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Judaism: Past and Present

A false past is almost as dangerous as having no past at all.
Published: Sunday, March 23, 2014 7:02 AM


I received a great deal of comment about my last week’s article on the mental and social regression of a large section if Israeli society. Most of the comments were neither complimentary nor critical but were rather requests for more specifics about the need for change in the mindset of much of Orthodox Jewry here in Israel as well as in the Diaspora.

Still under the influence of Purim and therefore perhaps a little too foolhardy, I will attempt to explain my position more specifically in this article.

I think that we can all agree that the two main events in the Jewish world of the past century were the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. These two cataclysmic events changed the present Jewish society radically if not even permanently. Yet much of Orthodoxy inexplicably ignores these two events as though they never happened.

They occupy no space or time in many Orthodox schools and days of commemoration of these events are absent on school calendars. Instead there is a mindset that hunkers back to an idyllic Eastern European world of fantasy that is portrayed falsely in fictional stories, hagiographic biographies and omissions of uncomfortable facts and doctored photographs – to a world that never was.

An entire talented and vital society is doomed to live in the imagined past and disregard present realities. And if the view of the present is unfortunately shaped by historical and social disconnect and denial, then certainly the longer and equally vitally important view of the future will be distorted and skewed. Sooner or later, reality must sink in and when it does the pain, anger and frustration over past distortions and failures will become very difficult to bear.

The great struggle of most of Orthodoxy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries against Zionism influenced all Orthodox thought and behavior. As late as 1937, with German Jewry already prostrate before Hitler's madness and Germany already threatening Poland, the mainstream Orthodox rabbinate in Poland publicly objected to the formation of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel on the grounds that the heads of that state would undoubtedly be secular if not even anti-religious.

They were correct in that assessment but, since the Holocaust was then an unimaginable event in their worldview, they continued in their opposition to Jews leaving Poland to settle either in the United States or in Israel. Because of this past mindset, the Holocaust is more unsettling – theologically, at least – to Orthodoxy, than perhaps to any other group in the Jewish world.

Much of Orthodoxy chooses to ignore the issue or to contrive very lame excuses and causes for this catastrophe. In my opinion, there is no human answer to the event itself, but the event cannot be ignored. One of the consequences of confronting it is naturally an admission that great and holy men can be wrong in their assessment of current events and future occurrences. Much of Orthodoxy is so hagiographic about its present and past leaders that it cannot bring itself to admit that. As such, the past cannot truly help to assess the present. A false past is almost as dangerous as having no past at all.

Dealing with the State of Israel is an even more vexing issue for much of Orthodoxy. The creation of the Jewish state, mainly by secular and nonobservant Jews, and by political and military means was not part of the traditional Jewish view of how the Land of Israel would again fall under Jewish rule.

Since it occurred in the “wrong” way and was being led by the “wrong” people, it again shook the mindset of much of Orthodoxy. One of the great and holy leaders of Orthodox society in Israel stated in 1950 that the state could not last more than fifteen years. Well, it is obvious that in that assessment he was mistaken. But again, it is too painful to admit that he was mistaken and therefore the whole attitude of much of the Orthodox world is one of denial of the present fact that the state exists, prospers and is the largest supporter of Torah and Jewish traditional religious lifestyle in the world.

It is again too painful to admit that their past mindset regarding the State of Israel is no longer relevant. As long as large sections of hareidi Orthodoxy continue to live in an imaginary past and deny the realities of the present, such issues as army or national service, core curriculums of essential general knowledge for all religious schools, entering the workforce and decreasing the debilitating poverty and dysfunction of so many families, will never be able to be addressed properly.

The solutions are difficult and they cannot be dictated or legislated no matter how popular such steps may appear to be. But the change of mindset to the present must certainly and eventually occur. The Jewish people have always been up to this task and I am confident that we will be able to do so now as well.