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Exile in the Holy Land: The Dilemma of Haredi Jewry


Studies in Contemporary Jewry : Volume V: Israel: State and Society, 1948-1988
"This philosophy also accords inherent religious content to the fact of Jewish political sovereignty, a normative meaning that is not conditional on specific laws and mores of the state or on the choice and decision of its members. According to the logic of the Neturei Karta, the original sin is rooted in the very existence of the state and cannot be corrected or purified, but according to the logic of the messianic approach, the positive essence of the state cannot be destroyed or damaged. The Zionist enterprise will inevitably lead to repentance and redemption. The times are those of the ultimate realization of history, the revealed End from which there is no turning back; its beginning guarantees its end. True, it is within our power to accelerate this process or to delay it, to remove obstacles in its path or to erect them. But nothing can alter its preordained direction or its inevitable destination. A favored metaphor used to explain this idea is that of a person traveling on a train who can assist or hold back the engine's progress but who is powerless to change the course of the tracks or the final destination of the journey. These have been laid in advance, by the Cause of all causes, leading toward repentance and redemption."

Exile in the Holy Land: The Dilemma of Haredi Jewry - Aviezer Ravitzky (The Hebrew University)

The social group commonly known as Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewry is composed of many diverse factions, each of which differs significantly from the others: hasidim, for example, as against mitnagdim; Lubavitch hasidim as against those of Satmar; Agudat Israel as against the 'edah haredit' in Jerusalem---each loyal to its own path and own rabbi.

The differences among the various sections of haredi Jewry occur at a number of different levels.[1] They differ in their attitudes to modernity, the Jewish people as a whole, Zionism, the State of Israel and the theological significance of contemporary history. That is to say, the major dividing lines fall between moderate rejection of modernity and a view of modernity as the devil incarnate, a sense of responsibility for the Jewish people in its entirety and a preference to seclude and isolate the truly faithful, non-Zionism and anti-Zionism, a theology that sees direct divine intervention reflected in the unfolding historical process and a worldview of halakhists for whom current historical events are almost devoid of religious significance.

As a generic term, therefore, "haredi Jewry" may be artificial and valid only from the perspective of the outside observer who sees surface manifestations but not the underlying conflicts of philosophy and outlook.[2] This problem certainly presents itself when we consider the variety of haredi attitudes toward the existence, laws, mores and activities of the sovereign Jewish state in the current (i.e., pre-messianic) era. That issue stands at the center of a sharp conflict within the haredi community, occasionally resulting in mutual rejection and boycott. In the light of this fragmentation, we must begin with the question: What common characteristics do these groups, in fact, share?

The Consciousness of Exile

From one crucial angle, it appears that all haredi groups share a common base. This becomes clear via the following formulation: Who is a haredi? Whoever views and experiences life in the Jewish state in Eretz Israel as exile---the exile of Israel in the Holy Land. One pole of the haredi camp, the radical anti-Zionist one (particularly Neturei Karta circles), states that it is exile because of the existence of the State of Israel, owing to both its betrayal of the Messiah and secular nationality; the opposite pole, the non-Zionist one, maintains that it is exile despite the existence of the State of Israel, despite the physical rescue and "The beginning of the ingathering of the exiles" that has accompanied its birth and existence.[3] In any event---exile.

Those who share this perception, in all its various shadings, deny the possibility of an interim historical situation, neither exile nor redemption. They unequivocally reject the validity of such a hybrid and recognize no halakhic (legal) or theoretical model appropriate to it. Any reality that is not totally messianic is, by its very definition, total exile. For exile is not a geographic condition that can be overcome by aliyah and settlement alone. Neither is exile a political condition that can be corrected by the attainment of national sovereignty and independence. The concept "exile" is a theological, metaphysical one---the exile of the shekhinah ("divine Presence")---that will expire only with the final setting right of man and the world. The responsibility that exile imposes on the Jewish people focuses exclusively on religious-spiritual activity, not on mundane political activity. The concept "exile" represents, first and foremost, a reality that has not yet been redeemed from sin: "Because of our sins we were exiled from our land" and "Israel will be redeemed only by repentance."

