Many Shades of Black – An Interview with Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer

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Despite the predictions of many of Israel’s secular founders, the ultra-orthodox population of the Jewish state has only grown in size and influence. During his recent campaign, Yair Lapid, now Finance Minister in the coalition government, famously declared to a crowd of Haredi students at Ono Academic College, “You won. There was a competition in Israel for Israeli-ness that lasted for over a century… and in the end you won.”

The point is clear: Israel’s future as the Jewish state depends on the successful integration of its Haredi communities into the mainstream of society. But what might this integration look like? Is there a peaceful and productive way forward that overcomes the deep antagonism dividing secular and religious in Israel (and was, in fact, still evident in Lapid’s remarks)?

Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer has made it his life’s mission to work toward such a positive integration. Rabbi Pfeffer was a student in Tikvah’s Jewish Thought and Enduring Human Questions program and this year will be an instructor and panelist in our Summer Fellowship on Jewish Thought and Citizenship. Rabbi Pfeffer is a young Haredi Jerusalemite with considerable standing in his community – a rabbinic judge and an acclaimed author of a book on Jewish law. He is also a recent graduate of Hebrew University with a law degree and a distinguished appointment as intern to the Israeli Supreme Court.

We republish here a video clip along with excerpts from an interview we conducted with Rabbi Pfeffer in September, 2012. Since that time, he has initiated two important projects: The first is a yeshiva high school for Haredi students that incorporates basic grounding in secular studies within a traditional yeshiva framework: “The novelty is that the school aims at a mainstream Haredi public, and is molded on a classic Haredi high-school model. I think it can be an important step in helping the community find direction for the future.” The second, an academic program for Haredi college-age students, is designed to introduce the “Yeshiva-University” model into an Israeli setting: “It is a challenge, and there’s a long way to go — but we have already received many positive vibes, and hope to reach important achievements for the community. Aside from teaching there whenever I can, I am officially the ‘rabbi’ of the new ‘campus’ and a member of its board.”

Interview with Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer

Originally Published September 12, 2012

Let’s start with your family background.

I was born in 1976 and raised in London. I grew up frum, but the family that I grew up with isn’t what you would call a Haredi family, certainly not in the Israeli sense of the word. I guess you could call us Modern Orthodox. But in England at the time these distinctions were much more blurred than they are now, and certainly than they are in Israel. The kind of kipah that you wore on your head you could change from one day to the next and nobody would really bat an eyelid. I only realized how much of an issue these things were when I got to Israel and I started to understand how the communities worked.

You came to Israel in 1993. You were 17 years old. You had already begun university?

No, I’d just finished my A-Levels, my higher examinations. I’d been to yeshiva for a year. I had a place in university, which I deferred year after year after year. I started out in an American yeshiva, Beis Yisrael, which was mainly for American and English boys. After three years there I moved on to the Mir Yeshiva, one of the most renowned in Jerusalem. I immersed myself. I still had the university place and could have still gone. But as the years went by it became less and less realistic to return to England. I was more attached to the Israeli world. When I ended up getting married in 1999, seven years after I moved, it was a very natural step to settle in Israel.

What was life like in yeshiva?

Beis Yisrael was a great place. It gave you a framework so that if you wanted to be serious you could really be serious, but there was no pressure to disconnect from your past or anything like that.

One of my fondest memories is this: Thursday nights we used to study through the night. After the evening prayers at nine-thirty we went till five in the morning, perhaps noshing something in between. And then we used to daven shacharit at five, and after shacharit I used to take my study partner, who was a decent tennis player, and we went to the courts nearby and played two hours of tennis! Then we finished a tub of ice cream together and went to sleep. It was a relaxed atmosphere, but you could also be a serious student and put your heart into it.

Mir was a natural progression. It was a place for the real serious students, for those who really felt at home in the Torah world. All of the rabbis that taught in Beis Yisrael were rabbanim who had studied in Mir. I thought I was following the course that my mentors had taken.

Was there a major cultural difference between the two?

In Beis Yisrael my roommate could still have Queen songs blaring when I came into the room in the evening. I used to sing along. But I realized when I went to Mir, I’m disconnecting from those elements, and immersing myself not only as a student but as a member of the Torah culture. That was fine too.

When and how did you locate yourself within the Haredi community?

By the time I decided to move to Mir, I was already quite strongly identified as  Haredi. While I was in Beis Yisrael I started to see that the people who were going towards Mir were certain types and affiliations, and the people who were going back to Yeshiva University were different; they wore different yarmulkes and they dressed differently. So I saw these things had social meaning and I slowly gravitated toward the more Mir definition.

Were your yeshiva teachers role models for you?

Absolutely. In the yeshiva the person who teaches you Torah is also somebody who offers you guidance and a spiritual and life role model. Each rebbe in yeshiva is a portal into a different lifestyle. You go to his house for meals on Shabbat and build relationships with him. It’s a real rabbi-disciple relationship that you build. For me that’s terribly absent in university.

