So That’s That

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Let’s finish by returning to the dining hall in Princeton where this series began. I’ve written this series in response to Heidi’s challenge to the justice of my tribal loyalties and her insistence that the appropriate lesson of the murder of six million Jews is the danger of parochialism, including Jewish parochialism. But the truth is that when that conversation actually took place, I just sat there slack-jawed, staring at her uncomprehendingly. Had I been a bit less naïve and sheltered, had I had the vaguest idea where she was coming from and what she wanted from my life, I might have simply said the following:

I make no more apologies for my tribal loyalties than I do for my family loyalties. I’m a Jew both by blood and by choice and my life has meaning precisely because I share with the Jewish people a history and a destiny, and a system of values that connects one to the other. As for your implied assertion that tribal loyalty comes at the expense of universal love, you have it backwards. No society can function for long without leveraging the lessons of a specific evolved tradition. No society will do good for others without a moral system that first inculcates kindness to kin and clan. No society will produce decent human beings without arbitrary-seeming rules that restrain base animal instincts. No society will have the will to bear children, to invest in them love and energy and to teach them good from bad, without believing that it has some mission on this earth that gives life meaning and purpose.

I don’t doubt that your advocacy of universal love comes from a genuine longing to make the world a better place, but I’m equally convinced that high-sounding enlightened platitudes won’t get you any closer to that goal. You’ll only cut yourself off from your own people and your own best hope to be part of a project that will give your life direction, while your carefully curated collection of ethnically diverse friends will have the good sense to combine the skills they’ve learned in university with allegiance to their own cultures and traditions.

I might have gone on in this vein, making all the arguments I have marshaled in this long series of posts, telling Heidi all about Shimen. Heidi would no doubt have had many questions and counter-arguments. Are any of the claims I’ve made about Jewish tradition unique to Judaism or could many other religions make the same claims? Does allegiance to such a tradition require being born into it and, if so, what paths are open to someone who was not born into such a tradition? Are cultures like Shimen’s capable of sustaining themselves or do they assume the proximity of other cultures like Heidi’s to sustain them?

These are all challenging questions, but I’m certain that, with some effort, Heidi is perfectly capable of figuring out her own answers to each of them.


So, that’s that.

We’ve spoken here of some grand ideas but, when all is said and done, they’re all just fancily-dressed advertisements for the importance of humility. We can choose to live like those who, given the privileges of wealth and leisure and fueled by an exaggerated sense of entitlement, set off on a foolhardy quest to reinvent civilization in the name of cosmic justice; but then our inevitable failure is likely to leave us estranged from those who preceded us and with little to pass on to those who follow us. Or we can choose to live like Shimen and others who, even when robbed of every worldly good, live purposeful lives of quiet dignity that honor the wisdom of those who came before them and bequeath that wisdom – and perhaps just a bit more – to those who come after them.

I take leave of you now, dear reader, in the hope that in my own efforts to add just a bit more, I too have not neglected to honor and bequeath.

Free at Last?

Most of the people who work in my office in Jerusalem are in their 20s and 30s. One grew up in a chassidic family with a father like Itcha Meir and is writing a book on haredi sociology and ideology, but he self-defines as non-religious and is sitting here in shorts and sandals. Another is a dayan (religious court judge) writing a doctoral thesis on theocracy. One woman grew up in a non-observant family and was active in the peace movement and is now religiously observant and an expert on and sympathizer with the hard-core of the settlement movement. Another fellow was raised in a secular-Zionist family with a mom like Adi and still self-defines as non-religious, but he davens with a minyan every day and observes Shabbat. Another is scrupulously religious, but refuses to wear a kipa. Another was raised Litvish-yeshivish, but now self-defines as national-religious and is beginning an academic career. One is a product of mamlachti religious Zionism with a dad like Bentzi, but is now a gung-ho evangelist for full-throated capitalism. Another just completed a thesis on the phenomenon of non-religious Israeli celebrities, mostly artists and musicians, who are now loosely connected to various Jewish spiritual groups, most prominently Breslav, and are observant in a variety of idiosyncratic ways, but refuse to self-define as religious or non-religious.

You might find any one of these life choices admirable or lamentable, but that’s not the point. The phenomenon is interesting in aggregate. There seems to be a great deal of fluidity here and the fluidity is strangely painless. These people are at peace with themselves and with each other. What’s this all about?

We’ve grown so accustomed to the centrality of signaling to Judaism that we can hardly imagine what Judaism would be like with less of it. We wear shtreimlech or hats or kipot of a certain color or none of the above, we daven in this shul but never in that shul, we use the right dialect of Yinglish and the appropriate accent, we eat here but not there, we flaunt our very special family minhagim, we bagel, we batel, we battle. We are so used to Judaism being spoken like a second language that we are perplexed when we see the early signs of the return of Judaism as a first language.

