The Haredi Moment Has Arrived

The balance of power in the Jewish world is shifting to the ultra-Orthodox. Can conflict with the current establishment be avoided?

Thousands of haredi Jews gather at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York to raise donations for educational institutions in Israel on April 12, 2019. Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Thousands of haredi Jews gather at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York to raise donations for educational institutions in Israel on April 12, 2019. Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Eli Spitzer
essay
Jan. 3 2022
About Eli

Eli Spitzer is a Mosaic columnist and the headmaster of a hasidic boys’ school in London. He blogs and hosts a podcast at elispitzer.com.

In July 2020, while attention was focused on COVID-19 and the presidential campaign, the American Jewish establishment was mobilizing out of the spotlight to resist an “affront to Zionist ideals” from which they had to “save the Zionist movement.” This threat came not from one of the usual suspects, from Arab nationalism, say, or from left-wing anti-Zionism, but from the Ḥaredim, the bearded and black-hatted representatives of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, whom one of the members of that establishment accused of plotting a “hostile takeover.”

While the establishment rhetoric verged on melodrama, the circumstance it reacted to was indeed evidence of a tectonic shift in the power balance of American and global Jewry.

Every five years the Congress of the World Zionist Organization meets, with representatives sent by the political parties in the Knesset, major Jewish organizations, and those representing Diaspora Jewry. These Diaspora representatives are chosen through elections in which any Jew can vote on condition that he or she parts with $7.50. In 2020, a rejuvenated progressive slate, named Hatikvah, launched a well-funded campaign to flood new voters into a traditionally low-turnout election. Hatikvah wanted to change the agenda of the World Zionist Organization thoroughly by prohibiting financial support for settlement activities in the West Bank, by devoting Diaspora resources to pressure the Israeli government into territorial compromise, and by promoting American-style progressive Judaism in Israel. The Zionist right, however, had an unexpected rejoinder: a new slate was put together to counter Hatikvah that sought, for the first time, the support of the American ḥaredi community. This slate, called Eretz Hakodesh, was created by a ḥaredi rabbi and activist in collaboration with a ḥaredi member of the Knesset in an unprecedented intervention of Ḥaredim in Zionist politics.

How did the battle end? Hatikvah’s campaign was a clear success; the progressive wing more than doubled its vote share. But Eretz Hakodesh found even greater success: it received more than twice as many votes as the progressives and came in third overall. The result was that, for the first time in its 120-year history, right-wing and Orthodox delegates made up an absolute majority of Congress delegates, raising the prospect that the WZO’s enormous budget would be in their hands and not in those of the liberal-Zionist establishment that had dominated the Congress from its inception.

What followed in the wake of the election was a wave of mutual recriminations, in which each side accused the other of violating unwritten norms in the pursuit of power, with both having a fair point. In the end, the predictions of a seismic shift or a fatal split in global Zionism were unfulfilled and an arrangement was reached in which, for the time being, all factions are reasonably content. Far more important, however, than the dispute itself was what caused it, and what that portends for 21st-century Jewry in America and around the world. The power of ḥaredi Judaism is rising; soon enough, sooner than they think, pan-Jewish organizations everywhere will find themselves caught up in similar disputes. How to resolve them will require a measure of understanding far beyond what liberal Jews—not to mention non-Jews—currently have. And that, in turn, will require a measure of access far beyond what ḥaredi Jews have heretofore offered.

 

I. A Sleeping Giant

 

The specter of a growing and powerful ultra-Orthodoxy is already a frequent topic of discussion in Israel, where it is driven by simple demographic logic. Though the ḥaredi population there makes up just 12.6 percent of the country now, it’s expanding at an annual rate of 4.2 percent, roughly three times that of the non-ḥaredi Jewish population, thanks to high birthrates and extremely low rates of defection. Reliable data outside of Israel are harder to come by, but what there is strongly indicates that Ḥaredim are experiencing the same rapid growth there too. In fact, Diaspora ḥaredi expansion is more dramatic in relative terms because, unlike in Israel, the wider Jewish population is mostly not growing at all.

The remorseless logic of demography thus conjures up a world where Ḥaredim, already moving from small- to large-minority status, will become pluralities, then bare majorities, and then, finally, the new mainstream. How the Israeli economy is supposed to function when the average male has a remedial secular education and aspires to full-time Torah study, or how the army is going to find recruits when most young men have an exemption to study in yeshiva, are questions that already keep policymakers awake at night and pundits in clover. On the other hand, those of a more sanguine disposition point out that while demography is in a certain sense destiny, an equally important law of sociology is that if something can’t go on forever it won’t. They argue that either the ḥaredi community will make adjustments that allow it to sustain demographic growth after leaving its niche, or that, one way or another, it will stop growing.

