Dismayed by “Two Cultures of Zionism”

I read with growing disbelief and dismay, the article by Noah Efron in the Spring 5757 issue, “Between Faith and Fate: Two Cultures of Zionism.”  Throughout the article, Efron repeatedly emphasizes that “Israelis are becoming two peoples…religious and secular Zionists simply do not understand each other…the Zionist camp is splitting…with no common vision and precious few truly shared institutions.”

The above assertions are what is commonly portrayed on TV and in the press.  However, this portrayal is so completely different from my own experiences, that I can hardly believe that Efron was describing the same country in which I have lived for the past 30 years.  Religious Zionists meet, and have close dealings with secular Jews everywhere — in the army, the university, the sports field, as neighbors, lawyers, physicians, mechanics, etc.

The most striking conclusion of these many, many interactions between us and secular Israelis is that we do share a “common vision” about Israel’s future and, though we often disagree, we most definitely do understand each other’s position.  The secular Israelis I meet differ with me on many issues, but I almost always encounter from them respect for my opinions, friendliness and comradeship, consideration for my special religious “needs,” and enormous admiration of the fact that we left the wealth and ease of life in America and moved to Israel to participate together with them in the common enterprise of bringing to reality our shared Zionist dream.

Perhaps the best demonstration that the country described in this article does not, in fact, exist, is given by your photo illustration — one side shows young Israelis fervently davening, while the other side shows young Israelis playing league soccer with equal fervor — with the clear implication that these two photos represent the two incompatible faces of Israel.  Let me inform the reader that, were one to replace soccer with basketball, both pictures could be of my son — a hesder yeshivah graduate.  This is one of the beauties of Israel!

[Dr.] Nathan Aviezer

Petach Tikva, Israel

Noah Efron responds:

Professor Aviezer is quite right that there are close commercial and professional ties between religious and secular Jews in Israel.  He is also right that these ties are often cordial.  Robust friendship between religious and secular individuals is rarer, but this too is far from extraordinary.  Professor Aviezer is right again that religious and secular Jews share certain pleasures.  Of course religious children in Israel enjoy and excel in athletics, just like secular kids.

But then, my article did not claim that religious and secular individuals cannot sell to one another, buy from another, or be friendly and respectful.  Nor did it claim that they have no common affections.  I claimed instead that, generally speaking, religious and secular Jews have increasingly divergent visions of Israel’s future.  I also described how the sway of institutions in which religious and secular Jews take part together is growing weaker, while the influence of separate religious and secular institutions is growing stronger.

I won’t repeat the many examples I discussed in my article.  But Professor Aviezer’s own example — that of his hesder yeshivah, basketball-playing son — might serve as a further illustration of my point.  Soon after Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Rabin, many secular Jews called for the dismantling of the hesder program, claiming that it was a hothouse for cultivating what Amos Elon has called (in another context) “religious and national fundamentalism.”  There has been significant discussion, within and outside the IDF, about whether religious soldiers could be trusted to vacate Jewish settlements, should an Israeli government decide to do so.  Even within the army, the institution that enjoys the greatest support from Israelis of all stripes, there is mounting anxiety about the fissure between religious and secular Jews, and the growing mutual suspicion between them.  When it comes to basketball, I suspect that Professor Aviezer’s son plays in a religious league with other religious athletes.  The secular leagues, including the professional leagues, all play on Shabbat.  Though the young man serves in the same army and plays the same sport as secular Jews his age, important divisions remain even in these highly circumscribed realms.

In sum, I don’t dispute Professor Aviezer’s observations.  Sadly, though, they don’t contradict my own.  The country that I described is the same country in which Professor Aviezer has lived for the past 30 years.  I hope that the more companionable society that Professor Aviezer described prevails.  But it won’t if we are unwilling to face up to the real divisions that exist, and are multiplying, in Israel today.  Accentuating the positive is laudable, but it does no good to ignore a serious problem that needs serious attention.