Young Israelis like the men and women in my office and the sons and daughters of Itcha Meir, Bentzi and Adi, aspire for Judaism to be a culture, not a counter-culture. They don’t need to prove that they’re not assimilating; there aren’t enough goyim here to assimilate into (which is why Itcha Meir, unlike his kids, needs to imagine Zionists as goyim just to keep his shtick going). They are sick of wasting energy on broadcasting their loyalty to this box and not that box. That mix-and-match of modes of dress, ideology and practices that seem incongruous to old fogies and diaspora Jews are simply inchoate attempts at breaking down the boxes and separating the signals from the substance.

Adi, Bentzi and Itcha Meir and their friends are the last of the ideological dinosaurs. The generation after them is looking for some form of authentic Judaism rich enough, substantial enough, realistic enough to serve as a national culture and not merely as a counter-culture sufficient to sustain a minority. This will happen slowly and from the bottom up. In the meantime, there are some small tentative steps in interesting directions. Galgalatz, the radio station that determines Israel’s Top 40 hits, includes in its playlist songs that might be sung as zemiros at the Shabbes table. Literary awards go to books that straddle the boundary between secular and religious literature in Agnonesque fashion. Zefat and Jerusalem are flush with galleries purveying serious (and not serious) art with profounder Jewish content than Chagall.

The much bigger question is what is happening with halacha? Halacha can’t and shouldn’t change dramatically and quickly for all the reasons I explained much earlier in this series. But there is a qualitative difference between, for example, Jewish agricultural law – sabbatical years, farming charity, etc. – as a series of largely ceremonial obstacles that need to be circumvented, steamrolled or dumped in somebody else’s backyard and those same laws adapted to modern circumstances in a way that honors their purpose and intent. There is a difference between Shabbat as a personal observance and Shabbat as a communal and even national day of rest, prayer and study. There are many more mitzvot that take on new meaning when they are observed by an entire society and not just a select minority. How will these evolve?

It’s too soon to say. As Itcha Meir’s kids and Bentzi’s kids and Adi’s kids find more common ground in their diverse paths towards some authentic form of national Judaism, things will begin to ferment. Remember, I’m not talking about the likes of Heidi or Ben bending Jewish observance to reconcile it with a dominant outside culture that they have internalized or aspire to internalize, but rather Jews in a Jewish state seeking to live Jewish lives. This much I know: as Israelis from diverse backgrounds begin to speak the language of halacha more fluently and as they continue to speak to each other, their halacha will become more like Shimen’s: balanced across the moral flavors, less focused on signaling, fluid as the Oral Law is meant to be, and less uptight and anxious than halacha becomes when under constant threat. In some ways, it will assume qualities beyond Shimen’s halacha: it will be more meaningful than symbolic, it will be normal rather than defiant, and it will be less baroque and esoteric.

This last point bears explanation. In the normal course of events, languages become more complex with the natural accretion of increasingly nuanced grammatical rules and oddities; in this sense, halacha is no exception. Moreover, when halacha is observed by a select minority and the study of Torah is left to an even more select minority, it is sometimes made deliberately opaque to keep impostors from meddling. But, when languages are adopted by many non-native speakers or when speakers of different dialects are suddenly thrown together, an opposite process takes place and the language’s grammar is simplified; this already happened with the transition of biblical Hebrew to the simpler modern Hebrew we now speak. It is likely that a similar process will take place with halacha: as many come closer to tradition and as the integration of communities from different diasporas accelerates, we will see a greater focus on principles common to diverse Jewish communities at the expense of marginalia specific to certain communities or to aficionados of esoterica.

This has all been made possible by the ingathering of exiles in a Jewish state. It took several generations, but the freedom and purpose that Israel has provided the Jews is finally resulting in a generation of young people who not only have a sense of mission and responsibility, a strong desire for self-sufficiency, and confidence in themselves and in each other, but also a realistic assessment of what is achievable and what is utopian and a thirst for authentic Judaism that can serve as a foundation for personal, communal and national life. In short, Israel’s success is the precise opposite of what many of its founders saw as its purpose. Instead of overcoming Jewish tradition, it has facilitated a return to it; instead of replacing Jewish communities with the state, it has given those communities the space to flourish and to influence each other.

To complete this process, Israel needs to give its citizens freedom not only from enemies and hostile cultures, but from their own government. Education in Israel would be better and more balanced if bureaucrats would let schools choose curricula and parents choose schools; communities would be more connected to religion if bureaucrats let communities appoint (or not appoint) rabbis and run their own religious services; we’d all be more equal if the state didn’t sponsor academic and judicial juntas that enforce their own self-serving versions of equality. The Zionist notion that the big state will guide its citizens to the ideal balance of Jewishness and democracy has it exactly backwards; it is the little “night watchman” state that seeks to do no more than keep us safe – or rather that serves as the framework within which we keep each other safe – that will create the opportunity for us to figure it all out for ourselves very slowly and very surely.

