With Meah Shearim resembling a war zone last week, and the top headline in every newspaper blaring, “Chareidim . . .,” I felt the need for a voice of sanity. I found him in the person of Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim, one of the veteran leaders of the Eidah Hachareidis. Our conversation on Erev Shabbos left me feeling like a parched traveler who finds a desert oasis.
My talk with Rabbi Pappenheim was part of my efforts to get the inside scoop on the rioting in Meah Shearim over the arrest of a pregnant mother of four from the Toldos Aharon community on charges of having interfered with the medical treatment of her son. Even before I reached Rabbi Pappenheim, I had spent hours on the phone with various askanim who have been involved in negotiations with the police and welfare authorities. Each of them left me with an extremely positive feeling that our community has askanim of such mesirus nefesh and sophistication. They have built up relationships over the years that allow them to explain elements of the chareidi community to governmental authorities and the latter to the community.
A resident of Meah Shearim for seventy years, Rabbi Pappenheim founded Beit Lepleitot, a residential educational facility for girls whose families are unable to raise them – he has already attended the weddings of over 2,500 graduates – as well as Jerusalem’s first convalescent home for new mothers.
I wanted Rabbi Pappenheim’s perspective on the recent demonstrations and the ensuing violence. I was surprised both by his vigorous opposition to the demonstrations and his reasons. When I asked if I could quote him by name, he told me, “The minute you say, ‘But don’t quote me,’ you have lost 90% of your power.”
He offered me four reasons for opposing the recent demonstrations. Three were practical concerning the impact of the demonstrations on the future of Torah Judaism in Eretz Yisrael and on the participants in the demonstrations themselves. The fourth – and most surprising – concerns the impact on the Redemptive process itself.
Rabbi Pappenheim explained that the recent Shabbos demonstrations were triggered by Mayor Barkat’s bombastic announcement of the opening of a municipal parking lot on Shabbos in anticipation of thousands of Shabbos visitors to the city. The mayor was perceived as laying the ground for the opening of all commercial establishments in the city. While in full sympathy with the demonstrators’ cause, Rabbi Pappenheim nevertheless feels that the demonstrations have been a disaster.
Rabbi Amram Blau, the founder of Neturei Karta, chose Mahatma Ghandi as a model of civil resistance, Rabbi Pappenheim explained to me. He and his followers always adopted passive means, even when beaten by police. Today, however, once a demonstration starts it almost inevitably turns violent because no one can control the demonstrators. Invariably, some hot-headed youth will throw a stone, the police respond with full force, and soon a full-scale riot has erupted.
The participation in violence – i.e., the appropriation of the tools of Esav – leaves its spiritual mark on those involved. In addition, after every violent demonstration, there are a large number of arrests, and even one or two nights in jail can permanently scar those arrested. Rabbi Pappenheim relates that the veteran leader of the Eidah Hachareidis, Rabbi Gershon Stemmer, would not allow any posters for demonstrations in the later years of his life out of fear of the impact of Israeli jails on those arrested.
The Torah community in Eretz Yisrael today faces an urgent housing crisis, says Rabbi Pappenheim, who was one of the moving forces behind the development of Ramat Beit Shemesh as a Torah enclave. If the secular population becomes convinced that it is impossible to live together with chareidim, they will fight with all the means at their disposal to drive chareidi young couples away from the cities in which they grew up and to resist any housing solutions for those couples. Chareidi violence ensures that secular resistance.
But the greatest damage of violent demonstrations is not to the Torah community, but to the Torah and Hashem, k’v’yachol. Rabbi Pappenheim quotes his teacher Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky, the late chief rabbi of the Eidah Hachareidis, to the effect that that the Redemption does not require that all Jews first become fully observant, only that there be some drawing closer to Hashem. The rest Hashem will do.
Never has the time been so ripe for such a spiritual arousal, Rabbi Pappenheim feels. The “isms” that once drew Jewish youth have lost their appeal. The spiritual hunger of Israeli youth manifested in their travels to the Far East in search of enlightenment was already foretold by the Prophet: “Behold, days are coming . . . when I will send hunger into the Land; not a hunger for bread nor a thirst for water, but to hear the words of Hashem. [People] will travel from sea to sea, and from north to east; they will wander about to seek the word of Hashem, but they will not find it” (Amos 8:11-12).
If we who claim to represent Torah make it appear as something ugly and violent to the larger Jewish world, we guarantee that those who hunger for the words of Hashem, will not seek it among us, but in foreign pastures.
My last question to Rabbi Pappenheim is: Do most residents of Meah Shearim share your Klal Yisrael perspective? He admits that they do not, and offers a historical explanation. Two hundred years ago, Torah Jewry began to feel itself under assault from the forces of Reform. Those communities that preserved themselves were those that followed the Austritt principle and cut themselves off from the larger Jewish community, which was perceived as a threat. As necessary as that separation was, it gave way, in time, to the loss of Klal Yisrael consciousness.
But today Torah Judaism is flourishing – the biggest threats are from within not without – and it is time that we once again turn our attention to slaking the spiritual thirst of our Jewish brethren and hastening the Redemption.