It doesn’t really matter whether Ḥaredim become majorities in 2050, in 2080, or never, because the tipping point of their influence is already here.

This debate is interesting enough. But practically speaking it doesn’t really matter whether Ḥaredim become majorities in 2050, in 2080, or never, because, as the WZO episode shows, the tipping point of ḥaredi influence is already here. The reason that ḥaredi Jews in America were able to trigger an earthquake in the global Zionist establishment is not because their population grew so dramatically since the previous Congress of 2015. It’s simply because, for the first time, they decided to show up. Within living memory, principled non-cooperation with official Zionism was a constitutive element of ḥaredi identity. The story of how it became conceptually and practically possible even to have a specifically ḥaredi slate at the WZO is a long and winding one, but for our purposes the takeaway is that ḥaredi Jews, while still representing a small minority of Jews in the United States, are already able to mount, when they want to, the equivalent of the activist investor takeovers that happen so often in the business world.

The reason for this is that influence is a function not just of raw numbers but of numbers multiplied by commitment. And when it comes to specifically Jewish issues, it is the Ḥaredim who have all the commitment they need to punch well above their weight. As the sociologist Samuel Heilman puts it, though the Orthodox are still a small minority, “To the outside world, it looks like the Orthodox are ascendant in American Jewish life . . . because, increasingly, the Orthodox are the only Jews who see being Jewish as essential to who they are and are still interested in things manifestly Jewish.” To put it another way, if asked, an overwhelming majority of Jews in America would almost certainly like the gender-separating partition at the Western Wall taken down, but they don’t feel strongly enough about it to sit in front of the computer for 20 minutes to vote in the WZO election.

There is no need to dredge up here the old debate about who and what counts as Jewish to recognize this critical point: those who self-identify as Jewish but for whom specifically Jewish concerns take second place to Heilman’s “less parochial and more cosmopolitan issues” will not, by and large, be investing their time in shaping the future of Jewish institutions. The current situation in which institutions purporting to represent American Jewry—like the Anti-Defamation League, AIPAC, B’nai B’rith, or the Jewish Federations of North America—have zero ḥaredi representation is not only potentially unsustainable in a decades-away future where Ḥaredim represent 20 percent of the Jewish population, it is already unsustainable right now. It is kept on life support only by restrictions on participation in non-ḥaredi organizations that Ḥaredim impose upon themselves, the legacy of 200 years of principled non-cooperation with Jewish organizations and movements that abandoned traditional religious beliefs and strict observance of Jewish law (halakhah). A perfect example of this is the Board of Deputies of British Jews, an institution with an august history, a position recognized by the British government, and far-ranging political clout. Currently it has no ḥaredi representation. But its system of electing deputies through synagogues and charitable organizations means that Ḥaredim could, at any moment of their choosing, paralyze its functioning at the least and turn it into a vehicle for ḥaredi interests at the most.

While the future is uncertain, it is almost impossible to envisage one in which the ḥaredi population does not continue to expand for the next three decades at least, and at the same time, driven by a mixture of necessity and perceived benefit, relax their scruples about participating in mainstream Jewish institutions. The growing ranks of “no particular branch” Jews can doubtless, for the most part, live their life without ever having to figure out the difference between Belz and Bobov. But those who are invested in the Jewish future—be they Reform, Conservative, Zionist, or anything else—are going to be in a similar position to New York City mayoral candidates: like Ḥaredim or loathe them, they can’t pretend they don’t exist. Any major Jewish organization that wants to continue to act for or on behalf of the Jewish people must, starting now, take into account the growing prominence of Ḥaredim or risk increasing irrelevance.

For decades, the almost uninterrupted presence in Israeli coalition governments of black-coated ministers has been looked at with bemusement by many Jews across the Atlantic as a sort of freakish outgrowth of the Israeli electoral system. But it is just this model of partial ḥaredi representation that will likely have to be replicated throughout the institutions of diaspora Jewry. The techniques and tactics used by secular politicians—most notably Benjamin Netanyahu—to win the support and loyalty of ḥaredi politicians will have to be adopted by those seeking power and influence in the Diaspora too. All in all, the only possible conclusion one can draw from demographic trends is that those who care about the future of the Jewish people, and want to influence it in any given direction, need to find a way to cooperate productively with Ḥaredim.

