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Achdus and Misplaced Umbrage

The latest volley in the intra-Orthodox ‘wars’ is the one between one of my heroes, Lord, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the rabbinic leaders of Agudah.
haredi separatists

And the wedge gets deeper. I cannot tell you how aggravated I am by this further erosion of Achdus. It is as though we are turning into separate nations.

It’s bad enough that the founders of Reform took it upon themselves to create the first division. Though well intended it ultimately has proven to be the opposite of what’s its founders intended – the preservation of the Jewish people. Reform has redefined Judaism out of … well, Judaism itself.

The Conservative Movement in an attempt to reverse the trend away from our defining feature as Halachic Jews created yet another division. Though unintended as such this movement’s actions ended up further alienating Jews from Halachic Judaism. And they are shrinking in numbers as their members are becoming increasingly secular.

And now even among Orthodox Groups, none of which advocate a single iota of departure from Halacha and Mesorah, there is once again division that is driving us ever further apart. Orthodox against Orthodox. Criticisms are seen as attacks. And critics are seen as either Reshaim (evil people) or so misguided that they aid and abet those Reshaim.

The latest volley in the intra-Orthodox ‘wars’  is the one between one of my heroes, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the rabbinic leaders of Agudah.

One may recall my recent description of Lord Sacks comments during one of his retirement banquets. He was highly critical of those Charedim that insist on living insular lives to the point of never interacting with the outside world. At least not enough to influence them as a light unto the nations. He called it ‘worse than dangerous’.

What he of course meant by this is that if we as a people – and particularly our leadership -  abdicate our responsibility to influence the morals and ethics of our surrounding culture, it will most certainly come around to bite us. The insularity preached by the right severely limits that influence. I absolutely agree with him. The dangers of exposure to the outside world are far outweighed by the consequences of an insular lifestyle.

Lord Sacks is living proof of those beliefs. He is perhaps the most respected clergyman in all of England. Not only to Jews of all stripes but even to political leadership and royalty. The Jewish ethics that he both espouses and lives has earned him and Jewish ethics itself the highest honor. This brings glory to God and to His Torah.

Contrast that with the insularity preached by the right. How many world leaders see any of the Agudah rabbinic leadership the same way?

Please do not misunderstand. I cannot say this enough times – because it’s true. I have only the highest regard for these leaders. I do not intend to diminish their Kavod one iota. I respect and salute all they have done for Klal Yisroel – even though I have on occasion questioned some of their decisions based on my own Hashkafos (learned at the feet of non Agudah Gedolim). I therefore disagree with the harsh criticism of the Agudah rabbinic leaders I so often hear by people who sympathize with my worldview. All of their actions and words are L’Shem Shomayim. They are good people dedicated to the welfare of Klal Yisroel  and we ought to give them the respect they have earned and deserve.

But the fact happens to be that the world does not perceive them in the same way they do Lord Sacks. Kings and Presidents do not seek counsel from them the way they do from Lord Sacks. And thus the honor accorded the Torah via Lord Sacks is not accorded to it in the same degree via the Agudah rabbinic leadership.

Lord Sack’s criticism was meant L’Shem Shomyim. I’m equally sure that he has at least the same amount of respect for Charedi rabbinic leaders that I do. In fact during his tenure, he went out of his way to accommodate their criticisms – altering his public statements accordingly. Lord Sacks knows how to take criticism… and he takes it graciously.

Contrast that with the recent statement by Agudah – in consultation with its rabbinic leadership – about Rabbi Sack’s criticism. They reject it in its entirety and as is all too often the case they vilify him in the process. They called his statements:

… deeply misguided, and harmful to both Jewish unity and Jewish integrity. (They are not only) ‘inaccurate but un-Jewish and uncouth’… and astoundingly ignorant.

After denying that they are insular and defending their approach they ended up with the following:

And so, by deriding the charedi way of life, by characterizing it as some sort of petty and pointless – even dangerous – rejection of the larger world, Rabbi Sacks does a considerable disservice to not only the charedi community but to the Jewish mission of our day. He seems now to have turned his back on the ideals he has ably championed for many years, the promotion of authentic Jewish knowledge and the fostering of true Jewish unity.

We call on him to apologize for the derision and condescension that, intentionally or not, were embodied in his recent remarks and writing.

How sad that instead of reacting to Rabbi Sacks criticism  the way he has reacted to their criticism, they reject out of hand what he said. Not only that, but they deride him and then ask for an apology.

Rabbi Sack’s criticsm is valid despite their protestations to the contrary.

Agudah says that its organization is living proof that they are not insular. Agudah has indeed been in the forefront of many issues that are important to observant Jews.  Following Rabbi Moshe Sherer’s  example their lay leaders have cultivated relationships with the political leadership in the highest echelons of government. They have created a very effective lobbying presence in Washington. Agudah has indeed been able to make great strides in advancing the cause of Orthodoxy.

Nonetheless, this does not diminish at all Lord Sack’s point about the insistence that their flock remain insular. The philosophy of the Charedi mind is to have as little to do with the outside world as possible. To the extent that anyone must have some contact because of livelihood concerns and various and sundry other necessities they should minimize interaction as much as possible and see it only as a necessary evil. (with emphasis on the word evil.)

While it is true that there must be some form of protecting ourselves from the negative influences that exist so freely in the culture – it ought not be so extreme that we end up as isolationist. There ought to be more interaction in the world so that we can impact it for the better with Jewish values that are more or less universal.

Where we should draw the line between participation and non participation is a matter of serious debate. One can indeed choose to be more insular or less insular. But one should never choose the extremes of either full participation or complete withdrawal .Full participation would involve violating Halacha or coming very close to it. Withdrawal can easily result in the type of behavior identified as Halachicly acceptable – and yet end up a Chilul HaShem.

Agudah may feel that the only real way to protect ourselves in the current cultural atmosphere of moral decline in the area of sexuality – is to completely remove ourselves from any of those values and temptations. That is certainly their right. But in my view rejecting a view that does not see it that way – the way they did here – does not advance the cause of Achdus at all. And I am very disappointed.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah .

About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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Binyamin and Chaya Maryles, uncle and aunt of Emes Ve-Emunah author Harry Maryles.
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