Five-and-a-Half Myths about Ultra-Orthodox Jews

They’re not anti-Zionist. They’re not right-wing extremists. They’re not even against birth control.

Haredi Jews at a demonstration in Jerusalem on March 2, 2014. Photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images.

Haredi Jews at a demonstration in Jerusalem on March 2, 2014. Photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images.

Dec. 15 2014
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.

Aharon Ariel Lavi’s essay, “Are the Ultra-Orthodox the Key to Israel’s Future?” is a welcome contribution to what has become a crowded field. Indeed, the ultra-Orthodox (haredi) community in Israel has become something of a Jewish obsession of late—and for perfectly understandable reasons. Living for the most part in insular neighborhoods, wearing exotic clothes and adhering to exotic practices, this large and rapidly growing group of strictly traditionalist Jews provides a tantalizing subject for journalists as well as filmmakers, fiction writers, and television producers. The news media are particularly committed to exposing the foibles—the more salacious, the better—of the so-called “haredi world.”

Academic interest in the haredi community has likewise blossomed, not least out of a recognition of its growing significance for the shape of the Jewish future. The result has been a proliferation of papers about all aspects of haredi life—from birthrates to beliefs, from family life to politics, and from social and religious norms to variations thereof and deviations therefrom.

But this outside infatuation with the haredi community has also given rise to many a myth, intermingled (as is the way of myths) with facts or partial facts. And these, taken together, have contributed to obscuring rather than clarifying haredi reality. All the more reason, then, to be grateful for Lavi’s deeply informed and thoughtful essay. In my comments here, rather than responding directly to his points, I’d like to round out his account by focusing on five of the most prevalent myths about the haredim in Israel, plus a half-myth that I offer tongue-in-cheek.


1. Haredim are anti-Zionist


Some haredim are indeed anti-Zionist; most are not. But before going further, let me clear up a prior misconception—namely, that haredim are a homogeneous group.

In reality, haredim are divided between two large cohorts that then subdivide into many smaller ones. One of the major groups comprises Hasidim: followers of one or another discrete sect within the mysticism-infused movement founded in the 18th century by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. The other, similarly characterized by multiple if less clear-cut divisions, is largely identified with the “Lithuanian” tradition of learning and its yeshivas. The two groups maintain separate institutions and synagogues, tend to belong to different political parties (though sometimes they unite for reasons of expediency), and often live in separate neighborhoods. A third possible grouping is made up of “eastern” or Mizrahi haredim.

Of the two biggest hasidic sects, Satmar Hasidim are militantly anti-Zionist, while Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim are Zionist to a like degree. To the former, Zionism is not just flawed, but evil or even satanic. A similar position is held by a Jerusalem-based organization called ha-Edah haHaredit (“The Haredi Community”). Thousands of haredim and non-haredim rely on the organization for kosher supervision and other religious needs, while ignoring its anti-Zionism.

Most known for its implacable hostility to Zionism is the small, non-hasidic Neturei Karta sect. Its fondness for dramatic gestures—mounting protests displaying Palestinians flags, meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Louis Farrakhan, and the like—has won it visibility out of all proportion to its numbers.

Both Neturei Karta and Satmar oppose Zionism not because it began as a secular undertaking, but because they see any attempt to establish a Jewish state prior to the arrival of the messiah as tantamount to rebellion against God. They refuse to take part in Israeli elections, are wary of speaking Hebrew (which they see as cultural identification with Israel), and refrain from accepting government funds.

But the great majority of haredim, Hasidim and non-Hasidim alike (and certainly the Mizrahi bloc), reject this approach. Their position is best described as non-Zionist. For them, Zionism is problematic because it is a secular movement that has created a secular state. (They generally oppose religious Zionism, too—certainly the brand that invests religious and messianic significance in the state of Israel.) Nonetheless, as Lavi acknowledges, they accept Israel as a fait accompli and desire to work within its framework. Moreover, many other haredim, who along with classical Zionists share Judaism’s traditional belief in the Jewish people’s historic right to their ancestral homeland, are seeking through political and other means to exert an influence on the public character of the state.

