In the 20th Century, Ultra-Orthodoxy Protected Itself by Building High Walls. In the 21st, It Must Sustain Itself by Reaching over Those Walls

December 14, 2020 | 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.

In the aftermath of World War II, ḥaredi Judaism emerged in Israel in its present form as leaders came to the conclusion that, after the onslaught of the Holocaust, the only way to defend against the onslaught of modernity was to create communities of intense religious devotion that were sealed off from outside influences. These communities grew and flourished beyond the wildest dreams of their founders, let alone of their detractors. But, writes Yehoshua Pfeffer, today’s Ḥaredim are hardly immune from outside influences, and suspiciousness toward secular ideas has left them without the intellectual armor to defend themselves against values antithetical to their own—what he terms “the liberal threat.” Pfeffer, himself a ḥaredi Jew, thus calls for a major change:

My contention . . . is that [the] current situation calls us to reexamine our strategy in the struggle against the liberal threat. Days of a militant secularism that seeks to destroy all things good while defying God and His Torah are long behind us; the 21st century is not a repeat of the 20th.

The traditional Ḥaredi strategy of raising the barricades is hardly a viable defense against the liberal threat; our fences can no longer keep out the influences we fear. Conversely, the prevalent approach today—completely ignoring the issue, hoping naively that we can ride out the liberal wave and emerge in one piece on the other side—leaves us exposed to great danger.

Reading ḥaredi literature dealing with parenting and marriage reveals clearly how deeply liberal messages have been internalized, often with full backing from traditional religious sources. Even when it comes to pluralism—the question of one Truth versus multiple truths—it seems we have been deeply influenced by common liberal views. “I am a liberal and a pluralist,” say many Ḥaredim who wish to be viewed as “open-minded” and not “fanatical.”

[But] the reason we are so threatened by liberal moral views is that we live in a vacuum: lacking our own moral-human language, we adopt the foundations of liberalism, only later understanding the depth of the challenge they pose to a Torah life.

Meanwhile most Ḥaredim have no notion of those ideas from the non-Jewish world that could provide a bulwark against progressive assumptions. The remedy to this situation involves not greater isolation, but engagement with conservative ideas:

Conservatism, without a doubt, is not Judaism. . . . However, there is much in the conservative conception of the good that could serve as important tools for the believing Jew to validate his belief in the Torah, providing a vital alternative to liberalism’s conception of the good. While obviously not a substitute for belief in the Torah, conservative thought can provide fortification for the Torah way of life, utilized in the same way that Torah leaders of the past made use of the philosophy and thinking of their time to strengthen the Jewish religion.

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