation. Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah added that, unfortunately, Rabbi Kahneman did not possess the bravery to put the brazen students in their place.

Upon leaving, Rabbi Kahneman asked Rabbi Kook how he intended on returning to Jerusalem, and when Rabbi Kook said he was going to take a bus, Rabbi Kahneman said to him that ‘time is Torah’, and that he should take a taxi. When we arrived in Tel Aviv, I asked him, ‘how are we going back’? He replied: “It is a mitzvah to listen to the words of the Torah scholars”, and they took a taxi (“Gadol She’musha” 48).

The Seeds of Calamity Produced Rotten Fruit

It seems that that the seeds of calamity of humiliating the Torah and its scholars which were sown in the early years of Ponevezh Yeshiva, have now grown into the terrible rotten fruit of Chilul Hashem (desecration of God) in the beit midrash (yeshiva study hall). In the place where yeshiva students disgraced the Chief Rabbis ‘whose little fingers were wider than their waists’ in their exertion and knowledge of Torah and fear of Heaven, has now reached the point of lifting of a hand, degradation and abuse towards the heads of the yeshiva. In the Haredi and religious communities it is common to organize public prayer gatherings for all different types of issues. This is the most burning and important issue on which to pray for now, and in order to solve the problem, the Haredi leaders must take counsel.

Respect for Torah Scholars

Let me explain: The seed of calamity is not in the basic difference of opinion, because in the Torah world it is normal for there to be differing opinions resulting from different emphases. But the general rule is that Torah scholars have to respect one another, and as a result, out of the disputes peace increases in the world. In particular, this must be emphasized in the Land of Israel, for concerning the Torah scholars of Eretz Yisrael it is said “who treat each other graciously when engaged in halachic debates” (Sanhedrin 24a, and see Yevamot 62b). This is the way students should be taught, to respect Torah scholars. But in Ponevezh they were negligent and did not teach their students to do so; on the contrary, they chose to degrade and blaspheme important Torah scholars who held differing views. As a result, it is not surprising that the plague of feuding and discord has reached the Torah scholars of that same beit midrash and family, to the point where they are unwilling to accept upon themselves an agreed beit din (religious court) that can reach a compromise or decision between them.

Listen to the Gedolei Ha’Dor

Usually, when arguments arise between us and the members of the Haredi community, we argue in the name of the written and transmitted Torah, and they respond that “this is what the Gedolei HaTorah (the eminent Torah scholars) have instructed”, and since the Gedolei Ha’Dor have learned all there is to learn, know everything, and have decided such and such, our arguments do not prove out.

Besides it being impossible to learn Torah in this way, and their opinion is in opposition to that of the truly great Torah scholars – their claim is wrong as well. They are not truly faithful even to the Gedolei Torah who they allegedly accept. For instance in the argument at hand, how can it be that a community who goes according to Gedolei Ha’Torah cannot find a solution? Are there no religious courts in Israel? Have halachic authorities ceased to exist? Is it not possible for both sides to choose their own dayan (judge) and the two judges choose a third dayan, and resolve the situation properly? One way or the other, the bullies are the ones who determine. In the beginning it seemed as if they were helping by arguing against the Zionist rabbis, but now they control the Haredi street.

Derech Eretz

It seems that the tikun (correction) needs to be complete and wide-ranging, with emphasis on the proper attitude towards the importance of derech eretz (proper conduct), as our Sages said: “Without Torah there is no proper conduct, and without proper conduct there is no Torah” (Avot 3:17). Included in derech eretz is the responsibility of earning a livelihood, dignity, respect in inter-personal relations, and honor and appreciation for the good deeds of those with differing outlooks – soldiers, scientists, farmers, laborers, and developers of the economy.

Violence against the Foundations of Judaism and Torah

Usually when I write about reservations of the Haredi approach to matters of Torah, the Land of Israel and parnasa (livelihood), I receive numerous responses from members of the Haredi community. Most of the claims are that I am not familiar enough with the community, and indeed, there is presently a far-reaching processes occurring, with many people learning a profession and going out to work, and that the attitude towards the Land of Israel is much more positive than what is written in the Haredi newspapers and heard from their official spokespersons. They point out that these processes have received the quiet backing and support of prominent rabbis. This of course is encouraging and heartening, but why does the support of all these positive events need to be done secretly, while the violence and tirades against the foundations of Judaism and the Torah are done overtly, and under the pretext of holiness and the fear of God?

