By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
A forgotten chapter of the modern Jewish experience in Eretz Yisroel relates to the vicious clashes that took place regarding tefillah at the Kosel. The Arabs, with the encouragement of the British overseers of what was known then as Palestine, did all they could to restrict Jewish access and prayer at our holiest site.
The issue led to periodic Arab violence. Following one such flagellation during the period of the British Mandate, one of the Englishmen hit upon an idea. He sought to forge a compromise to quell the disturbance. He approached the Jewish Agency, the organized Zionist leadership body prior to the establishment of the state, and told its functionaries that if the Jews would agree to formally relinquish ownership of the Kosel, Arab resistance to their presence in Palestine would significantly simmer down and the Jews would be able to look forward to a peaceful co-existence.
The British diplomat assured the Jewish Agency that the agreement would be nothing more than a symbolic formality. They would sign a worthless document, and be guaranteed that nothing regarding their access to the Kosel would change.
As taken as they were with the proposal, the secular Zionists knew that they needed the Yishuv Hayoshon on board if they were to be able to pull off the stunt. Jewish Agency representatives hurried to Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, certain that in this instance of pikuach nefesh, even the inflexible rov would see things their way. No doubt he would agree to sign the paper and, with that, put an end to the contentiousness and rioting.
Instead, Rav Yosef Chaim heard the proposal and shrugged.
“The Kosel isn’t mine,” he responded. “It’s the Ribbono Shel Olam’s. I have no authority to give it or take it.”
Frustrated, the politicians ran to Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook, expecting his easy concurrence. After they presented the plan, Rav Kook shrugged. “The Kosel isn’t mine,” he said. “It’s the Ribbono Shel Olam’s. I have no authority to give it or take it.”
There was a time not that long ago when everyone realized that the mekomos hakedoshim, the holiest places in the world, much like the ideals and values of Yahadus, aren’t subject to sale or negotiation, and that matters of hashkofah aren’t things that one barters or bargains over, like the price of a used car.
Times have changed. Now, those who maintain that certain values are more sacred than our limited understanding of them are considered divisive extremists. The others, the self-appointed brokers for the Shulchan Aruch, are the agents of reason and unity.
The Kosel as we know it may change drastically in the coming months. Natan Sharansky, the famed former Russian refusenik who now heads the Jewish Agency, has proposed a compromise to diffuse simmering tensions over the continued untraditional prayers at Judaism’s holiest site. Last week, on Rosh Chodesh, a group of women, no doubt bursting with zeal and passion to pray, were arrested for wearing talleisim and tefillin and thus defiling the holiness of the place. Their arrests came at the same time Sharansky’s solution to the festering problem was publicized.
Sharansky would keep the existing arrangement as it is and construct a new plaza of equal size at the beginning of the Kosel, to the right of the present plaza. That new area would be open to anyone to conduct any type of service they please.
After the arrests on Thursday, the Jewish Agency once again urged compromise. “The events at the Western Wall today are one more reminder of the urgent need to reach a permanent solution and make the Western Wall once again a symbol of unity among the Jewish people, and not one of discord and strife,” the agency said in a statement.
With the makeup of the new government, one expects many such issues to be decided in a way that is contradictory to halacha and Torah hashkofah. Compromise will be the new mantra. The direction the country has been taking since the days of Menachem Begin will now, at least temporarily, be brought to a swift halt. The terrible battles that erupted with regularity and did not always end favorably for traditional Judaism will be the stuff of headlines once again.
In those days, the leftists were in firm control of the country, with the Mizrachi as a fixture of the labor governments. They had the money, power and prestige, while the chareidim, Sefardim and right-wingers had nothing. There were no great expectations from the government, and the role of frum politicians largely consisted of push-back, going to war when the government crossed the line on issues such as giyus banos and nituchei meisim.
Financial support for yeshivos was non-existent, but Ben Gurion’s status quo on religious issues preserved several cardinal areas of traditional Jewish conduct. Shabbos, marriage, divorce, kashrus, geirus, rabbonus and botei din were, for the large part, left alone. There was never a serious attempt to extend the compulsory draft to yeshiva students.
But it’s a new era now. Everything is on the table again. The ruling coalition revels in the image bestowed upon them by a deferential media - a media of open-minded progressives - while the traditionalists are out-of-touch extremists. They have very effectively marginalized us and corralled us into a corner, where we can do little more than shout.
The party founded and propelled to success on its promise to pull yeshiva bochurim away from their shtenders has as its token chareidi a young man who learned in yeshivos. Thus, he is considered an authority on Torah, on mesirus haTorah, and on what is best for chareidim. The former yeshiva talmid who sold his soul for a bit of attention and relevance arrived in America being hailed as a conquering hero. This man, who proudly sits on the wagon that every single chareidi rabbinic leader has denounced in the strongest terms, was given a warm Orthodox and secular welcome.