 

II. Understanding and Acceptance

 

Arranging such cooperation between the ḥaredi community and mainstream Jewry is a project that is incumbent on both sides. One necessary precondition is the emergence within ḥaredi society of a new class of lay leaders and professionals who have both the inclination and ability to navigate the institutions of managerial civil society and the heft to overrule the advocates of unmoderated sectarianism. Traditionally, the ḥaredi community has coped with its lack of such a native class either by outsourcing its tasks or by leaning heavily on ba’alei t’shuvah (people who choose to become ḥaredi), many of whom bring such skills with them. That won’t be enough. If they’re to take a share of worldwide Jewish leadership, Ḥaredim will have to adapt their own internal education system to generate an elite with a background in law, finance, business management, and other fields needed to manage competently and to maintain large institutions.

Such leaders, however, will not get far without a wider change of mindset within the ḥaredi community concerning its responsibilities and obligations to the Jewish world outside. This means caring about issues that are of barely any relevance to Ḥaredim themselves, such as accommodations for Jewish children in public schools, or the welfare of Jewish students on university campus. Such a paradigm shift will not be easy. Separatism is not just a deeply entrenched habit for Ḥaredim, but an ideological principle and even a source of communal strength. Still, the more that Ḥaredim are integrated into the wider Jewish tent, and the more they’re recognized not just for their growing potential but for their actual power, the less they will be able to lean on a siege mentality to bolster cohesion and commitment. Increased size and prominence will impose these obligations regardless. Ḥaredim can choose to shirk the new responsibilities that accompany their new prominence and power, but they cannot choose to ignore the consequences of doing so, be they mounting hostility and resentment from other Jews, or the accelerating decline of powerful Jewish institutions necessary to keep the 21st century a safe place for the Jewish people.

Ḥaredim can choose to shirk the new responsibilities of their new prominence and power, but they cannot choose to ignore the consequences of doing so.

It always takes two to tango, however, and those outside the ḥaredi community have as much, if not more, to do before they are able to become effective partners.

The first and perhaps hardest step psychologically for those who need to deal with the ḥaredi demographic tsunami is to stop pretending it isn’t happening. And on that score, they’re in trouble. Let’s look at the recent and hotly debated Pew survey “Jewish Americans in 2020.” The major theme of the survey is that long-term demographic trends will increasingly divide American Jewry into two groups, the Orthodox and the unaffiliated, with strongly contrasting political beliefs, cultural mores, and family structures. However, in the course of that discussion, the existence of distinctions within Orthodoxy, specifically between Modern and ultra-Orthodoxy, is barely mentioned. That’s in part because Pew researchers weren’t able to generate a large enough sample from each different Orthodox subgroup to support reliable analysis. But reliable analysis is surely needed, for the differences between the archetypal Modern Orthodox Jew in Teaneck, New Jersey—culturally and socially part of a wider American and Jewish society—and the average Ḥasid from Williamsburg are evident to anyone even marginally familiar with them. The report’s authors do note the survey’s limitations here and there, but outsiders relying on a cursory look at the survey would be excused for not realizing that these subgroups exist at all. Instead, the survey paints a picture of a generic Orthodoxy characterized by connection to Israel, voting Republican and high birthrates—a picture that, while being technically accurate at a low level of magnification, completely fails to capture the reality of two culturally, economically, and socially divergent communities.

Furthermore, while the Pew report contains sections on the amorphous categories of “Jews of color” and “people of Jewish background and Jewish affinity,” there is little discussion of basic demographic questions one might want to ask about the ḥaredi community—how many speak Yiddish as a first language, for instance, or how many belong to different ḥasidic groups or to the non-ḥasidic “yeshivish” community. Plus, Pew changed its methodology from its previous survey in 2013, which was conducted by phone, to one based in part on completing a survey online. This was an attempt to correct for declining rates of phone participation in surveys and polls, but it came with its own distortions: Ḥaredim are not online the way other Jews are. In an attempt to offset any effect on Orthodox participation, the authors also included a mail component to the survey. But still, so little information on Ḥaredim was collected that a reader of the most authoritative and widely used demographic survey of American Jewry could examine it and learn little about that Jewry’s most demographically vibrant sector. How can the movers of American—of global—Jewry make decisions for the future when the information they will base their decisions on is so inadequate?

