Monday, January 02, 2012

Reading Mevakshei Panecha - Part 2 - How Should Religious Jews Relate To Secular Ones?

In another chapter of the book Mevakshei Panecha, Rav Lichtenstein and Rav Sabato discuss the attitude religious Jews should have towards secular Jews. This issue is very pertinent today, especially with the painful and disturbing occurrences we read and hear about in Bet Shemesh and earlier in Jerusalem. Rav Sabato introduces the subject, presenting the two dominant points of view, that of Rav Kook and the Chazon Ish that seem to be the most accepted opinions in the religious community. Rav Kook holds that considering that the secular Jews were the leaders of the Zionistic enterprise and the builders of the land, they apparently were suffused with a national spirit of love and dedication to their fellow Jews. Such a total dedication to the Jewish nation stems from a deep-rooted Jewishness that is implanted in their soul. These traits will eventually blossom as the process of return to Zion continues and eventually move towards Torah study and Mitzvot. The second position is that of the Chazon Ish (not necessarily contradictory) that the secular Jews are “Tinokot Shenishbu” prisoners of their circumstances, and therefore cannot be blamed for their misguided ways. Rav Lichtenstein disagrees with both approaches.

“In both narratives there is a certain judgment, a certain statement of fact, a general categorization of the public in question. I have no idea how one can think in such a way. We are talking about a large public. The spiritual content and the values of a part of that public include powerful ideas, important ones that contain meaningful values, not necessarily historical ones. At the same time, to our great sorrow, there is a part of that public that is empty and frivolous, who shook off not only Torah and Mitzvot, Mikvah or Kashrut, but also values that are important to us as Jews and others that are universal… Therefore, I don’t want to pass judgment on the whole lifestyle of that public, nor do I think that I can… If we want to judge a certain individual within a certain public, there are things that irritate us, but there are also certain things that definitely are attainments and values that I wish we were at their level… If we relate to them as Tinokot Shenishbu we do not give them any credit, we don’t find anything of value worth emulating, we assume that they have no meaningful spiritual or moral value, as the [famous] definition by the Chazon Ish [comparing them] to an empty wagon. To say that they are an “empty wagon” infers that they don’t have anything of value, nothing that is not better in our community. I believe that in actuality that is incorrect and I am not interested in going to that place.”

Rav Lichtenstein explains that the totally negative image that we have of the secular community is a result of our defending against being drawn in by them.

“I repeat: I don’t believe that is the reality. There are amongst them very charitable people, people who care deeply for the future, the path and the survival of the Jewish community – at the communal level not only the national. My vision is not theirs. But there are many things that they are building and doing, not only in the areas of state where they have a historical role which is the perspective of Rav Kook, they also have value systems that are meaningful. Saying that they are Tinokot Shenishbu is infantilizing this public. Saying they are Tinokot Shenishbu is saying that they have no value but it is “nebbish” not their fault.   I have no doubt that there are such people amongst them just as there are also amongst us… I also see an element of Tinokot Shenishbu in the Rav Kook approach not only in the Chazon Ish one. I am referring to his attitude to the secular group that says: you think that you are such and such, but we know that deep inside you there is another universe. That universe is your real internal self. One day that self will be uncovered, as you remove layer after layer of skin. They see this as layers of an onion. This attitude is arrogant. I would object if I was the subject of this attitude and I don’t believe one should relate to them in this way.”

Rav Lichtenstein very astutely puts his finger on one of the least attractive aspects of the religious view of the other. There is a sense of self satisfaction, a feeling that I am doing what is right while the other, who does not follow the Mitzvot, is missing out on this great good and the only reason they are doing so is because of ignorance. Of course, this attitude does not promote feelings of mutual respect and good will. Rav Lichtenstein blames or rather tries to mitigate the accusation of arrogance by blaming it on self-preservation. There is no question that it plays a role but ultimately it puts down anyone that is different. It also refuses to see much of the good and values of the other which at times is superior to those found in our community. I was watching a video a few days ago where one of the crazies in Beit Shemesh was yelling at the police and the journalists saying to them “you are going to teach us values? You?” Of course this guy was nuts and abhorrent but crazy people sometimes voice what others in his community think. Indeed, many of the reactions of the rabbinical organs e.g. Agudah, condemned the public behavior but not the underlying arrogance and dismissal of the other.

“The vision of Rav Kook I understand. At times I am even jealous of him. At times. The vision he expresses, I have problems with to a great extent, because I see in it – and I hope I don’t misread – a preference of the historical over the moral.  This vision praises the attainments and the mission that these people fulfill in the physical world; but what about [their accomplishments in] the intellectual realm?”

Rav Lichtenstein is critical of Rav Kook’s approach because he understands that he refuses to see the good values that the secular community brings to the table. Rav Kook sees them as tools in the hand of HKBH to serve the Klal but does not give them credit for what they really offer in terms of the intellectual and spiritual.

