In the ever-tangled world of Israeli politics, it’s easy for one crisis or scandal to blend into the next. So you may not have noticed that a few weeks ago the two ḥaredi parties, the ḥasidic Agudas Yisroel and the non-ḥasidic Degel haTorah, almost ended a 30-year electoral alliance in which they run jointly for election under the banner of United Torah Judaism. In the end, they stuck together, but the cause of the dispute that nearly led to their divorce is worth examining in detail, since it might have major implications for the future of the ḥaredi community, and, by virtue of that, the Jewish people as a whole.
The furor erupted following the announcement of a formal offer made by the Ministry of Education that would allow all private ḥaredi schools to access government funding without the current requirement that each school be registered with one of several larger recognized school networks—so long as each school’s students achieve national standards in the core subjects of mathematics, English, and Hebrew. The offer, which remains open, is informally known as the “Belz proposal,” after the second-largest ḥasidic sect in Israel, Belz, whose representatives spent two years secretly negotiating the deal. The proposal, if implemented, would herald the dawn of a new era in which one of the largest and most mainstream ḥasidic sects would provide a national standard of secular education to ḥasidic boys all the way through to graduation.
Belz’s motivation was solving a long-term funding deficit in their ever-expanding network of private schools for young members of their rapidly growing sect. Belz first attempted to join an existing ḥaredi school network known as Ḥinukh Atzma’i (literally, Independent Education), whose members receive partial government funding in exchange for partial compliance with the state’s curriculum. After these attempts failed, Belz decided to negotiate its own deal. Instead of the traditional approach—scheduling a mere few hours of sloppily delivered secular subjects in return for cash, with no effective oversight of quality—Belz would receive full funding on the condition that the students, upon graduation, achieve national standards in external examinations.
Other ḥasidic leaders, regardless of their private misgivings about the Belz proposal and its eventual implications, adhered to the code of not interfering with the internal affairs of another ḥasidic sect. But the most important leaders of non-ḥasidic (or “Lithuanian”) ultra-Orthodoxy reacted furiously. So extreme was their hostility to the concept of secular education for ḥaredi boys that they threatened to break up the political alliance between the non-ḥasidic Degel haTorah and the ḥasidic Agudas Yisroel parties, raising the specter of one or even both parties failing to pass the electoral threshold and therefore failing to secure representation in the Knesset at all.
With the 30-year-old intra-ḥaredi United Torah Judaism alliance on the brink of falling apart, Benjamin Netanyahu intervened to broker a deal. The solution was that all ḥaredi factions would unite to demand from the new government to be formed after the November 1 elections a plan under which ḥaredi schools would be eligible for funding—regardless of whether they allot five hours a day to secular subjects or five seconds. In exchange for this, Belz agreed to renege on the deal they had negotiated and not proceed with the introduction of full secular studies in their boys’ schools.
For the many outside commentators and activists who believe that a growing ḥaredi population unable to participate in a 21st-century post-industrial economy represents an existential threat to the state of Israel, this deal represented a profound betrayal by its longest-serving statesman. Nevertheless, the very fact that the proposal was negotiated and approved by Belz may still prove an important watershed moment in ḥaredi history.
It is not surprising that Belz, of all the ḥasidic groups, was the one willing to stick its head above the parapet. Belz has long been known as the trailblazer of the ḥasidic world, unafraid to go its own way, and able to weather the often-ferocious criticism of innovation from other corners of ultra-Orthodoxy. The leader of Belz, Rabbi Yissochor Dov Rokeach is, 57 years into his reign, not only the world’s longest-serving ḥasidic rebbe but also one of its most formidable and successful. Internally, his authority is absolute, and externally he has built a hard-won reputation as an independent thinker who will not be cowed into submission, even when incurring, as he has done on multiple occasions, the blazing wrath of Satmar. Under his leadership, Belz pioneered the incorporation of special-needs education into ḥaredi schools, the pursuit of professional qualifications as a way of accessing white-collar employment, and the use of technology for communal purposes, including online fundraisers and live-streaming of the rebbe’s tish.
What may be surprising to many readers, however, especially those in America, is that any ḥasidic sect at all initiated such a potential sea change in ḥaredi education. For the past month, the Jewish world has been abuzz about the New York Times exposé of the lamentable state of secular education in New York ḥasidic yeshivas. While non-ḥasidic ḥaredi groups in America typically offer at least a moderately good standard of secular education, ḥasidic schools for boys consistently don’t. The many Belz yeshivas in New York may be no worse than the others, but they are no better either. How, then, can Ḥasidim be simultaneously the representatives of ignorance in America and enlightenment in Israel?
To answer that question, it is necessary to make a distinction between different strategies for coping with modernity within the ḥaredi world. The unifying theme of all ḥaredi Judaism is a conviction that the modern world is fundamentally inhospitable to Judaism and that, therefore, for Judaism to thrive, or even survive, a niche has to be created in which the forces of modernity are kept at bay. There are, however, two quite different approaches to building this fortress: one approach focuses on creating a thick cultural space that envelopes the ordinary life of community members, keeping them separate from, and even substantially unaware of, the outside world. The other prefers to inculcate fundamentalist religious ideals that Ḥaredim can draw on to fortify themselves in an oppositional relationship with the modernity that surrounds them.
