By Yonatan Gordon
The thought came as a surprise, from a surprising place. But then again, such are the wondrous workings of this world.
Although I am technically supposed to be working during the day, I took some time off to intermittently watch the TEDx event that was streamed live last week from the Holon Institute of Technology in Israel.
Usually when I feel compelled to watch or read something, it’s for the sake of writing an article like the one you are now reading. Thank God, over the past two years I’ve managed to churn out close to 200 articles … mostly written in the evenings … and mostly (like this one) written after I should be sleeping. I‘ll explain later why I mentioned this.
So I tuned into the TEDx event from the start. I was one of only about a dozen other people watching from the beginning, then others came home from work (or a walk in the park) and started watching towards the end. But the story that I would now like to introduce is from the first half, actually the second speech of the entire event of eleven speeches.
The presentation was delivered by Uri Goren, GM of e-Pochonder, entitled “Patients are not an Empty Carriage.” True to the name of his chosen title, he begins by recounting well-known story of the meeting between David Ben-Gurion and the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz.
Ben-Gurion asked the Chazon Ish how the secular and haredi communities could find a way to live together. The Chazon Ish responded by quoting from the the Talmud in Sanhedrin: “If two camels met each other while on the ascent to Beth-Horon … How then should they act? If one is laden and the other unladen, the latter should give way to the former.” He went on to say that the haredi community has a camel (or wagon, in some versions) that is burdened down with a full package of tradition and customs while the camel of the secular community bears no package, and therefore preference should be given to the haredi community.
Uri then went on to relate this metaphor to the topic of his discussion — the healthcare industry, and how technology and innovation is making it easier for patients to help themselves; comparing the full wagon in the story to the medical establishment, and the perceived “empty” wagoners to patients.
Unifying the Wagon
Before we go forward, it should be noted that Uri presented the story in an even-handed manner. It was clear that his intention was not to speak out against haredim, but simply to explain the divide between these two approaches.
What is not often quoted is the continuation of this encounter. But being as we are living in a time when there seems to be this inseparable divide between secularists and haredim, one can’t help but to reflect back on this momentous meeting for answers on how to repair this rift.
On the surface, the discussion hinges on intersection between two camels or carriages — one laden with goods and the other empty. But if you read Yitzchak Navon’s extended account of the meeting, rather than two strangers converging on the road, the message of partnership between the secularists and haredim is persistent throughout. For instance, while it was mentioned that soldiers are busy defending the borders, the Chazon Ish said they are able to do so successfully in the merit of Torah learning. This is hardly the depiction of a relationship between two complete strangers.
The idea then that came to mind, and the reason why I am writing this article today, is that perhaps we are no longer dealing with two wagons at all. Similar to the soldiers who guard the borders, or the secularists who persistently seek out the latest innovations, there is the wagon driver who leads the horses forward. But behind him in the carriage that he is driving, is the haredi contributing to the journey.
When speaking of two separate travelers, preference is indeed given to the laden one. But what if we reimagined the metaphor? When speaking of one wagon, given the option, the secularist is usually the one more inclined to press forward. But since he is now also carrying haredi passengers, laden with the goods of tradition, there is only benefit to be gained by each, as we will explain.
But why should they ever look at each other? Why should the secularist look back to someone who holds fast to the traditions of the past, and the haredi look forward to a person driven by the momentum and progress of the future?
Because great benefit can be gained by both sides as a result of a partnership.
To quote again from the article:
They then parted ways with a warm handshake, and after they left Ben Gurion is quoted commenting on the Chazon Ish’s wisdom, and the Chazon ish is quoted commenting that Ben Gurion is person with a neshama gedola (great soul).
A Challenge for Both
Torah study makes a person wiser, better able to make reasoned decisions in business, or as a secularist recentlydeclared,haredim are “industrious and intelligent workers” and businesses should employ them. So the challenge for a secularist is to acknowledge that its okay to look back. It’s okay to carry along haredim as part of your staff because you’ll be able to go farther by carrying those who carry the full load of traditions. And like the soldier who defends the borders, it is also a great mitzvah to employ these workers (especially those with families) in financial need.
But for the haredim, the challenge is to see themselves as inside the carriage, instead of on stationary ground. While the intention is not to change their level of observance, the possibility of still staying firm to principles while in motion is uncomfortable at first.
This is why I alluded to my own struggles in the beginning of this article. Especially over these past two years, instead of traveling safely inside a carriage, I’ve found myself either walking through moving subway cars or jumping to another moving train entirely.
What do I mean? Nary a day goes by that I don’t come across something while researching for an article that goes against Torah. Whether an immodest image, something heretical, or other weird stuff (note: use caution when searching Google Images). But each time I tell myself that if I didn’t embark on this path, the likelihood is that no one would (who else would want to do this?!). So I research and write, research and write … jumping from one shaky surface to the next.
But for all the Torah that I’ve written, I’m not the one driving the train. If it were up to me, I’d have my comfortable daily Torah study allotment. But seeing the greater need to show how Torah relates to a world of interests out there, I let the train conductors lead the way. In this particular story, the driver was Uri Goren.
Relative to the task of marketing Torah to the masses, the role of a harediin a standard business is much more straightforward. Every business needs good heads and thinkers to brainstorm, advise, research, and suggest. While I can conceptualize and explain the attraction to most popular brands and products, the role of the greater haredi population is more grounded. To be that stable, patient passenger inside the carriage offering sound advice, instead of the driver pushing the horses to go faster.
When marketing Torah, sometimes I find myself in the front seat side-by-side with the driver (as with the articles I wrote about Aaron Swartz), and other times, I find myself dangling from the side as it races hurriedly down a rocky slope. But being as many of the Israel-based haredi “passengers” are not reading English articles posted on the Internet, this is primarily a call to the drivers to take that first glance backward.
Service of Unification
Before we end though, we are still left with a question. While we have explained that secularists and haredim should both view each other as riding within the same carriage, ostensibly this was not the metaphor that the Chazon Ish presented that day. While the case from the Talmud remains a discussion about travelers, and not the social climate presently in Israel, the metaphor still appears to indicate that there are these two distinct groups. So while the Chazon Ish does not need my explanation, I did think of a possible resolution to this conundrum.
Throughout history, the spiritual task beset upon us was called in Kabbalah “avodat habirurim (service of clarification),” the task of elevating the sparks of holiness that are scattered throughout the physical world. But since this is a clarification process, when sifting through to find sparks, a person is bound to perceive some things in the world as dark or at least mundane.
But the Lubavitcher Rebbe stated (many years after the Ben Gurion, Chazon Ish meeting), that the service of clarification has now been completed, and that it is now the time to concentrate on a different model of religious service known as “avodat hayichudim (the service of unification).”
Why am I mentioning this? Because in the past, the focus was on separation — separating holiness from everything else. But then a radical shift occurred, and the task now is to make unifications. While most often we speak about the unification between Torah and science, obviously it is also important to make unifications within the Jewish people. But whereas the service of clarification may lead to viewing the modern world, and those who associate with it, as lacking light, the service of unification prompts each of us to seek out unity even amongst two opposite approaches.
This is why we feel comfortable saying that the wagon of today, while most often driven by secularists, should ideally carry haredim inside the passenger cabin. The hope is that by working together, we can also grow together for the mutual benefit of both sides.
Note and Further Reading: The Lubavitcher Rebbe didn’t like the word “secular” (chiloni), since every Jew is full of holiness, but I wrote it here so that you know what I’m talking about. Pertaining to our discussion especially, a more accurate term would be modernists or even the progressive-minded.