It’s Not Your Mother’s Knesset


What would have surprised Israel’s founding fathers more: the growth of an observant community many believed was destined to disappear in short order, or its intrusion into the very non-hallowed halls of government? The new Knesset has thirty-nine members who consider themselves Torah observant. The previous cabinet already had a majority of members who called themselves shomrei Shabbos. What is an old-time Tel Aviv secularist to think?

The surprises cut both ways. Just when we thought we had thoroughly digested Yair Lapid’s challenge to the Torah community, another member of Yesh Atid offers stirring inaugural address to Knesset. Dr. Ruth Calderon will make us rethink the role Torah study plays in bringing people closer to Yiddishkeit.

Cross-Currents readers did a good job picking apart Yair Lapid’s speech at Kiryat Ono. They flagged his historical inaccuracies and simplifications; they questioned whether he was sincere or pandering. Other readers, however, made a strong case for a very different reaction. However he meant his words, they claimed, they landed on a vulnerable place. Has not the charedi community become strong and secure enough that it cannot enjoy the luxury of giving only on its own terms? Should not it have to take its place as partners with the rest of Israel’s population in addressing all the problems faced by the Jewish state?

Ruth Calderon presents a narrower challenge. What do we think about secular Jews turning with enthusiasm to the study of Torah – but entirely on their own terms? Calderon used the opportunity of her first address to Knesset to speak of her love for Torah study. After describing her family background and her bona fides as a secular Zionist, she lets us in on a change in her life:

I was not acquainted with the Mishna, the Talmud, Kabbala or Hasidism. By the time I was a teenager, I already sensed that something was missing…. I missed depth; I lacked words for my vocabulary; a past, epics, heroes, places, drama, stories – were missing. The new Hebrew, created by educators from the country’s founding generation, realized their dream and became a courageous, practical, and suntanned soldier. But for me, this contained – I contained – a void. I did not know how to fill that void, but when I first encountered the Talmud and became completely enamored with it, its language, its humor, its profound thinking, its modes of discussion, and the practicality, humanity, and maturity that emerge from its lines, I sensed that I had found the love of my life, what I had been lacking.
Since then I have studied academically in batei midrash [Jewish study halls] and in the university, where I earned a doctorate in Talmudic Literature at the Hebrew University, and I have studied lishma, for the sake of the study itself. For many years I have studied daf yomi, the daily page of Talmud, and with a chavruta [study partner]; it has shaped who I am.

She goes on to present her vision for the rest of the country:

It is impossible to stride toward the future without knowing where we came from and who we are, without knowing, intimately and in every particular, the sublime as well as the outrageous and the ridiculous. The Torah is not the property of one movement or another. It is a gift that every one of us received, and we have all been granted the opportunity to meditate upon it a we create the realities of our lives. Nobody took the Talmud and rabbinic literature from us. We gave it away, with our own hands, when it seemed that another task was more important and urgent: building a state, raising an army, developing agriculture and industry, etc. The time has come to reappropriate what is ours, to delight in the cultural riches that wait for us, for our eyes, our imaginations, our creativity.

What do we think of this? Danger lurks in this statement, but so does enormous opportunity and promise. Chazal (Yerushalmi Chagiga 1:7) describe Hashem voicing a preference for Klal Yisrael guarding/observing/studying Torah, even if it abandons Him. The study of Torah will eventually bring Jews back to Him.

We can ask, however, whether some forms of study are so foreign to the nature of Torah that they cease to have any positive effect? If Torah is treated merely as part of the literary patrimony of the Jewish people, will it still touch the soul? Will it reach the soul of people who do not believe in the soul? Can Torah become so mangled when studied not just shelo lishmah, but based on antinomian assumptions about its nature, that it becomes destructive? On the other hand, do we prefer some of today’s Jewishly clueless young Israelis, or the earlier generations of those who spoke Yiddish, studied Tanach regularly – but saw themselves as anti-religious, not just neutral? When R. Yisroel Salanter militated for the translation of the gemara into the vernacular so that it would be studied in local universities, did he not fear that in the hands of heretics Torah would do more harm than good?

