Could the Haredi System Melt Down?

The old haredi model is unsustainable, but the haredim are, and should be, here to stay; here’s why and how.
A haredi man looking over a demonstration in Israel. AP.

A haredi man looking over a demonstration in Israel. AP.

Last Word
Dec. 22 2014
About the author

Aharon Ariel Lavi is co-founder of the Shuva community on the Gaza border, where he lives, and of the National Council of Mission-Driven Communities. A regular contributor to Aderaba magazine, he has also published a book on Jewish economic thought and was a 2013-14 Tikvah fellow in New York.


Reading the responses to my essay by Peter Berkowitz, David Glasner, Yehoshua Pfeffer, and Moshe Koppel was a fascinating experience. I thank them all. In what follows, I’ll reply to a number of specific points and share some more general thoughts.

In “Five-and-a-Half Myths About Ultra-Orthodox Jews,” Yehoshua Pfeffer writes that the phenomenon of haredi nonparticipation in the workforce is distinctive to Israeli haredim and “isn’t a trait of haredim everywhere.” This certainly has been true in the past, but it is becoming less so. In fact, the flourishing of haredi society in Israel has made it a model for its Diaspora counterparts. Its attractions are transmitted via the media and social networks (which, contrary to another myth, haredim use much more often than is usually thought) and the yeshiva system. The best and most developed yeshivas in the world are located in Israel—a huge historical achievement in and of itself—and many young haredim come from elsewhere to study in them; along the way, they can develop a desire to imitate the Israeli mode of haredi life. Israeli haredi fundraisers, for their part, tout this model as a unique selling point to Diaspora donors. All of this helps to spread the appeal of Israeli haredi life to the younger generation—and thereby contributes, slowly but steadily, to cutting off the branch on which sits the entire financial support system of the haredi world.

Contending with another myth—of haredi “fundamentalism”—Pfeffer states that when it comes to Jewish religious law (halakhah), haredi rabbis and the haredi public are considerably more flexible than most people imagine; he offers some key examples in evidence. But some of the rulings cited by Pfeffer were instituted hundreds of years ago, as were other significant enactments like the abolition of polygamy and slavery. As for contemporary haredi life in all its diversity—accurately described by Pfeffer—it is indeed governed to a large extent by halakhah, but it is not synonymous with halakhah. In certain respects, it even goes counter to explicit rulings, including those stipulating a husband’s responsibility to sustain his family through his own labor and without relying on charity unless absolutely necessary. In other cases, haredim have adopted non- or quasi-halakhic customs and norms, including certain dress codes, the obligation of a bride’s parents to purchase an apartment for the young couple, and more.

So the fact that halakhah is flexible—and it is, just as Pfeffer says—does not necessarily mean that haredi society is flexible to the same degree, or that this flexibility always operates in the best direction. After all, the post-Holocaust invention of a “learners’ society,” a huge and unprecedented deviation in Jewish history, demonstrated an impressive degree of flexibility. The move was crucial for its time, and probably saved the world of Torah study, but as David Glasner points out in his response, “By the Sweat of Jewish Brows,” it has become not only unnecessary but positively harmful. We are already late in redressing the balance: an exercise in which haredi society has yet to show a sufficient degree of flexibility.

To my mind, Glasner has tackled this issue in a profound manner. He poses the question with precision: “what exactly is the religious significance of Torah study in the Jewish homeland, and is the conventional—albeit, from a historical perspective, revolutionary—haredi view the only religiously and theologically valid one?” I could not have put it better, and this leads to my next point, which concerns the role of government: the burden of my teacher Peter Berkowitz’s response, “How Not to Help the Ultra-Orthodox.”

External, and especially governmental, attempts to change haredi society are futile not only because most government efforts at social engineering are futile (or damaging). They are futile also because we are talking about a highly schooled and resilient society with a clear ideology that is itself a direct offspring of traditional Jewish society, perhaps the most culturally resilient way of human life ever. The necessary change, from which haredi society will be the first to benefit, but which will also benefit Israel and the entire Jewish world, can and will grow mostly from within, based on authentic Jewish scholarship, intellectual innovation, and action. Here, I think, cooperation and collaboration between ba’alei teshuvah and young “native” haredi leaders like Yehoshua Pfeffer is of the essence, and will yield tremendous results.

Berkowitz very helpfully distinguishes between government action and government intervention. To integrate this distinction into my argument about the haredim, I would say that I oppose the latter but the former should be accepted and in certain aspects even promoted. I completely agree with Berkowitz that government “charity” should gradually decline and be restricted to individuals who are in serious trouble, especially if owing to circumstances not of their choosing (accidents, disease, terrorist attacks, and so on). This is where we as a society—and specifically a Jewish society—resolve to lend a hand and help a fellow citizen in need. But this applies generally; I am not in favor of special government stipends just for being haredi. (A bit later, I’ll register a single exception.)

In education, I again agree with Berkowitz that, ideally, much more than math, science, and English should be introduced into the haredi curriculum. As it happens, some of the disciplines he mentions—history, politics, economics—are much easier to teach with the aid of primarily Jewish sources than is mathematics. My only caution is that an attempt to do too much too quickly can result in failure on all fronts. Haredi flexibility, to revert to that term, may be greater than most people think, but it is also quite limited, and so is the capacity to absorb change without revolting.

