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A Question Of Identity


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My first visit to Israel in the summer of 1959 coincided to an extent with the trip by Rabbi Aharon Kotler, the great rosh yeshiva of Lakewood, who came to give shiurim at Yeshiva Eitz Chaim in Jerusalem and to campaign for Agudath Israel in the Knesset elections, as he had done previously in the decade.

My relationship with Rav Aharon spanned nearly all of the 1950s, arising from my involvement in his extraordinary effort from a distance of 6,000 miles away to create and then sustain the network of elementary school yeshivas called Chinuch Atzmai or the independent Torah Schools for Israel.

Although family members with whom I spent much time during that trip were Mizrachi or Religious Zionist in orientation, I identified with Agudah. Chinuch Atzmai had come into being when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion decided in 1951 to consolidate the four separate party-affiliated educational systems established during the British Mandatory period into a state or mamlachti system, with a religious track for families who wanted something of a religious education for their children.

It was apparent from the outset that the state religious schools were inadequate in their religious ambience and curriculum and ineffective in transmitting our glorious heritage. That is why Rav Aharon acted. The acquiescence of Mizrachi to a severely watered-down form of religious instruction was a costly mistake for it and Israeli society, as in the aggregate these schools contributed to religious abandonment.

A greater mistake occurred in 1953 when Ben-Gurion – over the fierce opposition of Torah leaders who understood the consequences of such a policy – insisted on drafting girls into the Israeli army after they completed high school. During the controversy that erupted, which included a large demonstration outside the Israeli Consulate in Manhattan, the Chazon Ish and then Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, Rav Aharon’s father-in-law, died.

Ben-Gurion ultimately backed down a bit, allowing religious girls to choose forms of national service, an arrangement that also was opposed by Torah leaders.

Despite efforts to convince Mizrachi leaders to reject the women’s draft, they – as had occurred on other occasions – subordinated the “religious” in their identity to secular Zionism. Mizrachi paid an enormous price for its refusal to fight for halachic principles. Israel has paid an even greater price. There is unchallenged evidence about the effect of the women’s draft on the moral and religious character of the state.

* * * * *

 

As I traveled around Israel in 1959 and came into contact with North African Jews who told me of Jewish Agency and government programs that weaned children away from Judaism, my antipathy toward those in the dati or Religious Zionist sector who had sacrificed religion grew.

But my interaction with Rav Aharon taught me that it was at once possible to reject Religious Zionism and work for the communal good with persons of that outlook.

By yeshiva-world standards, Chinuch Atzmai schools were – and many still are – relatively weak institutions, if only because their hours were severely limited. By and large, they attracted students from homes more modern than the yeshiva world, as parents in that sector invariably sent their children to chassidic or otherwise more fervently Orthodox schools. Yet Rav Aharon, exhausted as he was with a multitude of communal responsibilities, strove to direct and support these schools.

At Rav Aharon’s request – indeed, insistence – the main speaker at the first Chinuch Atzmai dinner was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who by then was actively engaged in Mizrachi. Rabbi Soloveitchik had helped Chinuch Atzmai in its early years. His speech was memorable, notably in his extraordinary praise of Rabbi Kotler.

* * * * *

 

There is something else about the 1959 trip that influenced my approach to communal activity, not immediately but after the passage of some time. One Shabbos I was with Rav Aharon for the meals at what had been the home of Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer and was now the home of his other son-in-law, Rabbi Ben-Menachem, a member of the Supreme Rabbinical Court. During the Shabbos lunch, a messenger came to tell Rabbi Ben-Menachem that Rabbi Isaac Herzog, the Ashkenazic chief rabbi, had died and there would be a meeting shortly after Shabbos to set the details of the funeral.

Rav Aharon spoke highly of Rabbi Herzog, saying he was a Torah scholar who had done much to assist European Jews during the Holocaust. This evoked a protest from Rabbi Yaakov Schiff, Rav Aharon’s outstanding American student who had come to Israel to be married to the daughter of the Brisker Rav, who was then critically ill. Rabbi Schiff spoke of Rabbi Herzog’s role in Mizrachi, his refusal to oppose the draft of young women, and other matters.

Rav Aharon would not yield, saying, “My father-in-law eulogized Rabbi Kook. I can eulogize Rabbi Herzog.” This hesped or eulogy has been published and it is evident that Rav Aharon spoke with great feeling.

* * * * *

 

After Rav Aharon died in 1962, I set out to follow what I had learned from him, in fulfillment of his last words to me about two weeks before he passed away, when he asked me to devote my life to assisting Torah education. This meant that without any lessening of my yeshiva-world identity, I would work with others in Orthodox life to fulfill that mission.

In 1965, COLPA (the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs) was established to represent religious Jewry on legal and legislative matters. I became its first president. Our membership, which consisted primarily of young Orthodox lawyers, encompassed the spectrum of Orthodox life, from haredi to Modern Orthodox.

That was a time when intra-Orthodox conflict was intense over membership in the Synagogue Council together with Conservative and Reform rabbis and other issues. COLPA had remarkable success in court and in legislative bodies. This is in contrast to today’s situation where, though the barriers to intra-Orthodox cooperation have been removed or reduced, there is in fact little cooperation. In the recent Supreme Court case regarding a conservative Christian student group at Hastings Law School in California, Agudath Israel, the Orthodox Union and Young Israel each submitted separate briefs. Is it any wonder why, despite our growth, our legal and legislative achievements have been puny when compared with what was accomplished decades ago when American Orthodoxy was able to unite on public-affairs matters?

During the 1960s, as well, I was active in Agudath Israel, as I had been since my teens, and also in the Orthodox Union, representing it on public issues. This dual commitment was and remains unique and reflected my determination to work for the entire community. When, however, Rabbi Samson R. Weiss, the Orthodox Union’s immensely gifted executive vice president, asked me to become an officer, I demurred, saying that while I would work voluntarily for the organization, an officer must take responsibility for the group’s policies and I could not take responsibility for Synagogue Council membership.

In 1973, I became president on a voluntary basis of Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, where I had been a student, a position I continue to hold. This resulted in a shift in focus. RJJ was in a state of collapse. It would take a huge effort to reverse its fortunes. For that reason and one or two others, I withdrew from nominal organizational activity, a decision that assuredly did not diminish my communal activity. To the contrary, from then until this day, that is my primary focus. (There are persons who do not accept the notion of a fully active communal life outside of major organizational involvement.)

RJJ has evolved into another manifestation of my commitment to Orthodox unity, even as the prevailing tendency is to categorize and separate religious Jews into discreet and relatively small segments of Orthodox life, such as Modern Orthodox and yeshiva world. Many cannot accept that wherever a person may stand in his personal orientation, there remains the responsibility and the opportunity to work for the entire community.

There are now four RJJ schools. Two of them are Centrist Orthodox institutions, one is firmly in the yeshiva world and the fourth is a Modern Orthodox day school. Each has a distinct student body, for which the particular school meets the needs of the families who send their children there. There has never been an arrangement like this, and for obvious reasons. It is difficult to integrate separate and different educational entities into a cohesive institution. Essentially, the schools operate separately, even as they embody and fulfill my ideal of transcommunal responsibility.

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For all of the disparate activities, I continue to identify with the yeshiva world, as I have for sixty years, ever since joining Zeirei Agudath Israel in 1950. While this identification has not changed, our religious life has changed substantially over time and, in turn, this has had an impact on what it means to be in the yeshiva world.

In my youth, “yeshiva world” meant for the most part going to one of the major yeshivas in New York and then on to college, usually in the evening, and perhaps then to graduate or professional school. Lakewood and kollel were for relatively few. A major change has occurred in the far greater valuation given to Torah study, which is certainly welcome. Other changes have occurred as a reaction against modernity, against societal standards and practices that are hostile to Torah living.

In a sense, my yeshiva world identity is more attitudinal than behavioral. I continue to feel close to this spiritual home, although younger persons who identify with this same home are in key ways different – and probably better – in reflecting the values that are associated with the yeshiva world.

While identity may be static, what constitutes identity shifts over time, which is true of most or perhaps all social statuses, especially in the contemporary period when the world is spinning faster than ever and social change comes quickly.

Identity is also affected by context, by the geographic home in which it finds expression. What was regarded as rigid Hirschean Orthodoxy in early 20th century Germany was a far cry from the Orthodoxy of Eastern European shtetls. Local culture, economic conditions, values, mores, political systems and even the climate contribute to determining how identity is expressed in particular places. In political life, what is conservative in one setting may differ radically from what is regarded as conservative elsewhere. So it is with religious identity.

We need not look far to appreciate the geographic impact on Orthodox identity. Being in the yeshiva world in Lakewood is different from being in the yeshiva world elsewhere in this country – of course not in all or even most respects, but in key indicators such as the tolerance of secular studies in yeshivas.

Several years ago, Lakewood rabbinic leaders forbade attendance at local baseball games. A visit to the ballpark when the Yankees or Mets are playing will show a different picture. Touro College operates in Brooklyn and educates a large number of yeshiva world youth. It could not operate in Monsey and certainly not in Lakewood.

The divide within Orthodoxy is far greater in Israel. This is understandable because unlike the U.S., where issues that may generate conflict – such as relations with the non-Orthodox – are tangential in daily religious life, in Israel they are from a religious standpoint existential.

These issues include military exemption for yeshiva students, military service for women, government supervision of schools, abortion, autopsies, conversion and other matters. More broadly, they concern the fundamental issue of participation in Israeli society. Israeli issues, accordingly, are of greater urgency and pack a far greater emotional punch. There is also greater division within families and this may be why it is a frequent experience at Israeli weddings to see greater religious/secular heterogeneity than what we commonly see at simchas on these shores.

In the aggregate, Israeli haredim “out-haredi” those who are designated as haredim in the United States. This is evident in the lower level of tolerance for secular studies in Israeli yeshivas, as well as in dress, work patterns, openness to the general culture and a host of attitudes. Some of this arises from socio-economic factors, namely a far higher degree of haredi poverty in Israel. Should Israeli haredim become middle class, there likely will be a change in lifestyle and in attitude and behavior. However, the growing tendency of Israeli haredim to live entirely apart in cities that are exclusively haredi and exert strong communal pressure against even minor deviation from required standards inexorably pulls religious Jews living in these places away from greater engagement in the larger society.

* * * * *

 

Though by affiliation and attitude I continue to identify strongly with the yeshiva world, when in Israel the emotional pull is away from this orientation toward greater affinity with those who may be referred to as haredi-leaning dati leumi. Some of this may have to do with being located in Rechavia, my Israeli friends, and the work I do.

There are deeper emotional and intellectual roots. I am constantly moved by the sincerity of these Israelis, by their tznius, chesed, modest living and devotion to Torah and mitzvos. Few pursue riches; most strike me as engaged in activities that benefit other Jews and Israel. It is hard not to admire the dedication and deep religiosity they have achieved without adopting a nominal haredi lifestyle. They live a life of mitzvos and a willingness to resist the allures of modernity, something that was not true of earlier Religious Zionism.

As a parallel to this increasing affinity with those who are haredi leumi, there is a slight moving away from identification in Israel with the nominal haredi world.

I admire the yeshiva world in Israel, notably the extraordinary commitment to Torah study and the sacrifices it brings. I respect the Israeli Torah leaders, who are also, in a way, America’s Torah leaders, for their humility and modesty and for their sanctity. Yet there are aspects of haredi life that are off-putting, such things as exclusionary schools and exclusionary communities.

What troubles me especially is that what I regard as unwelcome in Israeli haredi life is dynamic, which is to say the practices I regard as questionable are likely to become even more extreme.

This is also to say that my identity with this part of Orthodoxy may become more fragile.

Dr. Marvin Schick is president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School.

About the Author: Dr. Marvin Schick is president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. He has been actively engaged in Jewish communal life for more than sixty years.


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