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The Haredim: A Defense

By Aharon Rose

How scholars have misunderstood the ultra-Orthodox.


The doctrine of daat tora is but one example of an aspect of Haredi life cited in academic research as pure innovation in response to modernity.15 Similar arguments have also been made with regard to the Haredi community in Israel. Menachem Friedman, one of the leading researchers into Haredi life and a former student of Katz, attributes the makeup of today’s Israeli Haredim to their ability to exploit the resources of the welfare state toward the creation of a “community of learners” in which it is customary to engage in full-time yeshiva study before marriage, as well as for several years thereafter. He points to the figure of Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, known as the Hazon Ish, the leader of the Haredi community in Israel in the early years of the state, as the person most responsible for the development of the contemporary idea of Tora study as the fulfillment of religious perfection. This idea has served to alienate the Haredi community even further from Israel’s secular public. It is clear, for example, how the ethos of the community of learners would result in significant educational gaps between Haredi youth, who study only in yeshivot and lack any experience with secular education, and non-Haredi youth. So, too, is it clear how these gaps would then oblige the Haredim to spend their entire lives in the confines of a community of learners, as their chances of success outside this community are slim. When military exemptions on account of full-time yeshiva study are then added to the mix, the result is even less contact between the Haredi and non-Haredi worlds, and more opportunities for misunderstanding and misconceptions between the two groups.16
The historian Joseph Dan also sees in the practice of lifelong yeshiva study a phenomenon unlike anything else in Jewish history. He points to a number of additional characteristics that differentiate today’s Haredi society from traditional Judaism: Reliance on government transfer payments as opposed to charitable contributions; clannish discrimination; aggressive public behavior; and strict dress codes, among others. In light of these new characteristics, Dan argues, there are no grounds for “the belief of the Haredim that the community they established in Israel is one link in a continuous chain of the history of the Jewish community throughout the generations.” Today’s Israeli Haredi, he concludes, is “a unique Israeli phenomenon that has no equal in the entire history of the Jews in the scores of countries of their dispersal.”17
This bold statement, however, rests on shaky foundations. Like many historians, Dan does not seem aware that in many cases, the innovations of the Haredi world are the result of a kind of operational flexibility aimed at preserving the same rigid theological principles that continue to guide them as they did generations of Jews in the past. The Haredim would be the first to admit, for instance, that the universal duty to study in a yeshiva derives from the distinctly modern need to rebuild the world of Tora that perished in the Holocaust. Yet they will also insist that one cannot ascribe the same degree of importance to this duty as to the founding principles of Haredi belief: Strict adherence to halacha and the mitzvot; the acceptance of rabbinic authority; and the rejection of fashionable values out of loyalty to the belief in Tora as divine revelation. It is these principles that express the Haredim’s profound and uncompromising commitment to tradition, and not the fact of their full-time study in yeshiva. The latter, rather, is an effort to uphold the former under extreme historical conditions. Moreover, it is misleading to ascribe any profound meaning to displays of aggressive public behavior and clannish discrimination in the Haredi world today. These are not values or beliefs, and to the extent that they actually take place, they are circumstantial rather than a fixed or intrinsic component of the Haredi identity. (On Dan’s complaint concerning the central place that dress occupies in the Haredi community, it can only be remarked that in a culture in which nudity is used to a rapidly increasing degree to sell everything from cars to ice cream, it is perhaps understandable that a minority community, trying to defend itself with limited resources, overreacts to a degree in its notions of modest dress.)
Now, no one disputes that in the struggle to preserve tradition, the Haredi community has employed a variety of methods, some of which are clearly innovative. These include, for example, creating Haredi political parties and publishing Haredi newspapers. Yet those scholars inclined to consider almost every aspect of the Orthodox lifestyle a reaction to modernity, and not an authentic expression of loyalty to something that preceded it, frequently ignore the very real element of continuity—that is, the vast and profound common ground between today’s Haredi way of life and the tradition it seeks to preserve.18 This continuity is expressed primarily in the sphere of principles and values, and less so in praxis.19 This, as we will see, is a pivotal distinction.


