Haredim: Underdogs Or All-Powerful?


Please stop writing out against us,” read the e-mail message I received recently from someone who identified himself as Chaim, a local haredi man, pleading with me not to be “the lackey for people who have no idea what Torah is. Please.”

I responded to his e-mail with one of my own, and before I knew it we were back and forth in an exchange I’ve found both fascinating and frustrating.

The specific piece I wrote that set Chaim off was a profile of Rabbi Benjamin Lau (read it here), a leader of the Religious Zionist camp in Israel who seeks to head a movement of like-minded rabbis to wrest control of the Chief Rabbinate, complaining that the institution that controls key elements of
personal status in Israel — birth, marriage, divorce, burial and religious identity — lacks tolerance, compassion and dignity (“Taking On Israel’s Chief Rabbinate,” July 11).

In fairness I have no doubt there are other examples of columns, news stories and editorials in The Jewish Week of late that could be perceived as critical of elements of haredi life, from its anti-Zionist ideology to avoidance of army service in Israel to a rabbinic ban on an Orthodox singer’s concert at Madison Square Garden because it would lead to licentious behavior.

Even a fair and accurate translation of the word haredim (literally, shakers), such as “ultra-Orthodox” and “fervently Orthodox” is a subject of dispute.

In the piece on Rabbi Lau, I cited the recent conflicts in Israel over the observance of shmitta [allowing the land to lie fallow every seventh year] and conversion, where both cases precipitated wide-scale complaints in Israel, including among much of the Orthodox community, that the dominant haredi position was so narrow and parochial as to harm the overall Israeli society. (The estimated haredi population of Israel is 12 percent, and expected to reach 17 percent by 2020.)

Chaim cited a sentence I wrote in the piece that read: “Rabbi Lau says such action by the haredim underscores their indifference if not hostility toward a modern Jewish state, and he says the time to act against them is now.”

Chaim asserted: “If I would write those last eight words, I would be called an anti-Semite.”

I wrote back to Chaim that his complaint against me constituted a case of “kill the messenger,” and that the profile of Rabbi Lau merely reflected how he and others felt about the deteriorating state of the haredi-influenced Chief Rabbinate. I noted that there is much I admire about haredi life — such as its deep devotion to ritual practice and Talmud study, and a commitment to Torah education, and teaching, that includes a high degree of selflessness and financial sacrifice.

But I added that such admiration does not extend to haredi attitudes toward Zionism, which are either neutral or anti. And I concluded by asking if Chaim was asking me “to stop writing about serious issues in our Jewish community.”

“Yes,” he responded. “Sorry but you have no legitimate basis to disparage a large kehilla [community]. Also, your facts are flat-out wrong.” He asked what grounds I found in halacha [Jewish law] for making it permissible “to disparage in the name of ‘reporting.’”

And so it went. Chaim invited me to spend a Shabbat with him in his haredi neighborhood and meet some of his rabbinic leaders. I, in turn, finding the exchange absorbing but time-consuming, suggested we meet face-to-face over lunch. He agreed immediately — “where? when?” — and that’s where things stand now.

I don’t expect to change Chaim’s mind on the issues, but do hope to point out the irony of his feeling that haredim are the underdogs of Jewish life, unfairly criticized by other Jews and just wanting to be left alone to live their lives of religious devotion. On the contrary, it appears to me and many others that the haredim in Israel are unduly influencing the lives of others through the rulings and bureaucracy of the Chief Rabbinate. And, I would add, haredim place additional burdens on Israeli society by eschewing military service and often living on welfare because the highest value in haredi life is for men to study Talmud full-time, well into adulthood, rather than work to support their large families.

No doubt stereotypes abound, but it is a sad statement when so many haredim view secular Israelis as godless primitives with no connection to or knowledge and appreciation of their Jewish roots, and so many Israelis see the haredim as religious primitives living off of society while refusing to endorse or defend the Zionist state.

Yonoson Rosenblum, an American-born and Ivy League-educated haredi rabbi who lives in Jerusalem and directs the outreach efforts of the Agudath Israel there, wades into these treacherous waters in an essay in the current issue of The Jewish Observer, an Agudath Israel magazine published here.

Asking “Can The Haredim Save Israel?” he writes that the haredim have pockets of effective outreach but do not seem prepared “to assume the burden of instilling a strong dose of Jewish identity” among secular Israelis.

“The traditional, and perhaps still dominant, self-perception of the community is of itself as a small, beleaguered minority, which must focus all its efforts on its own self-protection,” according to Rabbi Rosenblum. He acknowledges that as long as haredim are seen as financially dependent on Israeli society, their views on how to strengthen Jewish life will not be sought.

Putting aside whether haredi young men better serve their country by praying and studying Talmud or joining the army, I agree with Rabbi Rosenblum’s assertion that haredim have a role to play in helping Israelis better understand and value their own rich Jewish heritage, especially at a time when Israelis receive so little Jewish education. But the gap of distrust and dislike between the haredim and the rest of Israeli society is growing. Rather than continuing to disparage each other from an ideological distance, convinced that The Other will disappear, they should be meeting and listening to each other, recognizing they are each vital components of a Jewish world that is getting smaller and more embattled, and needs all the strength it can muster.

That’s what I’ll try to tell Chaim when we meet — and I’ll do my best to hear him as well.

was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at garyrosenblatt.substack.com.