In case you are wondering what he is about, we will let his own remarks speak for him. Dov Lipman, the so-called chareidi member of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, doesn’t mince words about his philosophy in comments published by Times of Israel:
“This whole daas Torah phenomenon, where a rabbi decides everything in my own life, is something that I think is also foreign. People ask me: which rabbi did I ask before I joined Yair Lapid? I made a decision. I spoke to some people for advice, I did talk it over with some people, because I wanted to make sure, but I didn’t ask for a p’sak. It’s not halacha. Halacha is: is this pot kosher or not kosher? If you don’t know the halacha yourself, you ask the rabbi for that. The idea that the control over our community, and this degree of getting involved in politics - we never had this before.
“In the Hasidic community, I think you had it more. If you study history, a lot of this started happening during the Enlightenment, where the Hatam Sofer [coined the phrase] that chadash assur min haTorah. That’s where all this originates from, for sure. I just feel that the lack of willingness to study basic history and understand what our rabbis used to be like - the average kid in a Haredi school doesn’t know who the Rambam was…
“They’ll open up a Talmud and they’ll read a line in the Talmud. And then they’ll read the Rashi and then they will read the Tosfot and then they will read the Rishonim on it and then the Aharonim on it and they’ll spend a day analyzing that line of the Talmud and all the commentaries, and that’s it… Nashim and Nezikin: Women-related issues and damage are the two primary issues that the yeshivas deal with. I would have a much harder time making my argument if we saw tens of thousands of the most brilliant Talmudic scholars who mastered every possible classic text and were writing great works of new thought and ideas. I’d still argue my case, but it’d be harder for me. But we don’t see that. You don’t see the results…
“While they learn, maybe, all of a sudden in the middle of the page, you’ll have a statement that relates to what you are learning about being a nice, good person. But that’s not the focus of it. The whole notion of derech eretz kadma leTorah - I don’t see it.”
The arrogance of his certainty that he has what it takes to make decisions that will affect the future of the yeshiva community is frightening and reminds me of something that Rav Aharon Kotler once said.
The Lakewood rosh yeshiva was meeting with several rabbonim and laypeople, discussing the course of action in regard to a particular issue. Rav Aharon heard the opinions of the various participants and then related the manner in which he thought they should proceed.
The rosh yeshiva spoke and the people listened, realizing that his words weren’t mere conjecture, but rather daas Torah emanating from a Talmudic giant with a brilliant mind infused with Torah greatness and a heart that pulsated with responsibility for Torah. One layman argued with Rav Aharon. Responding to him, the rosh yeshiva related his position once again, explaining the Torah’s directive as to how they should act.
“I’m very sorry,” the man persisted, “ubber ich farshtei nit. I don’t understand your opinion.”
The blue eyes of Rav Aharon flashed fire. “Un ah Tosafos farshteit ihr yoh? And a Tosafos you do understand?”
The debate was over.
Rabbi Lipman, we really are very sorry for you that you so misunderstand what goes on in yeshivos. You don’t comprehend what they are teaching in yeshivos or why chareidim aren’t nicer or more pleasant. You don’t appreciate why we humble ourselves before Torah leaders and why we follow their directives. You don’t grasp the role of chareidim in society or why you aren’t viewed as a savior by the Olam HaTorah, whom you claim to care for.
There is something that goes beyond reason, something truer than the math and science that you revere. We are frum and committed to each word of the Torah and each nuance of halacha, because it was given to us by Hashem, not because it meshes with science and not because it is popular or wins us accolades.
Just as we perform mitzvos with reverence and joy, cherishing the minhogim and mesorah without thinking or caring about whether or not Mayor Bloomberg is happy with them, we learn Torah not to please you, Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennet, your party or your government. We do it because we are links in a chain that stretches back to Har Sinai, when we received a gift and a mandate of vehogisa bo yomam volaylah.
The chaver Knesset recalls a period in his life when he merited tasting amal haTorah:
“Studying Torah day and night is what I went through one year when I was in yeshiva - one year, when I left the beit midrash at 1:30 in the morning and was back in the beit midrash at 6:30 in the morning. I was just on fire in learning, so to speak. And then after a year - I loved it but you can’t do more of that… It’s not a normal thing for a human being to be studying Torah, full-fledged, day and night. It’s hard to do that. How many kids can really do that?