Some ideologues still think that we are on the verge of messianic times and it’s our duty to restore the top-down control of society by a revived Sanhedrin or Politburo or Council of Sages. But they are all mistaken. The rabbis say that the messianic era will be distinguished only by freedom from political subjugation (BT Shabbat 63a) and that mashiach is one of those things (along with scorpion bites and windfalls) that come only behesach hadaat, when we are least expecting them (BT Sanhedrin 97a). The redemption of the Jewish people will not be bestowed by the state; rather, it will be the result of slow evolution from the bottom up, as healthy Jewish instincts under conditions of freedom are gradually made manifest in the public sphere. If the state and all the determined do-gooders just leave us alone, one day, when we are least expecting it, we might just look around and think to ourselves: you know what, here we are, free Jews living in a Jewish country, building it and sustaining it, learning Torah and mostly living by its commandments, raising proud and non-neurotic Jewish kids. Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last.


One more post to go.

Out of the Box

It looks like our second-generation cast of characters have failed to reproduce the balance that characterizes Shimen’s way of life. Certainly, it isn’t easy to identify in their respective versions of Judaism anything you’d think of as a project connecting a richly-recalled past with an intensely-conceived future, giving life direction and meaning. Adi and Heidi attach little value to the continuity of Jewish tradition, while Yitzy and Itcha Meir regard it as stagnant. Bentzi unwittingly guts Jewish communities by advocating for the Jewish State to usurp their roles, while Itcha Meir fails to acknowledge how the existence of such a state fundamentally changes the nature of the challenges faced by Jewish tradition. Ben is acculturating faster than he realizes, while Yitzy’s halacha is formalistic and impervious to moral intuition.

The key to the problem might be that all these characters live in boxes. The circumstances of their lives are such that the range of realizable positions along the continuum of Jewish identity and practice is limited to a small set of available boxes. These boxes – secular-liberal, modern-religious, haredi or whatever – are defined by ideological least common denominators and tedious institutional interests and they lead to intellectual conformity.

American and Israeli Jews are not equally encumbered by the extent to which Jewishness is boxed. A generation ago, in the days when I was being lectured on Jewish duties by Heidi in Princeton, it would have been clear that Israel was much boxier than the United States. Shimen and the parents of Yitzy and Ben sat so comfortably between the Haredi and Modern Orthodox worlds that they were completely unaware that the distinction even mattered. Similarly, the Conservative community in which Heidi grew up filled the gap between Modern Orthodoxy and secular liberalism.

In Israel, on the other hand, the gap between anti-religious secularists like Adi and religious Zionists like Bentzi was occupied solely by marginalized traditional Sefardim, who had yet to find a strong and distinctive voice. The split between Bentzi and Haredim like Itcha Meir was dichotomous by definition: Bentzi and friends went to the army and Itcha Meir and friends did not. This led to other dichotomies: religious Zionists learned professions and got jobs, while Itcha Meir and friends did not. American Jews who moved to Israel were often frustrated by the unavailability of the kinds of intermediate versions of Jewishness to which they were accustomed.

Some of this still holds to a lesser degree, but if instead of looking at snapshots of Judaism in the States and in Israel, we consider the respective trajectories of developments in each country since those days, a different picture emerges.

Judaism in the United States has become much boxier. The center is not holding. Just as Israeli young men have to choose between serving in the army or avoiding the draft, young American Jews need to decide between remaining in the ghetto or buying into the dominant campus culture — Heidi’s cosmopolitanism, if they’re lucky, or Amber’s radicalism, in the likelier case. The social and professional cost of bucking that trend is quite high and is only worthwhile in exchange for the social capital available exclusively in very tight-knit and isolated Jewish communities.

The fate of the Conservative congregation that Heidi grew up in is instructive in this regard. In trying to cater to Heidi’s cohort, the congregation briefly resisted but then enthusiastically adopted every fashionable progressive trend until it was left with no distinctive message to offer. Broadly speaking, the offspring of Heidi’s friends – to the extent that they have any – are, like Amber, less Jewish and more radical than their parents. The congregation’s building was recently sold to a Korean church.

As it happens, Ben’s kids and Yitzy’s kids are also drifting further from their grandparents’ delicate balance. Of Ben’s three kids, one son is no longer affiliated with a Jewish community and another is a member of a Reconstructionist LGBT community; Ben’s daughter has gone yeshivish and lives in Ramat Eshkol with her husband, who shares her background and is now “learning by Reb Avrohom Yehoshua”, hoping (vainly) that the Rosh Yeshiva will one day nod in his general direction.