The process of truly understanding ḥaredi life begins with discarding the common—so common as to be often unconscious—view of it as an anachronism and replacing it with a new paradigm: ultra-Orthodoxy is an adaptation of Judaism to the conditions of modernity. The central claim of most Jewish reformers for the past 200 years has been that Judaism has always been a living, breathing civilization that adapts to meet new cultural, social, economic, and political realities. With certain caveats, the claim must be granted, but what is its implication in 2021? Plainly, the most successful contemporary adaptation—or, at the very least, one of the successful adaptations—that Jewish civilization has made to modernity is what we call ultra-Orthodoxy. It may have seemed plausible decades or centuries ago to theorize that Judaism would evolve into something more egalitarian, less legalistic, more German or American and less theologically naïve, but theory is one thing and reality is another.

Coming to terms with the reality of ḥaredi growth, then, means applying the same kind of logic that any respectable thinker would make about Jewish movements in any other historical era. It is generally accepted that if one wants to understand, to take one example of many, the rapid spread of Lurianic kabbalah in the 17th century, it is pointless to argue about what is or isn’t real Judaism or a perversion of it. Sober scholars, rather, seek to understand how historical forces allowed for the creation of new movements, the human needs and desires they met, and the wider consequences of their development. It is time to do the same for the ḥaredi movement. Instead of remaining bewildered about how a society that we intuitively know is chronically dysfunctional and on the brink of collapse keeps growing, we need to understand why, and therefore how, ḥaredi society works. And that begins with seeing it as an adaptation of Judaism that draws from elements of tradition to meet the unique challenges of the modern world.

 

III. La Trahison des Clercs

 

If the task of understanding Ḥaredim begins with a new mental paradigm, it continues with a need for better information. And that need can only be satisfied by academics. After all, the task of explaining in a balanced and detailed way how any community works is one that is most naturally assigned to academics, principally sociologists, who specialize in that community. It is true that the great majority of people will never read a work of academic sociology, but rather form their views based on what they read in the press or see on television. Nevertheless, to a greater degree than is often appreciated, the tropes and narratives reproduced in the mass media are often those that first trickled down from the ivory tower. The economist John Maynard Keynes famously observed that, “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence are usually the slaves of some defunct economist,” and much the same can be said here too. It is no surprise then that the kind of sensationalized narratives that pervade the popular press and entertainment industry’s depiction of Ḥaredim also pervade—albeit in a less crude form—academic treatment of Ḥaredim. Interested observers who want to get beyond the breathless calumnies of Netflix’s Unorthodox are not, for the most part, well-served by what academia has to offer.

The most obvious problem, which runs all the way from the highest- to the lowest-brow portrayals of Ḥaredim, is the disproportionate weight given to those who were raised ḥaredi and left (the so-called “off-the-derekh,” or OTD, community). Because overall retention rates in the ḥaredi community have been consistently high for decades, this means a vast over-representation of the perspective of a small group of people, many of whom grew up in dysfunctional homes or were the victims of abuse. It should go without saying that such people deserve sympathy and that their testimony should not be ignored, but by the same token basing a model of how ḥaredi society operates predominantly on their experience is like trying to understand Israeli politics primarily by interviewing Mordechai Vanunu.

The kind of sensationalized narratives that pervade the entertainment industry’s depiction of Ḥaredim also pervade academic depictions.

The disproportionate focus on Ḥaredim who have left the fold can be partly excused by considerations of access. There is no doubt that it is easier to find an ex-Ḥaredi willing to answer personal questions posed by a researcher or journalist than a median member of the ḥaredi community. Like most members of traditional cultures, Ḥaredim are typically wary of discussing their lives with outsiders and shun media attention, whereas many ex-Ḥaredim have a story they want to publicize. One would expect those whose job it is to study the ḥaredi community to recognize this inherent bias and correct for it. More common, however, is for ex-ḥaredi narratives to be taken as objective statements of reality, with even the suggestion that they may be partial or misleading forestalled by the reliability thought to be conferred by victimhood.

It is not merely the case, however, that the idealized narrative of the ex-Ḥaredi completely fails to capture the vast majority of Ḥaredim who do not leave nor want to. What is worse, these portrayals do not even accurately represent the experiences of ex-Ḥaredim. In one of the relatively few examples of good sociological research in this field, Schneur Zalman Newfield, himself an ex-Ḥaredi, has shown that the majority of those who leave are not—as in the typical off-the-derekh memoir—estranged from their families and do not portray their former life as one of unremitting misery and oppression.