“I think it’s the other way round: The guys who study Torah on the train on the way to work in Tel Aviv every morning are the princes of the Jewish people. They’re the princes of my world. Because they’re in a difficult environment to both work and maintain their [study schedule], but they’re studying and praying on the train… And that’s why I am fully comfortable in Yesh Atid, and I am certainly, from my end, encouraging that we stick this out.”
As he does every year, the Yerushalayimer rosh yeshiva, Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, addressed a gathering for hundreds of talmidei hayeshivos the Shabbos following Pesach. There was a key difference this year, however, Rav Ezrachi is suffering from a heart ailment and is extremely weak. He was advised not to make the trip and not to speak. He responded that he could not stay away. He attended, he said, “in order to charge the soldiers in what will be a victorious battle against the machshevet haresha.”
“Can those who wish to legislate when, where and how much we should learn ever comprehend the turmoil within a bochur who can’t understand a Rav Akiva Eiger?” Rav Ezrachi cried out in pain. “Do they know what it means not to sleep a whole night over difficulty understanding a Gemara, or a Rishon, or an Acharon? Do they know what amal haTorah means? There is no way they can understand that.
“I cannot explain to those who live in darkness, yoshvei choshech, mah zeh ohr yom, the light of Torah,” he continued.
“They want to shut our faucets and cause that no money will flow to yeshivos. Doing so will cause them to dry up. Although it may be difficult temporarily, we will persevere. Hashem will find a way to provide for us. They will be facing drought.
“Our response must be to study Torah with a bren, with fire, and to know that when we are learning and have a kushya, the world exists upon that kushya. We will fight and defeat them by appreciating Torah, by not resting until we understand the real p’shat of what we are learning. That is what must envelope our being.”
The message to the politicians and activists is that, just like the Kosel, limud haTorah and the values and beliefs of lomdei Torah are neither ours to negotiate nor theirs to analyze and develop. They are not subject to compromise.
Rav Bentzion Halberstam, the Kedushas Tzion of Bobov, led one of the most prestigious yeshivos in Galicia. He was told about a bochur who had begun conversing with young Maskilim in town, hanging around them during his free time.
The boy maintained his learning and davening schedule, and other than sitting in conversation with the others, there was no discernible impact on his conduct.
The rebbe called him in and asked him why he was socializing with these Maskilim.
“Look at me,” said the bochur. “It doesn’t affect who I am. I am the same person whether I hang around them or not. What’s the big deal?”
The rebbe looked at him lovingly and said, “Please translate the following words from the tefillah of Velamalshinim in Shemoneh Esrei: ‘Vehazeidim meheirah se’aker useshaber usemager.’”
The bochur replied that it is a request that the enemies of our people be uprooted and cast down, with us asking Hashem to destroy them and lower them.
“Yes,” said the rebbe, “that is the translation of se’aker useshaber, but what about the word usemager?”
The bochur responded that he did not know what that word meant.
The rebbe looked into his eyes and, without telling him what the word meant, taught him a lesson for life. “Just admit to me one thing,” said the rebbe. “If it’s next to se’aker useshaber, it can’t mean anything too nice, right?”
The boy got the message.
Whatever the new chaver haknesset may or may not believe, and however sincere he might be, he should take a moment to look at the people around him, his dear friends in the party with whom he proudly serves and claims to enjoy “such unity.” The truth is neither their guide nor primary interest: The advancement of the fallacious agenda is.
He should look at the coalition partners and their stated goals and take a moment to reflect on the Bobover Rebbe’s question.
Those who welcomed him to their shuls and schools and grant him favorable publicity would do well to ask themselves what flag they are waving when they applaud him and which value system they are subscribing to when they share drinks and backslap “se’aker useshaber.”
We, the legions of bnei Torah and our families, led by our courageous, selfless leaders, have a path with a rich past and a rich future. We know who we are and we know where we are headed. In short time, the new chaver haknesset will have outlived his usefulness to the people who put him in power, and then, when he’s cast aside like yesterday’s leftovers, he might remember, with a pang of guilt, the year that he spent learning day and night. He will be welcomed to return, because we - our yeshivos, shiurim and chavrusos - will still be here.
Because we are the ones who have a future. We are the ones of yesh atid. Ours is the party of the past, present and future, the avar, hoveh and atid. Times ahead will be difficult, but we will not be parched. They will be. As they stumble about in darkness, without the light of truth, we will be basking in the glow of Abaye and Rava, Rashi and Tosafos, the Rambam, the Ramban and the Rashba, the Ketzos and the Nesivos, Rav Chaim and Rav Aharon, as well as the giants of our day.
Heimoh koru venofolu va’anachnu kamnu vanisodad. Hashem hoshiah hamelech ya’aneinu.