All groups within the broader ultra-Orthodox umbrella employ a mixture of both strategies, but the balance between them varies significantly. The ḥasidic strategy takes the former approach. It creates an autonomous countercultural space, and then—through language, dress, and mores—erects barriers between that space and the outside world. A born and raised Ḥasid does not feel comfortable socializing with outsiders, and, perhaps even more importantly, those barriers mean that outsiders do not feel comfortable socializing with Ḥasidim. That much is obvious, but what is less obvious is that it is precisely this barrier between them and the outside world that gives Ḥasidim more room for maneuver in their core ideological commitments, simply because ideology, and one may even say religiosity, plays a less pivotal role in sustaining and determining ḥasidic identity than do cultural factors.
In Israel, the so-called Lithuanian world has, by contrast, fortified itself against the surrounding culture by gradually developing an increasingly radical ideology, according to which secular studies are not merely a distraction from Torah study but actually undermine the purity of mind required to become a true Torah scholar. In America, this ideology has not caught on, and non-ḥasidic Ḥaredim generally have a moderately positive approach to secular education. As for the Ḥasidim, they hold the dubious distinction of having rock-bottom secular education whether they are in the Land of the Free or the Holy Land. One might assume, therefore, that they hold an especially fervent ideological objection to secular studies. The truth is, however, that principled opposition to secular education as inherently pernicious is a fringe view within ḥasidic Judaism. The ḥasidic relationship to secular education is, when it comes down to it, a cultural and not an ideological phenomenon, which makes it, at least potentially, much more malleable.
Ḥasidic secular education today is the product of three interlocking factors. The first is that Ḥasidim do not, as a rule, think secular education is very important, even if they are not against it. The second is that they think too much secular education poses a potential risk of leading young people out of the community, and it is hard to know in advance what exactly too much secular education looks like. The third, and ultimately most important for practical purposes, is their opposition to any interference by outsiders in the education of ḥasidic children. Since, in practice, every proposal to improve standards of secular education in ḥasidic schools has involved outsiders exercising control over the format, content, and delivery of ḥasidic education, the community has been united in opposition. The reflexive ḥasidic hostility to outside interference is often condemned by enlightened critics for its myopia and paranoia, but if running a separatist community that doubles in size every fifteen years is so easy, then maybe they should try it.
The Belz proposal worked because it was designed to be as attractive to Ḥasidim as possible by addressing each of those three factors and more. It offered concrete benefits in the form of government funding for Belz schools, with the possibility of extra economic benefits down the line as a cherry on top. It kept problematic parts of the curriculum to an acceptable minimum, by eliminating the aspects of the Israeli national curriculum, such as history and literature, that Ḥasidim find more threatening than pure English or math. Perhaps most importantly, it preserved the absolute autonomy of Belz, since funding was tied not to implementation of the curriculum in any particular format but solely to measurable educational outcomes.
Even though the Belz proposal remains on ice for the time being, it has set a crucial precedent. Approval has now been given to the concept of high-quality secular education for boys by one of the world’s pre-eminent ḥaredi leaders. The toothpaste is out of the tube and no extremist campaign against secular education, however fierce, can force it back in. Soon enough, another initiative for improved secular education for mainstream ḥasidic boys will be launched, and this time it may well succeed thanks to the precedent established by the Belzer rebbe.
This story, however, is about far more than just Belz, or even about secular education: it offers a crucial message for those who would try to change the ḥaredi community.
The default assumption of authorities and policymakers is that the way to change the ḥaredi community is to work with dedicated ḥaredi reformers, who are often the members of the community most integrated into mainstream society. What all too often happens, however, is that those on the margins make reforms in their own little corner that fail to catch on anywhere else, or that even actively alienate the ḥaredi mainstream. What Belz has shown is that, in the ḥasidic world at least, an entirely different approach is possible.
In certain respects, it is fair to call Belz a moderate ḥasidic group, but not in the way the term is usually understood. Belz is just as committed as any other ḥasidic group to many extreme-to-outsiders elements of ḥaredi life, such as gender segregation or arranged marriages. Its emphasis on maintaining ḥasidic dress and mores that mark them out from the rest of society is, if anything, more intense than the norm. Yet it is precisely its real independence—one might even say practical sovereignty—that gives Belz the confidence to make reforms that, for other ḥaredi groups, are either unthinkable or unconscionable. When Belz felt reassured that its core cultural barriers weren’t going to be compromised, it was able to adapt ideologically and offer an accommodation with modernity.
As Ḥaredim continue to become a larger and larger fraction of the Jewish people, the way their postmodern version of Judaism changes and evolves will become ever more relevant to the lives of Jews of all persuasions. There is no doubt that ḥaredi society will change, just as it has changed for the last one hundred years, but that change, for better or for worse, will often come not from self-appointed change-makers who exist at the margins of ḥaredi society, but rather from precisely those parts of the community that are most effectively insulated from the outside world—and that therefore have the genuine freedom to be captains of their own ship.