Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

8 teves 5761 - January 3, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Day the Lion's Roar Terrified the Land

By B. Levy

Part I

A Degel HaTorah rally took place one decade ago last Pesach at the Yad Eliyahu Auditorium in Tel Aviv. The climax of the event was the speech of Maran HaRav Eliezer Menachem Shach shlita. This was a historic speech, which reached the eyes and ears of millions. Both in Eretz Yisroel and abroad it was given top coverage by the written and electronic media, putting Degel HaTorah in the public eye for several days. In those days, Degel HaTorah was an independent political party with its own policies determined by its Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. It had two representatives in the Knesset.

A bit of background information: This was the period following the Madrid Conference, held at the behest of the United States which strove to resolve the Middle East conflict. It was still three years before the signing of the first Oslo agreement in Washington.

The Likud was in power in Israel, headed by PM Yitzhak Shamir. George Bush, father of the current U.S. President- elect, was President of the United States. American Secretary of State James Baker (who was also active in the campaign of current U.S. President-elect), came to Eretz Yisroel and presented the Israelis with a list of concessions to Arab leaders that he demanded they make. The issues were summarized popularly as: "Yes to Baker" or "No to Baker."

A negative response was liable to ruin the chances for peace; whereas a positive one could pave the way for future peace negotiations -- at least that was the assumption at the time.

PM Shamir, whose hands were tied by the members of his party and by the extreme Right, had no intention of giving in. The Left, on the other hand, threatened to topple the government for not promoting peace. Caught in the middle were the chareidi parties who wielded considerable power as a swing vote.

Shimon Peres, leader of the Labor Party, then came up with a plan, later dubbed the "Dirty Trick," in which he proposed to enlist the support of the chareidi parties to overthrow the government of the Likud. In exchange for their help, the chareidi parties including Shas, Agudas Yisroel and Degel HaTorah, would receive prominent positions in the new government formed by the Labor party. Shas was deeply involved in formulating the scheme, and Agudas Yisroel, sick and tired of Shamir's unfulfilled promises, agreed to cooperate as well. Regarding Degel HaTorah, however, Peres & Co. labored under false assumptions, as they were to discover later.

Maran the Rosh Yeshiva shlita, had always made his position clear--in general he was very sensitive to the possibility of provoking the nations of the world, and he also supported territorial concessions if they would prevent loss of life. Pikuach nefesh was of primary importance.

In light of this well-known policy, Peres had no doubt whatsoever that Degel HaTorah would take part in his strategy aimed at bringing down the Likud and establishing a Labor or "Peace" government, as he made a point of calling it.

The Labor party was so confident in Degel's cooperation that it did not even bother to verify firsthand that this was indeed forthcoming. Instead, they made do with evasive statements issued by people they thought to be in the know, which ultimately proved misleading.

The plan, as is known, was embarrassingly unsuccessful. Shamir's government did indeed succumb, by a single vote, to a vote of no-confidence, and Peres received a mandate from the President of Israel to form a government. Peres tried, but even after being granted an extension, he was unable to do so. The main reason for Peres' failure was Degel HaTorah's refusal, at HaRav Shach's injunction, to join the coalition. He made many attempts and tried all sorts of combinations, but nothing worked.

At the very zenith of this turbulent period, when the Rosh Yeshiva's decision was as yet unknown, the date for a large Degel HaTorah rally arrived. Having been planned months beforehand, it was totally unconnected to the Israeli political situation. The rally was intended to be an assembly of yerei'im to strengthen Torah and mitzvos, timed for bein hazmanim in order to minimize bitul Torah. The fact that the event, in which HaRav Shach was the main speaker, became the focus of international attention, was obviously miShomayim. Given the political context in which it was taking place, it was taken for granted that this forum would be used to clarify the party's stand as to whom it would support: the Left or the Right.

To this day, no one knows exactly how it happened, but the interest of the media in the Degel HaTorah rally snowballed way out of proportion. On the day of the rally, the newspapers featured headlines that conveyed the suspense felt by all in anticipation of Maran the Rosh Yeshiva shlita's speech.

In the 1990 Yearbook of the Journalists' and Editors' Association, Oded Bar Meir summarizes: "The extensive coverage of the dramatic appearance of HaRav Shach was unprecedented in the history of Israeli media. Approximately 300 reporters and newscasters broadcast to the Israeli public, and pictures were sent via satellite to about 1000 (!) television stations all over the world, including Arab countries which also expressed interest in the Degel rally. The overloaded airwaves reminded the veteran Israeli reporters of the interest exhibited by the world in times of emergency and war."

