Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

20 Kislev 5766 - December 21, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Degel HaTorah: Banner of Allegiance

by Rabbi A. Gefen

HaRav Boruch Shmuel Hacohen Deutsch, chairman of Degel Hatorah's rabbinical board and HaRav Nosson Zochovsky, a member of the rabbinical board, recall the party's launching and discuss their role as emissaries of the gedolei haTorah.

Unchanging Goals, Unchanging Standards

HaRav Deutsch: "The Rosh Yeshiva, Maran HaRav Shach zt'l, did everything in his power to avoid breaking away from Agudas Yisroel. Unity within the chareidi camp was of supreme importance to him. In the circumstances, though, he saw a need for preserving the self-identity of bnei Torah; he wanted them to attain independent standing and to represent themselves. [Working] with `wisdom that surpasses prophecy' he brought about the founding of Yated Ne'eman and also the establishment of Degel Hatorah, to raise the prestige of the bnei Torah and to build [Knesset] representation that would listen to what the gedolei hador said."

HaRav Zochovsky: "The Rosh Yeshiva, Maran HaRav Shach zt'l, wanted to drive home the involvement of gedolei Yisroel in every detail, in every issue and on every level, as a matter of course. Over the years a [chareidi political] establishment had taken shape that had a life of its own and didn't always recognize the right time and juncture for consulting the gedolim. Degel Hatorah was established in order to reaffirm the need to ask for and to listen to the opinions of the gedolei hador. The party raises the banner of allegiance and absolute obedience to our leaders. Gedolei Torah do not have spare time on their hands, however, and cannot be involved in every detail on an ongoing basis. Therefore, a group of expert talmidei chachomim was chosen to determine which issues pose difficulties that need to be decided solely by gedolei Yisroel.

Degel Hatorah is more important today than ever before. It represents a public that charts its course according to the directives of gedolei Torah, without being dragged after mass opinion or the feeling in the street. The Torah world and its leaders has its own way of viewing every contemporary issue, and the existing structure, manned by bnei Torah, ensures that current events are considered from a Torah perspective.

Take the recent withdrawal from Gaza as an example. Without addressing the question of whether it was or wasn't the right step to take, the Torah world looked at the affair differently and wasn't caught up in the superficial approach of the crowds in the street. Things were assigned their correct place and proportion in the overall picture.

From the movement's inception to this day, it has been important that the Torah world have its independence. The party came into being because every large and worthy public grouping deserves its own representation. That public that is composed of bnei Torah has its own pristine world view.

Although we have joined other groups within a single external framework for the Knesset — obviously according to the directives of our teacher zt'l — this unity was external and was for a practical purpose. Our own opinions and views and our absolute obedience to gedolei Torah remained unchanged.

The rabbinical panel recognized the need for conveying the views of the gedolei Torah to the representatives, and fulfilled the directives of the gedolim in various ways. It continues to serve this function in several ways, acting as a `board of education' representing the gedolim. In this capacity it scrutinizes current affairs and solves all sorts of communal and educational problems that are always cropping up."

The Need to Stand Tall

All are unanimous with regard to Degel Hatorah's emergence and convey the same message — nobody today is seeking a renewal of strife or discord. All we want is to understand the past in order to learn how to handle the future. There are no grudges and no personal sensitivities or tender spots.

The Rosh Yeshiva zt'l discerned a need for the chareidi community and for bnei Torah to "stand tall." He saw it as both necessary and important that members of this community fill positions, even as [Knesset] representatives, in order to protect the image of the chareidi public and to ensure that it was respected. Another important point is that whereas the leaders of the general public are those who head the political parties, we convey the message that the party leaders are simply emissaries of the gedolim and are in no sense whatsoever leaders.

HaRav Deutsch: "As someone who has spent all his life in yeshivos and Torah academies, I would not ordinarily have had anything to do with the establishment of Degel Hatorah. It was only because I felt that on many occasions the dignity of bnei Torah was being trampled. The gedolei hador, our great teacher zt'l, and the Kehillas Yaakov zt'l, felt this way and indicated to us to take an independent path. They fostered this approach for the sake of the Torah world's benefit.

