Monday, November 14, 2011

Hazon Ish: Visionary or Short Sighted

Being complex people living in extraordinarily complicated times I am flummoxed by the attempt at some scholars to offer simplistic answers to some very convoluted questions. How is it possible that the haredi community in America and Israel bounced back with a roar when only 60 years ago they were written off as relics of the past, relegated to the collective and perhaps nostalgic memory of the Jewish people. Benjamin Brown in his recently published book, The Hazon Ish: Halakhist, Believer, and Leader of the Haredi Revolution, based upon his doctoral dissertation puts forth the thesis that Rabbi Avraham Karelitz, known by the moniker the Hazon Ish, single handed breathed life and vigor into the haredi "she'ereet hapleyta" (remnant survivors) having barely survived the holocaust. Brown points to several indicators that led him to this dubious conclusion. The Hazon Ish, he points out set the tenor for the Haredi revival in Israel in that they didn’t accept nor reject the Zionist movement. Unlike extreme haredi subgroups such as the Neturei Karta, they would exploit what the Zionist state had to offer and through their indifference towards the state would create their own subculture through a network of yeshivas and kollels. Brown believes that had they not assumed this middle ground they wouldn’t have grown nearly as powerful as they have. In addition he believes that Karelitz successfully strategized against Ben Gurion in 1949 winning the exemption of the then 400 yeshiva students in Israel, setting the pattern for the current day exemption of 62,500 yeshiva students. These strategies plus others formulated and executed by the Hazon Ish are what set into motion, according to Brown, the proliferation of the haredi sub culture in the post World War II Jewish community.

Brown's analysis is interesting but because it is tailored to conform to his thesis, many questions either go unanswered or aren’t addressed, leaving the impression that his approach leaves much to be desired resulting in providing a simplistic answer to a complicated issue. Not enough emphasis was placed on some of the stellar rebbes emerging at the time, not to mention the political clout of Agudas Israel. He ignores the development of the American haredi community, as well as the incredible intellectual power and leadership of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Instead, he presents the Hazon Ish as being responsible for the revolution of the haredi community, Referring to the resuscitation of the Haredi community in the same triumphal tenor that haredim have always presented their cause; even when they were being decimated throughout the centuries by the hands of antisemites their message was one of triumphalism. To enhance that message the truth was subordinated to the cause. To wit, the 4th Belzer Rebbe encouraged his followers to remain in Nazi Europe. Not to do so the Belzer rebbe maintained would be traitorous to their ancestors. Not to do so and emigrate to America would be to capitulate to a godless country. Not to do so and go to Israel would be to surrender to the Zionist vision. The Belzer Rebbe, however forsook his community of believers and escaped to Israel, beardless. Asking a Belzer hassid today about the story would find him apoplectic because this wouldn’t fit in with their triumphal perception of their chosen place in god’s eyes.

Part of the phenomenon of triumphalism is the notion that “its us against the non believers” and because god is on their side they will ultimately prevail. Because god is on their side they will be victorious as David was in his battle to defeat Goliath. This was the attitude of the Hazon Ish, according to reports, on the eve of his meeting with Ben Gurion. In truth The meeting between Ben Gurion and the Hazon Ish was a fateful one, not because the Hazion Ish was able to outmaneuver the savvy politician and statesman, but because of Ben Gurion’s sentimental approach to Rabbi Karelitz, his misreading of history, and Karelitz’s lack of understanding and appreciation for history. Karelitz considered it a victory to have won the exemption of 400 students. Ben Gurion considered it a bone with no great consequence assuming that the army was better off without the headache of yeshiva bochrim, thinking that they would ultimately integrate into the general society. Undoubtedly he would never have agreed to a blanket exemption had he known the number would balloon. Karelitz hadn’t a clue nor the vision that one day the 400 would grow exponentially into 62500. Had it not been for the political acumen of Agudas Israel, Karelitz’s putative victory wouldn’t have amounted to anything.

Interesting and revealing however is the attitude of Karelitz and his acolytes around the planning of that meeting which was flavored with triumphalism: Moshe Sheinfeld, in an editorial in Digleinu (Aguda Israel newspaper) cast the meeting as one between the “heart of Israel” and the “ruling fist.” Ben Gurion is mentioned in the same sentence as Vespasian casting the upcoming meeting between the “holy side” and the “other side” (sitra achra). Sheinfeld went on to say that the Hazon Ish removed his glasses at the meeting so that he wouldn’t have to look “in the villain’s face.” Ben Gurion, on the other hand, summed up the meeting in his diary by referring to the Hazon Ish as a humble Jew, referencing his wise and "beautiful eyes." Quite a difference in attitude and approach.

The reality is that the Hazon Ish was far less effective than his acolytes would ever admit. The revival of the haredi community in Israel and America had nothing to do with the Hazon Ish. It was a matter of biological reproduction by those whom survived, clinging to their ways, without learning from their past experience: namely that one can’t depend on god but only upon ones own energy and determination. The haredi community whether in Israel or America certainly has proliferated and they inhabit large, dense, confining neighborhoods spending their time in yeshivas eschewing the very notion of productive lives. Rather than learning from their ancestors about living humble lives with a sense of love of all god’s creations they have unfortunately taken up spitting on Greek Orthodox priests, acting out violently towards Jews who don’t share their life style and who may have accidentally crossed over into their holy space, and have a sense of entitlement fueled by a triumphalist flawed theology.

Perhaps this was the legacy of the Hazon ish: to spread intolerance of anyone not sharing in their lifestyle. After all, if what Sheinfeld wrote was true, than the Hazon Ish really wasn’t a visionary but another zealot who took advantage of Ben Gurion’s good will. If Sheinfeld is to be believed, Karelitz removed his glasses at the meeting with Ben Gurion in order not to “look into the villain’s face” referring to the Zionists as camels without a load (a metaphor for secular Jews without Torah), suggesting they were second class citizens. Did this attitude set the pattern for the future or was Karelitz simply reflecting the intolerance that he may have learned from his elders? Either way, it is nothing to be proud of.