The Ultra-Orthodox World's Non-Zionist Zionist Revolution

Even as mainstream American Jews have become more skeptical of Israel, another group is quietly shedding its long-held reluctance to embrace the Jewish state.

Two Jewish men in Jerusalem on May 13, 2018. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images.

Two Jewish men in Jerusalem on May 13, 2018. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images.

Observation
June 30 2020
About the author

Batsheva Neuer is a writer and teacher of Jewish thought living in New York City. Her work has appeared in publications including the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

Over the last fifteen years, mainstream American Jews have moved famously leftward on Israel. Some have dropped out of Zionism altogether; others have attempted to redefine what it means to be Zionist so as to include a healthy—at times too healthy—dose of criticism for the Jewish state.

But in a less heralded reverse development, another American Jewish demographic has been busy redefining what it means to be non-Zionist, and not in the way you might think. This group harbors warm affection for the Jewish state, and, where mainstream Jews increasingly approach Israel as an abstraction, as a matter of ideology, or as a totemic signifier, this group approaches Israel not as an ideological project but as a concrete, practical reality.

The group is American ultra-Orthodox Jewry. For a long time they’ve been construed as non- or even anti-Zionist, and perhaps for good reason—after all, as a community they don’t mark any official observances of Israel; they won’t celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, they won’t participate in New York’s iconic Celebrate Israel Parade, and they refrain from including the prayer for the state of Israel in their liturgy. But a look at their daily life tells a more nuanced story: the story of a group largely supportive of the Israeli government, enthusiastic about Israel’s achievements, and that sees its future as inextricably bound up with that of the Jewish state. One might even go so far as to say that the ultra-Orthodox community is the most pro-Israel Jewish community in America—and, again, all without explicitly identifying as Zionist.

Moreover, thanks to low rates of intermarriage and high rates of birth, it is a group projected to be the dominant majority of American Jews the end of this century. If those projections prove true, the ultra-Orthodox community and its affiliates will be critical architects of the Jewish landscape and a key Jewish voice in the U.S.-Israel alliance. To ignore them is a pity and a strategic error, for that alliance, in addition to the Jewish future, could well be in their hands.

 

Who are these non-Zionist Zionists? I’ll focus here on a subset of ultra-Orthodoxy known as the yeshivish community, because it’s what I’m most intimately familiar with. But most of what’s said here goes for the ultra-Orthodox community at large. Most American Jews have probably never heard the term yeshivish, which refers to a society centered around Torah study, that is, “the yeshiva world.” Jews who wear black hats are lumped together in the mainstream media as “ḥasidic,” an imprecise demographic cast somewhat as a relic of the past. The yeshivish community—very much vibrant and growing—is the non-ḥasidic subset of the ultra-Orthodox world, with American outposts in cities such as Lakewood, New York, and Chicago. While they may look ḥasidic to the untrained eye, there are major distinctions between the communities such as liturgical texts, prayer times, and even standards of kashrut.

Ḥasidic Jews descend (either literally or figuratively) from the followers of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, a teacher, mystic, and folk healer. Based in Medzhybizh in today’s western Ukraine, he and his disciples infused their teachings with kabbalistic themes that had traditionally been reserved for a pious religious elite. With a focus on immanence over transcendence, worship through corporeality, and direct communion with God, the movement challenged many religious and social norms and was seen as an affront to tradition. Today, ḥasidic communities across the globe are divided into various sects, often named after their European towns of origin, each of which follows its own rebbe, or holy leader.

By contrast yeshivish Jews view themselves as the intellectual descendants of Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (1720-1797), a vehement opponent of the ḥasidic movement. His followers, who focused on the centrality of Torah study, came to be known as Mitnaggedim or “opposers.”  Because of their different customs and cultures, rarely do the two groups intermarry.

