The Haredim: A Defense

By Aharon Rose

How scholars have misunderstood the ultra-Orthodox.

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he Haredim will be the first to admit that their existence today is little short of miraculous. For centuries, the traditional Jewish way of life suffered one setback after another, each more perilous than the last. First came the Emancipation, which threw open the doors of modern culture to Eastern European Jews; after generations in the confines of ghetto and shtetl, where the Jewish religion was preserved in its traditional forms, many Jews began the journey toward secularism. So, too, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, did the movement known as the Haskala, or Jewish Enlightenment, encourage secular studies and scientific methods to approach the Jewish tradition, leading an even larger number of religious Jews to withdraw from the classical way of life.
Traditional Jewish society was still further challenged by successive waves of emigration to the United States and Western Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To survive economically in a Christian culture, many immigrants abandoned Jewish practice. But it was by far the Holocaust, which annihilated entire Jewish communities and a generation of sages, that brought traditional Judaism to its knees. Within a decade, the once-vibrant culture of Judaism centered on the Tora and its laws—a culture of great spiritual richness and intellectual brilliance—was almost entirely wiped out, and the millennia-old chain of Jewish wisdom and tradition nearly came to an end. When the State of Israel was established just a few years later, many survivors of the destruction saw it as the ultimate blow: An end to the Diaspora, they believed, should come not at the hands of secular Zionists, but only at those of the messiah. Here, then, was the greatest evidence to date of their leaders’ failure to foresee the future, and their own failure to understand Jewish history. To them, modern Zionism spelled the end of Jewish life as they knew it.
Yet, like so many times in the past, traditional Judaism’s death knells were premature. Six decades after the death camps and the ascendance of secular Zionism, the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community—the last vestige of prewar traditional Jewish society—is experiencing a revival of incomparable scope. With one of the highest birth rates in the Western world, Haredi communities both in Israel and abroad boast numbers in the hundreds of thousands, and enrollment in Haredi yeshivot, or centers of learning, is at higher levels than ever. Perhaps none are more surprised by this reversal of fortunes than the Haredim themselves: The late Rabbi Shalom Noah Brozofsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, explained in 1987 on the yahrtzeit of the previous Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Weinberg, who had perished in the Holocaust:
We are seeing with our own eyes the most amazing phenomenon of our generation: Suddenly, a generation has arisen and prospered, a generation of Tora and meticulous attention to the commandments. The houses of learning blossom again, and the halls of the Hasidim thrive in all their glory…. And does this not raise the question-who brought all this about? Who has the power to bring forth such a generation… and from what power did such a generation grow? It has no natural explanation, of course, other than God himself, the one and only God.1
Whether or not we see in today’s Haredi renaissance the hand of God, it is nonetheless striking to consider the forces that have kept the various Haredi communities, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, alive. In light of its past of persecution and destruction, and of the pressures it faces today from an increasingly invasive secular culture, the evidence of the Haredi world’s vitality—growing numbers of hozrim bitshuva, or non-observant Jews who adopt the Orthodox way of life; the creation of Shas, an Israeli political party intended to further the interests of Sephardic Haredim; and the gradual movement of the modern-Orthodox and religious-Zionist communities towards greater religious stringency and an increasing similarity to Haredi norms—is genuinely remarkable.
For much of the Israeli public, however, these developments are greeted with a measure of anxiety. Rightly or wrongly, they are viewed as a threat to the authority of the secular Zionist culture that has dominated Israeli society since the founding of the state. And it is this anxiety—often swelling into hostility—that is reflected in the majority of academic works that purport to examine the Haredi community today. These works form the basis for much of the secular world’s understanding of the Haredim, yet they are distinctly at odds with Haredi society’s perception of itself.
As someone who was raised in the world of Hasidic yeshivot, yet now walks the halls of Israel’s universities, it is my hope that my acquaintance with both realms will enable me to shed light on the distorted portrayal of the Haredim in academic literature. And, while it is not necessarily my purpose, in the course of this essay I might just convince some of my readers of the value—indeed, even the beauty—of many aspects of one of Judaism’s most reviled, yet least understood, communities....

Aharon Rose is an undergraduate in the department of Israeli history at the Hebrew University. This essay, originally composed in Hebrew, won first prize in Azure’s Hebrew Essay Contest for Young Writers in 2005.

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