Yitzy has three daughters and three sons, in that order. He hit what he believes to be the jackpot with his eldest daughter’s husband, said to be “a blitz, one of the best guys in Lakewood”, by promising to forego retirement to support his son-in-law while he sits in kollel for the rest of his life. He could not afford a similar arrangement for his second daughter and had to settle for a lesser scholar; his third daughter is having trouble finding a shidduch altogether. As for his sons, the second one is now “in shidduchim” and learning in Lakewood. The third son is learning in Waterbury, while secretly planning to one day make a killing in shady real estate deals. Yitzy’s eldest son, once the apple of his eye, is now never spoken of, so as not to harm the others’ chances of getting good shidduchim; he had been serially molested by his fourth-grade rebbe and is now “off the derech” and addicted to opiates. Yitzy’s daughters are decently educated and hard-working; his sons and sons-in-law sort of speak English, Yiddish and Hebrew, but are incapable of completing a sentence in any of the three.

Except for Ben’s yeshivish daughter who seeks out the company of her second-cousins, Ben’s kids and Yitzy’s kids each regard the other as object lessons in the dangers of the wrong kind of Jewish education and want nothing to do with each other. Their estrangement is representative of the broader bad relationship into which their respective cohorts have been sucked, an equilibrium characterized by mistrust, spite and alienation.

Many of you will be surprised to hear that the current situation in Israel is quite different. Israel has become much less “boxy”. The default culture is no longer that of secular progressives like Adi and there is now little pressure to conform to it. Unlike in the United States, the threat of assimilation is limited, so the degree of fear across groups is diminishing. Moreover, the rigid ideologies that separate Israeli haredim, religious Zionist and secular progressives are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Itcha Meir’s kids speak standard Hebrew, their political views are Zionist in substance even if not in name and they would love to find a way to learn a trade and make an honest living. Bentzi’s kids have lived through the Oslo agreements, the Disengagement and other follies of Israeli governments and openly mock their father’s mamlachti Kookian ideology. Adi’s kids – even the secular Adi has a Jewish husband and three kids – are embarrassed at their parents’ firm, if unspoken, conviction that the state is rightly owned by the descendants of Labor Zionists and that others live here at their sufferance.

Adi’s kids and Bentzi’s kids meet in the army and at work and they speak to each other with typical Israeli candidness, free of both rancor and the kind of correctness that typically stems from distance or mistrust. Increasingly, Itcha Meir’s kids are participating in these conversations as well; as soon as a technical solution is found to the problem of haredi enlistment, the gap between them and the others will close very quickly.

In short, the boxes are breaking down in Israel. This has two salient consequences, each of which is only now beginning to become apparent. The first is that the question “are you hiloni or dati or haredi?” is, for many people, becoming hard to answer. Increasingly, degrees of Jewish observance in Israel lie on a spectrum, not in the familiar boxes, slowly converging to a normal distribution over the range, with a peak somewhere in the center that drops off slowly and symmetrically. (One consequence of this is long tails on each end populated by loud and strident outliers, giving the false impression that extremists are getting stronger.)

The second consequence is that the usual bundlings of ideologies, religious practices and outward signals are unraveling. We have become accustomed to the idea that if we know how someone dresses or how they act in a given situation or where they went to yeshiva, we can pretty much guess all the rest. Forget that. The flourishing of a Jewish state and the confidence it has brought are leading to a new and surprising re-alignment.

In the next post, I’ll discuss the nature of this realignment, what it tells us about the actual – and much misunderstood – value of a Jewish state, and how all this heralds the return of an organic Judaism last seen in the days of Shimen.

Not Just Cranky Old Men

We’re now in the stretch run of this series, so this might be a good time to take stock of where we are and what is left to do. I’ve been arguing that Shimen’s traditional Judaism, unlike Heidi’s cosmopolitanism, has the capacity to endure in the long term. At the same time, we’ve seen that Shimen’s traditionalism doesn’t seem to be doing all that well lately. I’ll be contending in the next few posts that there is nevertheless good reason to believe that Shimen will be making a comeback, at least in Israel.

To be sure, the prospect that Shimen’s formative life experiences – chassidic life in the shtetl, suffering in the camps and the murder of his family and friends, adaptation to a new and cosmopolitan world – will be reproduced on any scale in the near-term is as unlikely as it is unwelcome. So, for my claim to have any plausibility, or even coherence, I’ll need to first explain exactly what essential aspects of Shimen’s traditionalism I’m claiming will endure. To do so, we’ll need to consider both the qualities of character needed to sustain Shimen’s Judaism as well as the type of Judaism that can cultivate such qualities of character. Shimen’s character and his culture can’t be separated.

