| Second Thoughts |

A Tale of Two Passports

It is precisely this emphasis on Jewish uniqueness and distinctiveness that makes many Jews uncomfortable


Our recent column about the offensive election poster asking voters to choose between a Jerusalem of Israelis or chareidim engendered some provocative reactions, and is worth revisiting.

Can one be both an Israeli and simultaneously a chareidi Jew? Strictly speaking, yes, because Israeli is a political designation, a matter of citizenship, and has nothing to do with one’s daily practices as a Jew. Most chareidim who live in Israel are both Israelis — citizens of the land — and chareidim, practicing the life of adherence to Torah and mitzvos.

However, beneath this technical definition there lies much more complexity, and that is the issue of Israeliness and Jewishness. These are far from being identical. Jewishness implies an acceptance of the idea of Jewish chosenness — bechiras Yisrael — i.e. we are a special nation with a special purpose; a connectedness to the Creator and to the Jewish past and future, and an identification with the supreme values of the Jewish spiritual heritage as expressed in the study and practice of Torah and mitzvos. It is a people that envisions a restoration and reincarnation of the classical Jewish way of life as a path into the future.

Israeliness, on the other hand, views all this as an anachronism and a throwback to the ghetto/galus mentality they yearn to leave behind. Israeliness would create a “new Jew,” one who is muscular and physical, open to the wider world and, although respectful of Jewish tradition and certain rituals (which they don’t call “mitzvos”), engaged with the ongoing universalist and humanistic issues of living in the modern world — which they subsume under the misbegotten umbrella of tikkun olam. Israeliness is based on political, linguistic, and territorial matters — none of which is fundamental to Jewishness.

In brief, Israeliness holds a passport that goes back to 1948, about 75 years, but Jewishness holds an additional passport: not only the one from 1948, but also an even more significant one that goes back to Sinai some 3,500 years ago.

So although the question posed by that offensive election poster — do you want a Jerusalem that is Israeli or chareidi? — is a spurious one because, strictly speaking, one can be both, the sponsors of that poster were not interested in semantic subtleties. They meant to warn voters about the dire consequences of a city government that is chareidi.

What is so frightening about chareidim? On one level, it involves imagined fears of intolerance, curtailment of basic freedoms, religious coercion, isolation from the outside world — all the clichés and bogeyman images of chareidim.

But it goes beyond this. At bottom, the fear is that of being an am kadosh — and kadosh means much more than the normative translation of “holy” or “sacred.” Basically, it means set apart, different, unique. We are called upon to be a nation unique and separate from the rest of the world, with disciplines and boundary lines and all those thou-shalt-nots.

And this is most challenging. As the saintly Gaon of Vilna once said: Whereas in ancient times the most irresistible temptation for the Jewish People was idol worship, today’s most irresistible temptation is to be k’chol hagoyim, like the rest of the world. It is normal for a Jew — even the non-chareidi Orthodox — to want to blend into the majority culture and not to be pointed to as somehow different from everyone else. But for chareidim, it is precisely this apartness that they seek to achieve — in clothing, in world outlook, in lifestyle. Far from fear of separateness, chareidim seek out and welcome it, for in it they see the path to Jewish greatness.

It is precisely this emphasis on Jewish uniqueness and distinctiveness that makes many Jews uncomfortable. In the case of nonobservant Jews, they see it as a mortal threat to their way of life, which is dedicated not to differentness but to ultimate acceptance by the world outside to whom a Jew can say, “See, we are not different from you.” For such Jews, chareidi-ness is an aberration and is an impediment to any hopes to be k’chol hagoyim.

It is little wonder that that they had to resort to fearmongering in this last municipal election. Even though the question they posed — Israeli or chareidi? — was semantically imprecise, their entire future as citizens of the world was being threatened.

Ironically, it never even occurred to them that when Jerusalemites — together with many other cities and towns in Israel — overwhelmingly chose Jewishness over Israeliness in the recent elections, their future as Israelis, far from being threatened, was about to be enhanced.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1006)

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