Your parents – how would you characterize their Jewish upbringing?

My father actually is a baal teshuva. He became religious when I was a young boy. By nature he has quite an extreme temperament: He believes in going “all the way” with your beliefs. So when he became religious, he did that also in a fairly extreme way. So when I came to Israel to study in yeshiva at 17, that was already very much in my upbringing. Look for what’s true, don’t worry about what society might say about what you do.

Why did your father become baal teshuva?

He had an observant friend who told him one day, “come round and meet my rabbi.” My father met this rabbi character, and heard the things that he had to say, and said, “Hey, there’s some truth I have to investigate.” And he never looked back. One day things were “normal,” and the next day Chabad people were in the kitchen kashering the oven!

Where is your father now?

My father lives in Bnei Brak and he’s loving it. He retired a few years ago and now he goes to yeshiva full time. There’s nobody there his age. He’s afraid to go with people his age; they’ve lost their energy, their youthfulness.

Zionism was defined by the effort to create a new Jew. The other side of that is there’s something wrong with the old Jew. What’s the attitude of the Haredim towards Zionism?

I first have to give a disclaimer: It’s hard for me to speak on behalf of the entire community, which is large and wide-ranging.

The most basic starting point for the Haredi take on Zionism is that the state doesn’t have any intrinsic holiness to it. That sets us aside from religious Zionists, who, at least the followers of Rav Kook, see in the state the beginning of the redemption. They’re able to say, “Yeah, the secular people might be secular, but they’re still holy because they’re building the state. They have a certain higher calling even though they’re secular Jews.” The Haredi person sees this as deluded. You can’t have someone who is so distant from Judaism and call him holy. We believe in Israel as part of a religious aspiration and obligation, but not as a nationalistic enterprise. Zionism is regarded as something which is secular, not something religious. Perhaps the hand of God has something to do with it, but only as the hand of God had to do with the second coming of the Jews to the land of Israel; Cyrus was a pawn in the cogs of God’s providence. That could be true here also – that’s God’s business, but it doesn’t make anything holy or hallowed.

And the state?

The relationship with the state itself is very complex. The Satmars, the extreme, say the state is born in sin and doesn’t have the right to exist. That’s not the mainstream Haredi position. But the mainstream Haredi does see the State itself, and the Zionist enterprise more specifically, in a negative light because of this attempt to create the new Jew. In the Haredi media there’s a lot about the early Zionist thinkers making sweeping declarations: “there won’t be any beards and side-curls in our new state.”

But the relationship is complex, because even though this is the main attitude, our kids grow up in Israel. And are very Israeli. They speak Hebrew. They have some knowledge of Israeli culture. Even though they don’t have exposure to sports and TV shows, they still do have exposure to a lot of the common issues they share with other young Israelis. These are issues of defense, or politics, or the idea of being at yeshiva or being in the army or going to work.

The very engagement of my part of the community, which is the mainstream, brings a certain closeness between yourself and the state in which you live. The freedom of expression that the Haredi community exercises is definitely very different from your conception of this exilic Jew which is subdued under the wicked leader in Poland. It’s a very different world over here in Israel.

So on the one hand, you still have this foundational experience of “the Zionists are against us” –this includes, by the way, non- or anti-Zionists, who are still called ”Zionists” because they’re part of the state and are interested in making us less Haredi or not Haredi at all. They want us to be integrated and secularized. On the other hand, you work together with them, both in a political sense and also in the workplace and in academic institutions. And, of course, we’re taking the State’s money. So people use “Zionist” as a pejorative, but on the other hand people understand the need to work with the state and the society.

Do you think that the Haredim do their civic duty for the State of Israel?

It’s a complex issue. I’ll tell you my take, but it’s a personal take. First we have to cleanse the arguments of all the ulterior motives that are sometimes mixed in. You know: “let’s get them into the Army and then they’ll change a bit. Let’s get them to be modern.” But if we really take the argument as you posit it, a purely “make your contribution to society” argument, then it’s a strong argument. It’s hard to argue against it in a conflict of public reason and discourse.

But inside the Haredi world, there are strong arguments against it. I’ll try to present them now. There is a strong belief within the Haredi world that Torah study and upholding the mitzvot give the country a lot of strength, not only in a spiritual sense, but even in a tangible physical way. They protect the country. That’s our contribution, or so the argument goes.

Now the argument against that is, that’s not the same. “My mother is afraid that I’m going to be killed and your mother isn’t.” That is a difficult argument. The Haredi rebuttal is, “how many actual combat units in the army do you have, and how many units are busy with logistics and radio and provisions?” Obviously, if the Army would actually need us, we would go because we wouldn’t have a choice – the country needs protection. But insofar as the Army doesn’t actually need the Haredim, and the Army is functioning perfectly well without the Haredim, and there are many people in the Army who say they don’t want the Haredim there, then why should we go? So our mothers don’t cry as much as mothers of combat soldiers do, but there’s a certain division of labor and that’s not necessarily our fault.

