By Yochanan Gordon
Congratulations to the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team, because if it weren’t for their championship victory, this article probably never would have been born. Before I saw the report of the Maccabi Tel Aviv victory, I hadn’t known they were even vying for the medal—goes to show you how closely I follow Israeli sports. However, the same report mentioned how the chareidim drew a corollary between following sports and the Eigel HaZahav, and it was that which got me thinking.
What does it mean to be chareidi? It’s an important question because the chareidim themselves ought to be aware of what the public thinks of them based on the image that they have created for themselves. I could not care less that Maccabi Tel Aviv won the championship game, whether the team was composed mostly of Jews or non-Jews. What bothers me beyond measure is the fact that a sect of Jews is bent on abusing Yidden verbally, emotionally, and physically, based on their sociopolitical differences.
Perhaps one of the things that secular Jews who are versed in Torah have a hard time coming to terms with is the harshness of the Tochachah, which we read twice a year. It’s interesting that the source for each Jew’s accountability towards another is derived from a verse in none other than the curses that we read in Parashas Bechukkosai. So, on the level of pshat, in the entire Torah, the portion that describes the relationship of Jews with G‑d under the greatest tension would be during the Tochachah, and it is precisely there that we learn of our accountability towards each other. From the perspective of Torah, which empowers its adherents to emulate the Creator, one would expect that the chareidim would be the ones excelling in returning estranged Jews back to the path of Torah and mitzvos. Unfortunately, the opposite appears to be more in line with reality.
The origin for the term chareidi stems from a verse in Isaiah (66:2) which states, “For all these things My hand made, and so all these things came to be, says the L‑rd; but on this man will I look, even on him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembles at My word.” What about this verse stands out to you? To me it is the juxtaposition of the term chareidi with “him that is poor and of a contrite spirit.” Chareidi is not about instilling fear as much as it is about being overcome with a feeling of awe for the One who bade all into existence. When the Torah tells us, “You shall place judges and officers in all your gates,” it’s not giving license to self-appointed officers to see to it that everyone carry out the word of the law. I would even suggest that if the fear tactics and constant negativity being employed by the most outspoken members of the chareidi community are the cause for people becoming disenfranchised with their roots, then there is ill value—not merely no value—to their extreme adherence to what they see as Torah law.
With this in mind, let me quote from a Jerusalem Post report following the Maccabi Tel Aviv victory. “We have become a country of idiots who do not respect the Torah,” United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni said. “That’s what Israelis care about? A game for children in third grade?”
Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev complained that Israelis had turned sports into a “golden calf” that they worship. “They made basketball and soccer a symbol of national pride instead of our rich Jewish culture,” he said. “The team is imported from around the world. They are not Jews, but Israelis don’t care as long as they win.”
Ze’ev’s Shas colleague MK Meshulam Nahari said the reaction by Israelis to the game showed him that they are in need of a better Jewish education.
UTJ MK Menahem Eliezer Moses said it was sad for him that basketball players had become the face of Israel.
Bayit Yehudi MK Zvulun Kalfa, who is Orthodox but not chareidi, said he felt less joy about Maccabi Tel Aviv’s victory Sunday than he did when Tal Brody led Maccabi to its first European cup in 1977, because that team featured more Jews and immigrants to Israel he could identify with. “The Israeli reaction to the game is a symptom of a larger problem,” Kalfa said. “We used to be more proud of our values and who we are. Now we use technical means of getting ahead like buying players with money.”
The most reasonable words were spoken by Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who credited “the Jewish brain” with being smart enough to bring together the right players and saying that he is glad the people of Israel have a reason to be happy. “Thank G‑d the championship game was not on Shabbat so we [chareidi MKs] can be happy too.”
It’s rather ironic that this report comes in the thick of the Omer period, a time when we are supposed to realign our sense of inclusiveness and mutual respect despite ideological differences that may at times divide us. Who of us claims to be greater than Rabbi Shimon and his son Rav Elazar, who were sent for an additional 12 months to the cave in which they hid out for 12 years in order to reassess the purpose of religiosity, and in a sense, to learn to look favorably on Jews who were involved in chayei sha’ah and not chayei olam?
I do not believe that the core of this dispute is centered on adherence to Torah or lack of it. The heart of this tension is politically driven and that is apparent by the way some of the people at play continue to conduct themselves with name-calling and adopting a condescending, greater-than-thou approach to things.
It would be appropriate to conclude with a vort from the Baal Shem Tov, who speaks always to the unsullied truth of the matter. The holy Besht said that it is naturally impossible for people to behold their own shortcomings, based on the saying of Chazal, “Ein adam roeh negei atzmo.” How then are we able to correct our inadequacies if we can’t even begin to identify them? The Baal Shem Tov answered that G‑d put into creation the concept that we see ourselves through other people; our fellow serves as a mirror through which we see ourselves. So if we don’t like something about someone and we call him out on it, this indicates that we struggle with that very same problem. So in this case, where Mr. Gafni and Mr. Ze’ev have purportedly accused supporters of Maccabi Tel Aviv of idol worship, perhaps that is a window into the manner in which they use the Torah—to promote their political and personal agenda. I know the notion of worshipping Torah as an idol sounds kind of twisted, but it’s worth giving it a thought because that is exactly what is at play over here.
As we march toward the yom tov of Shavuos, which marks the giving of Torah to Am Yisrael, it is important to note that the Torah was given in a desert so that no one would be able to claim more ownership than anyone else over it; the Torah was given to all Jews equally. This notion of labeling within Judaism is problematic, as if to imply G‑d loves one Jew more than the next. Perhaps that is the root of all the internal strife within Judaism today.
Let’s review the point that specifically in the curse we behold the greatest blessing—that all Jews are united and universally accountable for each other. May we soon see this sentiment in full expression with the coming of Mashiach. v