TAG | Ultra-Orthodoxy
Gershom Gorenberg writes in Slate:
Rather than being a diorama of traditional Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, as many Israelis and visitors believe, Israel’s present-day version of ultra-Orthodoxy is a creation of the Jewish state. Policies with unexpected effects fostered this new form of Judaism, at once cloistered and militant. So did successful measures by haredi leaders to revive a community that was shrunken by modernity and then devastated by the Holocaust.
While a similar revival has taken place in haredi communities in the United States and other western countries since World War II, their dependence on government funding is necessarily more limited. In turn, the extent to which adult men can engage in full-time religious study rather than working is also more restricted.
In economic terms, the haredi revival in Israel has been disastrous. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community is ever more dependent on the state and, through it, on other people’s labor. Exploiting political patronage, ultra-Orthodox clerics have largely taken over the state’s religious bureaucracy, imposing extreme interpretations of Jewish law on other Jews. By exempting the ultra-Orthodox from basic general educational requirements, the democratic state fosters a burgeoning sector of society that neither understands nor values democracy.
Gorenberg’s description of the way that “cloistering” has worked is worth pondering:
Remaining a full-time Torah student [with the help of generous taxpayer funding] allowed a man to stay out of uniform. The deferment helped lock young men into the kollel lifestyle. So did the education gap: Though ultra-Orthodox men spent years engaged in study, their schooling did nothing to prepare them for jobs in a modern economy. From their teens on, their curriculum was devoid of mathematics, sciences, foreign languages and other general studies.
Thus “the society of scholars”—as sociologist Friedman named it—took shape. Older haredi men, who’d come of age before the change, worked for a living. A growing number of young men stayed in kollel after marriage, often for a decade or more. The father was a carpenter, shopkeeper or tailor; the son was a full-time student. In a universe of arranged marriages, Torah scholars were the most sought-after grooms.
Between 1952 and 1981, the average marriage age of ultra-Orthodox men in Israel fell from 27.5 to 21.5. At the beginning of that period, the typical haredi groom was slightly older than the average for Israeli Jewish society. By 1981, he was four years younger than the Israeli Jewish average. Among haredi women, marriage before age 20 became the standard. Ultra-Orthodox couples started having children early and continued to have them often. This, too, made leaving haredi society much more difficult, for women as well as men.
In the 1940s, it had seemed to ultra-Orthodox educators and parents that nothing could stop young people from giving up religion. Now the exodus stopped. The gulf between the society of scholars and the secular world grew too wide to cross. Rabbis wrote with satisfaction that children were outdoing their parents at piety.
And that’s bad news for Israel.
To say that there are huge differences between the three great middle-eastern monotheisms is, of course, an understatement, but it’s interesting to see how their extremists, at least, can sometimes resemble each other.
The Guardian reports:
A bookshop in a strict ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem has come under attack from religious zealots whose “mafia-like” intimidation tactics have created a climate of fear and resentment among members of the area’s business community. The shop, known as Or Hachaim/Manny’s, has had its windows broken twice, its locks glued shut and has been pelted with fish oil by members of the fringe Sikrikim group, an extremist breakaway faction from the ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta movement, which opposes the modern state of Israel because it was established by man and not God. Since the shop opened in the neighbourhood of Mea She’arim in March 2010, the Sikrikim have been calling for a boycott in an effort to force its managers to remove all English-language and Zionist books, said Marlene Samuels, one of the shop’s managers. They have also demanded the shop shut down its English-language website and erect a sign requesting that customers dress modestly.
“They’re not happy with the large number of tourists that come in here because they feel they’re not dressed modestly enough,” she explained, pointing out that Israel’s English-speaking community and visitors from the US, the UK and other European countries constitute a large proportion of the shop’s clientele.
David Rotenberg, head of Or Hachaim’s English department, said the Sikrikim had also dumped bags of human excrement beside the religious books on display inside the store – “the bottom line on how disgustingly crazy these people are”.
Established in the 1870s by ultra-Orthodox Jews of eastern European origin, Mea She’arim’s residents have retained the conservative customs and dress of the old eastern European ghettos. Life in the insular, densely populated neighbourhood is strictly governed by Jewish law and its patchwork of religious sub-groupings and factions generally resent state interference in their affairs. According to Samuels, while the Sikrikim have no religious legitimacy in the eyes of Mea She’arim’s ultra-Orthodox community – and reportedly comprise just 60 to 100 members – their reach and impact are widespread.
“Everybody suffers from them; this has been going on with other stores for years,” she said. “If people do not toe the line according to their very extreme, anti-Zionist philosophy, they become very aggressive.”
Several shop owners in the neighbourhood told the Guardian they had been harassed by the Sikrikim, but requested anonymity and would not allow their businesses to be named. An employee at a CD and DVD store that opened in Mea She’arim three years ago told how the Sikrikim had held protests outside the shop, blocked customers from coming in, thrown rocks at him and broken the store owner’s car windows because they consider the CD and DVD formats too modern.
