The Haredim: A Defense

By Aharon Rose

How scholars have misunderstood the ultra-Orthodox.


The 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.

On one point, at least, there is agreement between those who study Haredi society and the Haredim themselves: That what primarily sets this Jewish movement apart from others is its total rejection of modern values, norms, and forms of inquiry. Haredi Judaism, regardless of its particular faction, objects to Jews entering the cultural fray of the modern West, studying in its institutions, revering its leaders, fighting in its wars, or partaking of its cultural bounty. This rejection must be understood in two ways. First, Haredi Jews aspire to be different from the surrounding culture, whose values, behaviors, and worldviews conflict with their own. Second, they seek to remain loyal to the traditional Jewish identity in Eastern Europe that preceded the Emancipation. It is only by means of this identity, the Haredim believe, and the lifestyle through which it finds expression, that the Jew can fulfill his obligation to live a life in accordance with God’s will.
Yet while the Haredim trace the roots of their contemporary identity to the traditional form of Judaism practiced by their forebears, academics have taken an altogether different view. Most scholars of the Haredim regard today’s Haredi Jew as an essentially new phenomenon, one that evolved over the last two centuries as a reaction against the Haskala and the integration of Jews into Western society. For proof, they point to a series of beliefs and practices adopted by today’s Haredim that developed, or became decidedly more pronounced, over the course of the past century. They then conclude that these principles and behaviors have had the unintended effect of changing the very way of life they sought to preserve, and leading inadvertently to the creation of an entirely new community.2
The first scholar to assert that today’s Haredim are in truth a new phenomenon was Jacob Katz, the foremost historian on the Orthodox communities of Eastern Europe.3 Katz distinguished between the “tradition-bound” society which received traditions and viewed them as self-evident, and the Haredi community, which consciously chooses the traditional way of life, and as such is merely “traditionalist.”4 In this way, claims Katz, the Haredim cannot claim to be defenders of the “pure Judaism of old.”5 In time, this view became the dominant one in the field. Thus, for example, the historian Michael K. Silber writes that Orthodoxy “is in fact not an unchanged and unchanging remnant of pre-modern traditional Jewish society, but as much a child of modernity and change as any of its ‘modern’ rivals.”6 Similarly, Israel Bartal of the Hebrew University explains that “The two major responses of the Ashkenazi Diaspora to the encounter with modernity were the Haskala movement and Orthodoxy. Both flourished in Central Europe, inexorably intertwined.”7
Having declared Orthodoxy a relatively new phenomenon, Katz and his students attempted to show that in the struggle with modernity, the overriding need to defend traditional values often forced the Orthodox, and especially the Haredim, to invent new doctrines and principles and then to portray their violation as heresy. Yet these principles, these scholars insist, were often of marginal value in the Jewish tradition. A prime example is the principle of daat tora, which grants great rabbis the authority to issue rulings on matters not directly concerned with Jewish law—such as, for instance, for whom to vote in an election.8 This claim—that certain doctrines are inventions whose aim is to augment rabbinic authority in response to modern attempts to curtail it—is the common thread running through the articles that appear in the anthology Between Authority and Autonomy in Jewish Tradition, published in 1997 and edited by Ze’ev Safrai and Avi Saguy.9 Indeed, the main disagreement among the contributors to this anthology concerns when and where the daat tora innovation appeared. Katz, for example, traces it to conflicts between Orthodox and Reform Jews in Hungary during the 1860s,10 whereas Judaic scholar Lawrence Kaplan argues that it first cropped up among Lithuanian groups in Israel after the Holocaust.11
Yet this view, while widely accepted in academic circles, is highly problematic. Often allowing ideology to skew their reading of the data, some researchers are inclined to ignore the central status of the rabbi in traditional society, and instead paint a grossly misleading picture of his function. If these researchers are to be believed, the traditional rabbi was concerned mainly with checking cows’ lungs and other ritual matters; only occasionally did he involve himself in leading the community. Yet as scholars such as Haym Soloveitchik and Benjamin Brown have argued, this is far from the whole truth. Brown is particularly decisive in his rejection of the opinion current among his colleagues, insisting that the academic preoccupation with the halachic-practical aspect of daat tora completely ignores its theological dimension, which is far older and is bound up in the notion of dekula ba (“everything is in it”). This phrase, taken from the maxim of Ben Bag-Bag in the Mishna, “Turn its pages and turn them again, for everything is in it,”12 was over time incorporated into the classic talmudic and midrashic literature, according to which God concealed in the Tora light (or ganuz) by which one can see “from one end of the universe to the other.”13 According to this tradition, the Tora encapsulates all knowledge, and therefore holds the answers to all questions. True, it may be the case that as a vehicle for the expansion of rabbinic authority, it is a new thing. Yet it is at the same time an effort to preserve and develop a classical belief in the infinite reach of the Tora’s wisdom, and as such, it cannot be seen as an invention out of whole cloth. As Brown explains:
Daat tora is one of the phenomena used to demonstrate the theory of ‘Orthodoxy as a reaction’ that originated with Professor Jacob Katz. This theory, in its various applications, frequently presents the gaping divide between traditionalist, pre-modern society and an Orthodox society ‘tradition-bound’ (as Katz describes it), which is a kind of ‘mutation of the former’ (in the words of Moshe Samet).… It does sometimes appear that the description of the gap is too deep and too dramatic. The new tiers that Orthodoxy is building frequently rest on sources that are deeply rooted in tradition and the addition of these tiers on top of the old floors only testifies to the dynamism and fertility of a society that is sometimes regarded as stagnant and lacking vitality.14

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