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The Haredim: A Defense

By Aharon Rose

How scholars have misunderstood the ultra-Orthodox.


The idea of yeridat hadorot imbues Haredi life with both an awareness of the existence of better alternatives to the current reality, and a continuous self-criticism that demands ever greater devotion to God. Life in the present will always be accompanied by a sense of malaise, since we are unable to perpetuate the past in all its completeness; therefore, certain concessions must at times be made in this life, such as the transition in many yeshivot from traditional Yiddish to modern Hebrew. Nonetheless, the Slonimer Rebbe laments the fact that the quantitative flourishing of Tora study today is accompanied by a qualitative decline: “When we look at the general map of Haredi society, the central problem is that greatness is missing and the commonplace is rampant.”40 Since the older generations are dwindling away, he explains, a new stringency needs to be applied, above and beyond what was practiced in the past. He offers a similar account of the Haredi insistence on full-time yeshiva study for adult men, which the Haredim adopted after the Holocaust. Relying on a passage from the seventeenth-century sage Rabbi Yeshayahu Halevi Horowitz, which dwells on the increasing prevalence of impurity in the world,41 the Slonimer Rebbe concludes that our generation needs reforming by the power of the Tora:
And we see, accordingly, that there is no place for the assertion that a man should be stricter than his fathers in the previous generation, because then they should not really have behaved as they did. But in this generation, where the impurity is growing ever stronger, it is the will of God that the Jew be more strict and fence himself in with new barriers of asceticism.... In this generation, therefore, the sanctity must also be on a completely different level, so that in these times, for the yeshiva student to be able to act properly in holiness and purity, he must sit and toil over the Tora.42
In sum, the principle of yeridat hadorot is critical to an understanding of why the Haredim reject the notion of progress. At the root of their opposition is the fact that in many ways, the Haredim simply view the passage of time differently. They see themselves as a link in an eternal chain, and view their historical role as ensuring its continuation. This “obsession with eternity” is powerfully felt throughout Haredi discourse, according to which every event is measured and judged. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, a historical consciousness that prides itself on such a long heritage tends to react to innovations with suspicion at best. This attitude is reflected in the words of Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam, one of the greatest Hasidic leaders of the last generation, who sought in his sermons to convince Hasidic girls to preserve the modesty of traditional attire and not to be tempted to adopt new fashions:
In light of the recognition that we are an eternal people, as it said, “The Eternal of Israel will not deceive” (I Samuel 15:29), it must be instilled in the hearts of our young ones that our Tora is eternal. We have a special way of measuring what is success and what is failure, what is a gain and what is a loss. With us it is impossible to call something a “success” that is sweet for ten years or tens of years and so forth, after which it loses its taste and it has a bitter smell. This meaning of “success” is reserved only for things that are good for eternity and are beneficial forever.43
Elsewhere he made the point more colorfully:
There is nothing that emphasizes more the falsity and worthlessness of impurity than that which is called “fashion,” which is entirely built on vanity and impermanence, and the “fashion designer” who one day promises that his new fashion is the embodiment of all the grace and beauty in the world and that we should reject our entire heritage and let down all our moral guards for it—but who wakes up the next day with a new creation and discards with his own hands that which only yesterday he created with such enthusiastic fervor.... The Sages taught us that a fool is never content with one piece of nonsense. And simple-minded, tasteless people are swept away in a sickly circle of magic and with them most of the simple-minded people in the world. But “the portion of Jacob is not like them”(Jeremiah 10:16), and that is not the way of Israel, a holy people.… With us, the concepts of honor and insult, beauty and revulsion, have not changed since the giving of the law at Mount Sinai.44
