No Monopolies on Altruism

letter-447577_1280

A response to my piece on Meyer Dagan was too thought-provoking to languish in a combox, so I am elevating it to full post status:

Dear Rabbi Adlerstein: I was very moved by your posting on Cross-Currents of Meir Dagan’s final words to the cabinet and PM Netanyahu’s comments in response. I did, however, feel a discordant note when you off handedly wrote: “Where will the State find such devotion in a new generation in which altruism is hardly one of its received values, at least outside the observant community?”

As my rebbi, Rav Lichtenstein, has often noted, we in the observant community have to be very careful about giving the impression that only “our community” is full of values and commitment, altruism, and sacrifice etc. There are tens of thousands of young Israeli boys and girls who give up of years of their lives in defense of their homeland serving every year in the IDF, including many hundreds who join elite units and are involved in other projects on behalf of the state, many out of a devotion and commitment that is on par with what one finds in the religious community. There are many young chiloni men and women involved in volunteer efforts in Israel,(volunteer clowns in children’s hospitals, tutoring kids who need school work, serving in youth groups, going on educational shlichuyot to all kinds of distant Jewsih communities through the Jewish Agency etc.) that are doing great things and should be encouraged and celebrated. I do not think that this kind of off-handed comment is good for our own spiritual growth nor for our interaction with the non-observant.

Haleveai that mesirut nefesh, commitment, altruism were even more manifest in all communities and the materialism and individualism that has impacted us all (in varying degress) was less prevalent in current Israel and American Jewish society, but broad brush comments like this strike me as unhelpful.

Kol tuv,
bevirkat ha-Torah vehamitzvah,
Nati Helfgot

Rabbi Helfgot’s comments can serve as a chatzi nechamah, but I fear that they do not answer my essential point.

B”H, there are many, many Israelis who sacrifice much for the benefit of the Jewish people. These treasures come from all points on the continuum of Torah belief and practice. I have written previously about some of the wonderful families in the employ of the Foreign Ministry that my family has been privileged to know during their stay in Los Angeles. They move from post to post every two years, giving up the rootedness (and the salaries) that their peers crave.

A poignant example of sacrifice is the high school student who rushed to volunteer during the Carmel fire – and paid with his life.

My point, however, was that voluntarism and altruism do not arise in a vacuum. They have to be taught. The State was founded in large part by the heroism of thousands who believed that building a Jewish state was a quest worth more than life itself. It has not been easy to communicate the values associated with such sacrifice to successive generations. As time goes on, too many Israelis buy into the ill-fated rebranding of Israel under Ehud Olmert as a “fun” place.

The Founding Fathers of Israel retired from public life without scandal and without amassing personal fortune. That ended, for the most part, with Leah Rabin and the studies in avarice and mendacity in high places who followed. Army service has dipped below the 50% mark, as more and more young people (not just haredim) opt out, not wanting to be the “freier.” There are tens of thousands of Israelis giving Jews a bad name in India, and in the Israeli diaspora of the San Fernando Valley, California, where their children literally cannot read Hebrew, but an Israeli Mafia thrives. After the establishment of the State, talented Jews from around the globe responded to the call of moving there to help with the building of a Jewish society. Today, Israel is losing its best and brightest to emigration in a brain drain that worries the scientific community.

Rabbi Helfgot is more than correct in pointing to those who are eager to serve. The question is still the sustainability of a society that needs a steady supply of such people. As memories of the Holocaust recede, and Israeli textbooks extirpate both traditional Torah values and even secular pride in the miraculous events of the last decades, can Israel transmit the spirit of service to new generations of its young people? Many individuals will succeed in instilling values of selflessness and dedication to the community to their children, but will there be enough of them? Can their be a systemic continuation of living for the good of the many? The dati-leumi community has demonstrated that it can. What about the secular community?

Alas, I think we already have the answer.

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13 Responses

  1. dovid 2 says:

    Dr. E.: “ … defenses of (more moderate) Chareidi attitudes would need to draw on quotes from those with the letters zt”l after their names. [I am not quite sure that those two luminaries would be labeled as such in today’s terms.]”