It is easy to see how the academic understanding of today’s Haredi society as a mere “reaction” to the threat posed by modern society has led many scholars to conclude that the same processes that enabled the Haredi community to gain strength will eventually lead to its decline. But these predictions, like the assumptions on which they are based, are flawed.
Menachem Friedman, for instance, believes that the Haredi community of learners has an umbilical link with the State of Israel.20 By forcing even the most untalented of its students to devote themselves to full-time study, he explains, Haredi society has created a situation of economic dependency on the secular public: The community relies on the willingness of the Israeli taxpayer to fund its full-time study, and on the ability of the Israeli economy to absorb yeshiva graduates with few or no practical skills into the workforce. As a result, writes Friedman, “the large natural increase [in the size of the community of learners] calls into question its future.”21 Indeed, the economic needs of this group are growing, and will, it stands to reason, eventually outpace Israeli society’s ability to fund it. Furthermore, yeshiva graduates seeking to enter the workforce will eventually face a lack of available positions. Already in 1991, Friedman concluded:
Is it possible for a community of learners to survive in the long term when it forces all its adults to study in yeshivot and to complete their studies over many years in kollels [post-marriage seminaries] while avoiding a general and professional education? Will the Haredi community not have to make a choice in the near future between those who will be accepted into its yeshivot and those who will be forced to integrate in one way or another into the socialization process customary in the Western world? When this happens, will Haredi society be able to maintain the same degree of supervision over its adults in order to ensure its continuity? Will this society be a Haredi society?22
There is undoubtedly much merit to Friedman’s arguments, but his position relies too heavily on an economic-materialistic analysis of Haredi society, without even venturing a spiritual-conceptual one. It was this methodological slant, in fact, that led him to describe Haredi participation in the Israeli government coalition in 1977 as a step aimed solely at securing funding for its community of learners—a cause for which the Haredim were willing to pay the ultimate ideological price: Abandoning the principle of separation between Haredi and modern society.23 Yet any argument that assumes that Haredi society’s success in ensuring continuity is absolutely conditional on its existence as a community of learners ignores the flourishing of Hasidic life in communities throughout the world. There are, for example, Hasidic communities in New York, London, and Antwerp, in which Haredim figure prominently in a wide range of professions, from selling electrical products to trading in diamonds. The success of these communities in preserving their identity demonstrates that the economic integration of Haredim into modern Israeli society does not necessarily spell the end of Haredi society, or even presage its radical alteration in any way. Research on professional training institutes for Haredim that opened in Israel over the course of the last decade provide further evidence of the resilience of this way of life: The identity of young Haredim and yeshiva students who study at these institutes has not, according to these studies, weakened in accordance with researchers’ expectations.24
Nonetheless, despite the shortcomings of Friedman’s approach, there are many who share his view that the Haredi community will eventually succumb in the battle against modern culture. An example is the book The New Religious Jews (2000) by Yair Sheleg.25 Sheleg purports to give his readers an up-to-date look at the process of Haredi Jews’ integration into Israeli life, what he calls “the Israelification of the religious community.”26 According to Sheleg, the tremendous growth in the Haredi community has resulted in an increased self-confidence among its members, along with a kind of internal diversity. This combination, Sheleg explains, has caused serious cracks to form in the community’s ideological backbone. In a chapter entitled “The New Haredi: Changes in Haredi Society,” Sheleg enumerates the various indicators of what he sees as a new “openness” among Haredim as a result of the influence of the modern-secular world: Haredi “yuppies” who adopt modern dress and recreational pursuits; the independent Haredi media, which show an increasing degree of ideological flexibility; institutes for professional training that make it possible for Haredi students to join the workforce; an increased sympathy for Zionism, even at times expressed as extreme nationalism; and a lowering of the status of rabbinic sages. Here Sheleg quotes Eliezer Schweid of the Hebrew University, who claims that “it is impossible to escape from modernity. If Haredi society insists on turning its back on the higher elements of the modern world, it will end up connecting with its lower elements.”27
Similarly the anthropologist Tamar Elor, who researched trends in leisure and consumerism among the Haredim, concluded that the Haredi community is slowly succumbing to that very force—Western consumer culture—that it once considered a no-less-insidious threat than the Haskala, the Holocaust, and Zionism.28 Watching Haredi families strolling in shopping malls, she writes: “This is it, this is the end, they have joined everyone else… a Hasidic couple drinking cappuccino? Haredim sitting on a platform for all to see, relishing fettucini Alfredo?”29


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