"In the course of negotiations with Agudas Yisroel things seemed to be running aground. Up to the last minute, we were given the impression that the well-known issue of Chabad and the attitude to be taken towards them was agreed upon. Then they attempted to sabotage all the discussions over that single issue, in order to create a bone of contention for the elections over the "banning of a holy congregation" and similar accusations. The Rosh Yeshiva refused to countenance an agreement based on silencing those who articulated the correct outlook; this was one of the main reasons that the negotiations fell apart and Degel Hatorah was launched.

"At the time — the eleventh of Tishrei 5749 (1989), on the eve of the split from Agudas Yisroel and the submission of a separate Knesset list — our great teacher spared no effort and tried until the very last minute to pull the ranks together and avoid taking a separate path. The Rosh Yeshiva wrote two letters to Agudas Yisroel, which are being published here for the first time. In one, he recommended that his candidates for Knesset membership, Rabbi Moshe Gafni and Rabbi Chaim Brillant, be entered into Agudas Yisroel's list and [promised] that Heaven's honor would grow through them."

In his second letter he addressed Agudas Yisroel as, "the holy movement that was founded by our masters, the gedolim of the previous generation — led by the gaon Rav Chaim [Brisker] and other geonim of the generation, ztvk'l, among them the Chofetz Chaim, the Gerrer Rebbe and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky — so that all [communal] affairs could be run according to the pure Torah outlook. Since the position of [our] religion is very difficult in Eretz Yisroel and in the world at large, we deem it incumbent upon everyone to orient himself as part of a party that is subject to daas Torah and whose representatives are emissaries of the rabbonim. Since all [the groupings] within Agudas Yisroel have be'ezras Hashem reached agreement with the bnei Torah and their representatives, I call upon all who seriously heed Hashem's word and who follow the opinions of the great Torah scholars, the great teachers of halochoh and the Admorim, shlita, to vote for the Agudas Yisroel list and strengthen it so that Heaven's glory increases."

In the drafts of the agreements that were drawn up between the representatives of Agudas Yisroel and those of IBT (Irgun Bnei Torah), the following passages appear: "Yated Ne'eman will give proper coverage to the activities, resolutions and campaigns of Agudas Yisroel and its representatives, without suppressing news and public notices about Shas. Agudas Yisroel will report and will publish its activities and its public notices in Yated Ne'eman as well."

In the addendum to agreement number one: "Further to paragraph five, the movement's publication, Hamodia, will not publish information or notices about Chabad, even for payment, neither will representatives of Agudas Yisroel appear at Chabad gatherings . . . It goes without saying that this agreement is not intended to limit or detract from the right and the obligation of teachers of halochoh shlita, on either side from continuing to express themselves and lead their communities as they see fit."

The agreement that was never finalized stated further that the meetings of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah would be renewed, that all budgets would be divided equally and the distribution of special allocations would be discontinued, that a rabbinical panel would be set up to settle all problems that arose and that all representatives would submit signed letters of resignation, to be used in the event that it was decided to do so etc.

The Critical Moments

As the new movement was about to be launched and the deadline for the parties' submission of their lists of Knesset candidates approached, the prospects looked very bleak indeed. Some spoke in terms of two hundred bnei Torah creating the impression that they [on the other side] were thousands. Others conceded that there might be two thousand voters and even the most optimistic forecast put the number of probable voters at seventeen thousand, while the minimum number of votes needed to secure a Knesset seat was over thirty thousand.

HaRav Deutsch: "We urgently had to bring the signatures of three thousand voters in order to submit the lists. These were obtained in the space of a few hours at the Torah centers. It later turned out that the Rosh Yeshiva had somehow heard that thirty thousand signatures had been obtained in a few hours and he was therefore somewhat sanguine. With the announcement of the election results, before the second seat was secure (which took a few days until the results of the soldiers' voting were known), our teacher made an unusual comment to the effect that he almost regretted having taken an unnecessary risk whose excessive daring had almost had unpleasant results for the chareidi community.