While the yeshiva community is represented by the Agudath Israel of America—the umbrella organization for all ultra-Orthodox Jews in America—it is anything but a monolith. Some members lead insular lifestyles immersed in Torah study, and others participate completely in the modern world. And though secular studies are subservient to Torah, many yeshivish Jews go on to college to become professionals and even leaders in their fields. The community’s growth in America began in earnest after the Shoah, with floods of Jewish refugees arriving in hope of rebuilding a lost world. Not only have they flourished, they have done so at exponential rates, as have their ultra-Orthodox brethren. The 2013 Pew Study found that 79 percent of ultra-Orthodox American adults are married. A UJA-Federation study confirmed the trend, reporting that the community in New York has three times the amount of children as non-Orthodox Jews, with the mean number of children for yeshivish women ages 35-44 in the New York area over 5 (by contrast it is 2.5 for Modern Orthodox Jews and 1.3 for non-Orthodox Jews).

What is the yeshivish position on Zionism? What are its roots and what is now driving growing number of yeshivish Jews to embrace the state of Israel, an entity once cast as treyf, unkosher? To answer this requires going back over a century, to a time when the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine was for some Jews a distant dream and for others a theological nightmare.

 

It is somewhat ironic that one of the greatest theological dilemmas posed to the Orthodox community at the turn of the 20th century was the return to Israel. For thousands of years, pious Jews prayed eastward—to go eastward. Jewish liturgy is replete with mention of returning to Israel; according to Jewish law, not a single slice of bread can be eaten without recalling Jerusalem.

But when a secular Viennese journalist-turned-Jewish-activist named Theodor Herzl paved the way for practical Jewish immigration in the form of a political program he was met with heavy pushback from East European religious authorities. Their resistance was both theological and practical.

Theologically, they pointed to a distinction between Israel as a political entity (m’dinat Yisrael) and the land itself (Eretz Yisrael). While the land was inherently holy and worthy of Jewish settlement—in truth, Jewish presence in Israel’s holy cities never ceased—a future state was to be divinely and not humanly mandated and orchestrated. Jewish tradition did not recognize a sovereign state prior to the coming of the messiah and such a construct was an affront to the tradition, to the messiah, and to God.

On a practical level, Zionism and its leaders were perceived as a threat to traditional Judaism. The movement, led largely by secular Jews, operated at a time when shtetl life was in decline, when the pull of religious orthodoxy was losing its grip to such burgeoning ideologies as Bundism, Communism, and Zionism. All three denigrated and to varying degrees sought to dissolve the traditional Jewish way of life. While much of the Zionist aversion to religion stemmed from the slightly earlier Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, which emphasized reason over faith, the early Zionists were also motivated by a unique, revolutionary desire to assert “the new Jew”—a metamorphosis that necessitated rejecting the old one. If the old Jew was pious, fearful, and dependent on Gentile rule, the new Jew would be modern, bold, and self-sufficient. Man, rather than God, was master of his own destiny.

Traditional Jews didn’t exactly take this challenge sitting down. In 1912, they established the Agudath Israel, a federated system for East European and Western Orthodox circles that objected to these modern Jewish movements and ideologies. (Agudath Israel of America opened twenty years later.) In 1920, the Polish-born Orthodox rabbi Menachem Kasher (whose opinions on Zionism would shift dramatically after the Six-Day War) summed up his community’s outlook in a booklet stating that “according to Torah law, one should not aid the Zionists who openly violate religious principles . . . in working towards the settlement of the Land of Israel.”

This idea was to be echoed in other religious publications and became the party line of Agudath Israel. A 1931 letter serves to outline the organization’s formal position on Zionism:

While we affirm the imperishable nature and the actual perpetuation of the Jewish nationality and the indestructible bond between the Jewish people and its homeland, we reject from the depths of our conviction the secularization of the Jewish people undertaken by Zionism and regard the Zionist maxim that religion is a personal matter as a betrayal of the universal, historical task of God’s people and the Divine revelation. In the sense of Jewish tradition, Palestine is to us a Holy Land in which Jewish life and a national Jewish home can rise only when the authority of the Jewish religious law which still lives to-day is acknowledged in its entirety within that home.

In other words, Jews have a connection to the Land of Israel, but any formalization of that connection at the level of state-building or ideology was anathema, especially if it was to be devoid of religious law. This would be the group’s position for the remainder of the pre-state period. It didn’t last long. Within a few years, the Shoah would cast its shadow over Europe’s Jews, and Agudath Israel, like much of the world, would be forced to reconcile with some form of support for a Jewish state.

