Kanno’us, zealotry, is one of the most oft abused and misapplied hallowed concepts in the Torah. Kanno’us that is not done in a manner dictated by the Torah, but rather due to a knee-jerk emotion with no basis in Torah and without the guidance of gedolei Torah can descend into the most terrible hooliganism that is completely foreign to Yiddishkeit and Torah.
The Boyaner Rebbe once commented on the interesting fact that the story of Pinchos begins in last week’s parsha, Parshas Balak, and only ends at the beginning of this week’s parsha, Parshas Pinchos. Why wasn’t the entire story recounted in one parsha?
He answers that when a person engages in an act of kanno’us, he must wait until one parsha passes in order to truly see whether his intention when engaging in kanno’us was purely for the sake of Heaven. Only then is he granted s’char, similar to the way Pinchos was only informed of his s’char for his act of kanno’us, an act that he did at the end of Parshas Balak, in Parshas Pinchos.
Rav Moshe Feinstein writes in a teshuvah (Igros Moshe, Even Ha’ezer 4:63), “Just like one must ask a posek with regard to all halachic shailos, so too, when it comes to giving rebuke and kanno’us, a person must first ask a posek and not rule on these areas according to his own understanding.”
One of the most difficult things about kanno’us is knowing how to apply it. Many people bring proof for their own desire to engage in kanno’us by pointing out that this great rov, this rosh yeshiva or that rebbe once engaged in tremendous kanno’us when it came to this or that area. The question, however, is whether one can apply the circumstances in which that person ruled, whether it was 10 years ago, 50 years ago or 100 years ago, to the present situation.
Circumstances change, and those changed circumstances might warrant a different answer to a question that on the surface appears identical. Thus, a person who engages in zealotry thinking that he is doing the same holy work as this or that rosh yeshiva or rebbe might not be a kanno’i, but rather a fool, not taking stock and recognizing that the facts on the ground are no longer the same.
Changing Times, Changing Answers
A while back, I had the zechus to write about a special Yerushalmi Yid named Rav Aharon Yosef Brizel. With every fiber of his being, he carried the legacy of the old yishuv that fought the encroachment of secular Zionism into their territory. Rav Aharon Yosef was also a fiery Karlin-Stoliner chossid, who was attached heart and soul to the admorim of Karlin-Stolin. He was an exalted oveid Hashem and thousands were strengthened in their personal avodah just from listening to him daven or make Kiddush. A holy man, he walked in the streets with his eyes down so that he would not see anything that would adversely affect his kedusha while radiating inner simcha with his contagious, jovial nature, making people want to be in his presence.
It was well known that Rav Aharon Yosef was anti-Zionist. He spoke Yiddish at home, and his children and grandchildren were fluent in Yiddish and spoke it as their first language. He would relate that when he was young, the Zionist youth would ridicule and physically beat him and his likeminded friends over their stubborn adherence to speaking Yiddish. Nevertheless, when asked whether people should make an effort not to speak Ivrit today, because it was the language adapted by the early Zionists as a way of turning their backs on the “golus language” of Yiddish and the adherence to Torah and mitzvah observance that it represented, Rav Aharon Yosef gave deeply insightful advice. While stating that it was very important that Yiddish be spoken in the house, he also advocated that people be able to converse fluently in Ivrit. Parents should make sure that their children are able to converse fluently in Ivrit, he said, so that when they grow older, they will be able to converse with and draw closer to Yiddishkeit the vast majority of people who do not speak Yiddish.
Indeed, it is clear that today, knowing Ivrit is very important, because without it one cannot connect with and reach the vast majority of Yidden living in Eretz Yisroel.
There are a number of important, practical lessons that can be derived from Rav Brizel’s conclusion. Firstly, a person must constantly reassess the spiritual reasons as to why he conducts himself in a certain way. When Rav Brizel was a bochur and a young man, speaking Yiddish was a valiant act of separation from a culture that sought to get rid of the Yerushalmi Jew of old. As the decades moved on, however, the children and grandchildren of the original militant apikorsim who beat and ridiculed yeshiva bochurim and anyone who visibly adhered to the old ways of unapologetic shemiras hamitzvos became classified as tinokos shenishbu, who knew precious little about anything associated with Judaism. It was time to reassess the shitah of complete kanno’us and separation in light of the completely changed facts on the ground.