    It wouldn’t be apt to describe R’ Yecheskel Levenstein, zt”l, R’ Israel Zeev Gustman, zt”l, Rav Shach, zt”l, or HaRav Elyashiv, shlita, as moderate, just as it wouldn’t be apt to describe the Charedi-clad folks/ characters “burning dumpster protests, inflammatory rhetoric towards others … ” as extremists. The four gedolim mentioned above represent mainstream Judaism and the yeshivishe world follows them to this day. The dumpster-burning guys are hooligans, not extremists. Jonathan Rosenblum describes them in an article he published in the Jerusalem Post as follows: ‘The small band of “zealots” stirring up the action represents a small sliver of the haredi community. Even within Meah Shearim itself, they are a minority. They answer to no rabbinic authority. Posters signed by the rabbinic leadership of the Eidah Haharedis have never deterred them. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the greatest living halachic authority, is as much their target as Lupoliansky himself [former mayor of Yerushalaim]. In the past, they have thrown stones at the nonagenarian sage, and are fully capable of doing so again.’ In short, they are hooligans in Charedi garb that cause endless amount of chilul HaShem (desecration of Gd’s name) and drag down the reputation and good name of the Charedi community. I doubt they have a concept of chilul HaShem and therefore there would be of no use in trying to reason with them. I think it would pay to rough up a few of them in the full view of their chevra until they get the message that there are consequences to their “lust for action” as J. Rosenblum put it. But what do you do with those between these two groups, like Pinchos Lipschutz who has his own newspaper to spread his views (see my previous comment), or some elements in the Chasidic communities, not to mention Naturei Karta, who cheer when Israel and Israelis are hurting, or refer to them in the most offensive terms?

  2. mycroft says:

    “L. Oberstein
    January 10, 2011 at 12:51 pm
    We are still in the early years of the State of Israel.Considering all the obsticles, it is amazing that the State of Israel functions as well as it does.”

    It is not often realized how few years in our history has their been Jewish sovereignty over a substantial part of Israel. The longest time so far in our history was the time of David and Solomon. We have to pray that in our time Jewsih sovereignty will continue.

  3. dr. bill says:

    Rabbi Oberstein writes: “If the chareidim do join the work force, it will lead to a new source of Jewish brainpower and eventually ,maybe to more charedi scientists dowb the road. Itg is possible that the American model of observance combined with secular education and participation in the economy will gradually catch on. Jews are too smart to stay poor forever.”

    Two points: 1) The American model, such as it is, will not be sufficient. US chareidim (below say the age of 50) are about 1/10th of one percent of the total US population. Their percentage in Israel is at least 200 times as large. The level of integration required across the board in many productive secular roles is obvious. The famous tshuvah of R. Dovid Friedman (karliner) ztl on secular education in Eretz Yisroel (versus his tshuvah on secular education in czarist russia) written over 100 years ago is even more applicable today than when it was written. In a complete reversal of his penetrating analysis, the level of secular education is (much) lower in Israel; his view, based on the needs of a Jewish state, was precisely the opposite. 2) Poverty is not the only motivator. In addition to poverty, the current system creates more fundamental issues impacting respect within and between the various communities. The friction has reached epic proportions. Fortunately there is much awareness of the problem in many quarters that will unquestionably create a path for positive change. The only question is whether the pace of change will be fast enough to address the growing issues that are becoming increasingly overwhelming as the chareidi population grows. The many positive developments need to grow at a faster rate than the population they must serve.

  4. Dr. E says:

    Dovid 2

    Halivai it should come to a time in which defenses of (more moderate) Chareidi attitudes would need to draw on quotes from those with the letters zt”l after their names. [I am not quite sure that those two luminaries would be labeled as such in today’s terms.] Furthermore, if you want to draw from the words of the living, I am not quite sure how the mandate of “a Jew must have constant awareness of the imperative that the Name of Heaven should become beloved through you.'” is operationalized in an era of burning dumpster protests, inflammatory rhetoric towards others, and Kollel rosters replete with no-shows.