The second major flaw in existing academic treatment of Ḥaredim is a disproportionate emphasis on those at the opposite end of the spectrum—namely, the most pious and fervent Ḥaredim for whom religious observance consumes everyday life. A prime example of this tendency is Samuel Heilman’s seminal work Defenders of the Faith, which is unabashedly focused on the most extreme ḥaredi subcultures—in particular the fiercely anti-Zionist enclaves of Jerusalem—on the grounds that only the members of these communities are the “real thing” or the “genuine article.” (I don’t mean this as a criticism of Heilman’s work on the whole. Even as he’s an increasingly strident critic of Ḥaredim, he’s a scholar who has made some of the most important contributions towards explaining ḥaredi beliefs, history, and culture to a wider audience.)

Thus, the overall effect of perusing the current literature on Ḥaredim is of a community that consists of unworldly saints passionately devoted to full-time mitzvah observance, on the one hand, and captives waiting for someone to extend to them the hand of freedom, on the other. The world inhabited by the average Ḥaredi, one that is highly materialistic as well as highly ritualistic, and one that is chiefly characterized by the all-too-human joys, struggles and politics of family life, is absent.

The biggest problem however, with the study of Ḥaredim is simply how little there is of it. If you peruse the faculty of any major Jewish-studies department in the United States you will find the ordinary mix that you would expect in any area of the modern university: part vital scholarship, part baffling niche obsessions, and part jumbles of trendy buzzwords. What is staggeringly rare amidst the studies of 14th-century pietism and reproductive justice in the Talmud is someone whose chief research interests lie in the fastest-growing branch of contemporary Judaism.

 

IV. The Study of Haredi Society

 

In Israel, where the ḥaredi community is a more pressing political concern and language presents less of a barrier, ḥaredi studies are much more developed, and thoroughly embedded in the university system. A huge amount of rigorous and detailed work looking at social and economic trends within the Israeli ḥaredi community has emerged, much of it coming from the Israel Democracy Institute. Even much of this work, however, suffers from key flaws. These can be revealed by simply juxtaposing two common tropes of educated Israeli discourse, to a large extent drawn from this body of scholarship. The first is that Israeli Ḥaredim should emulate their Diaspora cousins, who have a healthier economic system because they put less emphasis on the value of full-time Torah study for adult males. The second trope is that the road to a better ḥaredi future is better secular education, integration into wider society, and some form of army service. On all three of the latter metrics, however, Diaspora Ḥaredim do worse than Israeli Ḥaredim: they are far more segregated from the rest of society, they would not consider ever joining any army, and their secular education is functionally lower, since Israeli Ḥaredim are literate in the national language, whereas many American or European males are not.

In addition, the focus in Israeli scholarship on specifically Israeli issues, while understandable, makes it harder to grasp the key dynamics of transnational ḥaredi society and life. What I mean is this: a family of Vizhnitz Ḥasidim who live in comparatively wealthy Brooklyn will much more happily arrange a marriage for their son with the daughter of another Vizhnitz family living below the poverty line in B’nei Brak than with the daughter of Gerer Ḥasidim who live on the same street. And for good reason: the life and social norms of a Vizhnitz Ḥasid—how he interacts with his friends and family, how he educates his children, or how he dresses—differ remarkably little whatever political jurisdiction he lives in. Explanations of how and why the ḥaredi community functions that focus exclusively on Israel will thus inevitably overstate certain factors and omit others. Few contemporary scholars would be so crass as to endorse explicitly their Israeli colleague Joseph Dan’s 1998 claim that ḥaredi Judaism is a “unique Israeli phenomenon,” but much of the time they write as if it was. Meanwhile, every year, thousands of Ḥaredim, particularly Ḥasidim, relocate from Israel to the United States or vice versa and live very much the same kinds of lives in the same kinds of communities as before.

Few contemporary scholars would agree with a 1998 claim that ḥaredi Judaism is a “unique Israeli phenomenon,” but much of the time they write as if it was.

