Jewish leadership; Hasidism, Zionism and how Israel is the great unifier of today

Welcome to Term 3! I had the honour and privilege of being in Israel over the term holidays. It was so special to see the abundance of Australians walking the streets, sitting in cafes, and soaking up the spirituality and the sunshine. The juxtaposition of the opening of the borders and ease of travel, the Maccabiah Games, JNF educators’ tour, and more, has brought hundreds of members of our community to Israel at this time. 

Seeing the vast range of Jewish people, who are unified in their deep connection to Israel, gave me cause to once again reflect on our Modern Orthodox Zionist values and how these values impact our lives today.

It is opportune that we start Term 3 with the Parshah of Pinchas. After Hashem divides up the land of Israel amongst the families of the tribes, Moshe was hopeful that perhaps Hashem would change his mind and allow him to enter the Land. Earlier, Moshe was punished not to enter the Land because he hit the rock when Hashem actually told him to speak to the rock to draw water. However, Hashem reaffirmed that His decision stands, and Moshe won’t be allowed into the land of Israel, and that he would have to suffice with a glimpse of the Land from afar. 

Moshe, being the selfless leader that he was, immediately turns to Hashem to ask for a worthy successor, to appoint a leader who will actually take the Jewish People into the Land; a leader who will be able to relate to the depth and breadth, the full range of the Jewish people, and to be able to handle everything that will confront them as leader of our complex nation. 

As a leader, Moshe dealt with rebellion, prayed for sinners to be forgiven, confronted King Pharaoh, split the sea, spoke to Hashem many a time, and so much more. Moshe was the all-encompassing, versatile, true leader, able to relate to everyone, and he sought the same in a successor.

Despite the fact that Moshe wanted his successor to be one of his own children, Hashem appointed Yehoshua (Joshua), Moshe’s dedicated student who never left his side, and who learnt the ways of leadership from Moshe. Yehoshua had already proven himself loyal and worthy; he had the best guide and example in his teacher and mentor, Moshe.

It is worth noting that few leaders are able to relate to such a vast array of people. It’s one thing to lead a nation of righteous individuals, and it’s completely different to lead a nation that doesn’t necessarily always do the right thing and with such a variety of needs and characters therein. 

In fact, we see the same thing in education. Superior teachers are the ones who relate to each child in their care, endeavour to enter their world and to understand their space and their interest areas. They relate to each child at their level of maturity, and in line with their development and learning. These teachers don’t teach a class, they teach 24 different classes. For these teachers, each child is a class of their own. These teachers are truly gifted, they are legendary educators whose influence is felt long beyond the tenure of the children in their classroom. Achieving this standard is our goal for every class at Moriah.

Rabbi Moshe Taragin, (a respected teacher at Yeshivat Har Etzion – ‘the Gush’) comments that if you analyse the beginnings of the Hasidic movement in the 1700’s, you will find that at that time, in Central Europe, where the bulk of Jewish people then lived, there was a dichotomy that existed amongst the Jewish nation. It was a tough time period with extensive poverty and rampant antisemitism. There were those who were considered learned, the ‘Torah Scholars’, who were in a class all of their own and then there were the ‘ignorant’. In fact, the scholars kept quite separate, and frowned upon the ‘ignoramuses’ – those that were not learned in Torah study and weak in their Mitzvah observance. 

Along came the early Hasidic movement, and it changed the outlook of the masses of the Jewish people. Hasidic thought emphasised the value of every single member of our nation. No matter how learned, how observant, or fervent. Their personal piety and learning was irrelevant, and in fact, the simple Jews were even more cherished and precious to Hashem. According to Hasidic thought, the simple Jews, that worked hard to eke out a living in a time of economic hardship, rising antisemitism, displacement across central Europe, were considered to be treasured and holy before Hashem. Every word of Tefillah or Tehillim that they uttered, with their broken and mispronounced Hebrew, was precious. These word fragments were metaphorically reconstructed by the ‘Malachim – angels’ and presented to Hashem as precious gems. 

It is interesting to note that today a seismic shift has occurred across the majority of Hasidic movements. They are, by and large, no longer accepting all-inclusive communities, but rather, insular and closed communities (other than the Chabad Hasidic movement). How did they transition from their inclusive founding philosophy, the philosophy of acceptance and valuing every Jew, to being so exclusive, each with their own rules and garb, their own philosophy, spiritual leaders, neighbourhoods and such a tight-knit community? 

There were two major events that acted as catalysts for this change within Hasidism. The first was the founding of the ‘Haskalah – the secular Enlightenment’ movement, that perverted the pure learnings of Torah and threatened the very existence of Torah scholarship and adherence. The Haskalah emerged in the late 1700’s and gained momentum into the 1800’s. It frightened the Hasidic communities and leaders into a form of insulation, resulting in the construction of strong boundaries, and becoming overly protective to preserve the integrity of their own communities. 

The second catalyst was the Holocaust and establishment of the modern State of Israel. During the Holocaust many of these Hasidic communities, towns and dynasties were wiped out or greatly decimated, and post Holocaust they began to rebuild, to increase their numbers and followers, to ensure their very survival.

Post Holocaust, many in the Hasidic movement viewed the founding of the State of Israel by a group of ‘secular Zionists’ as a missed opportunity. They struggled with the fact that a group of ‘Enlightened’ secular Jews established a modern Jewish State. Despite the State being a fulfilment of the collective and individual ambition and dreams of the Jewish nation, because it was executed by our Secular Zionist forefathers, they viewed it as a threat. It caused many of them to become even more insular, particularly the Hasidic Communities in the State of Israel.

However, there emerged a new form of more inclusive acceptance, and valuing of every single Jewish person. Religious Zionism. With the establishment of the State, and the fulfilment of the Zionist dream, now every Jew, religious or secular, Sephardic or Ashkenazi, or for that matter, Hasidic, who connects themselves, supports and believes in the State of Israel, is unified as a Jewish Nation. No matter who you are, no matter what your background is, or what philosophy you adhere to, by connecting to the State of Israel you are intrinsically connected to Am Yisrael. In fact, religious Zionism, which is the central part of the Moriah College ethos, views the vehicle of Zionism as the great unifier of our Nation.

Today, we find the rise of the study of Hasidic philosophy by Religious Zionists. There is a popular renaissance of neo-Hasidism amongst religious Zionists. The original accepting Hasidic theology and philosophy, and the inclusive approach of pure Hasidism is complimentary with Religious Zionism.

At Moriah, our Zionist spirit, our devotion and connection to the modern State of Israel unifies us as a community, and connects us as a Nation, all over the world, and in Israel.

We may be physically far from Israel, on a far-flung island nation on the other side of the globe, yet we can be proud of our Australian Jewish Community, as we are staunch Zionists and champions of our Land. This is one of the blessings and assurances of having a school like Moriah, to continue to instil the Zionist heritage and our value system into our children.

I look forward to a Term of learning, growth and development, and to further opportunities of strengthening our bond with our Land.

Copy of Copy of Untitled (20)About the Author

Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

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