Wednesday, August 02, 2006

How To Be A Religious Zionist

In a blog (7/16) entitled “7 Ways to deny reality,” the American blogger Failed Messiah ridicules the baal teshuvah (repentance) group Aish. He says “ has one of the most foolish articles about the new war in Israel I've seen. Entitled "Seven Ways You Can Help Israel," the article is long on feel-good spirituality and short – very short – on tachlis (practicality).The seven ways you can help? Here they are, in order just as Aish lists them: 1. Pray 2. Cry 3. Study Torah 4. Believe 5. Repent 6. Do Good. Okay, so there are only six ways. The seventh, stated at the end of the article, is get on a plane and come to Israel today, presumably to do much more of numbers one through five. When Jews face danger, prayer is natural – and correct. But it is not the be all and end all Aish makes it out to be. God wants us to do the most we can in the here and now to make things better. Doing what we can do to help Israel, from going there and helping out, to sending money that will help offset the tremendous financial losses taken by Israelis in a time of war, comes first. Extra time praying and learning should happen as well, but not as a first choice or even as a second. Practical help always comes first. But by all means do not spend excessive time learning or praying until you are certain every Israeli has food and a safe place to sleep. That is what Jewish law – and common sense – expects and demands.”

I certainly agree that the war has caused serious economic disruptions, and now is the time for American Jews to step up to the plate. Nevertheless, this particular blog rubbed me the wrong way. First of all, the Aish group does recommend doing good which presumably includes writing a check, and they did list going to Israel to help as #7. Failed Messiah, hip as he may be, covers his religious ass by also saying “Extra time praying and learning should happen as well.” So there is no practical difference between his position and the group he is ridiculing. What sticks in his craw is that the first actions listed appeal to heaven. They are insufficiently active Zionist, let’s take the initiative and do what must be done. So here we have a religious blogger criticizing another religious group in the name of secular Zionist values. He is so upset at charedi passivity that it irks him that a Jew prays before writing the check. I could understand a blogger who doesn’t believe in the efficacy of prayer. Such a person would in general write about some topic other than Ultra Orthodoxy (UO). Maybe sports or skin care. A blogger who concentrates on UO only to push secular values is special.

There are many such people on the internet and in life. Their sustenance comes from being more secular, more Zionist and more modern than the UO. Take the UO away as a comparison and they have nothing to say, and no particular claim to fame. They usually are Modern Orthodox or formerly frum. They aren’t particularly secular; they aren’t particularly cool or edgy. If they were they wouldn’t be obsessed with criticizing charedim. There were people just like this in Eastern Europe. They were called maskilim, enlighteners, full of constructive ideas and helpful tips for their Orthodox townsman. They should trim their beards, learn Russian, French or German, read French novels…endless suggestions. They couldn’t understand why the Chasidim didn’t take their proposals seriously. After all, they had been to Warsaw and St. Petersburg. They knew about life in the modern world. When these people left Eastern Europe and settled in Paris or the Bronx, they finally realized they had nothing to offer. They were now immigrants with the same accent and provincialism as their less enlightened landsleit. There wasn’t much point in recommending the study of French to a Frenchman.

Returning for a moment to my blog of the other day about AIPAC... when you think how so many American presidents ended up supporting Israel even when they had no previous connection to Zionist aspirations, it is nothing short of miraculous. Similarly, it is miraculous that after 1900 years of persecution, Evangelical Christians come to the belief, just at the right time, that it is in their interest and America’s interest that Israel prevail. For close to two millennia Christians said God hated us. All of a sudden we are big shots in the divine scheme of things. The entire history of Israel from day one until today has an uncanny quality about it. The Aish 7-step program may be a bit unsophisticated, as all self- help programs tend to be, but it understands and tries to give expression to the magical aura that surrounds Israel. Every Jew, even secular Israelis feel there is some mystical enchantment that envelops Israel. The enchanted aura is essential for Israel’s survival. Without this mystical quality that makes Israel special, it is just one more small country in a nasty neighborhood. I have no idea how to give a naturalist account of how a country can be so uncanny and so enchanted.

Next blog Friday.


At 10:02 AM, Anonymous shael siegel said...