The manifest tension between the concept of an internal haredi “exile” among their fellow, non-haredi Jews and the active participation of many in matters of state and society highlights the deep inadequacy of any attempt to label haredim as simply anti-Zionist.


2. Haredim are right-wing extremists


The political affiliation of the haredim, who tend to vote in blocs that follow one or another rabbinic authority, is highly relevant to the future of Israel. Where are they located on the political map?

In a recent article in Tablet (“The Right Hand Washes the Left“),Toby Perl Freilich made much of the counterintuitive claim that haredim naturally fall on the left. The current political climate in Israel, she wrote, has alienated the younger generation of haredim from the community’s traditional partners on the right; instead, they have begun to find “common ground and forge new alliances on a shared platform of peace and multiculturalism.” She cited Moshe Friedman, a haredi activist, on the “core belief system” of haredim: “‘We are not just interested in making money, but in justice, caring, charity. . . . [Ours is] an all-consuming culture, and is not part of the capitalist-consumer lifestyle. We are a spiritual people that are values-driven, not pleasure-driven.’”

Friedman’s ideas, complete with his bizarre identification of “justice, caring, charity” as the sole property of the political left, have indeed gained some traction, but are hardly representative. The history of haredi politics suggests something very different, and not only in Israel. Just as haredim in the U.S. have come to identify with the Republican party on most issues, haredi parties in Israel continue to make natural coalition partners with parties of the right. The forthcoming elections and subsequent political dealings will offer an interesting test of this rule, but the left’s often dreamy utopianism is certainly distant from the haredi mindset.

But it is also the case that haredi politics resist being defined in left-right terms. In this area, haredim are simultaneously otherworldly and pragmatic. Otherworldly, because they privilege religious concerns over what are generally understood as political issues; pragmatic, because they are willing to bargain and to compromise in order to achieve their goals, which at bottom involve maintaining their own way of life.

Thus, the most important causes for Israeli haredim have been preserving the exemption of yeshiva students from military service, securing government subsidies for their schools and yeshivas, and protecting their interests in day-to-day issues like housing and employment. A secondary set of issues involves preserving the chief rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage, divorce, conversion, prayer at the Western Wall, and similar issues. The economy, healthcare, foreign policy, and even peace with the Palestinians generally take a back seat to these basic interests, and haredi parties tend to support the coalition that will safeguard them best.

The same goes for the debate over a two-state solution. It is not haredim but a subset of religious Zionists who tend to frame this issue in religious or messianic terms. The overriding question for haredim is again practical: which course of action seems most likely to save Jewish lives.

In general, haredim are neither natural-born leftists nor card-carrying members of the right, and it is false to maintain otherwise.


3. Haredim are fundamentalists


From time to time, articles in the Jewish and non-Jewish press will refer to haredim as “Jewish fundamentalists” and either explicitly or implicitly associate them with their alleged counterparts in the Christian and especially the Islamic world. Last year, the Forward columnist Jay Michaelson, decrying the growth of the haredi community in the U.S. with its “entire apparatus of fear, manipulation, and power-mongering,” chided mainstream Jewish organizations for their alleged “reluctance even to name Jewish fundamentalism as such, and [to] recognize it for what it is.”

So what is it, and to what extent do haredim share common characteristics with fundamentalist Christians or Muslims?

Among the defining qualities of fundamentalism are an inflexible adherence to religious tenets and the belief that these tenets are unchanging and unchangeable. In truth, haredim are much less flexible, and less open to change, than members of other Jewish denominations. But not so much as outsiders assume. Here, a comparison with Islamic fundamentalism is instructive.

For Muslim fundamentalists, there is no problem with a man taking a child bride. In fact, it cannot be a problem, for the prophet Muhammad married his wife Aisha when she was six years old, and consummated the marriage when she was nine. Thus, in the wake of the 1979 Iranian revolution, Iran’s new rulers lowered the minimum age of marriage for girls to nine in order to conform with what they saw as Islamic ideals.