For Judaism to endure, there must be a cadre of people like Shimen who are guided by a clear-eyed and internalized trust in its viability. Such trust is possible only if Judaism’s content is relatively stable over time, while adapting to changing circumstances by being responsive to the intuitions of its practitioners. This combination of stability and adaptability depends on Shimen and others combining the humility to submit to received tradition with confidence in their own intuitions to drive the margins of halacha. This combination of humility and confidence is possible only if Shimen’s received Judaism cultivates and appeals to a broad range of moral instincts, including those, like loyalty and restraint, that depend on fidelity to a specific culture, as well as those, like fairness, that can mostly be conjured intuitively. Sustaining this range of moral flavors depends on people like Shimen acquiring and bequeathing requisite culture-specific knowledge, as well as well-honed intuitions rooted in, though not completely determined by, that acquired knowledge. But Shimen and others will make the necessary effort to acquire this knowledge and fine-tune these intuitions and to pass this knowledge to future generations only if Judaism merits their trust in its own viability.

This is a delicate mechanism that can easily be thrown out of equilibrium. Shimen studied enough to have deep and broad knowledge of Torah and was sufficiently uncompromised socially and intellectually to retain solid intuitions and attitudes deeply rooted in that knowledge. His knowledge of Judaism was sufficient to develop humility towards that body of received wisdom and his intuitions were sharp enough to give him confidence in his own ability to add to it. To some extent, this was possible because he lived in a tight-knit community that was in many senses an autonomous island in a hostile and generally conservative environment. But these are not the only circumstances under which such qualities of character can be developed; to be perfectly blunt, you don’t need to be a cranky old Polish Jew to get Judaism right.

Of course, as we’ve seen, there are plenty of ways to get Judaism wrong. Yitzy and Ben (and, truth be told, many of Shimen’s contemporaries between the two world wars), challenged by the openness of Heidi’s world and educated to defensiveness, were not able to keep the system in equilibrium. Yitzy never developed healthy moral intuitions and hence lacks the confidence to contribute to the shaping of the soft edges of halacha. His Judaism is formalistic; it’s weak on the universal component and doesn’t adapt well. Similarly, Ben never developed a thorough enough body of halachic knowledge or an appreciation of the wisdom of the ages. His Judaism is shallow; it’s weak on the particularist component and is not very stable.

Itcha Meir and Bentzi, challenged by Zionist enthusiasm that threatened to subordinate Judaism to Jewish statism, faltered as well. Bentzi’s Judaism has become bureaucratic and Itcha Meir’s has become cynical. Adi’s anti-religious post-nationalist culture, like Heidi’s, holds no promise as a foundation for a new version of Judaism and few prospects as a viable culture of any sort.

What reason, then, is there to believe that from this unlikely trio there will emerge new Shimens with the requisite knowledge and moral intuition, humility and confidence, and rootedness in the past and trust in the future to revive a viable version of Judaism?

Adi’s Irony-Blindness

Haimke, son of Shimen’s cousin Yossel the socialist, attended Hebrew University’s law school in the early 60s, rising up to become a prominent member of the first generation of Israeli-born judges. He shared his father’s secular socialist Zionist views, though he was less resentful of old-fashioned Judaism than was his formerly religious father. Haimke regarded religious Judaism as a mere relic that could be benignly ignored as it suffered inelegantly through its death throes. A proud and active member of Mapai (Israel’s Labor Party) until he joined the bench, Haimke always felt that he had deservedly earned his place among Israel’s ruling elite. To his dying day, Haimke regarded Begin’s victory in 1977, as well as all the subsequent capitalist-reactionary governments, as historical accidents destined to be reversed in due time.

Haimke’s daughter Adi followed in her father’s footsteps, studying philosophy and law in Hebrew University in the 1980s. Adi shares many of the views of her father and grandfather, though she is somewhat perplexed by their unabashed nationalism and has no patience for the once-fashionable Israeli male swagger. Judaism has no religious meaning for her and she has become ambivalent about Jewish ethnicity; even more than Yossel and Haimke, she is an Israeli before she is a Jew. This creates significant dissonance for her regarding Israel’s definition as a Jewish nation-state; she pays lip service to the idea of a Jewish nation-state but feels uncomfortable with any of its manifestations. For example, she has trouble justifying the Law of Return, regards singing Hatikvah as jingoistic and prefers that Hebrew and Arabic have equal status as national languages.

She wishes that Israel be distinguished less by any specific Jewish character than by an embrace of the principles of international human rights law, in return for which, she has no doubt, the world would welcome Israel as an equal and honored member of the family of nations. She believes that, regardless of the consequences for Israel’s security, Israel is in violation of human rights law as long as it does not withdraw every last Jew from the territory on which a Palestinian nation-state must be established.

Adi is deeply concerned about the likes of Itcha Meir and Bentzi gaining political strength and confidence. Unlike her father, Adi regards the rise of the Israeli Right as a long-term threat to Israel’s soul, if not to its very existence. Adi is convinced that the communities represented by Itcha Meir and Bentzi have designs on political power that they have not earned; they have not undergone the ideological and psychological transitions from traditional Jewish galuti modes of thought that are required for political leadership. Itcha Meir and Bentzi and their respective cohorts remain, in Adi’s view, mired in messianic, unproductive and sectorial ways of thinking and do not sufficiently understand the principles of democracy.

