Recently I came across a disturbing article which appeared in Azure, by Aharon Rose,Summer 2006 entitled “The Haredim: A Defense”. While the article is full of inaccuracies and lame attempts at discrediting scholars such as Prof. Jacob Katz my main concern is with his conclusion which I find to be troubling: “…Modern trends are founded on the view that Judaism will survive only if it succeeds in incorporating certain aspects of contemporary Western liberal culture, whereas the haredim believe that only their entrenchment behind the walls of tradition can guarantee the continuation of Judaism in future generations. Surely, however, the modern Jew cannot deny that there is something comforting about the knowledge that there exists a community dedicated to the preservation of Jewish identity in its maximalist version, even during periods of far reaching social and cultural change.”
In this conclusion the author has made several assumptions that I would like to review: He believes that the haredim have held out against western culture and values and that they are the “real deal” and the only way to guarantee the continuation of this genuine religion is to be on guard and to stave off the enemy through entrenchment.
The author of this article assumes that there is an authentic/genuine Judaism which happens to be of his color. Unfortunately, by so claiming the author has ignored history and the development of Judaism through the ages which has consistently borrowed from their host cultures. As far back as the Greeks, we have integrated ritual which so reflects this symbiotic relationship. The Hasmoneans were successful in no smllpart because of their integration of Hellenized culture into their own. Our sacred vocabulary is sprinkled with Greek, the Kiddush we recite is in reaction to the abuses of wine by the Greeks. Our Talmud Bavli written and recorded in Aramaic and it’s systems of logic are related to Greek systems. The Rambam could never have composed More Nevuchim without the influence of Aristotle, nor could Yehudah Halevi compose some of his finest Piyute without having beeen influenced by the Spanish/Muslim culture. Shimshon R. Hirsch was impacted by his surroundings as well, and his monumental opus is reflective of that. For the Haredim to believe that Judaism has been untouched and not developed under the influence of world cultures is simply naïve.
This naïveté is nothing new. As far back as the mid 19th century in Eastern Europe with the onslaught of the Emancipation and Zionism, the haredi community was concerned with fighting back the winds of change and progress. Interestingly even then they chose to live in a fictitiously created world in which they reject change. However if you examine their confined world one will discover how much they unknowingly allowed inroads to be made into their culture. One example comes to mind, that of the Hasidei Belz, who, because of their economic and political needs used the emancipation and later the Zionist movement as the peg on which to hang their attempt at leadership within the Hared I world. They established the newspaper Machzichei Hadas and later Kol Machzikei Hadas as a tool by which to fight the emancipation and later Zionism. A newspaper for the Haredi community was considered out of the norm and inappropriate, caving in to modern culture and in fact the Admor had trouble getting haskomas from other Courts. The Gerer Rebbe reportedly tore up the first issue sent to him.
The concern of the Gerer Rebbe as others was that the haredi community not having any formal secular education couldn’t run a newspaper nor could the write in a journalistic style. It also meant that they would involve themselves in the worls even for the limited need of getting information for reporting. As it turned out the newspaper had to hire as its writers and editorial staff maskilim. While on the surface these maskilim ran the paper according to the hashkofa of the Belzer rebbe they infact managed to infuse their message whenever and however possible. In effect the paper became a Trojan Horse.
Inadvertently, this hatzer as well as others were slowly dragged into the modern world without them even realizing it. Interestingly, they didn’t have a hava amena in assuming that they had been flirting with western values, borrowing and adopting western culture to further their own needs. The Belzer community didn’t launch their newspaper for altruistic reasons,,but because they were interested in carving out turf which would bring them economic benefit in the way of government granted monopolies, which in return would attract more Hassidim into their fold. The point being is that the success of the courts was in no small part due to the economic benefits accorded to the followers. The closer the follower was to the pot the more he ate from the pot. All of this was a means to an end-an amalgamation of control and power by the Admor.
The same patterns can be seen in Israel today where various Hatzerot vie for economic power in order to attract more followers. The greater the number the greater the power and influence of the Hatzer. In spite of all that there has been a strong incursion of western values in the Hatzerot. Two obvious examples are in the education and fashion spheres.
The Haredi community has a strong fashion industry set up to offset the onslaught of the west. So instead of behaving as the Amish do, dressing as they did hundreds of years ago,Haredim have set up alternative styles that incorporated the west’s love affair with seductress colors and fabrics but design it with modesty in mind. The author of the article, blind to this sites Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam who refers to fashion as false and worthless, built on vanity. He goes on to say “…with us, the concept of honor and insults, beauty and revulsion, have not changed since the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai…” How utterly ridiculous. Tell that to the shadchan trying to make a shidduch in Boro Park or Bnei Brak. Beauty is important and so is fashion.
The Haredi community also had the need to direct their youth into higher education and by so doing acquiesced to the march of progress with implicit acceptance of western values, however modified. To send an avreich to night school to learn computer science or emergency care isn’t for any altruistic reason-it is because they refuse to be on the welfare roles. They want a better future. Wanting a better future is a euphemism for wanting to take advantage of what western values can offer . What is wrong with that.
What is wrong with that is that the powers that be whether they are Admorim or Roshei Yeshiva don’t want to see their power slowly erode to western culture. It’s a slow process but the pattern has been set. People want a good life a better life. At one time the Rebbe was able to provide that in Europe through the monopoly system. In Israel that tradition has carried over with different Courts building economically viably systems by which to offer employment to their people. But that is limited, and as their numbers grow there will be less opportunity to live within that system.
So in the end this is not about any altruistic value system of Israel Saba. It is a power game, the same kind of game that is played out in the capitalistic streets of the west. Who can offer the best deal? Granted they won’t sell out completely, but the compromises will be made – are being made. Anyone who wished to believe otherwise is living in another reality!