Here I get to the heart of the issue of government action. In my essay I mentioned the work of Nettiot, the leading organization of baalei teshuvah helping to bring about positive change in haredi society. Nettiot works extensively with the government, both in terms of coordinating its moves and in terms of receiving government funding for projects that align with national interests. In the past two years, moreover, several major political parties, recognizing the electoral potential of a sizable new constituency, have approached Nettiot to offer their cooperation and assistance. But the process of change requires a great deal of patience and a delicate touch, two attributes lacking in most politicians—not because they are reckless or irresponsible but simply because governments in Israel have a tendency to fall apart prematurely (as we have just seen), and a politician never knows how much time he has in office. In order to be reelected, he had better come up with results that are visible, tangible, and newsworthy. We work hard to produce such results, but it is not always possible.

For example: Nettiot’s pre-military academy for haredim, a groundbreaking project that struggles to survive, was approached several times by one of Israel’s most significant political figures offering the kind of government support that could eliminate the program’s financial problems. All he asked in exchange was that we organize a well-publicized visit to the site. We had to turn him down: the instant such publicity came out, haredi political “handlers” would devour us. Over the long term, when we’ve accumulated a critical mass, this will not be a problem, but for now we need to find the politician who is willing not only to invest but to wait quietly. Not a common commodity.

 

Perhaps the most interesting entry on Yehoshua Pfeffer’s list of “myths” about haredim is his final one, which he offers tongue in cheek: “haredim are perfect.” Indeed, with the possible exception of the religious Zionist community, haredi society is much cleaner and safer, and boasts stronger families and a much higher degree of mutual assistance, than any other society I know. It is with this in mind that I could assert in my essay that Israeli society at large has much to learn and to gain from haredi integration into all levels of public life.

But a great danger lurks, and that is the prospect of a haredi social breakdown. The haredi education system is increasingly failing to instill its values in the younger generation—and that, together with other factors like increasing poverty and an alarming crisis of leadership, means that something is definitely going to change. In pointing this out in his response, “How the Ultra-Orthodox Undermine Themselves,” Moshe Koppel is on the mark. Unlike him, however, I am optimistic about the direction of the change, which I think is moving positively, at least so far. The real question is: how many people will be hurt along the way, and how badly?

The haredi social model, built after the Holocaust, has become unsustainable; many would say we have already passed the point of no return. Unfortunately, there is no manual that tells you what a social meltdown looks like; but there are some strong indicators.

First, as I mentioned briefly in my essay, the dropout rate of young haredim is above 9 percent, seriously if not catastrophically higher than the rate among secular youth (2.5 percent), religious-Zionist youth (about 5 percent), and Arab youth (6 percent). Today there are something like 25 institutions taking care of at-risk young haredim; professionals in the field say the need is for almost twice as many.

Second, there is growing frustration among young haredi men who feel cheated by the promise that if only they studied Talmud long enough, their minds would become overdeveloped to the point where they could easily close the academic gap between them and their secular counterparts and be easily integrated into the elite job market at the age of thirty-five. This particular myth, which I call the “genius myth,” has encountered reality and crashed, generating huge disappointment and resentment as tens of thousands of thirty-five-year-olds with six children find themselves facing no reasonable economic future.

These are the “unfortunate consequences” of the narrow form of Torah studies that took over haredi education, just as was foreseen by David Glasner’s great-grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner, 100 years ago. Talmud studies are very demanding, and only a fraction can actually maintain the intense style of life they require. Haredi children who are not fit for this kind of learning struggle to survive in yeshivas. Many individuals succeed, but a growing proportion simply drop away. Most of these could have become both productive and pious citizens if there were an academic alternative that was compatible with their worldview and belief system.

Haredi leaders are well aware of the saying, quoted by Glasner, that only one in 1,000 achieves mastery of the Talmud. Many of them also say, however, that since we cannot know who that one is going to be, and since it is so important to spot and nurture him, it is worthwhile to “waste” the time of the other 999.

I am the last to argue that we should invest less in Torah scholarship, as I think this is one of the essential components of Jewish life, tradition, and belief. But as an economist, I am cognizant that if you do not invest wisely, you go out of business. We have the tools today to know pretty early on, by sixth or seventh grade, who is fit to become a true Torah scholar and who is not. This does not mean that the others should study nothing; they should, in fact, study a fair amount of Talmud, but alongside math, English, science and other disciplines and vocations that will serve them—and society—later on.

I would go further: true Torah scholars should likewise be versed in the social, philosophical, and scientific disciplines that can make their scholarship relevant to contemporary society and give them the potential to become world-class thinkers, not confined to religious affairs and Jewish law. Moreover, the 5 percent or fewer who are qualified for such an intellectual quest should get all the support they need—which is a recommendation that I believe even secular Israelis would endorse. After all, the state generously funds professors of English literature and Greek philosophy, along with top athletes and artists, so why not Torah scholars? Prominent athletes and artists are even exempted from military service, though it is true that they come by the dozens a year, while haredi yeshiva students, most of whom are not true scholars, come by the thousands.

In sum: the alternative “theology” proposed by David Glasner points a significant path forward, and the flexibility described by Yehoshua Pfeffer can be key to motivating change in that direction—if it is tapped into with delicacy and efficiency. For this to happen, entrepreneurial forces working from the bottom up must find ways to collaborate on making the social transition as smooth as possible. This is not to reject government action or involvement. On the contrary, as Peter Berkowitz urges, the trick is to find ways of recruiting government while fending off the overly zealous and counterproductive impulse to intervene. As Moshe Koppel warns, a social meltdown might well be in the offing; the task is to seize the opportunity while it still can be seized, and to minimize the damage to individuals and families as the transition moves forward.

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