The Haredim: A Defense

By Aharon Rose

How scholars have misunderstood the ultra-Orthodox.

Like Sheleg, Elor points to displays of “hedonism” among Haredim as evidence of an overall trend of disintegrating values. Yet what both Sheleg and Elor miss is the fundamental difference between the way ideals are perceived by a traditional-conservative society and the way they are understood by a modern-liberal one. Haredi values—from the requirement to contemplate the Tora day and night to the prohibition on gossip—cannot, by their very nature, be upheld fully, at least by most people. Nonetheless, Haredim choose to try to adhere to these strict demands (believing, as they do, that they emanate from heaven) rather than content themselves with the more lenient human norms that are insufficient to urge a man towards perfection. The traditional society, as a result, has room for those human weaknesses that lead to inconsistency and hypocrisy—so long as these do not become in themselves an ideal toward which one aspires. The Hazon Ish explained this approach in what became known as “the extremist epistle”:
In the same way as simplicity and greatness are different, so too are extremism and greatness. Extremism is the perfecting of the subject. Whoever countenances mediocrity and despises extremism belongs with the fabricators, with the dimwitted. If there is no extremism-there is no perfection, and if there is no perfection-there is no beginning.... The mediocrity that has a right to exist is the mediocrity of those who love extremism and aspire to it as their heart’s desire, and educate their offspring to the heights of extremism. But how pitiful is noisy mediocrity’s scorn of extremism.30
This striving for the absolute is perhaps the key factor that distinguishes Haredi Jews from modern secular society, which adapts its principles to man’s capabilities. Thus Sheleg is mistaken in seeing the penetration of modern forms of leisure into Haredi society as evidence of the diminishing status of the rabbis, who vehemently oppose these trends.31 Rather, the strength of daat tora lies in the fact that from the outset it is nearly impossible to achieve.
For the same reason, the analysis offered by Sheleg and Elor fails to recognize the crucial distinction in Haredi society between center and periphery, between what is understood by the Haredim to be the core of their community and the numerous outer or fringe elements that have attached themselves to it in the last generation. Indeed, most of the evidence Sheleg evinces to show the “profound changes” in Haredi society, from the shababnikim (Haredi youth who remain officially enrolled in a yeshiva to maintain their army deferments, but are in truth wandering the streets) to purely recreational jaunts at shopping malls, in fact occurs primarily on the periphery of Haredi society. For this reason, Elor does not tell us what percentage of the Haredi population the mall-goers represent (in fact, a very small one), or their status in the Haredi community.32 It is this failure to distinguish between center and periphery that accounts for endless newspaper coverage of the new “openness” among the Haredi community, such as education for democracy and Haredi artists who paint nudes. A closer look will reveal, in most cases, that a connection to the mainstream Haredi community is ephemeral at best. The mere fact of someone identifying as Haredi does not make him in any way reflective of the Haredi community. Thus the fanfare that accompanied the purported success of Nahal Haredi, a special unit of the Israel Defense Forces designed for ultra-Orthodox Jews, and the eagerness to see it as an indicator of social change in the Haredi community, is a perfect case study in jumping to conclusions. Although I personally served in Nahal Haredi and would not dream of disparaging it, it is a fact that of the more than 1,000 men who have served in Nahal Haredi since its inception just over six years ago, no more than about 50 came from the core of the Haredi community. The majority, rather, came from a wide range of peripheral groups-semi-Haredi Zionists, followers of the Lubavitcher and Breslaver Hasidic groups, and hozrim bitshuva.
There is little value, therefore, in predicting the decline of Haredi society if such forecasts are based on the behavior of those who have never been central to that society’s vitality. On the contrary, the fact that such exceptional cases are nonetheless so eager to identify themselves as Haredim may itself be proof of the movement’s growing appeal. Indeed, researchers have repeatedly had to revise their doomsday prophecies in view of the Haredi community’s uncanny ability to survive and prosper. Friedman, for instance, postulated in 1988 that the exposure of the Haredi woman to modern culture, along with the pressure she faces to provide sole financial support for her family, would eventually force her to break from the old ways. She would, he wrote, inevitably internalize the values of modernization and import them into Haredi society.33 This prediction is logical: Why, indeed, should the Haredi woman, who receives an education with more secular content than that of her husband (including English, mathematics, history, and geography) continue to sacrifice her own ambitions so that the men in her life may study Tora? Time, however, has proven Friedman wrong. Today, the insistence among Haredi women on marrying a ben tora, or full-time yeshiva student, is one of the primary factors motivating men to remain in yeshiva—otherwise, they fear, their prospects of marrying well are significantly diminished. Friedman revised his position eleven years later, admitting that “it is a fact that the women who graduate from the Beit Ya’akov [Haredi women’s] seminary have become the center of gravity of the community of learners.”34 This time, Friedman took into account the spiritual elements driving the Haredi community:
Whereas in the past, the secular-modern world offered hope not only for a solution to the problem of poverty, but also for the construction of a better and more just society, now it no longer offers a meaningful life, warmth, and social involvement. Secular society does not help in times of need. On the other hand, Haredi society excels in its charitable enterprises, in the spirit of volunteering that pervades it, and the feeling of belonging of those who identify with its goals.35
This is a crucial development in Friedman’s thought, and it reflects a possible awakening to the profound errors in the academic research: Friedman now acknowledges the importance of the “spirit of volunteering” and the “feeling of belonging” to understanding the ability of the Haredi community to resist the lure of modern culture. Indeed, when the spiritual elements of Haredi society are placed in their proper context, predictions of its wane seem entirely off the mark. We can only hope that both academic research and popular writing about the Haredim will, in the future, pay closer attention to those elements that simply cannot be understood with the limited tools of economics and demography. For it is those elements which contain the secret of the Haredi renaissance.