So what is Rav Lichtenstein’s own position?

 “It is very important that we do not under any circumstances arrive at the conclusion that we have no regard to select values that exist in segments of the secular public. There are people in the religious community, and not only in the religious one, that have an attitude of - either you are [totally] with us or against us. I believe that a Jewish moral perspective based on torah should recognize imperfect value systems too. If I am out to build an ideology, whether a personal one or for a community, I build it on a purely Holy basis. On the other hand, if I ask myself: let us say that this person, this group or that group, are anyway not keeping Shabbat, they don’t go to the Mikvah, is there no difference from our perspective - not from theirs - if a Jew hates Torah or loves it, or whether he has a warm spot for it, even if this is not enough to make him observe the Shulchan Aruch?  … Every one of us has had the experience that when a member of the family becomes non-observant, at times there are confrontations. What is the point of the confrontation?  People have family members who they know will not return to become Shabbos observant halachikally, it is however important to us that they should have a warm spot in their heart [for torah] not only so that should they become members of the Knesset they will vote favorably for women serving in Sherut Leumi [instead of the army – DG] but because we pray and wish that our whole community remain healthy both spiritually and physically and that includes regard for select values.”     

Rav Lichtenstein makes here a very important point. We all have a tendency to look at others from the perspective of our own values. Anybody that sees things differently is judged on that basis. We see our own values as ideal and look askance at values that we do not have. That prevents us from objectively evaluating and adapting some of these values, those that are meaningful and important. Our attitude further creates a rift between us and the secular public which prevents them from appreciating what we bring to the table. We have to look at ourselves as a whole, the religious and secular community as one, and respect the values found in both communities. The risk to this approach is that we see all values as relative rather than absolute.

However, I do not agree with some of my colleagues who say: “listen, not everybody is perfect. We are not mindful of this and they are not mindful of something else. They don’t keep Shabbat and we are lax in other things. I do not buy this approach. True, we all are not perfect, but what is missing, how much is missing and are the attempts to fix our shortcomings sincere? That is a much more meaningful [criteria].”

There are indeed Jewish values that are important to us. The external values are meaningful but are even more so if added to our own values rather than replacing them. In other words, Rav Lichtenstein does not want us to misunderstand that his appreciation for external values should allow for them to replace our own values. They are a welcome and necessary addition and they will only be available to us if we look at them objectively and with the due respect.

“This approach to a partial value system is not exclusive to our relationship with the secular community. It is also useful in our relationship with the Conservative and Reform movements everywhere. And I repeat over and over, I value very much the incomplete value system and hope and pray that I can advance with people towards the goal of their internalizing more and more of the world of our values”.

In other words Rav Lichtenstein sees great value in the cross-pollination of the different value systems in the Jewish community. To allow for that to happen both communities have to show respect for each other although in the eyes of each the value system of the other is incomplete and imperfect. An all or nothing approach is not constructive for both parties.   


  1. I am not quite sure how to reconcile the first post with the second?

    In the first post, R Lichtenstein proposes a strict scrutiny with regard to "Non Torah sources". This is because of fear of destruction of Hashkafa, as well as improperly absenting oneself from Havayot Abaye and Rava.

    Secular Jews in Israel, are living expressions of these very Non Jewish works that require strict scrutiny.

    I understand both R Kook and the Chazon Ish's approaches. In fact, they seem consistent with r Aharon's approach. Surely, people who are living expressions of books which require strict scrutiny, themselves demand strict scrutiny?

    Such people would logically be viewed as a tinok shenishba and/ or a person whose ideas have value only in the long course of history.

    Yet, you propose that R Lichtenstein removes his strict scrutiny requirement when secular Jews, rather than books, express the ideas and values of Non Torah books.

    "In other words Rav Lichtenstein sees great value in the cross-pollination of the different value systems in the Jewish community".

    Why would there not be the same strict scrutiny toward people whose express the ideas of suspect books as there is toward the books themselves?

  2. I am not sure again where the problem is. There are values that the secular community has that we unfortunately do not although they are consistent with Torah. I can think of one example right off the bat : the environment and its preservation. we have little of that value while the secular one sees it as central. there are many others of the same type.

    Reading Rav Lichtenstein one gets a picture of a multidimensional and also dialectic way of thinking.

  3. Thanks for the R' Lichtenstein posts -- he's a wonderful translator of Brisk into modern idioms.

    Related (in Hebrew): The Jewish Worker: R' Aharon Lichtenstein on Daas Torah. It's a full transcript of one of his talks: "דברים על פה שנאמרו בימי העיון בישיבת "הר עציון", חנוכה תשע"ב."

    ( link)

  4. Anonymous, thank you very much.You made my day.

  5. Glad it helped- the news surely doesn't.

    After R' Lichtenstein's idea of daat sank in for a few hours I realized that he's given us quite a few living examples over the years- maybe most notably after P.M. Rabin was assassinated: (English).