We must keep in mind that Calderon is not what we picture some of the old-timers. She not only believes in HKBH, she ended her speech with a tefilah to Him. (Our understanding of the old-timers may also be inaccurate. Readers who have never seen the newsreel should watch Ben-Gurion at the moment of the announcement of statehood pull a yarmulke out of his pocket, place it on his head, and recite a beracha of Shehechiyanu.)

I don’t claim to have the answers, although my leanings are to see the gains as outweighing the risks. I have seen so many people studying Torah in institutions with treif understandings of Torah nonetheless fall in love with learning and move on to more traditional approaches and full observance. I have seen the benefit in relating to non-observant Jewish brothers and sisters through at least having a common vocabulary of Torah words and ideas. That common platform allows the relationship to go on to other places in the course of time.

Reacting to Yair Lapid’s oratory, my good friend Jonathan Rosenblum wrote in the current Mishpacha, “Those who sent me Lapid’s clip wanted to know whether anyone had taken up the challenge of articulating a vision of a state in which Torah Jews constitute a substantial part of the population…I had to confess that I did not personally know anyone who had responded or who would even have the authority to respond….In short, Lapid is totally irrelevant. For our own mission of becoming a majority, we require a Torah vision of the future of a state now home to half of the worlds’s Jews.”

As we try to think of what that vision ought to look at, we will also have to factor in an Israeli population that is clamoring for reconnection with Torah – albeit on its own terms. We must not make the mistake of believing that what was, is, and that yesterday’s battles are the ones we should be fighting today. If we do not or cannot do the hard work to put together a Torah-based vision for the future, we will have failed to do what HKBH asks – demands – of us: that we demonstrate to all people and in all situations that our Torah is a Toras Chaim.

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2 years 7 months ago

Today i took a walk in Gan Havradim, wondering if soon the day will come when the secular will point a finger and say, “What chutzpah! WE built that garden and here this hareidi comes and takes a walk here? Raus!”
The irony is that my family was here generations before the Tzionim got here. The Old Yishuv significantly predates the New, but suddenly we found ourselves cast as strangers in our own land. Something like what the Arabs say, and it’s no coincidence that we tried to make something of a common cause in order to continue living here in peace without anti-religious coercion.
But, we didn’t stoop to the levels the Zionists took, and De Haan was assassinated. We weren’t about to kill our fellow Jews even to preserve our way of life, and so they took over and began their efforts to destroy us, which continue to this day.
Suddenly, there are new rulers in the land, and it’s not enough that they stole our freedom to live as we once did, now they also want to coopt us into their army to preserve the state they imposed on us. The Arabs won’t do it, and we don’t want to, either.
We didn’t ask for this state and we don’t want it. If you really mean to say that if we don’t like it, we should just leave, then really, truly – is that what you think? Just because you were superior militarily, the Old Yishuv is no longer entitled to live here the way they always did?
And if you mean to say that we shouldn’t benefit from the state, then okay, we will disconnect, which of course means that no more paying VAT to the state – and how are we supposed to do that? Of course disconnect is impossible, but why are we to be villified because of it?
There really is no easy way out of this. Hatred is certainly not going to make things easier.

2 years 7 months ago

I wonder if anyone ever made a calculation about VAT and state benefits. What i’m getting at, of course, is whether chareidim do actually take more from the gvt than they pay in taxes. After all, many of the services gvt offers (university, public schooling, culture stuff etc.) is not directed toward them at all. What i do know is that the little the gvt gives is not enough to live off. Majority of chareidi women work and most men work, too, by late 20s or early 30s. Low standard of living relative to rest of society. Surely readers know this already. So why are we takers? Do you not get child benefit? Is it the 1000odd shekels per month given to families where the father learns really the game changer?
Our schools who don’t learn the core curriculum are either partially or not at all gvt funded, so that what we pay/month on chinuch expenses can be up to around 40% income. It’s still not enough to run schools on so the shortfall is made up by overseas fundraising.
But usually the facts don’t make any difference to people who want to see us as parasites. Isn’t it weird that a sector so demonized as self-serving and greedy is living in such poverty? I guess people just think chareidim are really dumb…