The Whole World is Watching

The long awaited evening arrived. Some 15,000 Yidden, faithful to Hashem and His Torah, assembled at the Yad Eliyahu stadium in Tel Aviv, the largest indoor hall in Israel, to hear the words of the gedolei hador.

The evening opened with ma'ariv--the thunderous Shema Yisroel emanating from 15,000 mouths reverberated in the ears of curious spectators all over the globe. After the introduction, Maran HaRav Shach shlita went up to the podium to deliver his address. Hundreds of thousands of viewers worldwide sat glued to their screens awaiting the words of the godol hador. The event, so unlikely, and almost surreal, was unparalleled in modern history.

What happened next is described by one of the reporters of the Israeli daily, Davar: "During the first half, it seemed that this whole affair which attracted hundreds of news teams from Israel and abroad, was nothing more than a huge publicity stunt maneuvered by a tiny political party. All told they have two seats in the Knesset -- the second they won by only a small margin -- and yet they managed to pull the entire media to their meeting.

"On the stage stood HaRav Shach. He was trembling slightly, and holding on to the lectern with both hands. Then he began to speak. His voice was weak, cracked and unclear. What did he say? Not only did he refrain from discussing politics, but it seemed that he was making a remarkable effort to lower the expectations of the event.

"To be quite honest, we dozed. To us in the reporters' section it seemed obvious that it was all over; a resolution would not be forthcoming, at least not tonight. And then, as they announced in the broadcast from Yad Eliyahu, came `the moment of truth.' Actually, we should have suspected something, because just then, when things started heating up, HaRav Shach began to speak in Yiddish. He began to talk about the secular Jews in general: `What culture do they have? English? The gentiles also know English. If you lack an attachment to your Father you will inevitably become lost.'

"Then came the blow: `Gentlemen, would you like to hear something, without politicians? There is a "New Torah" in the ranks of the Left, a "New Torah." Nobody talks about Shabbat; no one fasts on Yom Kippur. If so, what makes them Jewish? The Left has severed the Jewish nation from its past.'

"Now everything was clear. The tension in the auditorium broke. Without talking politics, G-d forbid, HaRav Shach stated explicitly that the Left was taboo, off-limits. Without even hinting at politics, HaRav Shach brought into question the Jewishness of the Left. He came to the conclusion that the Left has a new Torah without Shabbat, without Kippur, and that it has cut itself off from its Jewish past.

"After he had finished with the general secular public, it was the kibbutzim's turn. `I am not afraid of anyone,' he stated and went on to say that the kibbutzniks have no inkling of what is Yom Kippur, and have never heard of Shabbos. What's more, he continued, they don't know who their father was, or if he was even Jewish. Now these kibbutzniks, consumers of pork and rabbit meat, are facing a crisis, and they need our tax money to remedy their situation."

Indeed, HaRav Shach took advantage of this rare, once in a lifetime moment, in which all of the Jewish world sat waiting to hear what he had to say, in order to pose to his lost brethren the painful and provocative question: "If there exist kibbutzim that do not know what is Shabbat, Yom Kippur, or mikveh, who eat pork and rabbit meat, whose children don't know who their father was, then what makes them Jewish?"

Just like that. The plain unvarnished truth in front of the entire world without any equivocation or beating around the bush. HaRav Shach prefaced his words with "I am not afraid of anyone!" There certainly was what to be afraid of. Only time would tell.

A Media Storm

The speech left the country in an uproar. From that moment on, for a period of several weeks, it seemed that there was talk of nothing else. HaRav Shach's words struck at the nation's most sensitive spot; nobody could remain apathetic. All at once, the political situation, which had previously been the focal point of public interest, was replaced by the national controversy regarding what makes a person Jewish, what one may and may not say about the kibbutzim, what a rav is permitted to say, and what is considered unmentionable.

The media, which had mobilized its entire crew in order to broadcast HaRav Shach's dramatic speech, now refused to let it fall by the wayside. A steady stream of interviews, editorials, and opinion columns analyzed and reviewed every word and inflection of the Rosh Yeshiva's address.

Ironically, the representatives of secularism showed no inclination to deal head on with the accusations hurled at them. Instead of answering to the point, the media went on a rampage inciting the public, using their (by now routine) mudslinging tactics against the chareidi community in general, and against the yeshivos in particular. The elite could not tolerate being the object of criticism, and therefore they shifted the dispute to what was, from their standpoint, safer ground: military service.

The hundreds of responses, which poured in at a steady pace, came in three phases: Phase One saw an initial reaction of deep hurt. Phase Two saw the media taking the offensive, lashing out in unbridled fury. After a while, the journalists began to realize that the insult felt by the public was simply further proof of the truth of HaRav Shach's words. From this point on began Phase Three, in which things began to quiet down as the media took a different tack.