I have a friend who grew up in Tel Aviv in the 1950s and 1960s. He recalled how every day, on his way to cheder and yeshiva, both children and adults would try to knock off his yarmulka and make fun of his peyos. The street was rabidly anti-religious. Today, in Eretz Yisroel, it is not like that. Most secular Jews are indifferent or just don’t get it. In the vast majority of cases, the rabid hostility is no longer there.
The second lesson was that of insularity vs. inclusivity. While without a doubt, Rav Brizel held that it was important for all G-d-fearing Jews to insulate themselves from the tumah of the outside world as he himself did, nevertheless, he obviously still felt that there was an important function in being able to relate to secular or traditional Jews who did not share the same views to the extent that parents should actually ensure that their children know how to speak a language that just a few decades earlier had been taboo.
This brings to mind an issue that I have written about in the past but whose message bears repetition once again.
Not Bursting the “Bubble” When Outside of it
I must confess that there are times when it is downright embarrassing to be associated with visibly frum-looking Jews. Usually, it is in public places such as airports, airplanes, hospitals and the like, where they are suddenly thrust out of the “bubble” of the insulated frum community in which they live and must interact with the general world.
Often, basic social skills of interaction, etiquette, politeness, and the like are beyond them. Not only does it make a chillul Hashem, which is bad enough, but it also ensures that any goodwill from the nations amongst whom we reside – and who we desperately need in any golus – is squandered, leading all of “you Orthodox” or “you Hasidics” to then be painted with the same broad brush of uncouthness and intolerance.
Let me make sure I am not misunderstood here. There is nothing wrong with a frum person being resolute and uncompromising in his avodas Hashem. A person who is particular with shemiras einayim should and can continue to do so, even when he leaves the bubble, but he has to be taught how to do so in a civil manner. Yes, it is possible!
Interacting with people in an airport, hospital or other setting outside your community must be done in a civil, dignified way. This is the most basic chinuch in civility that every single frum man, woman and child must receive and give over.
Even when one must make a point in order not to transgress a halachic imperative, such as when a woman innocently offers her hand in greeting, there are elegant, easy ways to explain one’s religious principles to the person offering her hand and, in today’s environment of religious tolerance, if it is explained civilly and with goodwill, it is almost always accepted. Likewise, if one is particular about not sitting next to the opposite gender, it can be done with goodwill and, even if not completely understood, it will almost always be accepted. When we act like we are no longer in golus, when we act as if we own the plane, or the road or the town, that is when we invite hatred.
Yes, I know that the overwhelming majority of our fellow Jews do not conduct themselves improperly. I know how the vast majority of those in our respective communities go out of their way to make a kiddush Hashem. Unfortunately, it also must be stated, as difficult as it is, that there are members of our communities who have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate that they have no idea how to interact with the general population. The importance that we attach to insulating our young – and not so young – from many of the negative aspects of the host culture should not in any way insulate them from knowing how to behave once they leave the confines of their shul, school or neighborhood. Parents and educational institutions must teach the youth how to behave outside the bubble.
Whether it is a zealous misapplication of kanno’us or a foolish understanding of how to preserve one’s religious principles without shedding our golus profile, the lesson from Parshas Pinchos is telling. After Pinchos’ act of zealotry, what was his reward? The blessing of shalom, peace. The true kanno’i for the kavod of Hashem wants nothing more than peace. Engaging in violence or engendering the ire of others is anathema to the kanno’i l’sheim Shomayim. Only when he is left with absolutely no choice does he resort to kanno’us. He wants shalom with every fiber of his being. That is why the most meaningful reward for him is “brisi shalom, my covenant of peace.”
Let us all resolve to try to engage both the outside world and our own inner world with an emphasis on peace, so that we all merit the brocha of Pinchos, “Hineni nosein lo es brisi shalom.”