The preeminent figure in the field of ḥaredi studies today is the Israeli professor Benjamin Brown, whose trailblazing work categorizing and clarifying a research agenda has enabled a new generation of scholars to emerge. Some truly outstanding work has been done in this school, in particular on the biographies and intellectual output of great ḥaredi rabbis, exploring and explicating their theories of talmudic analysis and halakhic methodology. It is a matter of great urgency that work like Brown’s becomes available to a global English-speaking audience. But more is needed than that. Brown, whose background is in Jewish philosophy rather than sociology, focuses to a very high degree on understanding ḥaredi Judaism as a religious revival movement, seeking to elucidate its “anti-theological theology,” which—not actually being systematically presented anywhere—must be pieced together from scattered statements, but which nevertheless represents the platonic form through which ḥaredi Judaism must be understood.

I believe, however, that tracing the development of elite talmudic study within the ḥaredi world, while an entirely legitimate endeavor, sheds little light on ḥaredi culture and society at large. The fact that ḥaredi theology is presented in such a fragmented and unsystematic way that it needs to be pieced together by scholars should be taken as an indication that theology is peripheral to the core dynamics of ḥaredi society. Too much time has been spent trying to unlock the theological master key to ḥaredi Judaism, with candidates like daas Torah (rabbinic infallibility), yeridas hadoros (constant generational decline), ḥadash asur min ha-Torah (all that is novel is forbidden) identified then discarded in the hunt for an authentic theological core. Perhaps it is time to turn this paradigm on its head: perhaps what is most characteristic of ḥaredi society is precisely the lack of such a core. If this is true, then the current academic focus on abstract ideas about Ḥaredim, like the other focus on specifically Israeli facts of economics and demography, obscures as much as it reveals.

If the current sociology of ḥaredi life done by outsiders is by and large so lacking, why do I call for its improvement rather than its replacement with a better sociology by insiders? For the simple fact is that better sociology is unlikely to emerge from within the ḥaredi world itself any time soon. The educational background and skills it requires are rare among Ḥaredim. Moreover, there is little appetite within ḥaredi culture for academic analysis of ordinary community functions, and a strong emphasis on ascribing success to siyata d’shamaya (the help of Heaven) merited through good deeds and piety. Whether justly or not, naturalistic explanations for why a community declines or thrives carry with them a suspicion that they’re undermining the providential worldview. Most Ḥaredim instinctively subscribe to the view of the rebbe of Slonim: that the growth of the ḥaredi community after the Holocaust “has no natural explanation . . . other than G-d Himself.” There are, of course, many practical men of affairs in the ḥaredi world whose intuitions are as shrewd and realistic as they come, but these men have no incentive to share their insights, nor the academic toolbox to generalize them. A new academic discourse about Ḥaredim, focused on the ordinary members of the community and treating their sustained demographic growth as a phenomenon to be explored rather than an incomprehensible mystery that defies explanation, can, in the next few decades at least, only come from the outside.

I cannot say with confidence that, initially at least, this sociology will be greeted with enthusiasm from within the ḥaredi world. Suspicion of academia runs strong, both as a legacy of debates within Orthodoxy about the value of higher secular education that go back to the 19th century, and specifically because it is seen as a stronghold of anti-religious attitudes. Ḥaredim, however, are increasingly aware of how negative depictions in the wider media have real-world consequences, and it is slowly dawning on them that, by refusing to cooperate with outsiders who might portray them in a more balanced fashion, they are contributing to their own negative image. Once the benefits of improved understanding are demonstrated—and once the community realizes how much it has already suffered without such understanding—I believe that they will start to engage with it more positively, hopefully in time making their own contributions. This improved level of understanding on the part of the outside world will impose its own set of challenges, complicating the separatist ḥaredi understanding of themselves as beleaguered defenders of the faith. Even so, Ḥaredim, no less than anyone else, are possessed of the desire to be perceived positively by others. While the new ḥaredi sociology should certainly not be an idealization, it will be an improvement on what outside media currently have to offer.

 

V. Four Myths

 

What a new ḥaredi sociology will look like is, of course, unknown. A discipline in its infancy has yet to make its key discoveries. But, as a member of the ḥaredi community who has put a certain degree of thought into applying the tools of anthropology, economics, and political science to understanding its ordinary functions, I have some suggestions about which lines of enquiry will be most successful. This research program, if you will, starts with debunking four widespread myths.