In the newspaper Chadashot (since defunct, but then a lively daily newspaper) Doron Rosenblum wrote: "Today the roar of the elderly lion shook up the entire land. The Zionist self- confidence disappeared in a puff of smoke after being brought face to face with these figures that personify, as it were, the authority of the Ancients and their wisdom. Who am I, and who are we; and what is our inferior, empty knowledge, our intelligence, our ideology, when contrasted with these giants of Judaism? What is there left to hurl at them? Again and again we remind them of their transgression for not serving in the army. And when HaRav Shach countered with the question: `What are you fighting for? For which ideal?' the Zionists were left speechless. Because if they would have answered: `For the sake of the Jewish nation, for the sake of Judaism,' Rav Shach would retort: `We are Judaism. We are the true representatives of the Jewish nation. You even admit that you seek legitimacy from us. And all these issues such as state, security, government, sovereignty and politics--these are not Judaism. The nations also deal with these issues -- and so far, with better results than you.' In order to respond to these sharp arrows shot at us by the elderly Lithuanian, which cannot be countered by our traditional ideology, the time has come for us to adopt a fundamentally new way of thinking."

In Ha'aretz, Heda Boshess writes: "The conflict throughout the generations between chareidi Jewry and Zionism has been brought to the fore. Until now we had believed that this conflict was just in the history books. Rav Shach spoke against the Hellenists, those who adopted Greek culture. Today it is `Angloists.'

"`What makes you Jewish?' he asks. He knows that our souls are torn between our identity as Jews and as Israelis. He hit us at our weakest point, one that is difficult to explain or define, and that torments us as Israelis and as Jews! HaRav Shach has revived the argument which we are trying so hard to evade: What is the difference between Jews and Israelis, and who/what are we?!"

Yitzhak Meir wrote under the title "Shock, Rebuke and Direction": "The Rosh Yeshiva expressed a viewpoint that is by no means new. It can be summarized in the famous expression `we have nothing left but this Torah.' The nation's total abandonment of its tradition, has left it spiritually barren. Even the best of armies lose their strength, not because they do not know how to fight, but rather because they have nothing to fight for. This point is well known to those who are interested, but who's interested?

"The Rosh Yeshiva is prepared to yield territories, but he is unwilling to make any concessions when it comes to the spiritual survival of the Jewish nation. Though he is cordial to the seekers of peace on the state level, he can be equally antagonistic to those who represent abandonment of Torah and mitzvot. Zionism can reject the philosophy of the Rosh Yeshiva, but it cannot dispute it!"

Shabtai Tevet, author of a biography of Ben Gurion, asserts: "In his speech, HaRav Shach presents his own definition of a Jew: observes Shabbat, fasts on Kippur, goes to the mikveh, refrains from rabbit and pork. The other side should have provided its definition of a shrimp-eating Jew. Instead it came up with the trite response: `We are the ones who endanger our lives to protect you.' `Thank you very much,' retorted Rav Shach. `I don't need the air force. For 3,000 years I have managed without an army. If you are Jews, then what are you fighting for?' To date no one has been able to answer him."

A Watershed

It is beyond doubt that the speech delivered by the Rosh Yeshiva shlita was a turning point in the ongoing struggle between the Torah-faithful Jews and the anti- religious Zionists. If until then it was assumed that the battle was conducted according to the strategy of "stealing the spear from the hand of the Egyptian" (i.e. laboring under all possible and permissible circumstances, through the channels established by the Zionists for their own welfare in order to further the interests of their opponents, the chareidim), from that point and on, a distinct barrier was formed between Right and Left.

Since then this topic has been brought up repeatedly by Maran shlita in various situations which have presented themselves over the years. A warning sign was posted so that no mistake could be made regarding the nature of the Left. A clear demarcation was made between those who transgressed letei'avon and those who did so lehach'is.

It is no secret that not everybody understood the difference. Today, ten years later, it would be superfluous to describe what those lehach'isniks are capable of doing as soon as they get their hands on the reigns of power. Reality far exceeds imagination. Even those who wished to think otherwise have admitted this. However, as a matter of principle, questions were always raised as to what exactly characterized the difference between the two.

The Background

In order to comprehend this point, the history of the origins of the present day Right and Left parties must be examined. Maran the Rosh Yeshiva shlita, having actually lived through it, has firsthand knowledge of this history, whereas the younger generation knows virtually nothing about it.