In June 1947, its representatives met with David Ben-Gurion and issued the organization’s basic requirements in exchange for its participation in the project of establishing Israel: religious control over marital law, national Sabbath observance, national observance of kashrut, and autonomy in Jewish education. Ben-Gurion made no guarantees; ten days later a letter—the famed “status-quo” letter—arrived at the Agudath Israel’s offices aimed at placating the organization. But besides a commitment to instituting Sabbath as the legal day of rest, the letter’s commitments were vague, and the official platform on Zionism did not change.

Nonetheless, recognizing the historical grandeur of the creation of modern Israel, in practice organization’s hard line softened: in 1948, its representative joined those signing the Declaration of Independence, and the party subsequently joined the Provisional Government.

It would be overly simplistic to say that “the rest is history.” Ben-Gurion’s solution was in some respects a decision not to decide, a sociopolitical compromise rather than a principled and clear decision. Thus, from marriage to conscription, many of the basic arrangements pertaining to religion and law made during Israel’s formative years still vex and divide segments of Israeli society and the Jewish community abroad, including within the yeshiva world.

 

For all that, the ultra-Orthodox today—both in Israel and in America—are far less vexed by Israel and Zionism than they used to be. Key issues still await resolution, but there has been a dramatic shift with regards to the state of Israel transpiring on the ground. This shift is largely pragmatic rather than doctrinal. One will not find any incorporation of sentiment for Israel into the practices or liturgy of yeshivish congregations, such as Sabbath prayers for the state and its army, as you might find in Modern Orthodox or National Religious communities. But over the last seven decades there has grown a deep-seated attachment to the Jewish state—reflected both in content and spirit—that is found in almost no other American Jewish demographic.

The historian Simon Dubnov charted Jewish history as a chain of migrating centers that arose, thrived, declined, and rose again elsewhere, from ancient Babylonia to medieval Germany to Spain. In Dubnov’s time, the most recent of these centers had been the spiritually vibrant, Yiddish-speaking communities of Poland and Russia. But the Nazis destroyed that center, and took Dubnov’s own life before he could witness the next link in the chain: the state of Israel. All of American ultra-Orthodoxy now leans in that direction. Israel is its center of gravity, not Europe and not America. Therefore, it has become nearly impossible for ultra-Orthodoxy to remain committed to its anti-Zionism, or even its non-Zionism.

To substantiate this claim, look through the major English-language ultra-Orthodox publications. From Mishpacha to Yeshiva World News to Ami to Hamodia, a common picture emerges: Israeli news is almost always featured on the cover. An Israeli tech mogul or innovation is highlighted, an Israel advocate is profiled, advertisement pages are filled with the hottest Jerusalem real -state buys and most exclusive Israeli seminaries.

The shift of centers is particularly visible for the yeshivish community. After the death of several leading yeshivish rabbinic authorities, such as Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Yaakov Kaminetzky of New York and Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman of Baltimore, the community’s leadership shifted to the late Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv followed by the late Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinmann, both of whom were based in Israel. Today its leadership is still largely ensconced in Israel, led by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky. While the Council of Great Torah Sages still sits in the United States as the policy-making branch of Agudath Israel of America, the yeshivish authorities in Israel are generally acknowledged as higher in stature than their American counterparts.

Indeed, it is more prestigious for a young yeshivish man studying at institutions such as Mir and Brisk—both elite Israel-based yeshivas—than anywhere else (with the possible exception of Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey). The yeshivish community now expects most, if not all, students of both sexes to spend at least a year after high school in Israel. Newly married couples are similarly encouraged to spend their first year of marriage in Jerusalem.

This goes for life as a whole: it revolves around frequent visits to Israel. Anyone visiting Jerusalem during the three pilgrimage festivals—Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot—would be hard pressed not to notice the number of black-hatted Jews at restaurants, cafes, and pilgrimage sights chattering away in English; for the most part, they are members of the American yeshiva world. On a recent El Al flight to Israel I noticed that most of the passengers were young yeshivish families, returning to Israel to study indefinitely in yeshiva.