The first of these myths is that of the all-powerful leader, whose word is law and whose control over his helpless followers is absolute in all areas of life. Now, it is certainly true that the ḥaredi community contains many powerful, dynamic, charismatic, and, in a few cases, even tyrannical leaders—probably more so than in secular culture, where anonymous bureaucratic and managerial structures wield more power. However, membership in the ḥaredi community is not conditional on being part of one of these charismatic movements, which means that the charismatic leader cannot be the fundamental constitutive feature of the ḥaredi community as a whole, large swathes of which run without any recognizable leadership at all, as is well known to insiders.

Charismatic leadership cannot be the fundamental feature of ḥaredi life, since large swathes of it run without any recognizable leadership at all.

To see the poverty of this myth, one needs to do no more than consider the case of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the austere genius known around the world for his encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish texts and dubbed for this reason sar ha-Torah (the minister of Torah). For Lithuanian (i.e., non-ḥasidic) Ḥaredim in Israel, he is not only that but the gadol ha-dor (greatest of the generation) whose authority is unchallengeable in all matters. He is also ninety-three-years old, and has an intense schedule of study that includes completing the Talmud, Maimonides’ code of Jewish law, the Shulḥan Arukh, and more every year, which means that he cannot in actual fact be organizing the affairs of hundreds of thousands of people. But then who is running the show? Cynical observers name Rabbi Kanievsky’s grandson, a fixer who has successfully monetized access to his grandfather’s study. All this does, however, is throw out one fantasy of omniscience with a psychologically satisfying substitute reminiscent of the “good king, evil counselors” legend treasured by many a medieval peasant; it gets us scarcely closer to the full story.

What outside commentators and observers need, then, is a map of the actual mechanisms of power, coercion, consent, and resistance within ḥaredi communities. Every society has these mechanisms, which are not visible to the naked eye and which must instead be pieced together through patient research and analysis. Ḥaredi society is no exception; the data needed to put the puzzle together are the experiences of myriad Ḥaredim who encounter this or that element of the system without comprehending how it all fits together. One key test of a new ḥaredi sociology is whether it can reconstruct this system and dispense with vague references to a shadowy network of askanim, the catch-all term for a class of behind-the-scenes fixers and organizers cited by those who confuse naming a phenomenon with explaining it.

The second myth is that the ḥaredi economy is dysfunctional and on the brink of collapse. Here, mainstream discourse speaks with a Janus face. On the one hand, Ḥaredim in America are held up as an example of how religious observance and gainful employment go together as a way of condemning their Israeli cousins. On the other hand, American and other Diaspora Ḥaredim are mocked or scorned for their failure to follow the standard Western model in which education and professional qualifications are the ladder of economic opportunity.

What is clear is that the ḥaredi economy looks rather different than the standard Western model. What is not clear, or at the very least needs to be demonstrated, is that by so diverging it is therefore a failure. Historians and anthropologists are used to studying different economic systems and know the absurdity of labeling them as merely defective versions of modern capitalism—a basic insight that has yet to be applied to Ḥaredim. While modern society is stratified by wealth into different classes, ḥaredi society is blended; the wealthiest and the poorest members of society live side by side and share the same social spaces. It is not at all strange for the children of multimillionaire real-estate magnates to sit in the same classroom as the sons of a warehouse worker from the same ḥasidic sect. The very meaning of wealth and poverty in such circumstances must necessarily be different to that of mainstream capitalist society. Therefore, a second key test of the new ḥaredi sociology is whether it can piece together the untold story of how money flows around the community, and what those giving it receive and those receiving it give in return.

The third, related myth is that the ḥaredi education system is failing. This myth assumes that the purpose of any education system must be preparing students for something like the new global knowledge economy. On such a conception, the one or two hours a day that ḥaredi boys’ schools (yeshivas) spend on secular studies constitute the only real part of the school, while the rest of the day, spent on religious studies, is an eccentric enrichment activity of some sort. Apologists for the ḥaredi community accept this premise but attempt the highly implausible argument that the nebulously defined skills conferred by a mainstream secular education are also, somehow, provided in a ḥaredi yeshiva.

Both these arguments miss the point. The average standard of math and English instruction in ḥaredi schools is genuinely poor, although it can be raised significantly where there is sufficient will. But, as I wrote here in Mosaic recently, the main function of a ḥaredi school has nothing to do with anything like that. The main function is, rather, a process of initiation and immersion in the mores, customs, practices and, yes, a certain degree of textual knowledge, that young Ḥaredim will need to become successful members of the community where most of them will live their lives. Yet amid the raging debates about how much mathematics Ḥaredim must teach twelve-year-olds, what ḥaredi education actually is is a topic that has barely been addressed at all.