If we truly wish to understand the vitality of contemporary Haredi society, we must look at the way that society views itself and its specific role within Jewish history. Where the academic scholars have insisted on presenting Haredi society as a modern contrivance, the Haredim see themselves as indentured to a specific heritage, one that has a divine source. This, according to the Haredim, is the core value of their existence, and the reason they resist so fiercely the siren call of modernity.
Modern thinking, built on a belief in the inexorable progress of human civilization, insists on the superiority of the present over the past, and pins its hopes on a better future.36 Haredim, because of their total devotion to tradition, cannot accept this notion of progress. As Eliezer Schweid writes, Haredi society is a “blatant and bold demonstration of the preference for the past over the present.”37 The “past” that the Haredim prefer, however, is a very specific one: It is the time of the revelation on Mount Sinai, and the days of the biblical prophets and the Temple. As opposed to the idea of progress, the Haredim put forth an opposite idea, that of the yeridat hadorot (“descent of the generations”), in which every successive generation is further away from the original revelation, and thus the spiritual stature of the Jewish people only diminishes with time.38 It follows that the lowly present must subject itself to the only remnants of that glorious past that remain with us today: The sacred texts, legal rulings, and traditions passed down by previous generations. Indeed, if the modern concept of progress has the effect of eroding the authority of parents and teachers, the “descent of the generations” has the opposite effect: It confirms and enhances the authority of both, and in turn strengthens traditional societal frameworks.
The principle of yeridat hadorot fills such an important role in Haredi society that it is worth taking time to understand the intensity of the experience that accompanies it. The Holocaust that destroyed the great yeshivot and Hasidic courts illuminated this principle in a tragic light: The few who survived the destruction saw themselves as far less worthy of survival than those who perished. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, one of the greatest thinkers of the Lithuanian community, described this feeling in his famous sermon, “And It Came to Pass After the Destruction”:
Our generation is not like other generations. It is a generation of destruction—for our sins. Do we understand what a generation of destruction means? No, we can neither understand nor grasp it; we cannot even believe that it is possible; but… it is the truth. The riches we once had are destroyed and gone. The picture of that rich past is still vivid before our eyes—but it is nothing but a past which is ever receding from us. In the present it does not exist.... The present is a void! That spiritual wealth, that unique yeshiva atmosphere, that yearning for truth, that intellectual brilliance, that fear of God, that warmth—all these are no longer with us.... Divine Presence has gone from amongst us…. Our children will not see it with us.39

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