Can Ultra-Orthodoxy Be Made Conservative?

While Israel’s Ḥaredim may seem to the outside observer as ultra-conservatives—preserving centuries-old modes of dress, in some cases preferring Yiddish over modern Hebrew, and claiming unfailing adherence to the ways of pre-World War II Eastern Europe—Yehoshua Pfeffer argues that they are in many respects anything but. He notes, for instance, the contest among ḥaredi schools to outdo one another in their halakhic stringency and in the narrowness of their admissions criteria. The very unconservative result is that established norms are constantly being pulled in a more rigid and radical direction. In a far-reaching essay, Pfeffer argues that the ultra-Orthodox could learn much from the Anglo-American conservative tradition, which comports well with their own religious beliefs:

Edmund Burke spoke about a “disposition to preserve and an ability to improve,” the underlying premise being that the latter is required for the proper execution of the former: without the capacity for adaptation to new circumstances, the old itself will stagnate and cease to function as it should. But for the conservative disposition, such changes are the result of organic processes that take place over a historical progression, and not of an artificial imposition of an idea or ideology, however lofty it might be, on society. . . .

The authority vested [by Orthodox Judaism] in rabbinic leaders to enact supplementary legislation, and at times to interpret the Torah’s laws anew, ensures the eternity of the Law itself. The ability to “improve” . . . is part and parcel of preservation.

Thus, argues Pfeffer, the halakhic system itself is designed to prevent radical change and preserve enduring values and standards, while allowing for gradual and incremental adjustments. And this spirit is still alive in ḥaredi jurisprudence:

Note the following two responsa of Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch (a leading ultra-Orthodox authority), both relating to in-vitro fertilization. In 1991, Sternbuch came out strongly against the then-new technology, banning the procedure outright for a number of reasons. . . . Twenty years later, Sternbuch . . . made a comprehensive about-face on the subject, writing that if the procedure is done under the supervision and advice of expert doctors, then a childless couple has a positive halakhic obligation to pursue . . . artificial insemination. . . .

[These twin responses] encapsulate the “disposition to preserve” coupled with the “ability to improve.” In the first instance, Sternbuch’s reaction to a revolutionary technology . . . was wholly negative. . . . But after it had been tested by the course of time, . . . he could agree that it is permitted and even obligatory for childless couples.

In many ways, Pfeffer concludes, “while the basic ḥaredi impulse is surely conservative—a deep desire to preserve the integrity of Orthodoxy society, a [society] structured around the upkeep of religious precepts—[the ḥaredi community’s] social tools for preserving itself are quite unconservative.” As the ultra-Orthodox face new a new set of circumstances, including a burgeoning economic crisis, they would do well to reconsider these tools.

Read more at Ḥakirah

More about: Conservatism, Edmund Burke, Halakhah, Jewish conservatism, Religion & Holidays, Ultra-Orthodox


Planning for the Day after the War in the Gaza Strip

At the center of much political debate in Israel during the past week, as well as, reportedly, of disagreement between Jerusalem and Washington, is the problem of how Gaza should be governed if not by Hamas. Thus far, the IDF has only held on to small parts of the Strip from which it has cleared out the terrorists. Michael Oren lays out the parameters of this debate over what he has previous called Israel’s unsolvable problem, and sets forth ten principles that any plan should adhere to. Herewith, the first five:

  1. Israel retains total security control in Gaza, including control of all borders and crossings, until Hamas is demonstrably defeated. Operations continue in Rafah and elsewhere following effective civilian evacuations. Military and diplomatic efforts to secure the hostages’ release continue unabated.
  2. Civil affairs, including health services and aid distribution, are administered by Gazans unaffiliated with Hamas. The model will be Area B of Judea and Samaria, where Israel is in charge of security and Palestinians are responsible for the civil administration.
  3. The civil administration is supervised by the Palestinian Authority once it is “revitalized.” The PA first meets benchmarks for ending corruption and establishing transparent institutions. The designation and fulfillment of the benchmarks is carried out in coordination with Israel.
  4. The United States sends a greatly expanded and improved version of the Dayton Mission that trained PA police forces in Gaza after Israel’s disengagement.
  5. Abraham Accords countries launch a major inter-Arab initiative to rebuild and modernize Gaza.

Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Gaza Strip, Gaza War 2023, Israeli Security, U.S.-Israel relationship