"For the sake of the historical record, the name Degel Hatorah was coined by Rabbi Menachem Porush, at the time when Irgun Bnei Torah's entrance as a group within Agudas Yisroel was under discussion. The name, which bore similarity to Degel Yerushalayim, was suggested and broadly approved. A good word must be said for the Belzer Rebbe shlita, who assisted our great teacher with Degel Hatorah's establishment, providing encouragement and mutual assistance in order to strengthen the bnei hayeshivos and the Torah world."

A Refreshing Change

With the founding of Degel Hatorah and the party's independent stand in the elections, an internal rabbinical panel was formed. This news soon spread around the world when the party's Knesset members informed the heads of the main parties that their rabbinical committee had to meet before any coalition negotiations could be entered into.

HaRav Deutsch, Chairman of the Rabbinical Panel: "We met with Mr. Shamir and Mr. Rabin and the Knesset members left the room. Our message to them was clear, `We want to sit and learn. Only Torah imposes obligations upon us. Beyond that nothing else interests us.' In order to drive the point home I said, `If one of our young men chas vesholom wants to go off the tracks, we pray that he should leave the world while he is innocent and untainted, not contaminated by sin. For us, a Torah life is the be all and end all. We are not interested in forcing our views upon others but we do want to live our lives according to the Torah.'

"When our master heard this it gave him great pleasure and he clapped his hands in joy. It was a refreshing change in the political arena. Former Minister David Levi said, `This is the first time that I grasp what you really want.' "

HaRav Zochovsky: "Maran ztvk'l, who sent us as representatives in the coalition negotiations — even though, as roshei yeshiva it was a far cry from our ambitions and our intentions — wanted to receive direct, accurate and firsthand reports of everything. Without wishing to give anyone offense, he wanted to be kept informed of the issues that were being discussed by people who had no interest in attaining positions for themselves, or engaging in politics or the like.

Understanding the Unspoken

"Not everyone understood his intentions. He didn't always speak clearly and unambiguously and he didn't express his real opinion in explicit terms to everyone. We witnessed his extraordinary knack of judging people — knowing what was fitting to say to each individual and the terms in which to couch it. Sometimes he let people draw their own conclusions as to what he meant. But it should be stressed that whoever carried out his wishes, even if he hadn't been explicit, afterwards enjoyed his full backing. Sometimes he would stress, `You'll have to take the responsibility upon yourselves,' but he never abandoned anyone who did what he wanted to fend for himself. Behind closed doors, he gave guidance, ideas and counsel to those who were loyal to him.

"Our master ztvk'l never engaged in polemics with others. I remember that Mr. Rabin visited him when he was Minister of Defense. To begin with, Maran stood up and thanked him for his favorable stance towards the bnei hayeshivos and for his vigilance in ensuring that they were not drafted, releasing them from army service through yearly deferments. He then quoted the comment of the chossid Yaavetz, who said that in the various trials to which the Jewish People have been subjected, the ordinary folk withstood them better then others.

"Our teacher further told the Minister of Defense, `The ordinary folk are the rank and file. We don't want the Left. We prefer the ordinary folk, the people, the traditional public that respects Toras Yisroel and its faith.' In conclusion, he again thanked him for his help to the yeshiva world, though he'd given him to understand by himself that he wouldn't support a coalition with Labor.

"The Rosh Hayeshiva recognized the importance of the media and made thorough use of the world coverage that was his at the famous convention in Yad Eliyahu, where he posed the eternal question [to the Israeli Left], `What makes you Jews?' To this day, this question echoes at every convention and symposium where the irreligious meet. The question is still asked today and those to whom it's put immediately go on the defensive and start trying to pinpoint their Jewish identity.

"Maran was extremely careful with every word. He knew the eagerness with which his every word was awaited and absorbed. Before speaking in public he would pray that no mistake result from what he would say and he also asked others to pray for him. There was an aura around him like that of the shaliach tzibbur who prefaces musaf [on Yomim Noraim ] with the prayer, `Here am I, the pauper in deeds, frightened and terrified . . .'

"He once compared himself to an elderly, experienced general who can see his quarry and approaches it. If obstacles and hindrances arise, he either circumvents them or grapples with them but he keeps his main objective in sight and concentrates on attaining it. Our teacher processed information, listened and took note and always reached a decision based on the entire array of facts and considerations."

