Posts Tagged 'Ultra-Orthodoxi'

Jerusalem Mayoral Race Opens Cracks in Haredi ‘Black Wall’

A new mayor took his seat in Jerusalem this week, and the split in the once-impenetrable “black wall” of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) unity in the holy city suggests he will have to navigate carefully among competing factions.

As the votes came in on election night last month, it seemed that young, secular activist Ofer Berkovitch might achieve the nearly impossible and become Jerusalem’s next mayor, only to succumb by the end to Moshe Lion. Lion, a religiously observant accountant who moved to Jerusalem from the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim before his previous bid for mayor five years ago, is seen by many as little more than a puppet in the hands of national politicians. The fact that there was tension at all was a surprise.

In a city in which the Arab population does not vote, in which 35% of Jewish voters are ultra-Orthodox, and in which only 20% are secular, Berkovitch’s loss by a mere 3,765 votes out of more than 200,000 cast, was clear testament to the split within the city’s haredi camp. The split itself testifies to broader developments.

Significant transformations are unfolding in ultra-Orthodox society and identity. Not that there was ever unity among haredim. The “Lithuanian,” hassidic, and Sephardi streams are the contemporary heirs to the piously anti-modern forms of Judaism that crystalized in the 19th century. They have had more than their share of infighting in recent years. The current crisis, however, presents an unprecedented reality on two counts.

The first is the cavernous vacuum of leadership.

Over the last five years, the Sephardi and Lithuanian communities both lost their respective “greats.” Death is as certain as taxes, but what’s extraordinary about these departures is that the leaders were not replaced. There were attempts in both cases to declare new great rabbis, but they failed to mobilize public support and remained titular figures. The second point augments the first. Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel are becoming more open to the country’s general culture than ever. Embracing such values as autonomy, equality, economic betterment, nationalism, and feminism, they are letting go of their traditional, anti-modern positions. As resistance to modernity plays such a substantial role in haredi identity, this means that their identity is changing dramatically.

Haredim are becoming more Israeli. Becoming more Israeli, however, means becoming less ultra-Orthodox. As a fundamentalist, holistic identity, the haredi self cannot allow itself to be divided between competing narratives of value and meaning. Indeed, compartmentalizing our professional, ethnic and religious elements is a principal characteristic of a modern secular persona.

Most haredim are hanging on to their traditional identity, but a growing number aren’t, and this split is along generational lines. The further this proceeds, the greater effect it will have on Israeli society and politics. The reasons the ultra-Orthodox wield political power beyond their 10% of the population is that have acted in unison, and cut across political fault lines, neither identifying with the Left nor the Right, and thus have been able to enter into coalitions with both.

The election in Jerusalem was only the most significant sign that the long-term coordination among haredim has shattered. With the ultra-Orthodox becoming more involved in general culture, they are also becoming more identified with specific parts of it. If they identify clearly as right wing, which is generally the case, the chances they would cooperate in coalition with the left wing is diminished. Such developments will have significant consequences.

The Israeli right wing will have greater political power, but the ultra-Orthodox themselves will have less. This will go further in unraveling the borders between their communities and the general public built with government funds and legal privileges.

That in turn will accelerate the process. We will witness increasing secularization within haredi communities. They will become more democratic and egalitarian, but there will also be attempts to color the Israeli public sphere as more traditional.

The ultra-Orthodox identity crisis heralds a fundamental change in Israeli society and politics. During the municipal elections in Jerusalem, it came close to a surprising tilt of the scales. Lion may be the first to feel the impact of the haredi split. But the role that split will play in Israel’s next general elections could prove consequential.

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A Point About the Fundamental Difference Between Haredi and Traditional and National-Religious Judaism

In 1792, three years into the French revolution, a letter was received by Edmond Louis Dubois-Crance, a leading figure of the new regime’s legislature, warning him him of the path chosen by the forces surrounding him. Jean Baptiste Salle, a physician and playwright (ah, those were the days) warned that:

The principles, in their metaphysical abstractness and in the form in which they are being constantly analyzed in this society-no government can be founded on them; a principle cannot be rigorously applied to political association, for the simple reason that a principle admits of no imperfection; and, whatever you may do, men are imperfect. […] Under the pretext of full and complete sovereignty of the people, the state will suffer no legal restriction; They present man always in the image of an angel, and desirous of discovering what befits him, ignore what he really is; In an endeavor to persuade the people that they are wise enough, they give them dispensation from the effort to be that! […] I would gladly, if you like, applaud the chimera of perfection that they are after. But tell me, in divesting in this way man of what is human in him, are they not most likely to turn him into a ferocious beast? "

Salle opposed the attempt by the revolutionaries to force a “perfect”, “rational” and “scientific” model upon the French people – a model that utterly ignores the true condition of humans and instead insists on explaining to them what their condition is, and therefore what they “really” need. He accurately predicted the consequence: A year after the date of his letter the “reign of terror” began, and the blade of guillotine required frequent honing. For doubting the righteousness of the revolution Salle’s neck was also placed under it, and he was beheaded in 1894.

