by Rabbi Herzl Hefter
I am depressed. Early Friday morning I returned home to Israel from the Limmud Conference in the UK. Jews of all backgrounds, secular, Orthodox, Masorti, Reform and Liberal attended. I say ‘attended’ and not ‘were represented‘ because we were all there as individual Jews, representing only ourselves, united by a thirst for Torah and community. Limmud had managed to create a wonderful “safe space” where Jews could simply encounter one another as fellow Jews. Coming from Israel, the experience was inspiring, almost intoxicating.
So why am I depressed? Because I had to write “coming from Israel…” To what did I return home? I returned home to haredi violence in Beit Shemesh and a haredi boy dressed by his parents with a yellow Star of David. According to reports, his father said that the Nazi-Zionist government’s persecution of the haredim is worse than what was carried out by the Nazi regime. What would my father, who witnessed his mother being taken to be shot, who alone survived of nine brothers and sisters and unknown number of nephews, nieces and cousins, what would he say?
Confrontation. I returned home to confrontation. Religiously speaking, I returned home to an abomination in the House of the Lord.
Arguably, there are more Jews studying Torah in Israel today than ever before in Jewish history. Has the society most devoted to Torah study become a light unto the nations or even unto our own nation? Do spiritual seekers, Jews and non-Jews, the world over flock to Bnei Brak and Mea She’arim in pursuit of holy, refined spiritual human beings reflecting the image of God? The vulgar expressions of the past weeks come from the most sheltered corners of haredi society; the most isolated from the modern world and its influences. The sicaricim are the “most pure”.
As Jews who hold tenaciously to the Torah and its teachings we must not shy away from the painful conclusion that for some, the Torah has become, in the language of our sages (Yoma 72b), sam ha mita, a deadly poison, and in our case a toxic environmental hazard.
In my mind, two things need to happen, one political and the other educational. We need to rethink and redefine the marriage of religion and state in Israel in a manner which preserves the Jewish character of the state while eliminating the morally numbing influence of political power on religious groups. Political power and fervent religious obscurantism are the father and mother of the noxious fruit which we must all now ingest.
Educationally, we need to dispel, once and for all, the notion that the more we shut out the world, the more “Torah true” we are. In fact the exact opposite is true.Absolute faith in the Torah obliges us to encounter, squarely and honestly, the ethical and theological challenges of the modern world. The authentic encounter (there is no other kind) is characterized by the consciousness that we may actually learn something new in the process. Open mindedness and humility are the two keys to shifting from confrontation to encounter; authentic encounter of ourselves, the other and ultimately, God.
Rabbi Herzl Hefter is rosh yeshiva of Har’el Yeshiva.