Sunday, April 29, 2012

Yom HaAtzmaut – A Historical Perspective Part 1

In a recent post, Rabbi Slifkin claims that the main reason Charedim do not celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut (YH) is because it is at odds with the isolationism and traditionalism of charedi society. Before we address Rabbi Slifkin’s claim, it should be noted that isolationism and traditionalism are sociological factors that are indispensible to the Jewish nation. Indeed, they are the defining elements of Jewish culture. Charedi society is merely a reflection of the typical form of society that characterized the Jewish nation from the start. Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox Judaism are all deviations from the norm.  

Notes on Isolationism

From its very inception the Jewish nation was isolationist. An outside observer made the following prophetic remark about the Jews in the Wilderness: “Behold it is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned amongst the nations” (Bamidbar 33:10). This situation obtained for hundreds of years in Eretz Yisrael, from the times of Yehoshua when the Jewish Commonwealth was first established, down to the destruction of the first temple 900 years later. Goyim were not allowed to live in Eretz Yisrael during this period. So strict were our sages regarding this rule that they even instituted a halacha that a goy is mi’tameh b’maga!

The attitude of isolationism was maintained by the Jews throughout their history. Long after the destruction of the second Temple, the Jews continued to live in seclusion. In Europe the Jews lived either in ghettos or in thick Jewish districts, isolated from their gentile neighbors. Unfortunately, the 16th and 17th century ideas of the Renaissance, Humanism, Equality and Enlightenment finally penetrated the Jewish nation and in 18th century Western Europe Moses Mendelssohn's misguided ideas eventually caused the walls of the ghettos to come tumbling down. Eastern European Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment) and Western European Reformism thrived which in turn led to the greatest incidence of assimilation in out nation’s history! In pre-World War II Germany the Jewish population was over a half million strong yet by 1938 almost all of them were entirely assimilated R”L! If the charedi society is isolationist, it’s for good reason. Isolationism is the only thing that kept our nation alive for the past 3300 years. In Egypt the only tribe that remained independent was Levi. Why? Because their progenitor (Levi) insisted that they remain isolationists. The rest ended up suffering terribly and eventually most of them perished in Egypt. Only 20% merited the redemption. The Torah insists on isolationism. Hashem says, “Va’avdil eschem min ha’amim”. Separatism is the Divinely mandated status of the Jewish Nation whether they like it or not.              

Notes on Traditionalism

From its very inception the Jewish nation was traditionalist. In fact, the vast body of our Torah was handed down by tradition for over fifteen hundred years! This did not change much with the mishna, or even with the gemara. Until the advent of the printing press the majority of students did not own a copy of shas. They learned Torah shebi’al peh orally, from their teachers. Our nation is a nation of mesora (tradition). Without it we would be no different than the surrounding umos ha’olam. But traditionalism is not only relevant to halacha. It is one of the defining qualities of our nation. The later generations look back at the earlier generations with reverence. Customs, worldviews and societal norms are adopted based on the traditions of the earlier generations. This is standard fare for the Jewish nation. Charedim didn’t invent this; they are merely perpetuating a pre-existing value system. The following statement will no doubt irritate some readers, but Charedi Judaism is the most authentic form of Judaism today in the sense that it most closely resembles the traditional character of the Jews of Pre-World War I Europe (by “Charedi” I mean Orthodox Jews of all denominations wherever they may live).

Rabbi Slifkin claims that charedim do not celebrate YH because they are traditional and because they value isolationism. But he says this with disdain. “They'd be uncomfortable with it even if the Ribbono Shel Olam Himself were to say that it's kosher.” Unfortunately Rabbi Slifkin could learn a thing or two from his erstwhile charedi landsmen. If he valued traditionalism a bit more perhaps he wouldn’t indulge in such frequent and strident attacks on Chazal and traditional Judaism.

Is Rabbi Slifkin right? Do charedim avoid YH because of tradition or isolationism? In Part 2 of this series this question will be addressed at length bi’ezras Hashem.

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