A 'Moderna' Yeshiva, but Still a Yeshiva

The ultra-Orthodox shock at the terrorist attack on Mercaz Harav caused the official ultra-Orthodox newspapers and several leading Hasidic rabbis to set aside essential religious debates for a moment.

"Jerusalem is weeping over the fact that Jewish boys were unfortunately murdered in such a terrible way. When the head weeps, the entire body weeps, and when Jerusalem weeps all of Israel weeps about such a bitter tragedy."

Ultra-Orthodox readers who saw these words this week rubbed their eyes. Not because of the emotional content, but because of the identity of the speaker - Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, the head of the Satmar Hasidim; the chasm that separates Satmar and Mercaz Harav circles is deeper than that between the yeshiva and the circles in which Education Minister Yuli Tamir, for example, grew up.

"The death of young men is as hard for the Holy One, blessed be He as the destruction of the Temple," the admor (leader of a Hasidic sect) told his disciples on Shabbat, in Yiddish, "but when, God forbid, such a tragedy occurs, that murderers enter the yeshiva, a yeshiva where young men are studying, even though it's a 'moderna yeshiva,' it's still a yeshiva where young men study Torah, Gemara - and shoot, God help us, and kill a number of boys in a most cruel manner, Jewish boys, certainly it is as hard for the Holy One, blessed be He as the burning of our House of God. All of Israel is broken by such a bitter tragedy."

Satmar Hasidism split about two years ago, and now two brothers are heading its two wings: Rabbi Aaron and Rabbi Zalman-Leib. Both see themselves as the successors of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (their father's uncle) who was the architect of the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox approach.

Anti-Zionism is the cornerstone of Satmar, not simply a political stance. There is no way of knowing what Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum would have said about a massacre in a Zionist yeshiva, but as a rule he believed that the establishment of the State of Israel and the resulting incitement of the nations of the world are the explanation for the bloodshed in the Middle East; in the words of the Gemara (Talmud): "I will abandon your flesh like the gazelle and deer of the field."

You don't have to go as far as Satmar to notice the changes in the official internal discourse - as opposed to the ultra-Orthodox public, which reacted with profound shock - to the attack in Jerusalem and the identity of its victims.

The official ultra-Orthodox hashkafa (religious perspective) has been conducting a longstanding debate with what the "Mercaz" represents, and always considered it a "half-baked yeshiva." In light of this, the wording of Friday's main headline in the ultra-Orthodox daily Yated Neeman: "8 yeshiva boys were murdered in a shooting attack at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem" was significant. The word "yeshiva" appeared. Twice.

This is the same Yated Neeman that did not hesitate to mock the settlers during the week when Gush Katif was evacuated, and last September covered the death of the head of the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, Rabbi Avraham Shapira, with the respect reserved for traffic reports; of the 57 words (in Hebrew) in the announcement, 10 were: "Because of the funeral cortege, central arteries were closed all over the city and at the entrance to Jerusalem."

This week, the attack was described in the lead editorial as "a barbaric massacre of Jewish boys who engage in study," and another article, published yesterday, said that "although we are not identified with them [with Mercaz circles, Y.E.] in any way," the ultra-Orthodox public has an obligation to rise up against "their persecutors from the unrestrained Israeli left," for "the wicked interpretation of this attack as a sectoral one."

One of Friday's funerals was attended by Rabbi Issachar Dov Rokeach, the admor of Belz, a Hasidic group that for years has not been identified with anti-Zionist circles, and is now seen as close to the government, in ultra-Orthodox terms. The rebbe rarely leaves his house, but last Monday he went out a second time and visited the wounded at Shaare Tzedek Medical Center.

"You are fortunate that you were caught when studying Torah," the rebbe was quoted as having told Eliyahu Klarfeld, one of the wounded.

"It's not that he goes out after attacks to visit the wounded, like a president, but the intensity of the trauma caused him to act and to demonstrate leadership," said one Belz Hasid.

Rabbi Yehoshua Magnes, from Mercaz Harav, says that the ultra-Orthodox reaction, which also included visits and phone calls from admors and other rabbis, is "a natural thing. Had it not happened we would have been surprised. Is it possible for the ultra-Orthodox not to understand the significance of holy ones who are murdered while studying?"

But Dr. Benjamin Brown, who studies the ultra-Orthodox hashkafa and lectures in the Department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, identifies another layer here. "On the one hand, you don't hear leading rabbis such as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, but on the other hand there are statements like that of the Satmar Rebbe, which is almost an own-goal against the anti-Zionist hashkafa."

Brown explains it as "directed mainly inward," in the wake of the Satmar split: "Rabbi Aaron is saying that his Hasidism is still extreme but civilized, not wild."

However, the ultra-Orthodox reactions should also be understood in light of what is happening in the street: the "Israelization" of the ultra-Orthodox community, and the tendency among the religious public to become more ultra-Orthodox.

There is nothing like a visit to Mercaz Harav's study hall to illustrate the blurring of the boundaries. Not only are many of the yeshiva students in quasi-Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) tracks, including a relatively new generation of yeshiva students whose "Torah study is their vocation" (some of them did not serve in the army or served for only a few months in a framework called "hesder Mercaz"), but there are also several ultra-Orthodox boys in the study hall who are rank-and-file students. They consider this an institution that is modern compared to the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva world from which they came, but on the other hand it is no longer a "half-baked yeshiva."

Official Zionism here is also not it used to be.