By the way, there’s also a very strong feeling in the Haredi world that somebody who is not prepared to commit themselves to being a serious Torah student should go to the Army. He doesn’t have a place in the yeshiva world. Now practically, I can’t say that that happens enough. But that is the feeling.

There’s also a feeling that Army service poses a threat to Haredi identity in and of itself. The army was founded as the engine of the new Jew – the new Israeli secular identity for the Jew. It’s seen as a melting pot for all of Israeli society to become Israelized or Zionized, to become part of the project. So however much they talk about creating a new kind of Haredi unit, it’s hard to lose that very basic and fundamental identity of Army service as something that provides the Jew with a new identity.

The claim is then, you, the secular Israeli, shouldn’t want us to lose our Haredi identity. It’s important and it will be a shame if it’s lost to the world. Even for you, there’s a value to preserving those values and those ideals that Jewish society had in years gone by. It’s not going to speak to every secular Jew but it is going to speak to a fair amount. So rather than drafting us into the army, let’s reach other arrangements. Community service might be an option, something Haredi-friendly.

Those arguments are sufficient for internal justification. But they might not be sufficient for broader Israeli society, so we have to move towards some solution.

What is the position of the mainstream on settlements in Judea and Samaria?

In general the Haredim are very right-wing. It’s hard to say exactly why, but it’s probably because they have an essentialist attitude toward things in general. Once you have an essentialist attitude that things don’t change, it somehow draws you toward more conservative principles. The question of settling itself is quite delicate. In general we have two principles that conflict with each other. On the one hand there is the principle of settling the holy land, which is a mitzvah. But there’s the much bigger principle of preserving Jewish life.

Most Haredi people would say, whatever’s best for the Jewish community. If we’re going to have a chance of gaining real peace, then for sure give back land. It doesn’t have this religious Zionist ideal of “settle the land” because that’s the most noble and the highest aspiration. We don’t have that. On the contrary, the Haredi community scoffs at that. But on the other hand, there’s skepticism that giving back land will bring peace. “There’s no way in the world the Arabs will ever make peace with us” is the view. Hypothetically, if it would bring peace, do it. But as for the chance it will really bring peace, the average Haredi on the street thinks there’s zero chance.

Two more questions: what are you doing right now? And, what you think the future holds for you?

I am a rabbinical judge, and I put out books and articles in the Haredi press. What I’m working on for the future, though, is fairly original from a Haredi perspective.

What books have you written?

I published one major work. It’s something quite original. It was about the legal workings of documents in Jewish law. How do they work? What do they do? It was well received within the Haredi community. There are a number of other publications on the way.

And the future?

One part of it is that having grown up in England and gotten a secular education as a child, I feel I have the background to go into the broader world, while maintaining a strong Haredi identity and lifestyle, and see how far I can get. The friction between Haredi society and general Israeli society is disturbing. Much of it, in my eyes, is caused by a misrepresentation of the Haredi Jew by the Israeli media, and it generally dissipates though personal contact. The Haredi community doesn’t have very many eloquent spokespeople to the general world. They don’t have a say on many of the issues that the broader world is interested in. Moreover, the impressive Torah erudition and knowledge of Haredi society doesn’t have much influence beyond the walls of the study halls, which is a shame. So I thought I’d learn some more skills – academic skills, writing, thinking – and see how far I could take it without leaving the Haredi world. Being at Tikvah was part of that for me. Receiving those skills and that broader awareness on the one hand, and on the other hand making the contribution that I feel I’m able to make from my own personal world.

Will other Haredim see the value of being participants in Israel?

I think many already see the value. I don’t think they’ll necessarily follow me as a role model, though I have a few friends who are doing it. But I think there is a certain trend in the Haredi community toward greater openness. There is a current trend toward going out, getting higher education, and integrating in one way or another, but that trend is tainted by the fact that many of the people who do go out stop or slow their religious observance. Then the traditionalists and extremists say, “look, this is what happens, and we therefore must prohibit openness and build the walls of the ghetto much stronger so that this doesn’t happen to other people.”

What I’d like to do is show that it’s possible to be in the broader world but still maintain a very strong religious identity and high level of religious observance and Torah study. I want to figure out how to make it possible for more people, perhaps by building new Batei Midrash, new frameworks for people who are students and working people. They should be able to continue their Haredi lifestyle in spite of being engaged with the broader world. It’s a very vital and timely thing for us. The community has become large and broad and needs some engagement with the outside world in order to survive both in a financial sense and in a spiritual sense.

The concern would be that it takes a very exceptional person to be able to hold these things together. Does something structural need to change for your reform ideas to be effective?

Yes. There has been some focus over the last few years have on the possibility of structural change. Yet, my feeling is that such change will only come in the wake of the individual. We need people to establish living examples, and then the structure will follow because people will say “that’s a possibility, let’s make our structures more flexible to enable those people.” Right now our structures don’t go in that direction, and structures tend to be rigid. But society is an organic thing, and has a way of slowly and gradually making changes, which I feel are happening already.

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