  5. L. Oberstein says:

    We are still in the early years of the State of Israel.Considering all the obsticles, it is amazing that the State of Israel functions as well as it does.The hope of all of us is that Rav Kooks dream that the old will renew and the new will become holy can actualize. I see a lot of positive things when I visit Israel, the growth of Modiin and its society of Western olim who work and contribute to society, the increase in observance among many Sephardim as seen by much more kashrut available in Eilat,for example.The desire of the army to integrate chareidim in a way that respects their values, something unthinkable in the past. The strong economy and technological leadership which will enable people to make a good living and make Israel stronger.
    Of course, I could list some real problems, but you all know that already. If the chareidim do join the work force, it will lead to a new source of Jewish brainpower and eventually ,maybe to more charedi scientists dowb the road. Itg is possible that the American model of observance combined with secular education and participation in the economy will gradually catch on. Jews are too smart to stay poor forever.

  6. dovid 2 says:

    Miriam writes: “I don’t think there’s any story in Tanach in which we won with the larger army anyway.”

    Very true. But even if every able-bodied male joins the Israeli army, we still are painfully outnumbered by the Arabs. In addition, growing dodging of army service in the Israeli society demoralizes the segment that normally shows up at Tel Hashomer draft center upon being called. “Not being a freier” sentiment saps the resolve of those who do join the army. Furthermore, no one died or got maimed while carrying out any of the chessed activities you mentioned. Neither do the chessed activities you mentioned normally require sleep deprivation, continuous and arduous physical and mental training associated with the army service, or occasionally experience the dread of those who go into the casbah of Sh’chem or Jenin in search for terrorists. And what do you call the fellow who carried out the act of chessed? A tzadik? And what do you call the fellow who completed his 3-yr. army service? A freier? A bum?

    I read somewhere the musing of a young Lubavitcher Chassid that recently joined a combat unit in the Israeli army. He said that all the yeshiva bachurim should be drafted into the army, while all the soldiers currently in the army should be sent to yeshivos to learn.

  7. dovid 2 says:

    Dr. E. “There is a tendency within the Chareidi community to at best, take those outside of the religious community who are protecting the State and infusing its infrastructure for granted; at worst, the there might be a tendency to view them with derision and devoid of values …”

    Dr. E., you are painting an eclectic group with a thick brush. I met charedim in Eretz Israel that regard the soldiers as ‘our boys’ (all of them, frum, kippa s’rugga, chilonim) and would gladly give them a ride, food, drink, whatever they need. The late mashgiach of Ponovitz, R’ Yecheskel Levenstein, ZT”L, exhorts us in his sichos mussar that we daven for the Israeli soldiers so that the rule of justice towards them be changed to compassion, so that they may return home. R’ Israel Zeev Gustman, ZT”L , former dayan in Chaim Ozer’s Bais Din back in Vilna, referred to the soldiers fallen in the defense of Eretz Israel as k’doshim. Rav Elyashiv, shlita, has repeatedly said a Jew must have constant awareness of the imperative “that the Name of Heaven should become beloved through you.” Yuma (86a). Yonathan Rosenblum writes in this context: “That means viewing every contact with a non-religious Jew as an opportunity, at the very least, to change perceptions. Nothing more is required than displaying the middos that we are taught to exemplify, starting with ahavas habrios.

    On the other hand, I have also come across charedim who regard ‘those outside of the religious community, who are protecting the State’ with indifference, derision, and even hostility, as you write. First, read the following two quotes: “A country [Israel] that likes to see itself as almost invincible was brought to its knees by a fire it could not extinguish.” … ” A proud country [Israel again] accustomed to offering aid to suffering nations around the globe was reduced to begging for fire-fighting equipment. It was revealed that the country didn’t even possess one airplane equipped to fight forest fires. Its fire-fighters proved wholly unequipped and inadequate in the face of the rapidly expanding fire.” This kind of triumphalism we usually associate with Iran, Syria, Hamas, Fatah, and Naturei Karta. Actually, they were written by Pinchos Lipschutz in an article posted on Matzav. (link available).. These 44 people had parents and siblings. Some of them were married and had children. Babies (orphans) were born to three of the casualties within three weeks after the fire. What was our gedolim’s approach when tragedy struck the Israeli society? The death of 74 Israeli soldiers when two Israeli helicopters collided in midair brought Rav Shach to tears. He was sobbing at the loss of lives of soldiers, majority of which were most likely chiloni.