For example, the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneersohn, recently stated:

The period in which we are living now is not the beginning of the redemption, and the aliyah of many Jews to the Holy Land is not the ingathering of the exiles, but rather the possibility of rescuing many Jews during the time of the exile....The false redemption does not allow the true redemption to be revealed, for those who think that they are already living in the redemption do not perform the [religious] actions required for the going forth from exile and the revealing of the true redemption; they cause the prolongation of the exile, the exile of the individual, the exile of the community, the exile of all Israel, and the exile of the shekhinah [emphases in the original].[4]

Similarly, his outstanding critic, Rabbi Eliezer Menahem Shach, the leader of the Lithuanian rashei yeshivot in Israel declared, "The Jewish people is still in exile, until the arrival of the redeemer, even when it is in Eretz Israel; this is neither redemption nor the beginning of the redemption."[5]

The common factor shared by these two opponents is that all historical reality by the very fact of its gradual course---progressing "Bit by bit, and by natural means"---is the reality of exile; any existence that is not messianic, perfect and miraculous and from which the flavor of sin has not been removed is the existence of exile. This holds true for the partial return to Zion and the Jewish political resurrection in our time as well. (The denial of a current process of redemption distinguishes the haredim from messianic religious Zionists; the claim of exile separates them from any religious Zionist position.)[6]

This perception of the present historical reality as exile is not limited solely to a theological awareness. It is also reflected in a psychological and existential stance toward the secular environment, in a sense of personal and communal alienation. The concept "exile" does not denote the mere opposite of the destined messianic redemption, it also denotes the lack of a home, the home of one's father and grandfather as well as the sense of estrangement from the external society, its lifestyles and culture, and from the secular government and its institutions. These are depicted in many instances as a society and government that have completely lost all Jewish identifying characteristics, with nothing to distinguish them from the gentile environment in any country---or in other words, "exile."

This consciousness is reinforced by the intermittently renewed sharp public conflicts with the secular society and its leaders. For example, in a public assembly held in 1986 to protest the arson that resulted in the burning of religious books in a Tel-Aviv yeshivah, Rabbi Pinhas Menahem Alter, the head of the Sefat Emet yeshivah of Gur hasidim and a member of the Mo'ezet gedolei hatorah ("Council of Torah Sages") lamented, "This is the most difficult exile, exile under Jewish rule." This is "The most difficult exile," specifically because that which was supposed to be a home seems to be strange and hostile and arouses in the mind of the speaker associations of persecutions of the Jews by non-Jewish nations. Or, as Rabbi Binyamin Mendelson, the late rabbi of Moshav Komemiyut stated, "Our sins have led to our being put in exile in the Holy Land, in the hands of the non-religious."[7] These are not metaphysical statements on the question of messianic redemption, but rather expressions of an existential state of alienation, both personal and collective, reflected in the identification of secular Jewish authority with the gentile ruler.

Here a distinction should be made: exile, in its first, theological, meaning---the absence of redemption---is not necessarily meant to express an attitude of de-legitimation and principled negation of the contemporary collective Jewish enterprise in Eretz Israel. Rather, it is meant to convey the idea that the Jewish state exists within history, not beyond it: not in the End of Days. Only a messianic reality could redeem and break through the category of exile. On the other hand, exile, in its second sense---the absence of a home---reflects a position of distance from, and rejection of, the secular reconstruction of the Holy Land, of a Jewish nationalism that is not anchored in the Torah and its commandments. This life together with, and under the leadership of, transgressors is the life of the exiled, of the resident alien, of the cast aside, even beyond the fact of the Messiah's tarrying. Those speaking for haredi Jewry recurrently use, in various contexts, expressions and depictions that reveal this consciousness of a double exile in the Holy Land.[8]

There is nothing new about this phenomenon. As early as 1937, in his speech to the convention (Haknessiyah hagedolah) of Agudat Israel in Marienbad, Rabbi Elhanan Bunem Wasserman envisioned the future Jewish state as the exile of Israel---exile in both senses. He stated that the observant Jew is deeply hurt when he hears talk of the "Beginning of the redemption"; on the contrary, a Jewish state, should it arise and come into being according to the secular Zionist vision, would be nothing other than "The beginning of a new exile"---an unprecedented "exile amidst the Jews," the "exile of the Yevsektsia."[9]