The Real “Student Voice” Issue: Secular Universities

Not being a Hirschian scholar, I have neither the right nor any basis on which to proffer an opinion regarding Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s understanding of Torah im derech eretz.  Thus, my purpose in writing is not to resolve the apparent dispute on this matter between Rachel Wohlgelernter (“Student Voice,” Winter 1996) on the one hand and Rabbis Shelomoh E. Danziger and Moshe M. Eisemann (“Letters to the Editor,” Summer 1997) on the other.  Having benefitted from many Daf Yomi tapes prepared by Rabbi Eisemann, I thank and salute Rabbi Eisemann for his great commitment and devotion to Torah education.  It would be presumptuous of me to publicly question the interpretation of Rav Hirsch’s position by this Torah scholar, and I have no intention of doing so.

Rather, I write because the message bravely and eloquently espoused by Ms. Wohlgelernter is vital, and it should not be lost in a debate over a tangential issue.  Ms. Wohlgelernter has maintained that Torah-observant youth need not hide from the world at large, with her immediate emphasis being education at secular universities.  Despite lingering insecurity and trepidation they may feel, our young adults may actively enter the secular arena, armed with our Torah values and virtues.

Whether we admit it or not, Orthodox Jews have much to gain from excellence and prominence in secular education and achievement.  In this age of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, we need doctors who understand and embrace the traditional Jewish view of the sanctity of human life.  In this age of cut-throat international economies, we need influential business leaders who comprehend and respect the holiness of Shabbos and Yom Tov.  In this age of intolerance to minority groups, we need gifted attorneys who fight for and champion our rights as observant Jews.

Ms. Wohlgelernter has chosen to attend Yale University as her gateway into the secular world.  By choosing Yale, Ms. Wohlgelernter has dramatically increased her chances of becoming that physician, corporate tactician, or lawyer who will one day serve the Orthodox Jewish community.  If she and other Orthodox Jews were to decide against attending Yale and other universities of the same ilk, the Orthodox Jewish community would eventually have to rely on the benevolence of the non-Jewish or non-observant graduates of top-notch colleges who do not share our values.  History has repeatedly taught us how dangerous this can be!

Nevertheless, based on their understanding of Rav Hirsch, Rabbis Danziger and Eisemann both criticized Ms. Wohlgelernter for choosing Yale.  Let us stipulate, as Rabbis Danziger and Eisemann assert, that Rav Hirsch does advocate withdrawal of a Jew from the world when faced with certain unsavory circumstances.  Thus, Rav Hirsch might well recommend and even demand that a Jew remove himself from an environment of “vociferous homosexual groups [and] students with countless body piercings and rainbow-colored hair.”  Unfortunately, the stark and cruel reality is that behavioral abominations and moral decadence are not restricted to the Yale University campus.  As a current resident of Los Angeles and a former resident of New York, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Chicago, I can attest that many of the individuals one encounters during leisurely strolls through big-city neighborhoods (including those inhabited by Orthodox Jews) or during visits to the local supermarkets are a far cry from saintly rabbis or modestly-clad women.  As a physician at a large public hospital, I can testify that the ravages of drug abuse, street violence and sexual promiscuity abound and are not limited to university campuses.  The city of Sodom may have fared well in comparison to present-day American cities.  If Rav Hirsch would have compelled an observant Jew to avoid Yale University, he likely would have also compelled most American observant Jews to leave their present surroundings.

The critical question faced today by young Jewish men and women (and their parents) is not any longer whether one does or does not risk exposure to the secular (and, often, profane) world.  Unless one spends his entire life secluded in a kollel, every Orthodox Jewish child will sooner or later have to reconcile Torah principles with life in a secular society.  The relevant question today is when does one take the plunge.  Our tasks as parents and educators is to bestow our sacred Jewish values upon our children and students to prepare them for the obstacles society will present to them.  Fortunately, through the wonders of modern technology, communication via telephone, fax and e-mail is a simple matter even from a distance, and the child who wakes up in a dormitory room 3,000 miles away can be home in time for supper.  A halachic question can be initiated as easily from New Haven as from Los Angeles or Brooklyn.  “Out of sight” is not synonymous with “out of mind.”  The spheres of influence of parents and mechanchim do not terminate when the child steps onto the airplane.