    Pinchos Lipschutz’s statement: “It was revealed that the country didn’t even possess one airplane equipped to fight forest fires.” is disingenuousand aims at playing to populist themes. Major General (res.) Yaakov Amidror, a former head of the IDF’s Research and Assessment Division said: “It is very important not to get caught in easy solutions. It should be remembered that any decision on what to spend money is also a decision on what not to spend money. Maybe the solution is not a Supertanker, but rather 50 fire trucks that can go anywhere at any time.” A quick, over the envelop research reveals that an Evergreen Boeing 747 specially furnished to put out fires costs approx. $335 million, plus $30,000/hour to operate it. Had Israel channeled funds of such magnitude away from say education, kollel stipends, defense, etc. to buy the airplane, which is a special-purpose, depreciable asset with no alternative uses other than for which it was designed, and had this airplane sat in an hangar barely unused for seven years, our ever populist Pinchos Lipschutz would have criticized that move as irresponsible and evidence of poor planning.

  8. mycroft says:

    “Just having returned from a visit to Israel, walking the streets and riding the buses, one would have to be blind not to be visibly reminded of the young men and women who are putting their lives on the line every day.”

    The overwhelming majority of which are neither Chareidi or dati leumi

    “Chareidi community to at best, take those outside of the religious community who are protecting the State and infusing its infrastructure for granted; at worst, the there might be a tendency to view them with derision and devoid of values (and therefore somehow entitled to the protection they provide). ”

    Very common for that attitude and frankly there may be a tendency to believe that they don’t deserve to pay for services. A little more than a month ago-my life and I were in Israel-we took an Egged Bus from the centre of town to Neve Yakov. The bus is one which has men in front women in back-going there I was surprised that women entered the middle and didn’t either pay the driver of have a kartisia punched. I was told by the people we were visiting that there is a punch in the middle for women to punch the tickets. My wife was satisfied by that answer-I decided to sit near the middle entrance and check the percentage of the women punching their kartissia-my estimate including double punches was 10-15%. I hope I had a non typical bus-but I wonder.

  9. Miriam says:

    The Founding Fathers of Israel retired from public life without scandal and without amassing personal fortune.

    Just this week JPost featured an opinion piece describing how corruption has shifted from serving idealism among Israel’s founders to serving self-interest among today’s leaders. In the olden days, protexia was even more ruthless and there were plenty of bribes, yet the cronyism kept the “right” people in power and monies were channeled into public coffers not personal accounts.

    All us Westerners are far too influenced by the Era of the Self. “Not being a freier” has become the more modern excuse among the charedi in Israel, rather than the ideological anti-State objections of the past.

    But religion plays a large part in encouraging altruism. Are chessed and altruism the same thing? We say that Avraham Avinu went to war for Lot as an expression of chessed. (The Sages teach us that “chessed”, the drive to act with kindness toward others, is one of the three primary character traits of a Jew.) And though the charedi community almost entirely avoids the army experience, citing its drain on primary learning years and high risk of negative influence, we cannot overlook the charedi contribution to greater Israeli society by organizations that require religious know-how such as Zaka and those founded by charedi leadership like Hatzala.

    But while these specific chessed projects are priceless, they are nevertheless a limited entry into contributing to the broader Israeli society.

    So who will show the visionary self-sacrifice to protect us against the ideological threats from our Middle Eastern neighbors? One of my teachers always said we Jews are misplaced Westerners – we really hail from the Near East.

    Perhaps the dati leumi, secular, and mesorati (another category left out above) who either live outside the city lifestyles or used to just 1-2 generations ago (think Bob Miller’s reference to “fumes”) are cultivating altruism alongside their fields, or are “inspired” by real contact with their Muslim enemies next door.

    I don’t think the religious influence we’re looking for here – to reinvigorate altruism – comes from texts, as much as from direct experience with a purpose beyond the self. It is transmitted person to person – through relatives’ stories and personal examples, and through our own brushes with adversity and/or efforts to give to others.

    Yes army enlistment is declining, due somewhat to draft avoidance but more significantly to population shifts (the Russian influx is long over, Jewish families now average less than 3 children per family). But between those who still preach zionist ideology, and the teenage drive to get into the “best” military units, the critical positions continue to get more applicants than openings.