The horrors of the Holocaust, in which Rabbi Wasserman himself perished, somewhat blunted the style of the confrontation but not its content or its message. In 1945, for example, after the destruction of European Jewry, Rabbi Moshe Blau, one of the outstanding leaders of Agudat Israel in Eretz Israel, issued a call to haredi Jewry to mobilize for the rebuilding of the Diaspora from its ruins. The haredim, he declared, must not be deceived by the Zionist call for the "liquidation of the exile";[10] the reconstruction of Eretz Israel and the reconstruction of the communities abroad were of equal importance. In Eretz Israel the faithful Jew actually found himself living in a triple exile: at the hands of the British, of the Arabs and, especially, of Jews who had thrown off the yoke of the Torah. In Rabbi Blau's words:

At present we have three exiles in Eretz Israel, the exile of Edom, the exile of Ishmael, and the exile of the freethinkers, and Eretz Israel perhaps surpasses the foreign lands in this last exile, for at any rate it does not exist, in this form, in any other place outside Eretz Israel. The word of the Lord, "And you I will scatter among the nations" [Lev.26:33] is ultimately valid, just as the promise, "He will bring you together again from all the peoples"[Deut.30:3] is ultimately valid. As long as "He will bring you" has not been fulfilled---and anyone in whose heart a spark of true Judaism burns will not say that the government by the freethinkers in Eretz Israel conforms to "He will bring you"---then the validity of "And you I will scatter" obviously still exists....Haredi Jewry in Eretz Israel is unbearably oppressed, the heavy hand of the freethinkers has overpowered it since it has lost the support of the healthy, vibrant Jewry in the exile of Europe.

It is ironic that the spokesman of haredi Jewry apparently did not invent the image of the future Jewish state as the exile of Israel in Eretz Israel. Credit for this should be given to those non-religious writers who at the end of the nineteenth century expressed their profound fear of the expected takeover by the rabbis of the free life of the people. Yehudah Leib Gordon, for example, launched an attack on the settlement activity in Eretz Israel that was not part of, or accompanied by, a spiritual liberation from the ghetto, that is, by a cultural and ideological revolution. Gordon explained his opposition by his fear of the heavy hand of the Shulhan 'arukh and its bearers over the Jews. This, he believed, would prevent the true redemption of the people and was liable to turn life in Eretz Israel into a new exile. In his words, "I have felt this on my own body; the exile under Israel is more difficult for us than the exile under the nations of the world."[11]

Messianic Approaches

To understand the full significance of this conception it should be contrasted with two religious philosophies opposed to it, which are espoused by those located at the two poles of the Jewish religious ideological axis: the Neturei Karta and Satmar hasidim, on the one hand, and the school of the Merkaz Harav Yeshivah and the leaders of Gush Emunim, on the other.

1. The anti-Zionist haredi worldview of Neturei Karta and Satmar hasidim perceive the Zionist enterprise and the establishment of the State of Israel as an anti-messianic act, conceived and born in sin.[28] It vigorously denies the very legitimacy of the collective political return---the handiwork of man---to the Holy Land and to Jewish sovereignty. The Jewish people had been sworn to political quietism. They were adjured, in the words of the Midrash (as expounded by Rashi), not to return collectively by the exertion of physical force to Eretz Israel, not to "rebel against the nations of the world" and "not to hasten the End."[29] In short, they were required to wait for the heavenly, complete, miraculous, supernatural and meta-historical redemption that is absolutely distinct from the realm of human endeavor. Such waiting over two millennia is the manifestation of the very essence and singularity of the Jewish people; it expresses faith in divine Providence, in the assurances of the prophets and in the messianic destiny.

The Jewish people have been removed from the causal laws that govern nature and history, and they are bound, in an exclusive manner, by another set of religio-ethical laws within a causal process of reward and punishment, exile and redemption: "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain; unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman keeps vigil in vain" (Ps. 127:1). Accordingly, any Jewish political revival that is not messianic intrinsically represents a denial of divine Providence and of the hope of redemption, and is a betrayal of the destiny and the uniqueness of Israel. The attempt to hasten the End, to return by physical power to the sphere of political---and certainly, military---history is a collective revolt against the kingdom of heaven, an aggressive aspiration to overstep the boundaries into the realm reserved for the Holy One, blessed by He---just like the deeds of the generation of the Tower of Babel. It is depicted as an act of the devil, a demonic outburst of unclean forces, which may not be corrected; it is ultimately doomed to failure, regardless of human deeds: "The Lord shall rebuke you---the Satan who has chosen Jerusalem."[30]

