The People’s Collectivity

Hillel Halkin comments on the inauguration address of Peres,

[..] But Mr. Peres’ words that spoke most to me were other ones entirely. They were uttered when, reminiscing emotionally about his childhood, he talked about the Lithuanian town of Vilozhin, near which he was born, and of its yeshiva in which his grandfather had studied. The headmaster of this yeshiva, who oversaw it for four decades until it was shut down by the Czarist authorities in 1892 (he was dead by the time it reopened), was my great-grandfather, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin. That doesn’t make Shimon Peres and me second cousins, but it does lead me to reflect on a lost world that both of us ultimately derive from.

Vilozhin was the Harvard of the European yeshiva world. It drew the best and brightest students from all over the Russian Empire, and it was known for its high standards and its liberal atmosphere that demanded much from those enrolled in it while at the same time giving them great freedom. Although, like any East-European yeshiva, it concentrated on the teaching of Talmud and the producing of rabbis with a thorough knowledge of Jewish ritual and religious law, it adopted, under my great-grandfather’s guidance, an intellectual and historical approach to Talmudic studies that was unusual in its day. It was also unique in its attitude toward Zionism, my great-grandfather being one of the few leading Orthodox scholars and rabbis of the times who was pro-Zionist despite the predominant secularism of the Zionist movement.

Many of the Yeshiva of Vilozhin’s students eventually left Orthodoxy entirely; some became well-known public figures and authors, like the great Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, or the Hebrew fiction writer and essayist Micah Yosef Berdichevsky. What characterized Jewish Eastern Europe in those days was not that the disputes in it between secularism and religion, Zionism and anti-Zionism, or political radicalism and political conservatism, were less bitter than they are today — if anything they were more so — but that the parties to them had more in the way of common background and consequently understood each other better. They all came, as it were, from the same shtetl and they all knew its mental geography, even if they disagreed violently.

In contemporary terminology, a rabbi like my great-grandfather would be considered “ultra-Orthodox:” He was black-hatted, black-coated, and white-bearded, and despite the freedom he granted his students, he was rigorous in his insistence on the fullest observance of Jewish law. And yet he was not at all ultra-Orthodox — indeed, he broke with the ultra-Orthodox establishment of his time — in his attitude toward the Jewish people, which explains his Zionism, too. Ultra-Orthodoxy is by definition a creed that holds that, since the secular Jewish world has abandoned religion, religious Jews may abandon it in turn and look out for their own interests without worrying about the interests of other Jews. This point of view was never accepted at Vilozhin. The Hebrew concept of k’lal yisra’el, the collectivity of the Jewish people, for which every Jew, secular or religious, is responsible, was always taught there. [..]

July 17, 2007 | 3 Comments »

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3 Comments / 3 Comments

  1. Bill, it’s not that “Jews can keep their petty differences…to themselves,” but “Jews can accept their sometimes not so petty differences.” It intrigues me that humans each give themselves more moral leeway than they give to others.

  2. The point Halkin makes is that Israel would benefit if they took the teachings at Vilozhin to heart. I would go further to say that not only Israelis, but the entire world Jewish community would benefit if they took to heart the Hebrew concept of k’lal yisra’el, the collectivity of the Jewish people, for which every Jew, secular or religious, is responsible.

    Jewish communites are not only fractured by religious and political sectarianism, they are fractious in that regard which is the antithesis of unity that the small Jewish world community of 14 million needs far more then satisfaction one might feel from believing they have bested the other Jew intellectually, politically or influentially.

    Unity, unity, unity cannot be drilled into the heads of the world’s Jewish community often enough and hard enough.

    Jews can keep their petty differences and intellectual or faith battles to themselves.

    The concept of K’lal Yisra’el must however be learned and taken to heart in order to unify the world’s Jews to stand together shoulder to shoulder against those forces that stand against the Jews and that are out to destroy Israel by one means or another, whether in one fell swoop or in stages.

  3. In the long historical debate between the HOUSES : OF HILLEL AND SHAMAI I think Shamai has won hands down. Halkin surely is a follower of the Hillel school.

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