Rabbi Josh GersteinThe writer serves as the Jerusalem Campus Rabbi for the Aardvark Israel Immersion Program. Previously, he served as Av Bayit and Talmud Instructor at Yeshivat Orayta, a post High School Yeshiva in the Old City. Originally from Lancaster, PA, Rav Josh came to Israel in 2007 and lives with his wife in Jerusalem.
I was taken aback by the opinions expressed in the recent op-ed article posted on Arutz Sheva titled “A Yeshiva Bochur Reacts to the Equal Service Bill," and felt that it demanded a response. And as Rav Soloveitchik quoted Eliahu the son Berachel of Old, "I will speak that I may find relief; for there is a redemptive quality for an agitated mind in the spoken word and a tormented soul finds peace in confessing."(The Lonely Man of Faith p. 6). I so wanted the author to use this podium as an opportunity to expound on the unique values and contributions of the rich and vibrant hareidi life in Israel and throughout the world, but I found the article instead to be a reaffirmation of the very stereotypes that the author set out to change.
I agreed with Yeshiva Bochur at the outset of his article. As a religious Jew, the beginning paragraphs relating to the discrimination he experiences based on his dress resonated deeply within me. As he writes, “The pervasive and incessant fear of the hareidi-religious, albeit unfounded and baseless, is openly visible…. They fear me – not because they know me. They fear my outward appearance, immediately discarding my non-intimidating and friendly smiling persona but rather immediately judging the contents of my character by the appearance of my clothes.” This phenomenon of judging and hating based on external features, dress or appearance is deplorable—always has been, and always will be. With so many anti-Semites in the world, we Jews should not be adding any more members to their ranks and this practice is one of the biggest challenges we face in the Jewish world today.
However, from that point onwards, I found that Yeshiva Bochur and I diverge on almost every other principle point mentioned. The author starts by pontificating (his word, not mine), “I am a Jew who dresses as Jews did for centuries, believes as Jews believed for Millennia and devotes my life to the eternal Torah.”
Though I, too, believe in the power of Mesorah (Jewish Tradition), I do also believe that things need to be kept in proper perspective. Religious mode of dress, while an integral element of Jewish lifestyle, has not stayed stagnant throughout the 2000 years of our people’s history. The Kohen Gadol (High Priest) did not wear a black coat nor tie, and certainly the classic fedora style hat would not have been a part of his wardrobe. From our teacher Moshe, to the Tannaic sages, to the Rambam (Maimonides), Jews have dressed differently depending on their geographical location, but that did not define their belief in the foundations of Judaism.
Not only does Yeshiva Bochur’s sentiment reinforce the public’s perceptions about the hareidi view of the need for conformity in religious dress, it also serves to highlight the common misconception of religious Judaism's being more a set of stale ritualistic practices than what it truly is, a diverse and vibrant religious and spiritual journey.
Another problematic statement reads, “At the age of 16, yeshiva students acquire far more knowledge than a student attains in 3-4 years at university. At 20, they surpass a Ph.D., gauging this by the number of hours of class work, numbers of books analyzed, and level of complexity of the material.”
The statement is ignorant at best and arrogant at worst. The very notion itself is problematic, because any scholar who dedicates himself to learning with the sole aim of the acquisition of knowledge is entirely missing the point of what Torah study is about. It is not only the knowledge a person gains through the study, but what the study does to the person engrossed in it.
As Rav Solovetichik writes, "Torah study, aside from being an intellectual, educational endeavor, enlightening the student and providing him with the information needed to observe the law, is a redemptive cathartic process - it sanctifies the personality. It purges the mind of unworthy desires and irreverent thoughts, uncouth emotions and vulgar drives." ("Torah and Humility") In addition, the Midrash writes, "If a person tells you there is wisdom among the nations of the world, believe him. If a person tells you there is Torah among the nations of the world, do not believe him." (Eichah Rabbah 2:13) Maimonides goes so far as to write that when a person sees a wise man from among the nations of the world, they should recite the blessing:”Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who has given from His wisdom to flesh and blood.”(Laws of Blessings 10:11).
Clearly, both the Midrash and Rambam see value in the knowledge that can be gained outside the realm of Torah, and so Yeshiva Bochur should not so cavalierly discount the intellectual achievements of college graduates and holders of Ph.D.’s. The idea that only Jews have wisdom, and that that wisdom is only from the Torah, is a concept which is at odds with the Torah itself.
The author then continues to expound upon the virtues of simplicity of the hareidi lifestyle. He writes, “We emulate Rav Shimon Bar Yochai who would rather live on paltry rations of a particular food from a particular tree and live in a cave for decades learning Torah…” First, it is my opinion that a person should be free to choose any lifestyle that they wish, so long as it does not infringe on someone else’s. Therefore, if it is a person’s preference to eat “paltry rations” and to not join the workforce, so be it, but this only holds true if they can afford those rations by their own labor. To insist that one should pay so that the other can study Torah is misguided.
Maimonides writes, “Anyone who comes to the conclusion that he should involve himself in Torah study without doing work and derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates [God's] name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits the life of the world to come, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the words of Torah in this world….. All Torah that is not accompanied by work will eventually be negated and lead to sin. Ultimately, such a person will steal from others.” I believe that Maimonides’ words speak for themselves.
I implore Yeshiva Bochur to view this not as a war, but rather as an opportunity.
And finally, the author writes, “You will not win this war against us. Don't start one...”
I implore Yeshiva Bochur to view this not as a war, but rather as an opportunity. It is an opportunity to realize that Torah scholars are of the upmost importance to the national life of the Jewish people. It is an opportunity to break down the walls that separate one Jew from another and to integrate with the broader community in order to show the less religiously-observant the beauty and relevance of Jewish life.
And it is an opportunity fulfill the words of the Midrash Tanchuma Mishpatim 2, “He who is proper and fears sin, should involve himself in the needs of Israel… He should share their burden and suffer with them in times of trouble. He who acts in this manner sustains the world…“
Because if this opportunity is not seized, then the outcome could be catastrophic. The Midrash continues, “On the other hand ,he who refrains from sharing their burden and repairing their breaches acting as if he were Terumah (tithe) separated from the dough, destroys the world, as it is written “But an Ish Terumot (a man set aside) destroys it”(Proverbs 29:4). (Resheit Chachma Perek Hadinin p.257a)
It is my fervent hope that the days and weeks ahead see cooperation and resolution from Jews of all religious camps, and that together we will truly deserve the praise “And who is like your nation, Israel? One nation in the Land.” (Samuel 1, 15:19)