The Daily Telegraph reports on another dismal chapter in the rise of Israel’s ultra orthodox:
An Israeli activist who defied orthodox Jewish custom by leading a group of women in open prayer at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall has been told to expect years in prison for breaching the peace. Anat Hoffman has been awaiting her fate since being arrested in August amid a worsening debate about her campaign to allow women to pray at Judaism’s holiest site in the same way as men. The police have now chosen to ask prosecutors to charge her with “disrupting a policeman performing his duties under dire circumstances”, a crime that carries a mandatory prison sentence of up to three years. Many in the country’s rapidly growing ultra-orthodox community believe that a woman’s role at the wall should be limited to silent worship. Women should not be allowed, they believe, to read aloud, sing or read from the Torah…
…There are now over 100 state bus routes, many of them in Jerusalem, that offer segregated services requiring women to sit in the back. Israel’s High Court yesterday ruled that the practice could continue. Many offices in the city also keep the sexes apart while a growing number of clinics require men and women to book appointments on different days.
“The religious world in Israel has become more and more extreme,” Mrs Hoffman said. “Much like in Islam, religiosity is now measured by the distances at which women are kept from society.”
Despite the threat of jail, Mrs Hoffman and her supporters are continuing their monthly services at the Wailing Wall. Mrs Hoffman and her fellow members of the Women of the Wall group test the boundaries of religious strictures by singing and praying out loud but they refrain from reading the Torah. As they broke into song at a recent gathering, the men’s section grew more restive as resentment started to stir. A bearded man, his black cloak marking him as ultra-orthodox, shook a fist at the women and yelled: “Burn in hell, you dogs.”
This unpleasant story is yet another reminder of the growing threat to the liberties of secular Israelis from the religious zealotry spreading within their midst, a zealotry that they have subsidized for far too long. That fact is bad enough, but it’s hard not to think that this development also represents a threat to Israel’s external security. Much of America’s willingness to support Israel stems from the fact that the country is at least an approximation of a western-style democracy in a region dominated by authoritarian rule. The more theocratic the country becomes, the less true that will be…
Via the Daily Telegraph, here’s just another story that gives some clues of the unfortunate direction in which the rise of the Ultra-Orthodox may be taking Israel:
Over the past week, fierce forest fires have devastated large swathes of Israel, killing 42 people – including the country’s most senior female police officer. So you could be forgiven for thinking that the emergency services needed all the help they could lay their hands on.
It is not hard to imagine the firefighters’ anger – and disbelief – on discovering that the country’s interior minister, Eli Yishai, had rejected an offer by a Christian charity in North America to donate some fire engines. Given that the country often struggles to provide adequate cover during such emergencies, the proposal by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews could have made a vital contribution to the attempts to bring the fires under control.
But Mr Yishai, who represents the ultra-Orthodox Shas party in the ruling coalition, had other ideas. Shas, which speaks for Israel’s burgeoning ultra-Orthodox community, is deeply suspicious of non-Jewish organisations, even those that are committed to Israel’s well-being. Many of its supporters fear any help offered by Christian groups is part of some sinister plot to convert the Jews.
So Mr Yishai vetoed the American charity’s offer – and in doing so, further inflamed tensions between more secular-minded Israelis, who form the majority of the population, and the religious hardliners whose growing influence over government policy is a source of mounting friction between the communities. The anger only grew when Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, publicly declared that the fires were divine retribution for the failure of secular Israelis to observe the Sabbath…
it’s worth keeping in mind that, while Mr. Yishai may come across as just another paranoiac religious cultist in a Middle East full of such folk, he is also the interior minister of what is meant to be America’s main security partner in the region.
It continues to be difficult to be optimistic about what the future may have in store for that part of the world.
The problem that the Ultra-Orthodox pose for Israel is not a new topic, either here or elsewhere, but this WSJ piece by Evan Goldstein is worth reading, not least for the insight into the way that welfare handouts have (for all practical purposes) distorted an ancient religious tradition:
At the root of the disaster is the revolutionary idea that the study of Torah is a vocation. There is no precedent in pre-1948 Jewish history for an entire community devoting itself to Torah scholarship—and certainly no precedent for getting paid to do so.
“Torah study has always been for spiritual, not material, sustenance,” Zvi Zohar, a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University, tells me. Moreover, the notion that a man’s primary obligation is studying, and not providing for his family, is “diametrically opposed” to Jewish tradition, Mr. Zohar says. The Shulchan Aruch, for instance, an influential 16th-century legal code written by Rabbi Joseph Caro, states: “A respected and impoverished scholar should have a trade, even a lowly trade, rather than being in need of his fellow man.”
State-supported Torah study has also harmed the quality of Jewish thought, argues Mr. Naeh. Ultra-Orthodox self-segregation has cut “learning off from life,” he wrote in a recent essay. As a result, the current generation of Torah scholars “is far from being one of the greatest . . . despite the existence of tens of thousands of learners.”
Is there nothing that government cannot mess up?