Somewhat eliding the significant ideological differences between Itcha Meir and Bentzi, Adi attributes to both of them hawkish views on security rooted in a fanatical and unfounded belief in Divine Providence. She herself has been active in Peace Now her entire adult life; she believes that were it not for the messianic predilections of the likes of Itcha Meir and Bentzi, Israelis would have long ago been vacationing on the shores of Beirut and eating hummus in the bazaars of Damascus.

Adi also resents the communities of Itcha Meir and Bentzi for not sufficiently appreciating the role of modernity and enlightenment values in promoting prosperity and driving productivity. Due to their limited secular education, most members of these communities aspire at most to be merchants and tradesmen, while Adi and her friends study Marcuse and Althusser in university and go on to important public sector jobs.

Adi also regards Itcha Meir and Bentzi as being excessively clannish and focusing on narrow sectorial interests, lacking the social maturity to see the big picture. Appreciating the importance of people with the right views making policy, Adi has sacrificed opportunities in the private sector to practice public law. With only a bit of help from her well-connected father, Adi landed a job as a junior attorney in the Attorney General’s office, where she has been rising through the ranks ever since. Among the tasks she takes especially seriously is the vetting of candidates for public sector positions; if not for her attentiveness, politicians would no doubt appoint candidates who share their political views rather than those that Adi has objectively determined to have the most appropriate backgrounds and values for public service. Adi is convinced that only she, along with equally incorruptible colleagues in her circle, can prevent the corruption of public service.

Finally, and most importantly, Adi is devoted to the protection of democracy. She understands full well that the likes of Itcha Meir and Bentzi are in thrall to a powerful cadre of rabbis with primitive views on modern society and with limited commitment to the democratic process. Recognizing the threat to democracy posed by the rapid demographic growth of such people, Adi has become a prominent member of a powerful cadre of civil servants who serve as legal “gatekeepers” in the service of democracy, the main task of whom is preventing ideologically problematic elected officials from governing according to their whims.

The means at the gatekeepers’ disposal in defense of democracy revolve around a Supreme Court with steadily increasing powers of judicial review, unfettered by the usual constraints on who can petition the court (standing), what issues can be heard by the court (justiciability) and what grounds can be used to limit government action. Ever alert to the dangers inherent in majority rule, Adi and her colleagues in the Attorney General’s office further serve the cause of liberty by warning the government well in advance when some policy might be regarded as problematic by the Court, thus nipping mischief in the bud. If the government nevertheless persists in advancing its unapproved policies, Adi and her fellow gatekeepers refuse to represent the government in court or, even better, represent the government but do not defend its position. As far as Adi is concerned, no effort ought to be spared in the vigilant defense of democracy.

On the face of it, the rift between Itcha Meir, Bentzi and Adi on matters of religion and statism seems vast and unbridgeable. If Shimen would not identify with either Itcha Meir’s religious anti-statism or Bentzi’s religious statism, he surely would feel even more distant from Adi’s disdain for both Jewish religion and Jewish nationalism. Shimen at least enjoyed arguing with Adi’s grandfather Yossel, but I suspect that Shimen wouldn’t enjoy arguing with Adi. It’s not so much that, unlike Yossel, she’s ignorant on matters of Judaism, as that she seems to lack a sense of irony.


Okay, I’m done laying out the problems in Israel. From here on in, we’ll be dealing with the solutions.

Bentzi the Kooknik

Itcha Meir’s cousin Bentzi grew up in Jerusalem and went to a yeshiva high school run by students of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. Rabbi Zvi Yehuda was the son of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, father of the ideology that dominated religious Zionist educational institutions in Israel during Bentzi’s school days in the 1970s. After high school, Bentzi attended a hesder yeshiva, where he alternated between yeshiva studies and army service. Bentzi was so taken with the anti-galuti spirit of his yeshiva that, for example, he had no interest in joining his father’s annual nostalgia visits to the Gerrer rebbe.

If Yossel’s descendants were committed to Zionism but not Torah and Itcha Meir’s compatriots were committed to Torah but not Zionism, Bentzi and his friends were committed to both Torah and Zionism. They studied the same Torah as haredim and settled the land in the manner of the early pioneers. Bentzi was convinced that as such they could serve as a bridge between the worlds of Yossel and Itcha Meir. He has never himself quite grasped why nobody has ever shown any interest in buying the bridge he’s been selling, but the explanation is actually quite straightforward and is also the key to understanding why Shimen wouldn’t feel at home in Bentzi’s world.

