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Kindness And Zealotry

By Barry Jacobson

I would like to clarify a few issues from my essay in last week’s issue, “The Mesorah of Chesed.” First, I apologize if I was unduly harsh toward people considered gedolei Yisrael, which would undermine my own cause of civility, especially since some events occurred long ago, with no way to verify them precisely. I ask mechillah.

Unfortunately, a similar occurrence of a respected posek insulting another rav took place this week and led almost immediately to physical violence against him. I leave as an open question: How are we supposed to react to these events, with regard to our faith in daas Torah, and how do we convey it to our children?

In any event, I received a letter from a very close childhood friend: “Well written, Barry, and you are so right that we should admit our share of responsibility for this mess. Sadly, Yair Lapid and Co. are dead set against religion and will not distinguish between chareidi or other shades. He has a new mesorah, hatred of religion, second generation. I am unsure that a more tolerant reaction to Herzl would have helped. It probably would have diluted things even more in Eastern European Jewry. And who knows how that dilution would have trickled down to you and me; would we have had the religious opportunities and learning opportunities that we had 80 years later? There is a place for kannaus. What we are lacking is the balance that the yeshiva intelligentsia of Lithuania provided to offset and balance the Galician-Hungarian kannaus. The checks and balances that Volozhin provided to this whole dynamic no longer exists, because the yeshivas since WW2 are not truly in the Volozhin tradition.”

I wanted to discuss his point, that kannaus has a place.

I was privileged to have a Rebbe at HANC in the 1970s who was an ultra-kannai, Rabbi Yaakov Wehl, z’l, author of Haggadah with Answers and sefarim Ikvei Aharon and Pesher Davar on many difficult mesechtas. Even today, 35 years later, HANC students from that era never fail to get an affectionate laugh from stories about him, which were colorful, to say the least.

One day in 9th grade, I went to a school bowling club that met before shiur, but buses returned about half an hour after shiur began. Rabbi Wehl turned beet-red, and screamed in the loudest voice you ever heard: “JACOBSON! IS BOWLING MORE IMPORTANT THAN BUILDING THE BEIS HAMIKDASH? The Gemara says we are not mevatel learning even to build the Beis HaMikdash, but for bowling we are??” Needless to say, I never went again.

He would not allow any school announcements to be made during learning, and would wave the messenger (even the attendance monitor) away. On Tu B’Shevat one came around with those JNF stickers for dedicating a tree in Israel. After kicking out the messenger as usual, he yelled to the class, “Tu B’Shevat has as much to do with planting trees in Israel as I have to walking on the moon!” Another time he commented about another faculty member that he spends all his time singing Hatikvahs.

Now, while this was a rather unusual pedagogical method, it motivated HANC students to continue learning for many years, in yeshivos all around the world. One is now a rosh chabura and rav in Lakewood. Rav Wehl knew that if Israel became the primary focus of young day-school students, they could easily think that the totality of Jewish experience was to sit around campfires and sing Israeli songs. He desperately wanted to push students to go higher in their growth in learning.

My friend quoted above clearly takes the chareidi side here. But he presents it with love and wisdom. Precisely because he knows all those same Israeli songs we learned in day school and understands both sides of the issue, and is not speaking from a personal bias, his point rings home with me. Yes, there is a place for kannaus, because it can fire people up to accomplish great things. But it can also trigger a tremendous backlash if used incorrectly. One recent poll showed Lapid at 30 seats if elections were held now.

I think this is the message of the broken vav of Parashas Pinchas where it says, “Hineni nosen lo es brisi shalom.” True, kannaus is sometimes needed to deal with an aveirah, but it is not the full shalom. Better would have been to inspire the rasha so that he would not have committed the aveirah in the first place.

The intellectual capacity we have to accomplish what we did in Israel, and the honesty and kindness that allow us to get along with people to establish these successful enterprises, were all honed in our long history of learning. While we can’t easily get chilonim to understand our love of learning a blatt Gemara, we can at least try to explain what benefit it has been to them all these thousands of years, in terms they can understand.