    I don’t think there’s any story in Tanach in which we won with the larger army anyway. (And in modern experience everyone finds a way to help – didn’t half the Roshei Yeshiva in Israel serve as milkmen during one of the wars?) We all know it ultimately comes down to the supernatural – that spark of chessed in every Jew, and a lot of Divine intervention.

  10. lacosta says:

    this article and rabbi landesman’s should be seen together [ dorshin smuchim]..

    on the one hand you have 1/2 of israeli society with moral/philosophical education of questionable value. you have another quarter who are either pareve about the Zionist entity , anti- it , or parasitic- of it…..

    al derech hateva such a society can not survive [ tell the palestinians to just wait for it to collapse internally]…

    i heard once , don’t remember beshem whcih gadol, that post holocaust jewry –which was majority not religious [ie non-messianic yearning] —was given their desire by RBSO as payback — a secular state in palestine; but al tnai that it would have no menucha
    ad ki yavo shiloh…..

  11. dr. bill says:

    I tend to agree with Rabbi Helfgott. Though religion is one very strong factor in creating the willingness to sacrifice for the larger commmunity, it is only one of a number of such motivators. Most societies will create somehow create motivations to sacrifice. In Israel, particulalry the upper echelons of secular society continue to produce a number of incentives for self-sacrifice. While the motivations may lack the altruism of early Zionists, an economically succesful State of Israel has created more pragmatic motivators. Given Israel’s precarious state, necessity being the mother of invention, will continue to update them.

    As a society, Israel enjoys and suffers the trends of modernity and there are many different unfortunate issues that negatively impact Israeli youth. Fortunately, even among the largely secular segment, I also sense the slow development of a new religious awareness, albeit not a traditional one. One can only pray for greater convergemce and respect between the different segments of Israeli society.

  12. Dr. E says:

    Rabbi Helfgot picked up on what I believe to have been a somewhat unintended point by Rabbi Adlerstein. Nevertheless, Nati’s response was an important one, as he faithfully presents his Rebbi’s perspective of Eretz Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael. Just having returned from a visit to Israel, walking the streets and riding the buses, one would have to be blind not to be visibly reminded of the young men and women who are putting their lives on the line every day. I know that most in the CC community recognize and appreciate this.

    There is a tendency within the Chareidi community to at best, take those outside of the religious community who are protecting the State and infusing its infrastructure for granted; at worst, the there might be a tendency to view them with derision and devoid of values (and therefore somehow entitled to the protection they provide). I believe that Rabbi Helfgot’s point was that the Centrist/DL communities should not to fall into that same elitist trap of ‘them’ and ‘us’. The more appropriately nuanced approach is to be proud of our religious values and observance. But, at the same time, we need to understand that those who are moseir nefesh for the State, and certainly those who literally put their lives on the line for ALL of its inhabitants might in actuality possess the most supreme of all Jewish values—regardless of personal Mitzvah observance or Torah study. Essentially, this represents the commonly identified trait of Hakarat Hatov. However, using that term to describe the appropriate attitude that we should have towards those who protect the land (within its borders and beyond) somehow falls short of the depth of emotional gratitude that is warranted.

    For those who more or less “buy-into” the State (i.e., within the Dati Leumi and the Chiloni communities), their service to the country is mandated and expected through IDF service and Sheirut Leumi. Obviously, Yeshivot Hesder and Midrishot do a great job in imparting values and a sense responsibility within the framework of Torah study. There are also Mechina programs which are designed to transmit these same values to young men before their IDF service, who will not be learning in a Hesder environment. Perhaps additional educational programs of this nature should be expanded within the DL and Chiloni communities. While the behaviors of self-sacrifice are certainly there, which are informed by a sense of responsibility to Klal Yisrael, having those behaviors informed and reinforced by philosophical values (religious or not) is key to sustaining the pipeline of those who are to be invested in the State. I think that this is precisely what Rabbi Adlerstein was proposing in his follow-up remark.

  13. Bob Miller says:

    The basic question is whether the secular society is morally running on fumes, the fumes left over from their abandoned religious tradition, the fumes that continue to dissipate. Without some process of reabsorbing religious values, this society reaches an amoral dead end.