Thus, for yeshivish families in America, Israel’s safety and security is not only paramount, it is also personal.

 

Part of the re-centering around Israel is owed to the involvement of Israeli Ḥaredim at the highest levels of government. Israel’s multi-party parliamentary system (thirteen parties in the last election alone) ensures that every segment of society is represented. The ḥaredi parties have been an integral force in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition for the last decade. Why? Netanyahu might not be the harbinger of the messiah, but he is the steward of welfare for the ultra-Orthodox community. In turn, the Ḥaredim are now both cognizant of their political power and unhesitant to flex their political muscles.

The roots to this deeper political involvement date back as far as 1977, when Menachem Begin asked Agudath Israel to join his coalition, and they accepted. But their role as a major political force began in 1990 (the twelfth Knesset). The day-to-day transactional politics have had the side effect of bringing the Ḥaredim closer to a Zionist worldview. “The state’s ḥaredi representatives are well entrenched in governmental affairs and most of the ḥaredi citizenry is invested in Israeli politics, which, in addition to the growth of the community, has created a more “Zionist” ḥaredi identity (using “Zionist” very loosely, of course) in Israel as well,” says Avi Shafran, Agudath Israel’s director of public affairs.

Indeed, according to him,

there is considerably less mistrust of a Jewish state as a concept than there may have been before, and for many years after, Israel’s establishment. Israel’s support of its religious citizens’ needs and of its yeshivas (support which has been assailed by some Israeli politicians here and there but continues) has certainly helped propel that change. As has the growth of the Orthodox community in Israel, since increased numbers make Ḥaredim a stronger part of the Israeli citizenry, and one that feels more secure in that role.

Another factor that has helped weave Ḥaredim closer to Israel is the rapidly rising rate of employment. Between 2003 and 2015, the number of ultra-Orthodox men with jobs jumped from 36 percent to 50 percent, and the number of women from 51 percent to 73 percent. In recent years, religious organizations such as AvraTech and Kamatech have sprung up whose goal is to integrate ḥaredi men into the high-tech sector, all while keeping carved out time for Talmud study, and maintaining their overall religious lifestyle.

On a very basic level, then, the acceptance of Israel as political entity by the American ultra-Orthodox rests on the demonstrative success of their Israeli cousins. Agudath Israel’s post-war worries of mass secularization never materialized. Just the opposite: there are more students studying full time in yeshiva today than in any other period in Jewish history. Ḥaredim are integrated into the workforce and even in the army without the collapse of ultra-Orthodox tradition. By and large, Ḥaredim lead lives dedicated to ancient principles in one of the world’s most modern states.

 

Taking all of this into account, when it is said that the ultra-Orthodox community is anti-Zionist or non-Zionist, one cannot help but wonder: what is its staunch support of the state of Israel if not something approaching de-facto Zionism?

While the self-styled “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group J Street was lobbying in favor of the nuclear deal reached with Iran in 2015, Agudath Israel stood with the Israeli government in opposing it. Likewise, the ultra-Orthodox group lobbied Congress in favor of the Taylor Force Act, aimed at stopping American economic aid that funds terrorists; J Street opposed the bill, arguing it would increase Palestinian “deprivation and despair.”

The yeshiva world is a robust Jewish demographic in America that is emerging as the new pro-Israel community. The easing of the worries that once restrained its support has provided fertile ground for its de-facto Zionism to grow. While Zionism may not be doctrinal for the yeshiva world in the way that it is for Israel’s National-Religious camp, a new doctrine is forming based on an appreciation of Israel’s centrality to Jewish life.

As mainstream American Jewry veers leftward leaving a pro-Israel vacuum, the yeshiva world is beginning to fill the gap. Those interested in protecting Israel’s future would therefore be well advised to form strategic relationships with the yeshivish community by bolstering its involvement in pro-Israel advocacy groups, encouraging its political engagement, and training its lay leaders to raise their voices. The future is all of ours, but the Jewish future may well be theirs.

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