I have no personal position on whether yeshiva bachurim should be drafted; it is not my place. That was not the point of my previous article. The point was to address the vildkeit (brazen and hurtful behavior) among some of us that is unfortunately making it likely an arrangement will be imposed upon us from the outside. But a good place to start, for those interested in knowing some of the sources, is Rabbi Alfred Cohen’s article in Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, No. XXIII, Spring 1992, Pesach 5752. It is interesting that Rav Zevin, despite the initial reaction of many gedolim at the founding of the State that no yeshiva bachurim should serve, politely went around and asked them what their source was. He concluded in a monograph that they must serve.

There are so many considerations in the question of the draft. The z’chus of Torah protects, but plain halachah seems to be clear that in a milchemes mitzvah everyone is obligated to fight. Also, simple fairness seems to dictate that the risk be borne by all. Mai chazis d’dama didach?

If we use a quota system, we have additional problems, such as who will dan dinei nefashos saying, “You learn well enough” and “you don’t.” What if one is a great and sincere masmid, but can’t grasp, despite how hard he tries? In addition, would midos tovos dictate that even if offered an exemption, a yeshiva bachur should properly decline, if his peers are drafted?

Further considerations include lack of ability to make a living in the current system, leading to issues of poverty, self-esteem, and shalom bayis. I note that frequently taxi drivers who have fought in the ’67 war are so proud, they have more confidence than a major CEO.

We need to know what is honestly best for the whole klal. And many of us won’t accept a blanket ruling without understanding the reasoning.

The Chazon Ish writes in Emunah Ubitachon that the biggest problem most people have in accepting the word of rabbanim is not that they don’t trust that the rabbanim know halachah, or that the questioners don’t want to keep halachah. Rather, they are intensely afraid that they will not be impartial but will inject their own preference. He dismisses this as almost not worthy of consideration, because it is the most basic part in rendering a decision. Yet clearly, in our time, because of all the division and polarization, it is extremely difficult to get universal agreement on who would be trusted and unbiased poskim to weigh all these factors.

There are moderate gedolim who have been written out of history in the past century because their positions did not conform to preconceived notions. Extremists have an advantage that they can silence moderates by labeling them less G‑d-fearing. The Netziv says that one reason Jerusalem was destroyed was that people went around calling each other apikorsim.

A name that pops into my mind as an example of one who would have been ideally suited to pasken on this issue and be accepted by all is Rav Gustman, z’l. He served on the beis din of Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky at age 23, yet was an independent thinker. Someone related that he set up his yeshiva in Yerushalayim next to a nursing home. To be financially efficient, he paid the nursing home to provide food for his yeshiva as well. Someone complained that it had a Rabbanut hechsher. He told him that he checked everything out, and all was fine. The person told him that he would make trouble for him if he used Rabbanut. Rav Gustman responded that he went through the war, during which he watched his 6-year-old child killed in front of his eyes and his body thrown on a trash heap. He told the fellow that because this was the most degrading thing that could ever happen to a person, and conversely, because he had the privilege to sit with Reb Chaim Ozer, the greatest honor that could happen to a person, there was nothing this person could do that would faze him. When Shlomo Aumann (whom I was fortunate to know) was killed in Lebanon, Rav Gustman spent much time with his father, Prof. Robert Aumann, telling him that while his own son Meir was a kadosh, Shlomo had an additional advantage that he died while saving Jews. Such a posek can transcend all divisions.

May we be zocheh to raise a new generation untainted with any fighting or arguing, who are great talmidei chachamim that are able to see all sides of an issue, who are truly loved and respected by all segments of the k’lal, and who can explain their piskei halachah in a way which is miskabel al ha’daas and miskabel al ha’lev. That is, they can make their decisions understandable intellectually and also acceptable emotionally, so that people don’t feel that they are being ramrodded with views or hashkafos that are anathema to them, but accept them willingly and happily. v

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Posted by on June 20, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.