Thursday, June 28, 2007

Passion vs. Extremism

Harav Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, zt’l (1878-1953), known as the Chazon Ish, one of the greatest and beloved Jewish spiritual leaders, an icon to all who prize Jewish values has been associated with the republican senator Barry Goldwater. The author of the piece which appeared in Mishpacha tried to make a case for the extremism of the Chazon Ish through association with Barry Goldwater’s defense of extremism. Had it been up to Barry Goldwater all of North Viet Nam would have been defoliated and millions of innocent people would have been liquidated all in the defense of liberty.

The extremism of Barry Goldwater was something very different than what the Chazon Ish was referring to. Extremism ala Barry Goldwater was a blind hatred for anything that didn’t support his understanding of capitalism and democracy. The only difference between him and McCarthy was that Barry Goldwater didn’t push for the reinstitution of “witch hunts” for closet communist in the United States. That was extremism. Extremism is not a good thing, certainly was never a good thing for the Jews. I also don’t think that this kind of extremism was what the Chazon Ish had in mind.

One of the sources for this misconception is the often quoted Igros Moshe (III, 61), which portrays extremism as the never ending search for perfection and those that discount extremism “will inevitably find themselves consorting with counterfeiters and the feeble minded.” The Chazon Ish wasn’t supporting extremism but embracing passion.

There is a significant difference between passion and extremism and any one familiar with the exemplary life of this zaddik will agree that he was passionate about his yidishkeit and wasn’t viewed as an extremist by his contemporaries. There is a significant difference between being passionate and being an extremist. Extreme is defined as furthest from the center or going to the utmost in action, habit, opinion or behavior. Extremism is an obsessive kind of behavior that may negatively impact on others who don’t share the radical or fanatical feelings or point of view.
Passion on the other hand is defined as any kind of feeling or emotion of compelling force. It is a positive force because it is a form of enthusiasm which garners excitement and has a contagious quality to it and generally not associated with radicalism or fanaticism. Because he was a passionate man the Chazon Ish was loved by every sector within the Jewish spectrum that includes hassidim, mitnagdim, ashkenazim, sefaradim, haredim, datiim, hilonim and zionists. An extremist cannot, by definition, garner that kind of love and reverence from so broad a spectrum.

To say that the Chazon Ish was uncompromising with respect to anything touching Torah is a misrepresentation of the man and his piske halacha. Had the Chazzon Ish been an extremist as some would like you to believe than his ruling on the use of milking machines on Shabbat or the cultivation of hydroponics during the sabbatical year would have been the opposite of how he in fact ruled.

Viewing the Chazon Ish as a man of passion one can better understand his advice to a troubled father whose son was no longer Shabbat observant. The son asked his father to buy him a car. The father agreed on the condition that his son wouldn’t drive the car on Shabbat. The son refused and the tension between then reached a breaking point. The father sought out the advice of the Chazon Ish who advised him to buy the car for his son unconditionally. It was the opinion of the Chazon Ish that by so doing, the relationship between the father and son would be restored and the father would be able to influence his son. Hardly the advice of an extremist!

Another example illustrating the beauty and passion of the Chazon Ish is an incident culled from the diary of R’ Eliyahu Drabkin zt’l. He was the rabbi of Ramat Hasharon, an alumnus of Yeshivat Novardok and what many would call a kanai. On a particular Friday night it became known to the Rav that the Bar Mitzvah the following morning was to be that of a son whose father raises rabbits to market for their meat. The rabbi was adamant that the Bar Mitzvah could not take place because it would seem as though the community was endorsing the father’s occupation. Not being able to communicate with the family on Friday night, the only alternative was to speak to the father when he arrived at synagogue on Shabbat morning. When the father arrived for services on Shabbat morning he was sent to the Rabbi’s study. The Rabbi informed him that since he refused to discontinue his business practice of selling treif meat his son could not become a Bar Mitzvah in the shul – and so it was.

After the fact, and because of the upset caused by this decision R’ Drabkin presented the situation to the Chazon Ish for his opinion hoping that the ChazonIsh would validate his position. The Chazon Ish took the exact opposite position and said that both the father and son should have been called to the Torah for Aliyot since they were in the category of tinokot sheneshbu. And what about those that are mechallelei Shabbat? The chazon Ish said that one should not make an issue of it, that one should not forbid them from holding their Bar Mitzvahs in the synagogue. Wow!! It would appear that the Chazon Ish was a man of vision, a man of passion while R’Eliyahu Drabkin could be seen as the extremist.