An Orthodox Revolution?

Reviewed by Aharon Rose

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

Israel’s Haredi minority has an ambivalent relationship with secular Israeli society. On the one hand, Israel is witnessing the emergence of a new generation of Haredi politicians and journalists, a generation that no longer speaks “diaspora Yiddish,” but rather fluent sabra Hebrew, and maintains strong ties with its secular surroundings. On the other hand, most Israelis still tend to identify Haredi culture with a cult of elderly rabbis, zealously guarding the embers of the old world’s traditions. This duality is also evident in the apparent contradiction between the Haredi community’s involvement in and contribution to wider Israeli society through political parties and charitable organizations, and the anti-Zionist ideology to which it continues to adhere. To be sure, this duality does not only confuse and perplex secular Israelis; the Haredim themselves often find such contrasts difficult to explain.
Enter the new book Internal Popular Discourse in Israeli Haredi Society by Kimmy Caplan. Caplan, a lecturer in Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University, sets out to provide an in-depth and comprehensive analysis of shifts in Haredi society. In doing so, he chooses to abandon the traditional role of the historian in favor of that of the sociologist, documenting social changes occurring in the field. He takes as his premise the idea that important parts of the Haredi community “are undergoing a selective process of Israelization, that is to say, an internalization of cultural values and patterns of behavior, the source of which is the surrounding society.” According to Caplan, “this process is at odds with the separatist and isolationist goals that continue to characterize official Haredi rhetoric.” In other words, Caplan believes that there is a gap between the day-to-day life of Haredim and the ideology that purports to represent and define it. To expose and analyze this dissonance is the primary goal of Internal Popular Discourse in Israeli Haredi Society-and the book makes a praiseworthy, if only partly successful, attempt to do so.
In the book’s introduction, Caplan explains the methodology underlying his research. Specifically, he differentiates between the ideological-rhetorical ethos of the Haredi elite, and what he calls “popular religion,” a somewhat vague concept that refers, generally, to the values and beliefs of “ordinary” believers and their practical expression. On this basis, Caplan identifies a conspicuous flaw in previous research on Israel’s Haredi community: Whereas the popular aspect of Sephardi religiosity-both “traditional” and Haredi-has been systematically researched by both academics and the media, the equivalent phenomenon in the Ashkenazi community has been virtually ignored. According to Caplan, scholars and journalists have consistently tended to approach the study of Ashkenazi Haredim “from the top down”-that is, by focusing on the viewpoint of their leadership. As such, he maintains, they have neglected to investigate those changes that occur “from the bottom up.” Consequently, the image formed of the Haredi community is shaped almost entirely by its elite:
Researchers’ disregard of popular religion in the Ashkenazi Haredi community is connected to the image that this community continues to display towards the outside world. According to this image, the Haredim are a hierarchical and ordered community, in which everything that happens is directed by the leadership, whose subjects act in absolute compliance with its guidance and instruction. However, it appears that the picture is far more complex. Certainly, there is no doubt that the leadership occupies a central and important position in this community and its various sub-groups, but the challenges of real life on the one hand and theological uncertainties on the other have laid the foundation for a broad internal popular discourse, as they have for other phenomena in the realm of popular religion. Moreover, it appears that this discourse is not in keeping with the direction set by the senior leadership.
In other words, unlike the religious texts distributed by the Haredi elite-the extent of whose distribution and influence is, in any case, open to doubt-the popular religion draws its energies from a vibrant and internal discussion, one in which broad swaths of the community participate. Moreover, the popular religion allows for the emergence of alternatives to the established leadership. Thus, for example, lectures by Haredi marriage counselors and psychologists draw wide audiences, despite-or rather, precisely because of-the speakers’ professional, and not merely religious, authority.
Caplan analyzes four main areas in and around which the internal discourse is being conducted in the Haredi Ashkenazi community: First, recorded lectures by popular Haredi sermonizers not connected to the rabbinical leadership. Second, the phenomenon of hazara bitshuva, the “return to faith” by secular Jews, which brings elements from the outside world into Haredi society. Third, the vigorous discussion of the Holocaust in the Haredi press and literature, despite the rabbinical elite’s longtime policy of avoiding it. Last, Haredi women’s going to work outside the community. This final trend is accompanied by yet another internal discussion, this time among Haredi women themselves. Moreover, this discussion is not necessarily bound by the conventions of the prevailing conservative ethos-which has, Caplan argues, lost much of its relevance in the face of these new developments.
The first area examined by Caplan is that of sermonizing, known to the Israeli public mainly through the activities of prominent Sephardi rabbis such as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who, despite his significant halachic stature, does not eschew populist appearances. But Caplan directs most of his attention to the bustling industry of popular sermons, whose practitioners constitute an alternative “sub-elite,” distinct from the established religious leadership. These sermons provide a window into the internal discourse occurring within the Haredi community and the subjects that occupy its intellectual energies, beginning with matters affecting the family unit and extending to fundamental theological topics such as the principle of “reward and punishment.” Moreover, a thriving subculture of modern oral folklore exists on the periphery of these sermons-such as stories about sיances and autistic prophesying-which validates beliefs held by the audience even as it arouses the wrath of the Lithuanian rabbinical leadership, which sees them as a form of idolatry. To Caplan, these phenomena reflect the blurring of cultural boundaries between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Haredim.
Among the most prominent subjects in popular sermons are atti-tudes toward secular Israel. Haredi “high” culture tends to deal with the challenge posed by secularism through weighty halachic discussions and ideological polemics. Popular sermonizers, by contrast, favor entertaining their listeners through ridicule and satire. As an example, Caplan cites the genre of “dog stories”: Stories that satirize the central position a pet can attain in the lives of a childless secular couple. Caplan quotes a joke told by Rabbi Shabtai Yudelevitch:
A woman went to a Tel Aviv store to buy clothes for her dog. She was there for four or five hours and all the clothes were rejected as unsuitable. Finally, the salesman got angry and said: “Bring the dog and we’ll measure him and see what fits.” The woman said: “Impossible.” Why impossible? Because she wanted it to be a surprise!
Caplan explains that along with the obvious satire and contempt, these “dog stories” also reflect the Haredi community’s fear of a perceived threat to their world from a secular culture they often find inscrutable.
Unlike popular sermonizing, which is essentially an internal cultural pastime, the phenomenon of secular Jews joining the religious fold truly puts the Haredi community’s ability to protect itself from the outside world to the test. Caplan examines the influence of hazara bitshuva on popular Haredi discourse, evidenced, for example, by a greater concentration on issues of faith that are problematic for “returnees,” such as proofs of the existence of God. The real problem presented by these new adherents, however, is the secular baggage they bring with them, and their ambivalence towards the Haredi society they want to join. Indeed, many returnees are disturbed by the inconsistencies they encounter in Haredi culture, which they view as hypocrisy. Because of this, a plethora of Haredi literature deals with the extent to which the newly repentant Jew must renounce his old life and sever all connection to it. Another weighty issue is the problematic status of returnees in the Haredi community’s stratified society, which is reflected, for example, in the restrictions placed on their choice of a suitable marriage partner, and in the paucity of professional opportunities open to them. In this regard, Caplan cites statements by members of the Lithuanian rabbinical elite opposing attempts by returnees to use the knowledge they acquired in the secular world to secure positions in the Haredi educational system.

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