The journalist Dan Meron published an in-depth essay in the periodical Politica (1990). He analyzed the source of Maran HaRav Shach's hard-line with regard to the leftist parties and the kibbutzim, as opposed to his more flexible relationship with the parties of the Right, in spite of the fact that the latter are just as secular. Whereas his conclusions are unabashedly biased, hateful, and vicious and we have no intention of quoting them , nonetheless the way in which he presents Maran shlita's approach provides us with important insights.

Meron describes the birth of the left-wing, Socialist- Zionist movement, whose heirs we recognize today as the well- dressed, intellectual leftists, as well as the beginnings of the right- wing Zionist Revisionists, who we know today as the folksy, unpretentious Likudniks.

He begins: "From HaRav Shach's famous speech we gain a comprehension of the implications of the Orthodox community's outlook in relation to all aspects of our public and national life.

"At first glance it seems that Rav Shach's political views are in agreement with those who oppose territorial fundamentalism. He even included a few remarks in this vein in his speech. This is, however, a misconception deriving from a basic misinterpretation of HaRav Shach's `dovish' tendencies. The Rav is not a `dove' in any plausible or tolerable sense of the word. He is one of the many Jews who, in spite of what the nation has undergone throughout the ages, were and continue to be prepared to live without any trace of Jewish sovereignty in the land. Spiritually, they did not join in any way whatsoever the firm resolve of the nation in Israel to take responsibility for its historical destiny and to accept the burden of political independence. They do not identify politically with the land and are willing to give up territory either for pikuach nefesh or to prevent disturbance of the routine of their existence, Torah im derech eretz."

Meron demands that his readers not settle for superficial conclusions: "We must draw far-reaching conclusions, but in order to do so it is necessary to delve more deeply into the historic infrastructure of Rav Shach's words. This was revealed precisely in the meaningful, stormy part of his speech, in which he denounced the kibbutzim.

"These remarks, which might seem to hold no political interest to the speaker are, in fact, his main thrust. Rav Shach pursued the course of rhetoric taken by anti-Zionist, Orthodox leaders in the twenties and thirties, a course which expresses their fundamental nonacceptance of the changes which occurred in Jewish life in the modern era and which discloses the main reason for its opposition to Zionist philosophy.

"What aroused the anger of the Orthodox is not the consumption of rabbit or pork, or the lack of Shabbat observance on the kibbutzim, although these were pointed out in order to promote their propaganda. They know only too well that treif is also eaten by many Jews who did not live on kibbutzim, and who are not necessarily Zionists. Chillul Shabbat is also not restricted to the ,i>kibbutz. What angered and disturbed them were not the serious offenses in and of themselves, but rather the socio- spiritual context in which they are committed. While the average offender is considered by the Orthodox to be bad and lax, destined for Gehennom unless he does teshuvah in time, the kibbutzniks are the `Neo-Jews.' They claim to have replaced eternal Torah Judaism with a new code which they aggressively enforce, they established a false Shulchan Oruch in place of the authentic one, and they serve pork on a table which masquerades as a mizbeiach. Uri Tzvi Greenberg, the poet cum prophet of the Revisionists, proclaimed the holiness of the kibbutzim and refuted any theological difference between them and the earthly or heavenly Jerusalem.

"In one of his poems he writes: `Ein Charod, Tel Yosef, and Beit Alfa, the two Deganias, burning in the heat/ Jerusalem is the tefillin shel rosh, and the [Jezriel] Valley shel yad!' The Orthodox representatives may not have actually read Greenberg's poetry, but the philosophy behind it was painfully familiar to them. It confirmed the fact that the kibbutzim (as they appeared then, in the twenties and thirties), were the embodiment of Zionist doctrine, and as such were extremely dangerous."

Meron goes on to deny the contention that there could be a simple or chance explanation for the difference in attitude towards the Left as opposed to the Right: "At this point I call into question the developing tendency of the anti- Zionist Orthodoxy to prefer--having no other alternative-- the Zionist Right to the Zionism of the Labor party, considering it to be the lesser of the two evils. It is said that this preference stems from Labor's estrangement from Jewish tradition, compared to the Zionist Right which, especially since coming to power, is fond of it. This notion is nonsensical, originating from ignorance of the historical events which affect us to this day and from the tendency to rationalize it exclusively according to daily public life.