The French Revolution was not the first attempt to force upon a multitude of people an ideology they did not want – the Catholic Church preceded it, of course – but it was the first to do so with no regard for reality, or as Salle put it on the basis of “principles in their metaphysical abstract”. The religious traditions that forced themselves on the masses grew from customs built throughout the ages, and therefore from a dialogue with human nature and that of the world. The leaders of the revolution thought that the opposite should be done – sever ties with the past, cleanse the memory of all that was stored in it, and start from scratch. The results proceeded accordingly.

This foreword seems detached from present times and from ourselves, but I believe it is deeply connected to the state of Judaism in our times. I would like to characterize the state of “Ultra-Orthodox” (“Haredi”) Judaism in Israel today, distinguishing it from religious Judaism which is not haredi. Contrary to the widespread impression, Haredis are not those who are “very strict” in their observance of Halakha. Indeed, there are different levels of observance between different orthodox communities, but these do not mark the essential or deepest difference between those who are Haredi and those who are not. In order to understand this difference, I will quote a statement made a few weeks ago by Rabbi Amiel Sternberg, head of the Religious-National “Har Ha’Mor” Yeshiva. Regarding the manner in which Halakha should be ruled, the Rabbi said:

The gaze of the leaders should be turned to the beit midrash and from there they shall learn how life should be. When they go to lead Israel in the ways of the Torah (it’s not just Torah but the fundamental paths of the nation), their viewpoint should turn to the Torah and the beit midrash and according to these they will lead the people. But if they take judgment and discernment according to the disordered life in the marketplace, they will corrupt the leadership and will not be able to correctly direct the nation’s way of life.

Proper Torah leadership, therefore, not only does not take life itself into account, but deliberately ignores it. Real life can only distract the Halakhic ruler from the Torah, whereas Torah in its metaphysical perfection is the pure light according to which one must advance. It is from the Torah that we learn “how life should be.”

Rabbi Sternberg is not a “Haredi” in the sociological sense. He is neither Litvak nor Hassid, does not dress like a Haredi, and as mentioned above he heads the National-Religious Har Ha’Mor yeshiva. What makes his worldview Haredi is the deliberate disconnection between it and the changing conditions of reality, and the view of Torah and Halakha as frozen, pure metaphysical entities, according to which the world must align itself. Rabbi Sternberg, therefore, is a National-Haredi (what is known in Hebrew acronym as “Harda”L), not because he is “strict in his observance of Halakha”, but because his approach is different than that of classical Religious Zionism.

The approach of original Religious Zionism can be characterized by an openness and willingness to engage in a continual dialogue with reality. The slogans “Torah and Labor (Avoda)” and “Torah and Science” emphasize the connection to modern conditions, which guided Religious Zionism – that of modern orthodoxy, “Ha’Mizrachi” and especially “Ha’Poel Ha’Mizrachi” and the Religious Kibbutz movement. All this was presented in explicit, conscious opposition to the Haredi way, which even before the establishment of Israel favored seclusion, passivity, radical conservatism and an ever-increasing number of constrictions and “customs” of all sorts.

When we observe such symptoms in Religious Zionism, we are in fact witnessing a return of parts of it to the Haredi ethos, while relinquishing the ideological and pragmatic step of opening to the world. The Harda”L stream of thought declares, in effect, a crisis: It has despaired of the classic path of Religious Zionism, whether due to fear of modernity which presents ever greater challenges, whether due to disillusion with secular society which for some reason refuses to repent and return to the fold of religion, or whether due to loss of hope of imminent salvation. It joins the Haredi world not by being more strict about Halakha, but by changing its approach to reality.

But as we can see from the first quote brought above, this very attitude, of a theory or doctrine that must be forced upon reality, is itself modern, and there is nothing traditional about it. It was born at a time when religions lost their power and people (in Europe) developed delusions regarding the possibility of discovering a single rational formula that would put all of life, private and political, in order. There has never been such an idea in traditional Judaism, and definitely not regarding Halakha, which has always included a multitude of opinions, schools of thought, congregations and levels of observance. Most of all, Halakha has always been engaged in a fruitful dialogue with actual life. The Haredis and Harda”Ls have in this case adopted a European (mostly French) modern mindset and turned it into their distinguishing feature. And yet they claim to be the ones defending tradition.


Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

Yehudah Mirsky, "Aquarius in Zion", Jewish Ideas Daily, 17.5.12

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