Bentzi’s version of religious Zionism is not intermediate between secular Zionism and religious non-Zionism; more specifically, it is not the union of Zionism and religious Judaism. Rather, as followers of Rabbi Kook have always stressed, it is a new hyphenated ideology in which statism is reinterpreted in religious terms and Judaism takes on a statist character. For Yossel and his fellow Laborites, statism has to replace religion; for Itcha Meir and his fellow Gerrers, religion has to reject statism. But for Bentzi and his fellow Kookniks, the renewal of Jewish statism is the very heart of a religious redemptive process.

As an enthusiastic adherent of the Kookian view, Bentzi embraces the new definition of national power. He regards the tools of state-building – agriculture, military, industry – not simply as necessary burdens but as sacred endeavors worthy of the kind of veneration once reserved for matters of the spirit: army uniforms are for him the new priestly garments. For Bentzi, Gerrer political subversiveness has been replaced by its polar opposite, mamlakhtiut, the doctrine that whatever apparent flaws the state and its institutions might suffer from, they and their proximate agents should be regarded as endowed with a divine imprimatur. Moreover, for Bentzi the state is the appropriate authority for deciding and regulating religious matters: the state ought to appoint rabbis, enforce religious legislation, and fund religious services. The replacement of religious community organizations with state institutions is the fulfillment of God’s promise of ve-ashiva shoftayich karishona (“I shall restore your judges as once were”: Isaiah 1:26), so that even secular officials, by virtue of being agents of the state and hence the bearers of sub-conscious religious longings, can be trusted to manage religious affairs.

As a hard-bitten realist, Shimen could not identify with any of this. Having suffered the consequences of statelessness, he was grateful for a powerful Jewish state, with all its flaws. He would see no value in Bentzi’s conjuring a virtual idealized state, devoid of any resemblance to the actual imperfect state on the ground, and declaring it yesod kisei Hashem ba-olam (the foundation of God’s seat in the world, a phrase coined by the elder Rabbi Kook). Such fantasies have consequences, none of them good.

First, only in Bentzi’s virtual idealized state would it be a plausible idea to entrust bureaucrats with the management of religious affairs. Shimen could never imagine, for example, what good could come from a rabbi appointed to a community by distant government bureaucrats, probably on the basis of patronage. For Shimen, a rabbi was simply someone who had earned respect from a community for his Torah scholarship, leadership and moral stature; he had no use for someone handed the title of community rabbi and paid a salary by the state. He agreed with the cynical premise underlying the suggestion of the philosopher David Hume with regard to clergy that the government ought “to bribe their indolence, by assigning stated salaries to their profession, and rendering it superfluous for them to be farther active than merely to prevent their flock from straying in quest of new pastures”. As government-supported civil servants unaccountable to their communities but vulnerable to pressure by state officials and to second-guessing by the courts, official rabbis have the wrong incentives.

Furthermore, as someone familiar with disillusionment, Shimen well understood that the kind of enthusiastic and naïve utopianism that burdens the state with unrealistic expectations is bound to lead to disappointment. Shimen would not be in the least surprised to learn that, in addition to being over-represented among the ranks of combat officers, graduates of religious Zionist institutions are disproportionately involved in the leadership of the most radical Israeli organizations devoted to securing the interests of those who wish the Jews dead and their state destroyed. Disappointed idealists are prone to trading one messianic fantasy for another.

In short, Shimen would not be at home with either Bentzi or his cousin Itcha Meir. And it appears that the rift between Bentzi and Itcha Meir cannot be easily healed. Bentzi’s world and that of Itcha Meir are separated not only by ideology, but by one simple hard fact: Bentzi and his friends serve in the army and Itcha Meir and his friends do not. This turns the difference between them from one of degree to one that is dichotomous.

Can this dichotomy ever be overcome? I’ll dangle a clue: Bentzi’s ideology, like the mustache he still sports un-ironically, is beginning to look dated even within his own community. But before we get into all that, we must turn to the third member of our contemporary Israeli triumvirate: Yossel’s secular granddaughter, Adi.

Itcha Meir

During its first three decades, Israel was dominated, politically and culturally, by Yossel types – secularized, socialist, European Jews. This situation changed in the 1970s with the coming of age of the Israeli contemporaries of Heidi, Yitzy and Ben.

The secular Adi, haredi Itcha Meir and religious-Zionist Bentzi seem, at least superficially, to have even less in common with each other than do their American doppelgangers. They are distinguished by the significance they assign to Israel as a Jewish state and by their aspirations for that state.

As we shall soon see, none of the three bear the particular qualities we have ascribed to Shimen. In fact, Shimen would not identify with any of them, with the versions of Judaism that they practice or with their attitudes to Zionism. This post and the two following posts will describe Itcha Meir, Bentzi and Adi, respectively, and how their worlds differ from that of Shimen.

