I wasn’t online much during the Pesach week, so I am only now catching up on the Globes piece published on 27th April 2016 about ZAKA chairman Yehuda Meshi Zahav.
ZAKA is a haredi organization that “rescues, identifies, and traces Jewish disaster victims in Israel and all over the world.” Zahav is a former anti-Zionist militant, which adds somewhat to the message conveyed in the interview, and to the sense of selflessness and of pure charity given by the man and his helpers.
Zahav was asked about the recent incident of an 81 year-old female passenger on a plane, asked to switch seats because a haredi man refused to sit next to her. Here’s his very quotable response:
“Things are so crazy here that everyone thinks how to be more strictly observant, how to show that he’s stricter… I don’t believe in all this nonsense. I’m rational. I don’t believe cult-like religious leaders and other foolishness. They taught us respect that the worst thing you can do is humiliate someone in public. It’s better to be thrown into the furnace than to humiliate your fellow man. There are stories about Rabbi Auerbach, one of the greatest religious authorities, when he would travel on a bus and a woman sat next to him. He didn’t get up. He said that respecting a person, respecting your fellow human being, took precedence over everything. God will forgo the respect due him if the purpose is to honor your fellow human being. To injure a woman, and for what? That’s not cleanliness, holiness, duty, or a commandment. It’s lack of respect for your fellow human being. Yes, there’s a non-ending argument among haredi Jews. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was asked once if it was permitted to extend a hand back to a woman who puts her hand out to you. He ruled that it was permissible. That’s the way of Judaism. Respect takes precedence over Torah; that’s no slogan or cliche.”
I certainly learned that respect was more important than personal pride. And his comments ring all too true with me. Unfortunately, there are too many religious extremists who seem to have learned differently. Of course they are wrong, but…
As for the whole working or studying situation, Zahav says this:
“There’s something strange here that happens only in Israel. People work in all Jewish communities. The most extreme Jews in the US, the Satmar Hasidic Jews, work. All of them. The lay leader of the community, the most highly respected man, who sits next to the Satmar rabbinical leader on Sabbath eve, wears blue overalls and works in a printing firm during the week, and then wears all the Hasidic trimmings on the Sabbath. Only here in Israel do haredim not work. Why? They say that after the Holocaust, after the world of Torah was destroyed, the rabbis were unwilling to listen to anything before the world of Torah was rebuilt. Even if that were true then, however, it looks to me like an excuse later. In any case, the state of Israel owes a great debt to my dear friend, (former Minister of Finance and MK) Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid). He broke the direct connection between the yeshiva and the labor market. Before, anyone who left the yeshiva was automatically drafted into the army, but not now. The haredim have realized this, and one day, they will praise him. The result is that more and more haredi men are going to work. I don’t understand how it can be otherwise.”
Quite an eye opener. You will see that he, at least, recognizes the need for work, and the benefit of Lapid‘s policies which, nevertheless, were so denounced and hated by the haredi establishment.
In summary, Zahav is a real mensch, doing unbelievable work of which I suspect the Globes piece (which you can read here) only gives a tiny hint. How he went from anti-Zionist to national hero is especially poignant.
We are fortunate there are people like him in Israel.