The Power of a Paper

As an example of the power of a newspaper, one of the rabbonim points to the campaign waged by the Eida HaChareidis to get Chayei Olam institutions to change their policy on accepting funds from the Israeli government. It has been going on for years and has consumed huge resources, but maybe a total of ten talmidim have been withdrawn to date, after all the demonstrations and sharp protests. Amazingly though, within three days of when notices started appearing in Yated Ne'eman about Hamesorah Institutions in Yerushalayim and rumors began circulating that our teacher was about to issue a letter telling people to withdraw their children, eight hundred talmidim left immediately and they opened Ahavas Torah Hamesorah!

HaRav Deutsch: "I was visiting one of the chareidi magnates, a generous benefactor of the Torah world, and he asked me, `Since when do gedolim launch newspapers?' I told him that the hidden aim was to launch a party and every party needs its own mouthpiece and publication. When I told this to Maran, it was apparent that he agreed with the sentiment."

The Bedrock of Our System

HaRav Zochovsky concludes: "Two of the cantillation marks for the Torah reading are pozeir (meaning literally, disperse) and munach (stay put). In order to read from the Torah one has to know how to sing them. There are times when it is correct to disperse and take action rather than remaining gathered in one place. At other times though, one has to consider how to remain in one's position.

"Gedolei Torah are thoroughly acquainted with the Torah's different notes and they know the right one to strike for each and every situation. There is no merit in adopting either a policy of always being against — come what may — or of always agreeing. Things always have to be weighed on their own merits and gedolei Yisroel are the only ones who know how to attain the correct pitch.

"We must remember that we pride ourselves on our beliefs. We based the founding of Degel Hatorah on trust in our sages. The bedrock of our system is the profound realization that even though there have been many in the past who asked for, and received, advice and counsel and were given instructions and directives as to what to do in a variety of situations, when it comes to future decisions we must remember that ultimately, only the gedolei Torah and the generation's leaders have the authority to decide what course to take, which situations can be likened to past experiences and which should be treated differently, thus charting the course of the pure Torah outlook — these decisions are theirs, and theirs alone."

Affirming the Approach of the Chofetz Chaim

This election campaign is not only about an extra representative — though that is important, because the vote of a single representative can change reality. Even though on the face of things it doesn't seem that way, we nevertheless witness how among the irreligious parties even the small parties modify the approach of the larger ones — and the power of holiness is greater still. Light is stronger than darkness. We therefore certainly need that representative, who will follow the views of gedolei Yisroel, the Chofetz Chaim and Reb Chaim Ozer, ztvk'l.

But besides this, the present campaign is over the very acceptance of their approach. A vote for Degel Hatorah represents agreement with the approach of our masters, the Chofetz Chaim and Reb Chaim Ozer.

(HaRav Zevulun Shub, Rosh Yeshivas Ramat Shlomo, in 5749)

Discord is Bad

Discord is obviously a bad thing. But when there's no choice, unfortunately that is what we must do. We still hope that in time a way will be found for going forward together but only on one condition — that they listen to the gedolei haTorah. Are they Agudas Yisroel just because they hold on to the voting letter gimmel? Does this or that letter determine who is Agudas Yisroel? Is Agudas Yisroel dependent on having Knesset representation? All that Agudas Yisroel means is that those who take Hashem's word seriously unite. Those who obey Hashem's word [today] are the ones who listen to the voice of our teacher and his colleagues.

(HaRav Dovid Hecksher zt'l, one of the roshei yeshiva of Kol Torah, in 5749)

The Torah Path

We are currently involved in an election campaign. For the irreligious, the main thing is smaller or larger Knesset representation. For us bnei Torah, does it matter whether ploni or almoni is our representative in the Knesset? The main issue is, how many Yidden will vote and declare, "We obey the gedolei haTorah in everything!" How many, in voting will be saying that nothing else is of value and nothing else equals the Torah path?

No communal activist or individual has any [independent] opinion or outlook. Everything is charted for us by those who have toiled in Torah all their lives, acquiring it through the forty-eight traits through which Torah is attained. That is the banner that we raise aloft.

(HaRav Dovid Cohen, rosh yeshiva of Chevron Yeshiva, in 5749)


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