by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz
The recent statement from Agudath Israel condemning the incoming president of YCT for discussing Rabbinic training with the leaders of non-Orthodox denominations reminds me of the story about the Japanese solider who fought in World War II and subsequently hid in a Guam desert for close to thirty years, unaware that the war he so valiantly fought in ended a long time ago.
The Agudah leadership is acting as if the inter-denominational wars of the previous century are still brewing. Sometimes you need the firsthand experience of those who are in the trenches to have a more clear-eyed view of the realities on the battlefield. The reality out there is that the war has ended, an implicit cease-fire has been declared. For the chareidi leadership to be relevant it needs to acknowledge this reality and abandon its “offense” posture.
As Shlomo Ha’melech declares so succinctly: לכל זמן ועת לכל חפץ. (Kohelet 3) There is a time to declare war and a time when a visionary leader realizes that the need to wage war has ceased to exist. That time is now.
There is no longer an interdenominational war because there are no longer any warriors. All sides have abandoned the battlefield. Each denomination has carved out its niche, catering to different segments of the Jewish community.
This reality presents a huge challenge to contemporary Orthodoxy. It now needs to ask itself a crucial question: will it continue to be an insular community, focusing all its energies on their immediate followers, or does it want to play a role in the larger Jewish scene?
While there are significant differences between the groups, there is, nevertheless, something that the leadership across the denominations has in common. Each is doing their utmost to provide their adherents with a life that is serious and Jewishly engaged. Our tradition has much to offer to anybody who is looking for a life of meaning and inspiration. If we truly strive for a time when ומלאה הארץ דעה את ה׳, (ישעיהו יא) we are failing in our religious duties if we do not share our tradition with the larger Jewish community.
This is not the first time that Orthodoxy is confronted with this dilemma. A similar debate ensued during the early days of the state of Israel. While individuals like Rav Elchanan Wasserman, the Satmar Rav and Rav Velvel Brisker Z”L advocated a complete separation from the state, the leadership of Agudath Israel and the Moatztet Gedolei Ha’torah felt otherwise.
While the Satmar Rav and his group held on to the battles that began in Europe during the pre-state era, Gedolim like Rav Shach, the Rebbe of Gur and others maintained that the establishment of the state confronted observant Judaism with a new reality. For them, the fact that Ultra-Orthodoxy failed in its attempt to thwart the establishment of a Zionist state, meant that they could no longer stand on the sidelines and act as outside critics. Rather, they had to shift modes, join the government and attempt to influence its direction from the inside.
Despite the strong isolationist voices, historically, the integrationist camp won. A majority of orthodox Jews in Israel now participate in the Zionist enterprise to one degree or another. We at YCT see those Gedolim as our role models. We proudly espouse a religiosity that is integrationist and inclusive.
Chazal tell us: ואהבת את ה אלהיך-שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידיך. (Yoma 86A) Although we are humble enough to recognize that we have what to learn from other denominations, (איזהו חכם הלומד מכל אדם) we are concurrently proud of our own Orthodox tradition, believing that there is something unique which we have to offer the other denominations. We, therefore, confidently seek out opportunities to engage Jews across the spectrum in order to learn and to teach. We strongly believe that our rich orthodox tradition has something to contribute on cross-denominational questions of Rabbinic training, communal leadership and the like. It is our religious imperative to share the tradition with all of klal yisroel.
There is a precedent to this debate, albeit in a slightly different context. In the early 19th century the Chatam Sofer’s hometown was under attack. His life was in danger. Some of the communal leaders suggested that he should leave town. Ignoring their advice, he chose to stay behind and suffer together with the rest of the community. Based on a midrashic interpretation of a halakhic debate in masechet Chulin, (46A) he explained in a subsequent drasha that the message of the Gemara is: שלא יברחו הצדיקים ויניחו את העם בצער, כי כזית ההגנה צריך להיות במקום מרה וצרה, ולא שיניחו את העם והם יברחו למקום חיותא (חידושי חתם סופר למסכת חולין) Caring for the spiritual or material well-being of the larger Jewish community sometimes requires taking risks, joining the community wherever they are despite the exposure to threatening and dangerous realities.
Although, in our opinion Agudath Israel is on the wrong side of history, their incessant criticism of us is, nevertheless, a blessing in disguise.
In his powerful eulogy of Satmar Rav, Rav Shach Z’L made the point that even though he vehemently disagreed with Satmar Rav’s theology, he still appreciated his criticism. Rav Shach explained that Satmar Rav’s constant critiques forced him to be more cautious in his own path.
We too owe the Agudah a huge thanks. כחלק היורד במלחמה וכחלק היושב על הכלים (שמואל א:ל). While we choose to be out in the trenches, attempting to influence the entirety of klal yisroel from the inside, the approach that the Agudah chooses, standing on the outside and playing the role of critic, also has value. The critiques of Yated, Agudah and the like force us to tread carefully; insuring that our espousal of the value of ahavat torah and ahavas yisroel does not come at the expense of other values. These incessant criticisms force us to double-check our moves and make our choices carefully and deliberately. For that we are deeply grateful.
RABBI YSOSCHER KATZ
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the Director of the Beit Midrash Program (preparatory year) at YCT. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beis Yosef, Navaradok for over ten years. A graduate of the HaSha’ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz has taught at the Ma’ayanot High School for Girls and SAR High School. He was a leading teacher of a daf yomi class in Boro Park for over eight years.