Can Ultra-Orthodoxy Be Made Conservative?

October 16, 2017 | Yehoshua Pfeffer
About the author: Yehoshua Pfeffer, a rabbi and rabbinical judge, holds a law degree from the Hebrew University and clerked at the Israel Supreme Court. He has taught at a number of yeshivas, published widely on Jewish law and thought, and is currently directing programs for the haredi community in Israel for the Tikvah Fund.

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 on Ḥakirah: