“The Holocaust came and there was a destruction of Torah. The Chazon Ish said, ‘Now we have to establish the world of Torah anew. The Torah world was destroyed, the Torah world has to be rebuilt anew. But in order to rebuild the Torah world anew, all have to sit and learn after their weddings. Kollels must be established and the Torah world has to be rebuilt anew.’
“That is what the Chazon Ish taught. Now, is someone going to try to tell me that that was not a temporary decree? If the generations before that time did not do this and the Chazon Ish said, ‘Because of the Holocaust we must do this.” I want to know based on defining the words – what is this? This is not a temporary decree? Now the Torah leaders have to decide – that temporary decree of the Chazon Ish, when does it end? Is it over or if it’s not over, when will it be over?”
This powerful statement was made not by a Modern Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform rabbi or by a secular Israeli politician. Rather, the statement, captured on audiotape, came from Rabbi Yehoshua Eichenstein, rosh yeshiva of Yad Aharon yeshiva and one of the closest people to the leader of the Israeli haredi population, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman. Of course, he was pressured into taking the statement back. But it was said. And its implications are enormous.
Since I entered politics with the Yesh Atid party and began working toward the integration of the haredi population into the army, national service, and workforce, I have been attacked for going against the teachings of the haredi rabbinic leadership.
In response I have publicly related statements I heard from high-level rabbis from the haredi community.
- One rosh yeshiva told us that in his opinion as many as 60 percent of the boys do not belong in yeshiva after a few years and should leave to do national service and work.
- One prominent rabbi told us that some sort of public resistance to Yesh Atid’s policies would have to be displayed, but that if he were happy with the draft law he would call for a prayer rally instead of a demonstration. Sure enough, in the end it was a prayer rally.
- Another well-known haredi rabbinic figure met me in my house and said, “Keep doing what you are doing. You are saving us from ourselves.”
Unfortunately, a condition of meeting with those rabbis was that we would not reveal their identities. But now, the legitimate haredi rabbinic opinion that times have changed and that it should not be a given that every young haredi male study in kollel after marriage has a name and a face: Rabbi Yehoshua Eichenstein.
The fact that he “took it back” under pressure from extremists does not change the fact that it was said. In actuality, this strengthens my argument that there are many rabbis who believe the time has come to reassess the culture of the haredi community but are afraid to say so because of the severe pressure from within the community.
Here is the bottom line, as so eloquently put by Rabbi Eichenstein: “[T]he generations before…did not do this.” All of our traditional rabbinic sources teach that it is not the norm for the average person to study Torah day and night as his only pursuit. We must remember this is the claim being made by young haredi men in order to earn their exemption from serving in the army. That is the level of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and our sages have taught us that many in Talmudic times tried to live like him and failed (Berachot 35b). The norm is for a person to be involved in a combination of Torah and work, as we learn in Pirkei Avot (2:20).
And this is what I hear from young haredim throughout Israel. They want to remain haredim but cannot learn Torah day and night. They want to be haredi doctors, haredi lawyers, haredi accountants, haredi hi-tech entrepreneurs, and yes – haredi IDF generals. There are 10,000 haredim in higher education institutions today and the first ever haredi hesder yeshiva just sent its students into two years of army service during which they return to yeshiva every night to learn Torah.
It would be great if the change would occur with the open blessing of the Torah giants of our time. But even if they don’t give their official approval, the train is out of the station and roaring down the tracks. More and more haredim are realizing they can be Torah scholars and fervently religious while also pursuing other goals – including a livelihood. Many are realizing that finding their place in society rather than sitting in yeshiva without a sincere desire or ability to learn Torah day and night is actually better for them religiously.
So Rabbi Eichenstein need not worry. Despite his having being forced to retract his important words, his message had actually been heard long before he even said it. And the haredi community has been responding and will continue to respond – with the added benefit of this spiritual endorsement from the highest of haredi rabbinic authorities.