Some children are ready to meet the challenge immediately following high school.  Other children require more time.  Yale University is clearly not for everyone, but that should not preclude its being a viable option for those who are prepared.  Jewish educators should not a priori discourage gifted young men and women from pursuing paths that lead them through prestigious secular institutions of higher learning.  Ms. Wohlgelernter (presumably with the guidance of caring parents) is apparently ready to meet the challenge now.  To her I say, hatzlachah rabbah!  We need more courageous young Orthodox Jewish women (and men) like you.  May you be a source of great pride and nachas to your parents, your community and to Klal Yisrael.

William Stohl, M.D., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Medicine

University of Southern California

Los Angeles, California

…and a word from Yale

Both Rachel Wohlgelernter and my revered rebbe, Rav Moshe Eisemann, miss a point which is close to my heart.  There is, baruch Hashem, a vibrant Orthodox student community at Yale University.  I have the privilege of serving, as part of my duties as rabbi of Young Israel of New Haven, as director of Young Israel House at Yale — the Kosher Kitchen of Yale University (endowed as the Lindenbaum Kosher Kitchen).  It is some of the most gratifying work in my life.  To paraphrase Rav Eisemann, I can assure you that for many young men and women, the path to heaven runs precisely through New Haven, specifically at the Kosher Kitchen.  We serve delicious kosher meals to about 125 for lunch, 200 for dinner, and between 300-400 on Friday night.  We run a beis midrash chavrusa learning program on Tuesday nights.  There are various classes and shiurim on other nights, appropriate social activities, and regular minyanim in our beis midrash (whose bulletin board is covered with piskei halachah on questions sent to me by students through e-mail).  On any day of the week, at any time of day, you will find students learning Torah, either alone or with a chavrusa.

I feel that Orthodox students who graduate from Yale have gained, in addition to their first-rate secular education, an experience in Jewish living that, so far, they may not find elsewhere.  They have lived at Yale with uncompromised Torah and mitzvos, while being able to integrate positively with the wider community.  That is a crucial lesson our Orthodox community should consider as the basis for widening its impact on the larger Jewish world.

Rabbi Michael Whitman

New Haven, Connecticut

P.S. from Rabbi Leibel Reznick

Several readers asked me about the significance of a cave or tunnel in the Holy of Holies.  What would its purpose be?  And is there any reference to such a cave in the rabbinical commentaries?

Rabbeinu Chananel (Yoma 35a) reports that one of the builders of the Second Temple was a man named Parvah.  He was curious what the High Priest did in the Holy of Holies during the holy Yom Kippur service.  He took advantage of his status as a builder of the Temple and illegally had a tunnel constructed that led into the Holy of Holies from which he could watch the High Priest.

A dear colleague of mine, Rabbi Yisroel Gettinger, suggested that the illegal tunnel was left in place for a good reason.  Before the First Temple was destroyed, the Holy Ark was hidden in one of the tunnels below the Temple Mount.  During the Second Temple Era, the hiding place of the Ark had not been found.  A tunnel leading from the Holy of Holies to the network of tunnels below the mountain would serve to “conduct” the presence of the hidden Ark into the Holy of Holies.

Allow me to make an important point regarding this matter.  It is of little significance to the gist of the article if the “cistern” was in the Holy of Holies or under some other part of the Sanctuary.  The exact length of the cubit and the exact orientation of the Azarah complex would affect the precise placement of this cistern.  Since the article did not go into the exact length of the cubit, nor did it address the exact orientation of the Azarah, I left the cubit at 18 inches and left the orientation at an exact left-right (east-west) arrangement.  The cistern happened to fall out in the Holy of Holies.  That was wholly incidental to the thrust of the article, which was to locate the site of the Altar.

Should the cubit be closer to 24 inches, the cistern would come out in the Holies instead of the Holy of Holies.  Should the Azarah orientation be slightly towards the northeast, the cistern would come out north of the Holy of Holies under one of the side offices that surrounded the Sanctuary.  These issues are much too complex and too esoteric to address in an article for mass consumption.

I would also like to thank the many readers who took advantage of the offer and requested a copy of the drawing illustrating the subterranean Temple structure.  Their interest and kind remarks were most gratifying.

