Alt+SHIFT: R. Kalmanzon’s Quiet Heroism

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | November 9, 2023

Alt+SHIFT is the keyboard shortcut allowing us quick transition between input languages on our keyboards—for many readers of TRADITION that’s the move from Hebrew to English (and back again). Yitzchak Blau continues this Tradition Online series offering his insider’s look into trends, ideas, and writings in the Israeli Religious Zionist world helping readers from the Anglo sphere to Alt+SHIFT and gain insight into worthwhile material available only in Hebrew. See the archive of all columns in this series.

Photo: Yossi Aloni

When one family undergoes multiple tragedies, it somehow seems far worse than several individual families with one such heartbreak. R. Benny Kalmanzon, former Rosh Yeshiva of Otniel, has experienced far too much suffering. In 2016, his brother-in-law, R. Miki Mark, was killed by a Palestinian terrorist. His son Elchanan Kalmanzon was murdered on October 7th while heroically saving many members of Kibbutz Be’eri. Last week, R, Miki’s son Pedaya Mark, R. Benny’s nephew, who had been injured in the shooting that killed his father, fell in the battle in Gaza. (Another of the Mark children, Shlomi, was killed in an auto accident years ago.) All this on top of the memory of the 2002 terrorist attack in R. Benny’s yeshiva. One does not know how to provide any consolation but we shall try to honor the family in this installment of Alt+SHIFT. After he lost his son, R. Benny was interviewed in Makor Rishon by Yair Sheleg, and what he says from within his mourning is noteworthy, impressive, and instructive.

Benny grew up in a world greatly affected by the evils of the first half of the twentieth century. His father was the only survivor from a Polish family and his mother was the sole remnant of a Russian family. Religious observance in his home in Haifa was sporadic, and the young Benny Kalmanzon only started attending yeshiva in the twelfth grade. He then proceeded on to Yeshivat HaKotel where he grew close to Rav Shagar z”l. Perhaps his upbringing enabled him to have a greater understanding of the broad range of Jewish experience.

What led to the Hamas massacre? R. Benny mentions two important factors. First, the arrogance of those who think they have all the answers, an arrogance similar to that which proved pernicious before the Yom Kippur War. People in the security establishment expressed misplaced confidence that Hamas was incapable of a major terrorist operation. Secondly, “our enemies smelled the weakness that we projected in the last year” (a year of harsh internal disputes). R. Benny distinguishes between debate (mahloket) and discord (kituv). The former is an open and enriching dialogue while the latter is closed to learning and demonizes the opposition. Too much of Israeli public discourse consists of discordant kituv.

Benny calls for educating people towards greater complexity. “We need rightists/leftists or religious secularists who take from various worlds.” There are serious flaws on both right and left. He opposed the evacuation of Gush Katif but was against refusing orders. Therefore, he feels he has the right to say that the threat of refusal by reservists protesting judicial reform to show up for duty was a problematic crossing of a line. (Thankfully, the massive spirit of service post-Simhat Torah proved these were troubling but idle threats.)

The ability of a rabbi to see the flaws of our religious community is quite refreshing. Israeli secularists are afraid that current demographic trends mean that they will soon be a minority in the Jewish state. “Therefore, it is our responsibility to alleviate the concerns about religious rule. Most of my life, I have been involved in Torah and teaching Torah, but due to the manner in which the religious community currently appears, I would also be frightened of religious rule.”

The flip side is R. Benny’s ability to see good in secular culture. He is highly critical of the idea that secular Jewry is no more than the proverbial “empty wagon,” devoid of values. Their wagon is not empty, but even those who think it is should have the good sense not to say it. “Where is the dignity of the other? Where is the [healthy] culture of debate? Kabbalah teaches us that all things that attract must contain a certain power. If being left-wing or secular draws many, it must have something serious to it.”

Let us close by acknowledging the tremendous heroism of Elchanan Kalmanzon z”l. When he received the news on Simhat Torah morning, he immediately traveled, together with a brother and a nephew, to the settlements near Azza since he had expertise in fighting terrorists, though he had not received an army call-up. They decided to go to the most chaotic location, Kibbutz Be’eri. For fourteen hours, they went from house to house rescuing Israelis who had been in hiding all day. Tragically, they encountered a dark house where a terrorist was hiding. That wicked one shot and fatally wounded Elchanan. Regarding the Kalmanzon family, we can say that the son’s incredible bravery and sacrifice and the father’s amazing ability to offer such wise and sensitive counsel when he might be consumed with anger and grief are awe-inspiring, each in their own way. May the Kalmanzon and Mark families know no more loss.

Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION. Read R. Blau’s review of R. Kalmanzon’s book on the aggadot of Hurban

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