The foundations of Judaism and Torah I am speaking of are: the sanctity of the entire nation, including the “shovavim” (mischievous children, i.e. the non-religious) who are also called ‘sons’; the sanctity of the entire Land, as clarified in numerous sections of the Torah; the importance of mesirut nefesh (total devotion) to settle the Land and protect the nation; the building and improvement of the world as was the custom of our forefathers, as recounted at length in the Torah and Chazal. When estranged from these tenets, as a result, the study of Torah and understanding other areas in it, are also damaged.

Criticism of the Leaders

These painful words I write are not directed against the masses of pure and good Jews, God-fearing people engaged in Torah with love and dedication, meticulous in halachot (laws) and minhagim (customs), who rear wonderful families with love and everlasting faithfulness, devoting themselves to raise families blessed with several children, scrupulously fulfilling the mitzvah of honoring their parents, etc., etc. My comments are directed towards the leaders who shape a world-view in contradiction of the Torah’s instruction, or evade their duty to teach the path of the Torah, claiming it is forbidden to change any previous customs.

The Widening Gaps

It should be added: The gap between the positions of the Torah and the lifestyle of the Haredi community has grown over the years. True, from the very beginning the fundamental debate was already deep and profound, but in practice, the severe alienation of the Haredi community towards fundamental Torah values had yet to be established. When Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah honored Rabbi Kahneman and his colleagues, he was honoring rabbis who greatly valued the settlement of Eretz Yisrael and even the State of Israel, to one degree or another. They had a positive attitude towards people who worked, supported their families, and engaged in improving society. The majority of the Haredi community worked for a living, and most of them also enlisted in the army, participating in the wars with self-sacrifice. They obviously had serious and justified complaints towards the secular leaders of the State, but the fundamental attitude towards improvement of society was positive. For example, the Chazon Ish (Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz), who we, of course, also value for his greatness in Torah, deeply loved Eretz Yisrael and respected its settlers and farmers. The Chazon Ish also showed respect for the great Torah scholars, such as Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Meshulam Roth, blessed be the memory of the righteous.

The Words of Torah Need Strengthening

“Our Rabbis taught: Four things require strengthening, namely, study of the Torah, good deeds, praying, and one’s worldly occupation” (Berachot 32b).
We have already dealt with the strengthening of derech eretz. Now we will discuss the strengthening of the Torah.

In view of the positive processes of rapprochement between religious and traditional Jews, we must now strengthen the love of Torah and the commitment to its complete fulfillment. The positive side which we have encountered to date is the strengthening of the love of Torah, which emerges out of love for Israel and Eretz Yisrael, and brotherhood and friendship between Jews who find common identity in the Torah.

However, this is not enough. How fortunate we are that God chose us to be His Chosen People out of all the nations and gave us His Torah, only through which the world can truly be repaired, curing its moral ailments, and allowing room for the existence of all important values.

The goal must be clear: The welcome relationship between all the communities should serve as a bridge for a growing commitment to Torah study and observance. Seemingly, no traditional Jew would object to such a position, provided there is no coercion, but rather, only out of the Torah’s deep wisdom and sweetness will a desire to fulfill it, be awakened. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Criticism of Secularism

As a follow-up, the overt criticism of secularism estranged from the national identity and Jewish religious culture must be sharpened. The criticism is not directed towards the secular Jews, but rather against the secular world-view which strives to undermine Jewish values, the Jewish people, and the Land of Israel. We have no intention whatsoever to coerce, because all of the upheavals we have experienced in recent generations were intended to awaken the desire to observe Torah out of complete free will. However, in order for this desire to be awakened, there is a need for a fundamental clarification, including an ideological debate with secular positions.

Basic Laws of the Jewish State

To this end, it is also worthy to continue working to determine Basic Laws that will define the Jewish identity of the State, including determining by Basic Law the importance of Torah study as a central concern of identity and vision for the State of Israel. This stems from the belief that through the study of Torah and its elucidation in relation to all the social and international issues on the agenda – we can bring abounding blessing to our nation, and to the entire world.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.