2 years 7 months ago

“She not only believes in HKBH, she ended her speech with a tefilah to Him.”
I really wonder. This is what’s called a very low level of belief and quite possibly one that Rambam would call apikorsos/minus, where she says yes, God exists but NO, He can’t tell me what to do and i’m not scared of the consequences…
I wonder – who’s bigger in her eyes, God or her? Does she even care? All i’m getting is that she likes learning, it makes her feel good, but nothing about it making her act good, which is what Torah is all about. She may believe that God exists, but she’s not serving Him – she’s serving herself.
I really hope Torah will bring her closer to Hashem, but on His terms, not on hers.

Shmuel F.
2 years 7 months ago


If anyone’s ever learned Mesechta Mikvaos, or a related Gemara in Makkos, we learn that if a certain amount of drawn water (mayim sheuvin), ie. gimmel lugin, falls into a mikvah which contains less than the DeRabbonim amount required for valid tevilah, ie. 40 se’ah, then the mikvah is posul (invalid) and has to be emptied out until less than gimmel lugin remains. The gedolim of the previous dor, whom were following the Torah from the gedolim of the generation before theirs, whom were likewise following the Torah from the earlier generation’s gedolim, held that the “State of Israel” was issur – period. They had no choice but to try to be mechazek the Yidden throughout the State’s creation and continued existence because they had no choice – because the irreligious were manipulating the masses, included amoung them certain religious or fringe-religious groups, into believing that all would be well with a new Jewish State. It was issur from the beginning, and all that’s happened since then was adding to something that was already issur -similar to allowing 100,000 se’ah of rainwater to settle in a mikvah that was already ruled to be posul because of gimmel lugin before it contained 40 se’ah of valid mikvah water. So now they want to try to deceive public opinion further by virtue of an increase in the percentage of religious politicians to try to kasher the forbidden. Really, my objection in an earlier comment was due to someone having declared with certainty what I had implied and then having someone else assume that first individual was correct. I’m not knowledgable in suggesting a cure to the problem; but I don’t see there is focus on what the problem is and that’s where I have jumped in. If a person doesn’t find out where s/he went wrong, then they will not be able to correct themselves. How much more so a nation of which it is said, “those whom bless you will be blessed…. .”

L. Oberstein
2 years 7 months ago

This is another example of intelligent discussion.Despite the occasional digs and denigration of the other side’s arguments,most people express valid arguments. Few of the people who believe that Daas Torah is somehow normative in Jewish History, when it is a recent invention, even listen to the other side. Numeous people have told me in all sincerity that having this discussion is wrong.We turn to the Gedolim, follow their ruling ,end of story. No matter what arguments we may bring, their mind is not open to another way of thinking. Such certainty gives one security.
One of my sons pointed out that many of those who mouth this Daas Torah hashkofoh don’t really follow it in real life,they say it and even dress that way but in reality live lives that are not scripted by the Gedolim. We all need the advise and guidance of wise people, but to ascribe infallibility to them is taking it too far, and,in reality, we don’t in real life. Part of the problem is that Daas Torah has been concentrated into too few people. Someone like Rav Dovid Cohen is ignored because someone in Israel went to Rav Elyashiv zatzal.Rav Heinemann has been overuled on Shabbos ovens,etc. and was forbidden to present his side to Rav Elyashiv. He told me this himself. No longer is the local great person an authority, now it all is concentrated into a few hands and these very,very old people supposedly can and should decide everything. I feel sorry for the Gedolim who bear so much reponsibility. Maybe if the rabbonim in each community had some autonomy, we could have many points of view.