An Orthodox Revolution?

Reviewed by Aharon Rose

Internal Popular Discourse in Israeli Haredi Society
by Kimmy Caplan
Zalman Shazar Center, 2007, 346 pages.

One of the most striking implications of the hazara bitshuva movement for internal Haredi discourse is a revival of the religious and moral debate surrounding the Holocaust. To Caplan, this revival is proof of the tension between the ideological stance adopted by the community’s rabbinical leadership and popular religious needs. The prominent rabbis of the post-Holocaust generation, from Rabbi Avraham Isaiah Karelitz (the Hazon Ish) to the Admorim (Hasidic leaders) of the Gur and Belz communities, avoided discussing the subject, and opposed the composition of elegies and the establishment of memorial days to mark the destruction of European Jewry. Today, by contrast, Haredi discourse is in the grips of what Caplan calls a “Holocaust obsession.”
Even though there is no halachic ruling or a clear instruction on the matter, it can be assumed that Lithuanian Judaism withdrew from any historical or theological treatment of the Holocaust, and that it set the trend for those in Hasidic circles whose Admorim chose silence after the Holocaust, a silence that was interpreted by their followers as a guiding principle in religious and educational matters. But that is not how things are…. It would appear to be difficult for the Haredim, like many others who are not Haredim, to keep the decree of silence or satisfy themselves with the explanations given by their longtime leaders.
In contrast to the polemical Haredi historiography of the last two hundred years, which strove to refute secular history and prove the existence of divine providence, the new Haredi Holocaust literature shows a willingness to acknowledge the theological complexity of the subject, understanding that it cannot be interpreted with the simplistic formulation of reward and punishment. Growing interest in the Holocaust has even led to a rare collaboration between the Haredi educational system for girls, Beit Yaakov, and one of Zionism’s most prominent symbols-the Yad Vashem Institute for Holocaust Research. Not surprisingly, a visit to Yad Vashem by Haredi teachers was furiously attacked by the Haredi newspaper Yated Ne’eman, a mouthpiece for the elite’s official ideology.
Arguably, women are inclined to be more active in popular religion than in elite religious culture, which is dominated and ruled by men. And indeed, Haredi women play a significant role in all three phenomena previously described: Popular sermons and lectures; hazara bitshuva; and the writing of textbooks on the Holocaust. Thus, Caplan devotes a separate discussion to the vigorous internal discourse that has developed around the issue of Haredi women working outside the insular community framework. Such work is considered a necessary evil, because Haredi women must support their families financially in order to allow their husbands to devote themselves to Tora study. In the 1980s, Menahem Friedman, the foremost scholar on this subject, claimed that a Haredi woman exposed to modern culture would inevitably import its values into her native community. Her status as a link between her family and the outside world would grant her the ability to bring about a profound change in Haredi society, and even undermine its traditional male hierarchy. However, Friedman later admitted that he was mistaken in his prognosis, as he had failed to fully appreciate the power of Haredi indoctrination and its capacity to resist the temptations of the outside world. Caplan cites similar predictions about women in Hasidic communities in the United States, which have also turned out to be mistaken. He takes a more cautious position on the matter, and looks to popular sermons and literature that tackle problems for which the old ideology has still not provided a solution. Caplan mentions, for example, sermonizers who lament the fact that the Haredi woman’s role as financial provider has changed over time from an emergency requirement to a secular careerist value. He also points to the flourishing of educational literature written by women, which has taken on the task of dealing with the sensitive situations in which working Haredi women often find themselves.
Finally, Caplan discusses the “Israelization” of the Haredim, a process he describes as “the controlled internalization of values, language, and modes of behavior similar to those existing in various Israeli Jewish groups.” According to Caplan, there are several noteworthy expressions of this Israelization on the level of popular discourse: The involvement of the Haredim in the public domain and their participation in voluntary civic associations; their increasing use of modern Hebrew, which infuses the Haredi discourse with the imagery and slang of secular Israeli culture; the willingness of the Haredim to avail themselves of academic experts in a variety of fields, from medicine to technology; and the growing popularity of leisure activities that bring Haredi families to places identified with Zionism:  Yad Vashem, the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, museums of the history of the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine), and even IDF camps open to the general public on Independence Day.
Caplan explains, however, that Israelization is not necessarily secularization; there is, he insists, no essential contradiction between strict adherence to God’s commandments and the internalization of certain elements of Israeli culture. Moreover, “the process of ‘Israelization’ is, in truth, a partial return to certain characteristics that typified Ashkenazi Haredi society in the mid-twentieth century,” before it elected to follow the path of isolationism and separatism. Caplan stresses that this process “is composed of many stages, various layers, and a variety of expressions,” and that one can see parallels to it in other Haredi societies around the world that have also internalized elements of the surrounding culture. The book ends on a note of extreme caution: “We must remember,” writes Caplan, “that processes of this kind, the emotional sensitivity of which is especially high in Haredi society, occur slowly and are sometimes introduced unconsciously.… Only systematic observation over the coming years will reveal if we are truly speaking of an ongoing process or a transient phenomenon.”
Reading Caplan’s book is a fascinating experience. Its primary achievement lies in the material it presents, the majority of which is taken from Haredi culture as it is lived “in the field.” Caplan relies on an abundance of sources of which most secular readers are certainly unaware, and deserves praise for directing the spotlight towards aspects of the Haredi discourse that, until now, have not received appropriate scholarly attention.
However, the book suffers from some conspicuous deficiencies of its own. For example, Caplan does not deal with the foremost challenge facing Haredi society-the Internet. From the Haredi point of view, it is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the Internet allows the Haredim to communicate with each other in online forums and to discuss the specific problems of their various communities. On the other hand, the Internet also exposes the Haredim-and particularly their children-to modern culture with all of its temptations, and threatens to render decades-old prohibitions on the secular media irrelevant.
Caplan is also silent on another interesting development: The phenom-enon of the “non-Zionist Right” that has blossomed in Haredi circles since the Oslo accords. The breaking down of the traditional isolationist barriers in regards to Zionism and the recruitment of the Haredim by Benjamin Netanyahu in the prime ministerial elections of 1996 are not to be taken lightly. Persistent rumors claim that strict rabbis who normally took a stubbornly isolationist position towards Israeli politics were forced to support a right-wing secular candidate for fear that any prohibition they might impose on doing so would encounter resistance from within the rabbinical leadership and outright disobedience from the public. In this context, it is important to recall the phenomenon of Haredi membership in the power centers of the secular parties, mainly the Likud central committee, and the bitter power struggles between “modern” Haredim appointed to religious councils by these parties and the old Lithuanian elite. This is a point of decisive importance, and its absence from the book is surprising.
But the book does not stand or fall solely on its documentary material. It must also be judged on the basis of its claims and conclusions. One such claim, made by Caplan in his introduction, is that previous research on the Haredim has tended to focus only on their elite and the ideology that it promotes. Yet throughout the book, Caplan complains again and again about the lack of proper scholarly attention paid to key figures in Haredi “high” culture. In this regard, he mentions Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, the head of the Ponevezh yeshiva in Lithuania and later in Bnei Brak, and the Admor of Klausenberger, Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam, one of the great post-Holocaust leaders of Hasidism.

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