Thus, another test of the new ḥaredi sociology will be whether by drawing on different branches of the human sciences it can provide new functional explanations of ḥaredi educational institutions. In her 1998 book The Nurture Assumption, the psychologist Judith Rich Harris looked at the evidence for the impact of parenting and teaching on the development of personality and cognitive traits and found almost none. What the data show, instead, is that human beings are overwhelmingly shaped by two factors: genetics and peer group. This conclusion is so antithetical to the liberal orthodoxies dominating the educational establishment that the evidence mounting for decades in its favor has done almost nothing to influence how the school system is structured. But if we accept Harris’s conclusions, the incomprehensible combination of obsessive policing of undesired social influences with blank disregard for what are usually considered essential inputs of pedagogy makes perfect sense.

The final ḥaredi myth to be busted is perhaps the most persistent. This is because it is so essential not just to outside understandings of the ḥaredi world but also to that world’s own rhetoric—even, to some extent, its own self-image. I refer here to the assumption that the engine and soul of the ḥaredi community is punctilious religious devotion and observance. Critics of ḥaredi Judaism may challenge this belief by arguing that ḥaredi religiosity is either fake or twisted or both. The true quantum leap in understanding ḥaredi Judaism will come, however, from rejecting the premise and adopting a new paradigm in which ḥaredi religiosity is part of a comprehensive ethnocultural identity, one that is shared no less by the ordinary ḥaredi struggling to maintain concentration during afternoon prayer than by the most pious zealot.

It is certainly true that within ḥaredi Judaism religious ritual and worship is central to and pervades ḥaredi communal life. What is not true, however, is that this makes ḥaredi Judaism a strange oddity that must be understood as a uniquely religious phenomenon. To the contrary, it is the separation of the world into religious and secular spheres, characteristic of almost every other stream of 21st-century Judaism, that is historically odd. Perhaps the ultimate proof that a new ḥaredi sociology has been born will be when the same tools used to study the function of religious rituals within non-Western societies are used here too, without the presupposition that ḥaredi culture is an abnormal or suspect form of human existence.

 

VI. Nothing to Lose but Clichés

 

Indeed, much of what I am asking for is that educated Jews extend to Ḥaredim the same intellectual courtesy they give as a matter of course to an Amazonian tribe or savanna village—to acknowledge that things that seem strange have their own significance and function within a different cultural context. Whether or not sympathy on the part of mainstream Jewry is required, a degree of empathy certainly is. There is no option that allows for maintaining the current existence of the Jewish people and does not involve engaging with Ḥaredim—and to engage effectively, you first need to know whom and what you are dealing with.

There is no option that allows for maintaining the Jewish people that does not involve engaging with Ḥaredim.

I have here tried to draw a preliminary sketch of what a new ḥaredi sociology would look like. Such an intellectual project is, I believe, interesting enough on its own merits to deserve a place in the amply furnished corridors of academia. It also has the potential to inspire productive developments in various areas of economic and social thought. However, its most urgent function is to serve as a means by which the wider Jewish world can develop the kind of understanding of the ḥaredi community through which it can be seen as a productive partner rather than a cute anachronism or a distorted menace. For too long, the discourse of Jewish letters has contented itself with listing the ways in which the ḥaredi world doesn’t work instead of also presenting the ways it does.

To explain the ḥaredi world well, the new sociology must meet the following criteria. First, it should conceptualize its basic task as developing a model of how the ḥaredi world functions rather than compiling lists of problems. Second, it should have as its core focus the life and experiences of the median ḥaredi rather than the most intensely religious or ideological, on the one hand, or the discontented and disbelieving on the other. Third, it should explain in a value-neutral way the mechanisms of ḥaredi community life with explanatory rigor before making moral appraisals. Finally, it must understand ḥaredi Judaism as a complete social system with its own cultural, social, and economic order rather than as a religious movement. If these criteria are met, the conditions are ripe for a new program of study addressing the most fascinating and urgent intellectual issues in 21st-century Judaism. What is more, this program could usher in a new era of mutual understanding and productive collaboration between Ḥaredim and their fellow Jews.

This essay was corrected on January 6 to reflect Pew Research Center’s attempts to reach the ḥaredi community in its 2020 survey.—The Editors

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More about: American Jewry, Haredim, Jewish World, The Jewish World, Ultra-Orthodox