"Some say that the bond between Orthodoxy and the extreme Right stems from a common inclination toward religious mysticism. This too is nonsense, as anyone can see just by observing the manner of thought of such a staunch believer as Rav Shach. In the eyes of authentic Orthodoxy, both the affection for tradition as displayed by rightists such as Menachem Begin, and the ritual of `Jewish awareness,' as exhibited by veteran Mapainik Zalman Aran, are objects of ridicule. Both are farcical caricatures as they try to ape the expressions of the true believing Jew; neither is worth even a pinch of tobacco. According to the Orthodox, holiness can never be separated from Torah and mitzvot, or from the life of Torah learning, and applied Halacha in all its myriad details--not holiness of the land, holiness of the grave, or holiness of the kingdom (which is not unconditionally bound to acceptance of the sovereignty of heaven). All these are considered avoda zara and abhorrent when cut off from Torah and learning.

"Indeed, the Orthodox look upon both traditionalism and pseudo- religious mysticism with scorn and contempt. Characteristic of this is their aversion to the right-wing Techiya party [Note: A short-lived right-wing party that attempted to draw together religious and non-religious rightists]. In spite of its efforts to demonstrate identification with tradition and its claim to represent Jewish religious values, Techiya is unable to gain the approval of the Orthodox. On the contrary, they are regarded with suspicion in the same way as the kibbutzim in that they allege to carry the banner of Judaism, but with gross modifications.

"The Likud, on the other hand, elicits no such mistrust. In the eyes of the Orthodox this is nothing more than a large camp of simple, unsophisticated Jews! They, at least, have no pretensions to being more than what they are: regular, non-practicing Jews. They lack the arrogance and the intellectual jargon which, according to the Orthodox, distinguish their spiritual enemies. Chareidi Jewry does not support the Likud by virtue of its pro-tradition platform, but for a different reason completely, one which demands clarification."

This, of course, is how Meron understood our position. We would not even go so far as to call our position "support" of the Likud. Rather, we vote for it without truly supporting it in any way, choosing it as the lesser of two evils.

From here on, Meron presents what he calls an in-depth analysis into the historical background of the Orthodox approach as expressed by Maran, the Rosh Yeshiva shlita: "In terms of the historical truth, the founders of the Zionist movement were infinitely closer to religious tradition than were the founders of Revisionism. The supporters of HaPoel HaTza'ir came to Zionism and to Eretz Yisroel straight from the cheder and the yeshiva; they were largely Jewish scholars whose girso deyankuso remained vibrant. Berel Katzenelson came to Zionism from the inner recesses of the beis midrash, hence he was familiar with all aspects of the nation's spiritual and literary past. What's more, the founders of HaShomer Hatzair kept their distinctive Polish and Galician Chassidic character underneath the layers of Marxist and Freudian doctrine.

"In contrast, we have Jabotinsky and his friends who came to Zionism from the salons of the assimilated Jews of Odessa and Warsaw. They were Maskilim, Russian and Polish Liberals who grew up in a world of culture, free of any semblance of Judaism. They adopted a singularly secular outlook on life, as well as distinctly non-Jewish cultural habits. From their homes, and from the non-Jewish gymnasiums which they attended, they acquired a fluency in the languages of the nations as well as a fascination with their culture and literature. (Jabotinsky was not only a well- known Russian linguist, but also a prominent figure in Russian culture. He was one of the founding fathers, if not the founding father of the Odessa school of thought in general Russian journalism and literature.) Their path to Zionism mirrored that of Theodore Herzl. From here we can comprehend (their similar political beliefs notwithstanding), the source of their unflagging devotion to Herzl's personality and his ideology.

"At first glance it seems that a person such as Berel Katzenelson would be much more acceptable to the religious/chareidi Jew than a "goy" like Jabotinsky; however, this was not so, nor could it possibly be. The reason for this is not Katzenelson's sympathy for the Russian Socialists and revolutionary movements, but rather his strong attachment to the new Hebrew literature, e.g. Bialik, Feirberg, Berdichevsky, and Brenner. These held little interest to Jabotinsky.

"It seems to me that we may differentiate between Zionist philosophy that was propagated by means of the new Hebrew literature, and that which did not make use of the latter. If we would classify Zionist philosophy according to these criteria, then today's Labor party, with its pathetic lack of ideology and culture, would stand in opposition to the Likud.

"One of the common denominators of all the varied factions and components of the Likud is the affiliation with Zionism that had not undergone the `melting pot' of Hebrew literature and the accompanying modern Jewish culture which it espoused. This is also the reason for its estrangement from contemporary Israeli literature. The same goes for: the veteran Revisionist element of Cherut, the Boazim, (relatively well off farmers of the pre-State moshavot), the Sephardic Jews who jumped on the Zionist bandwagon straight from the old world of tradition and religion, and the same goes for the chareidi/religious population, which still exists in this antiquated world and for whom the Hebrew literature and culture is treif.

End of Part I


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