Not having read the piece by the Failed Messiah, or the one from the Aish and relying on your veracity as to their thrust - I gotta tell you that the Aish does have their prioritization backwards. Living in Israel trumps all the other Mitzvot as evident by so many of our traditional Rabbinic sources-Yishuv eretz yisrael k'neged taryag mitzvot etc.
The Aish community like so many others are content with enjoying all of Americas bounty and offering but lip service to settling in Israel.In actuality they have reversed the paradigm of "yishuv eretz yisrael k'neged taryag mitzvot". I will however read those pieces with the chance that I will be enlightened- one way or the other.

At 11:37 AM, Blogger Baalabus said...

Now this post is perplexing.

How can someone who yesterday said "the Orthodox have ... become in some ways unhinged, like a vehicle that is somewhat out of control" today decry those who are "obsessed with criticizing charedim"?

Define obsessed. I don't read Failed Messiah regularly - maybe he is obsessed with Haredim, but the cited post from that blog hardly demonstrates such a disposition.

While I am it I will register my agreement with FM: one of the supreme shortcomings of the Haredi mindset is indeed the inability to reconcile action together with professed reliance on God, hence the rampant poverty in those quarters (not just in Israel but in America too) for example. I believe that the policy of self-imposed poverty is an innovation, one (of many) that belies the claim that Haredim are the sole torch bearers who are perpetutating tradition.

Maybe you'll consider me obsessed with Haredim too, but I'd like to think that I call 'em as I see 'em.

At 2:38 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

shael siegel- neither the aish people nor the blogger in question nor me are living in Israel or about to make aliyah.There are 8 million Jews around the world just like us. Speaking for myself now I don't offer even lip service about settling in Israel. If life in America is as good in the future as it has been in the past, Evanston suits me just fine. I do feel, as do most other Jews, some obligation to help other Jews in distress. I have no problem at all if I am not considered a Zionist.

At 2:56 PM, Blogger LitaLives said...

Since the second temple was destroyed because of sinas chinam, i felt it would be better not to comment on your latest masterpiece. However, when i saw that i was not the only one offended by your blog, I felt it is only right to let you know what i think. You have this ongoing campaign against the MO. Not the UO, not the irreligous, but quietly, elegantly AND CONSISTENTLY against the MO.
Since it is obvious from your writings that you are not UO, it behooves me to understand your deep dislike of the MO. Are you a closet heretic living as a MO? Are you a secular Jew who grew up in a MO house which turned you off BIG TIME? If so, what is this affinity for UO? It seems to me very hypocritical to live the secular lifestyle but glorify the Chareidi lifestyle.
Perhaps your purpose in writing this blog was just to get everyone's blood pressure up. I am quite sure you understand perfectly well Failed Messiah's point of view & most probably you will present the same arguments in a couple of weeks when you'll feel it time to bash the UO (just to keep the scales balanced).

At 2:58 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

baalabus...if I understand what you are saying , you raise, as usual, a very interesting point.I should have been clearer.Sadly, I don't have a quick response. The issue is in my mind associated with what a blogger ought to be doing. A blogger is not a rabbi...what you ought to do is X and you Y.The primary function IMHO is either analysis or empathic understanding. Of course, we all moralize some...For example I have an intense dislike of Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine, not because I so hate his politics, but because I hate the rashkebahag tone of what America must do is blah blah. In general if you read my posts about UO, I either celebrate what they are about or explain why they do what they do. And I will try to do the same for all of Jewish life. Again with exceptions, because we all have opinions. I therefore find it objectionable when FM tells me or anyone they must write a check before shacaris, geez...On the poverty issue I tried to speak to some part of the problem in my posts on kolelim in June...The unhinged comment is not an outside critique but a typical of the strict Orthodox who feel they are being pushed to the right.

At 3:32 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Litalives...not a very civil comment... As someone who has high blood pressure I apologize for raising yours. On the substantive point, yes I do have a charedi- secular sensibility. What can I say? It is also true I do not believe the variants of Torah im derech eretz, Frankfort or YU style are the cats meow. My criticism (with exceptions) of MO has been confined to their attacks of charedim. I am telling you now, so you can adjust your pacemaker, I will write 3 critical blogs, one a critique of the Brisker style of learning at YU,one of Rabbi Solevetchiks essay ish hahalacha, and one of Slifkin, all from a secular perspective.

My authority is not based on who I am, but what I what I say true? is it interesting? It is for you to judge and write comments to your hearts delight.

In these sad times I am happy to help a Jew in need...think of me as secular. My position is there are qualities of Orthodox life that are relevant for all Jews. Allow me to develop my ideas at my own pace.And please don't be upset if I come at these issues from 2 is precisely this feature that differentiates me from all the YU clones.


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