This obligation to the eternal manifests itself in the premium placed by Haredi society on the education of children. In the Haredi world, both the family and the community act as normative centers of activity that serve a single, united purpose: The continuation of Jewish life and values. The test of successfully transmitting Jewish values, then, becomes the main criterion in determining the extent to which you are Jewish. On the basis of this principle, Haredi ideology is critical of every Jewish phenomenon or idea, whatever its intellectual pretensions, that does not contribute to the continuity of the tradition-or worse, undermines it. Thus did Rabbi Eliezer Schach, the revered leader of the non-Hasidic Haredi community in Israel until his death in 2001, frequently make reference in his speeches to the testimony of an exile from Spain, the Hasid Yabetz, who described the behavior of the Jewish intelligentsia: “And the majority who boasted of their wisdom were eradicated and were not exiled. Only the women and the simple, uneducated folk sacrificed themselves.”45 The tremendous importance the Haredim place on the transmission of values forms, for instance, the basis of their critique of the religious-Zionist community in Israel. Whereas this latter community takes issue with the ambivalent Haredi attitude toward Israel and the refusal of yeshiva students to enlist in the army, Haredi criticism of religious Zionism focuses not so much on its nationalistic inclinations as on the perceived frailty of its religious backbone: The lack of diligence the Haredim perceive in the community’s observance of the commandments, as well as the large number of children who “go off the path,” abandoning the religious life altogether.46
Even the study of Tora is not perceived as merely a way of satisfying intellectual curiosity or as a means of accumulating knowledge as much as proof of one’s ongoing commitment to Judaism’s holy texts, and a recognition of their primacy in one’s life. Tora study is seen as a way of connecting to previous generations and forming an eternal bond with them. “When the holy Tora is ingrained in the Jewish heart,” said Rabbi Schach, “then he, the Jew, is an eternal creature.”47 The Holy Scriptures that protected the Jewish nation in exile are seen as the bridge between past and present. The Yiddish novelist Chaim Grade, who himself left the religious fold, describes in his famous novel The Yeshiva the experience of a student—reminiscent, not coincidentally, of his former teacher the Hazon Ish—immersed in Tora study:
The Talmud says: If you encounter that blackguard, drag him to the beth medresh! When one studies the Tora, one’s mind fuses with that of Moses on Mount Sinai. Studying the Mishna, one unites with the Sages of Yavneh and converses with them as if they were alive. A youngster pores over his Talmud in Vilna and muses that he is in Babylonia, sitting in the great talmudic academy of Nahardea, in the beth medresh of Rashi and his scholarly descendants. Whoever carries so many eras of Tora and wisdom in his heart and mind considers the world and all its pleasures only a pauper’s hospice.48
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the value of education in the Haredi community. Anyone strolling through a Haredi neighborhood is bound to notice this. Here, educating one’s children is a ceaseless occupation—the intent, in fact, behind conspicuous posters plastered on every wall, preaching: “Do not sin against the child,”49 or “Touch not my anointed ones.”50 Lectures on educational matters are common in the Haredi world, and there is not a single Haredi newspaper that does not devote a large section to them. Furthermore, in striking contrast to the diminishing status of teachers in the secular community, the rabbis and educators in Haredi yeshivot are held in the highest regard.51 This is because the Haredim believe that every generation is obligated to raise its children in the light of certain beliefs and norms, as Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, scion of the Lithuanian Musar movement and one of the greatest Haredi philosophers of our generation, writes, citing Maimonides: “If a little child can hold his father’s hand and go up from Jerusalem to the Temple Mount, it is his father’s duty to take him up and show it to him, so as to educate him in the commandments.”52 Moreover, Wolbe argues that the true purpose of the commandments concerned with education is the transmission of the father’s Jewish understanding to his child:
If education were only about putting sons on the path of Tora and reverence-the gravity of this work would be enough. The father’s real strength is truly revealed in the education of his son. The father himself, with all the commandments he has performed and the Tora he has studied, is still considered ‘potential’ until he raises sons who themselves follow God’s path. The father’s nature and the true aspiration of his life are actually revealed-in his sons. And that is the point of education: The father confirms himself in it. Therefore, educating the sons is an awesome responsibility on which depends the success of the fathers in their own life. But if the fathers conform for the most part to Tora and commandments, but fail, God forbid, in educating their sons, then they generally pass judgment on themselves and on their teaching.53
The survival of the Haredi community is not dependent solely on the process of transmitting values, however. There are many other unique social characteristics that contribute to its cohesiveness, beginning with a communal structure organized around circles of commitment-the family, the community, Haredi society as a whole, and the eternal Jewish people. Consequently, the Haredi individual lives inside a tightly packed system of connections and identifications. In times of need, this system is readily available for both material and spiritual support. So, too, does a network of volunteer organizations-offering everything from interest-free loans to rental of medical equipment to the supply of basic goods-dedicate itself to the physical well-being of every member of the community. No Haredi will ever, in time of need, be left to fend for himself.


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