In other words, their fierce opposition to the State of Israel is not directed against its secular nature or against its laws and mores, but rather against its very existence, regardless of its nature. In the words of the late Satmar [i.e., Hasidic dynasty] rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Moshe Teitelbaum, "Even if the members of the Knesset [i.e., legislative branch of the Israeli government] were righteous and holy, it is a terrible and awful criminal iniquity to seize redemption and rule before the time has come."[31] According to this logic, for example, the concepts "Torah state" or "halakhic state" are contradictions in terms; any Jewish state prior to the messianic age---by the very nature of its human, natural, mundane provenance---undermines and denies the Torah and takes a stand against the halakhah [i.e., the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the Written and Oral Torah]. The faithful, therefore, are not enjoined to struggle for the refashioning of the Jewish character of the society and the state, but are required to isolate themselves unqualifiedly, to separate themselves socially from the majority of the people of Israel and politically from the State of Israel. Consequently, any use of the budgets and institutions of the Zionists is utterly forbidden and the members of these circles do their utmost to deny themselves any benefit from them.

In short, the only hope for this state lies in its total destruction, "But [we] need mercy that this kingdom will be destroyed only by a force from above, by the Lord, may He be blessed, not by the [non-Jewish] nations; for if, God forbid, this is to be done by the nations, it will, of course, constitute a great danger for Israel."[32] The Zionist endeavor is destined to make way for the true, complete, miraculous salvation, for the redemption that will rise on its ruins, as its total negation.

2. At the other end of the ideological continuum, we find an opposing image of historical reality, one, paradoxically, that shares an identical theological premise with the former school of thought. Redemptionist Zionism, from the school of the Merkaz Harav Yeshivah and Gush Emunim, perceives the Zionist enterprise and the establishment of the State of Israel as a messianic step, conceived and born in sanctity. At bottom, it also denies the legitimacy of any Jewish renewal or return to Zion that is not within the category of the decisive, ultimate redemption; it does not, however, admit to any dichotomy between the current and the messianic return. In the words of Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Hakohen Kook, the late head of the Merkaz Harav Yeshivah, "Our reality is a messianic reality" and "The true redemption is revealed in the settlement of the Land and the rebirth of Israel in it."[33] Accordingly, we are called on to discern in the as-yet incomplete processes of the present far more than meets the eye. The return to Zion and Jewish political independence are intrinsically sanctified because they embody a human response to a divine call. This is not insolence toward heaven or "hastening the End"; on the contrary, the country is built by force of the redeeming divine Providence, which leads by "historical necessity" and by "cosmological decisiveness" toward perfect fulfillment in all spheres, both material and spiritual.[34]

This philosophy also accords inherent religious content to the fact of Jewish political sovereignty, a normative meaning that is not conditional on specific laws and mores of the state or on the choice and decision of its members. According to the logic of the Neturei Karta, the original sin is rooted in the very existence of the state and cannot be corrected or purified, but according to the logic of the messianic approach, the positive essence of the state cannot be destroyed or damaged. The Zionist enterprise will inevitably lead to repentance and redemption. The times are those of the ultimate realization of history, the revealed End from which there is no turning back; its beginning guarantees its end. True, it is within our power to accelerate this process or to delay it, to remove obstacles in its path or to erect them. But nothing can alter its preordained direction or its inevitable destination. A favored metaphor used to explain this idea is that of a person traveling on a train who can assist or hold back the engine's progress but who is powerless to change the course of the tracks or the final destination of the journey. These have been laid in advance, by the Cause of all causes, leading toward repentance and redemption.

The common denominator of these two conceptions is that, a priori, they impart theological significance to the very existence of the State of Israel; both react to historical events through the messianic perspective and the hope of redemption and both reject any return to Zion and Jewish revival that are not complete and ultimate. Each adopts an out-and-out deterministic approach to the historical process: the future is fixed and clearly revealed in accordance with ultimate destiny and the fate of the Zionist enterprise is predestined and predictable, either as curse or blessing, according to its inherent religious essence.

Studies in Contemporary Jewry : Volume V: Israel: State and Society, 1948-1988
Peter Y. Medding, Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 89-98




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