[Rabbi] Leibel Reznick

Monsey, New York

Torah Web Site Not Just Whistling Dixie

I want to thank you for your informative article on Jewish sites on the Internet (“Clicking onto Torah,” Summer 1997).  Allow me to submit one addition with a distinctive angle to your list on parshah-related material:  Torah from Dixie, produced by rabbonim, educators, laymen and bochurim with connections to the city of Atlanta.  Torah from Dixie (www.tfdixie.com) delivers perceptive, practical and easily digestible outlooks and insights into the weekly parshah.  A brief summary of the parshah appears at the beginning of every issue, making the ensuing five or six divrei Torah readily accessible even to those with minimal Torah backgrounds.  The web site is full of useful information, complete with the current week’s issue, hundreds of articles from back issues, and even audio classes.

Benyamin Cohen

Editor, Torah From Dixie

Atlanta, Georgia

Interest in G. Scholem Provocative

…The interview with Dr. Handelman (“Juggling Act,” Summer 1997) touched on a topic that is very provocative.  Her study of textuality borders on deconstruction, which shatters the completeness of a text.  This has been used by Strauss in his study of the Rambam, and others who see no overriding importance in a document as a whole.  Specific to Dr. Handelman’s subject of interest is G. Scholem.

Scholem identified himself as an anarchist in his autobiography, From Berlin to Jerusalem (see pp. 53-54).  David Biale, in his definitive study, Gershom Scholem; Kabbalah and Counter-History, calls Scholem a “religious anarchist,” (p.2).  This belief is definitively stated by Scholem in his masterpiece, Sabbatai Sevi, the Mystical Messiah, (pp.283-284):

There is no way of telling a priori what beliefs are possible or impossible within the framework of Judaism.  Certainly no serious student would accept the specious argument that the criteria of “Jewish” belief were clear and evident until the kabbalah beclouded and confused the minds.  The “Jewishness” in the religiosity of any particular period is not measured by dogmatic criteria that are unrelated to actual historical circumstances, but solely by what sincere Jews do, in fact, believe, or — at least —  consider to be legitimate possibilities.

This statement, and other statements of Scholem, created a furor in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s.  A most prominent critic was Barukh Kurzweil, the literary critic from Bar-Ilan.  Scholem’s thesis was that of an ever-evolving religion, which would meet the needs of the moment as interpreted by its leaders.  It is a self-evident that this is the moving force in Conservative and Reform Judaism.

I am not criticizing Dr. Handelman for her studies, nor Jewish Action.  I am merely highlighting the problems involved when dealing with academia and texts.  I think you chose an appropriate subject, but perhaps should have highlighted other aspects of her work.  Scholem was a very negative observer, and active destroyer of traditionalism.

Ye-yasher kochachem.

Idelle Rudman

Brooklyn, New York

Dr. Handelman responds:

I wish indeed that Ms. Rudman would have read some of my book Fragments of Redemption: Jewish Thought in Scholem, Benjamin and Levinas before she wrote her letter.  She would have found that I make exactly the same critique of Scholem that she does.  She would be interested, I think, to see how I contrast him with the thought of Emmanuel Levinas, one of the great modern Jewish philosophers who upheld halachah, and whose work on Jewish thought and Talmudic interpretation helped countless assimilated Jewish intellectuals return to Judaism.  And she also would have found that I traced Scholem’s anarchism to trends in German romanticism and tried to show how his interpretation of kabbalah was by no means “unbiased.”  As to the literary-philosophical movement of “deconstruction,” I refer to her my first book, The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory for an in-depth examination of the relation of Deconstruction to rabbinic methods of interpretation, and the Jewish identity of its founder, Jacques Derrida.