Itcha Meir’s parents were Polish child survivors, with sensibilities not unlike those of Shimen, who met in Israel in the late 1950s. Itcha Meir’s father, Leibel, made a modest living as a watchmaker. Leibel was active in Poalei Agudah, a somewhat more Zionist affiliate of the haredi Agudas Yisrael party, mainly because of a family connection to its leader, Binyomin Mintz. Although deeply suspicious of secular Zionists like Yossel, he was grateful that Jews could build and defend their own country and even volunteered briefly with the Haganah. Leibel was close to the Gerrer Rebbe, the Beis Yisrael, but was careful not to get sucked too deeply into the Rebbe’s orbit. He steered clear of ideology and expected his oldest son, Itcha Meir, to share his sympathetic ambivalence towards Zionism.

Itcha Meir attended an elementary school associated with the yekke branch of Poalei Agudah, where secular subjects were studied in the afternoon; on Shabbes, he went to Ezra, a religious Zionist youth movement religiously to the right of the Bnei Akiva youth movement. But when the Gerrer yeshiva ketanah (high school), Hiddushei Harim, opened its new building not far from Itcha Meir’s home, the Rebbe prevailed upon Leibel to let Itcha Meir study there. Having internalized his father’s soft spot for chassidus, Itcha Meir adapted very quickly to his new yeshiva. He had already developed proficiency in the study of Gemara with commentaries and was pleased to devote himself to such study with greater intensity. He happily wore the standard outfit, a bekeshe and pants tucked into his socks (and even a specified type of underwear), and lived by all the yeshiva’s very long list of rules, most of which involved avoiding women.

The view of the world that Itcha Meir imbibed in his years in the Gerrer yeshiva ketana has stayed with him to this day, especially regarding Israel. The yeshiva was aggressively anti-Zionist. Unlike many chassidic communities that originated in Hungary, the Gerrer yeshiva did not promote the view that Zionism was literally the work of Satan, but merely that it was conceptually misguided and practically anti-religious. For the Gerrers, Zionists like Yossel, who shifted the focus of Jewish peoplehood from shared religious values to a shared secular state, undermined the unity of the Jewish people. And the Zionist re-definition of Jewish power from spiritual resistance to military strength weakened Judaism. On the practical level, they saw Zionist attempts to re-educate religious immigrants against their will as an affront to both Judaism and human decency.  Itcha Meir found all this persuasive then and still does today.

But Itcha Meir’s rejection of Zionism is not rooted so much in ideology as in a deep sense of alienation. Soldiering and performing physical labor seem to him to be the sorts of activities that goyim ought to be doing, not nice Jewish boys. Exhibiting the same combination of elitism and naiveté that characterizes graduate students everywhere, Itcha Meir simply pretends that security and industry materialize from the ether. In a similar vein, since the chassidic folklore to which he is greatly attached assumes a world in which Jews struggle valiantly against hostile goyim, Itcha Meir casts non-haredi Jews in Israel in the role of the goyim. He speaks of “evil decrees” propagated by the regime against innocent haredim that “even the Polish government never dared do”. One of Itcha Meir’s more cynical Gerrer friends is fond of pointing out to him that he is absolutely right: the Polish government never once cut subsidies to yeshivas.

Not serving in the Israeli army was a perfect bridge-burning signal for Itcha Meir in his youth, as it is now for his children. It significantly reduces their options outside the haredi community and hence reliably signals their loyalty to the community. But, unlike, for example, signaling loyalty by committing to costly stringencies regarding kashrus, draft avoidance is also costly to third parties. Consequently, Itcha Meir is forced into arguments about this with his religious Zionist cousin, Bentzi, on the occasions when they meet at a family celebration.

When he wishes to get Itcha Meir’s goat, cousin Bentzi is fond of pointing out that Itcha Meir justifies his sons’ draft avoidance using two contradictory lines of attack. Sometimes Itcha Meir’s claim is that Zionism is a fundamentally secular movement with which Itcha Meir and his family do not identify and they should therefore not be asked to fight its wars. But on other occasions, Itcha Meir’s claim is that since Israel is a Jewish state, its government should recognize the important contribution of Torah scholars to the spiritual well-being of the Jewish people and hence willingly grant them a dispensation.

For all of Shimen’s arguments with his renegade Zionist cousin Yossel, he had little patience for the assertive anti-Zionism of Itcha Meir’s generation of Israeli Gerrer chassidim. He found their ideological arguments to be self-servingly disingenuous and to display what he regarded as an inexcusable lack of gratitude. He couldn’t fathom how they could draw any kind of analogy between anti-semitic Polish goyim and their own cousins in Israel; he found this kind of shallow reduction of a radically new situation to an old and familiar one to be both lazy and childish.

But, as we shall see in the next post, if the haredi Itcha Meir isn’t quite a modern-day version of Shimen, neither is the religious-Zionist Bentzi.