On a broader level, the world of academic Jewish studies is different from the world of the yeshivah.  In academia one studies the historical, cultural, literary, religious phenomena of whatever Jews think and do.  Of course, not every thing Jews think and do reflects Torah.  Needless to say, Ms. Rudman is correct that much modern “secular” Jewish thought has wrestled with and often subverted tradition.  However, we are now in a “post-modern” world.  And post-modernity is a critique of modernity, its ethics, science and methods of knowing.  Orthodox Jews, I believe, need very much to recognize this new cultural and philosophical condition.  For post-modernism makes possible a renewed appreciation of “pre-modern” forms of religion.  (See my essays: “Emunah: the Craft of Faith” in  Crosscurrents: Religion and Intellectual Life 42:3 [1992], and “Crossing the Void: A Meditation on Postmodern Jewish Theological Renewal,” forthcoming in Renewing the Covenant: Eugene Borowitz and the Postmodern Renewal of Jewish Theology, ed. Peter Ochs.  [NY: State University of New York Press, 1998]).

It has been said that the great mistake and temptation of generals of armies is to always fight the previous war.  The U.S., for example, erred by fighting the Vietnam War as if it were World War II, not recognizing the new situation.  Similarly, I would argue that the “religious” wars of modernity are over.  Jews today are not seeking to run away from Judaism and “modernize”; on the contrary, Jews today are looking for a way back to Torah.  Even in the non-Jewish world, there is a great movement now to find “spirituality.”

So what is needed today in Orthodox thought, I believe, is not more defensive reactions to and condemnations of “modernity.”  One needs to understand what frustrated and hidden spiritual yearnings are concealed within the spiritual struggles of Jews today.  As someone who did not have the opportunity to grow up in an observant home, and who had to gain every bit of Torah knowledge with difficulty later on in life on my own, I can understand and appreciate those yearnings.  And I also understand how long a time it takes for them to find their true expression, and what indirect paths and detours they can take.

Thus, my academic work reflects my personal background and the skills I have acquired.  I can read and work on figures like Scholem because I am, so to speak, “immunized.”  Scholem indeed was not an Orthodox Jew.  He came from a highly assimilated home and his father threw him out of his house because of Scholem’s renewed engagement with Judaism.  In his own way, Scholem was trying to find a way back and a way to revitalize what he saw as the empty, bourgeois, assimilated Judaism of his own day.  In the end, of course, one will not find in academic study true Torah.  And academia can indeed be a very dangerous place since the set of values and prevailing beliefs of the contemporary university are often antithetical to Torah.  (For a penetrating discussion of these issues, see the article “Sacred Studies in a Secular Setting: A Round table on Jewish Studies in the Modern University,” with Yaakov Elman, Peter Ochs, Lawrence Schiffman and myself as moderator in the journal Wellsprings, Summer 1996).  However, I have found that my particular vocation is to be in that world and, using its own language, try to bring a Torah perspective.  This is not by any means an easy or comfortable position; it often requires much self-discipline and restraint and frustration.  But there are many Jews who would not be touched otherwise.

Nor is this a path I recommend to everyone.  As I said above, I am somewhat “immunized” to this world; I have been through it, know it well, and acquired my Jewish knowledge as a mature adult.  Nevertheless, it does take its toll.  I mention this in relation to the other ongoing discussion in this magazine regarding the question of whether yeshivah day school students should attend completely secular colleges instead of institutions such as Yeshiva University or Touro College.  Let me surprise you by saying that as a professor and a graduate of an Ivy League college myself, I would try to persuade such students not to attend entirely secular institutions.  I have seen many Jewish day school students enter universities and become lost.  The years of 18-22 are formative and critical years in a young adult’s life; there is a rapid development and exploration of emotional, intellectual and sexual faculties.  The students are immersed in secular learning and developing their minds and hearts entirely in that medium while their Torah learning remains what it was in high school.  These days especially, one need not attend secular university to discover and interact with the larger world.  None of us is insulated from it:  the media, Internet, and multi-cultural society in which we live penetrates all of our lives.  Everything we see and hear does make an impression on us.  And there are plenty of opportunities to combine Torah im derech eretz.

The kedushah and menuchah of Shabbos give us strength to contend with the other six days of the week.  One’s years of study and learning are a kind of Shabbos that will give us strength to contend with what inevitably comes later.  I hope yeshivah students will take as much advantage as they can to stay for as long as they can in the “tents of Torah.”  I wish I had that opportunity in my own life.

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This article was featured in the Fall 1997 issue of Jewish Action.
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