Compare the Jewish approach to a similar issue: child marriage is permitted by the Talmud, but has been formally outlawed by halakhah(Jewish religious law) for centuries. No haredi rabbi has tried to bring back child marriage, and such a proposal would meet with nothing but opprobrium from the haredi community. The law has simply changed. Even as they believe that the talmudic sages were far wiser and more righteous than they, and even as they would no doubt defend the marital practice of ancient rabbis or biblical figures, haredi rabbis regard undoing the current norm as the very opposite of piety.

Another example is the attitude toward punishing violators of halakhah. Talmudic law is often harsh in dealing with Jewish heretics and lawbreakers. And yet, Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (known as the “Hazon Ish,” 1878-1953), often named as a (or even the) founder of the modern haredi model, writes that this set of legal principles applied only

when divine direction was revealed, including open miracles . . . so that the righteous were under special guidance and lawbreakers were known to be threatening basic societal values with lust and anarchy. Under these circumstances, obliteration of the wicked was a clear rectification of the world . . . . But today . . . such action is perceived as destruction and violence, heaven forbid. . . . Rather, we must bring the distant closer with chains of love, and place them in radiant light to the extent we can.

In other words, Karelitz sought to remove the coercive element from halakhah—or, perhaps, to provide an ex-post-facto justification for the historical decline of that coercive element.

And this brings us to another, related misconception: namely, that Israel’s haredim want to impose their way of life on society as a whole. As the scholar Aviezer Ravitzky has shown, today’s haredim have little real desire to establish a Jewish theocracy and are fairly content to participate in Israeli politics while maintaining a certain distance from power themselves. They do not harbor fantasies about replacing secular schools with religious ones, or replacing Israeli civil law with halakhah—another point of comparison with Muslim fundamentalists even of the relatively moderate sort, for whom the imposition of shariah law is a core demand.

Haredim may be religious extremists, and they may have some demands that are contrary to the desires and values of non-haredi Jews. For some, the isolationist impulse can lead to a certain detachment from reality, which can in turn reinforce fundamentalist tendencies. But on the whole, they are far from the dangerous proponents of theocracy their detractors make them out to be.


4. Haredim are against birth control


Despite the large size of their families, haredim do use contraceptives—but such use, like everything else in their lives, is regulated by halakhah. Some methods are forbidden outright; many are not. In certain circumstances (for example, when a couple do not yet have children), all forms of birth control are generally prohibited by haredi authorities; in others, it is encouraged.

More important than halakhah, in this case, are underlying moral and social values. Haredim believe in procreation not just as an obligation but as a value. Large families insure the future of the Jewish people in general and the haredi community in particular.

At the same time, begetting children is balanced against other values: for instance, immersion in undisturbed Torah study, the physical and psychological well-being of a mother, the relationship between husband and wife, a family’s ability to care for additional children, and financial limitations. All are taken into consideration in haredi family planning.

At any rate, the idea that haredim “don’t recognize birth control,” as the Haaretz columnist Yoel Marcus has written, is far off the mark.


5. Haredim don’t work


This “myth,” about a subject that Lavi deals with at length, is exceptional in that it finds backing in concrete statistics—making it somewhat less mythical than the others. According to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, only 45 percent of male haredim in Israel currently work—a rate considerably below that of non-haredi men. But the statistics tell only a part of the story. For one thing, nonparticipation in the workforce is not a trait of haredim everywhere. Rather, it is distinctive to Israel, and is rooted in local factors.

At the time of Israel’s founding, the haredi community was small and beleaguered. The Holocaust had not only annihilated vast numbers of observant Jews but had also destroyed the institutions, and the society, that held them together. In its wake, haredi leaders set out to preserve and rebuild their surviving community through a way of life based on social isolation and, for males, lifelong and intensive Torah study.

Exemption from service in the army was a means to this end. Haredim understood that the fledgling Israeli army performed a dual function: defending the state and contributing to the formation of a shared Israeli identity. But integration into secular Israeli society is exactly what they wished to avoid. As a consequence, since, for men, the legal right to work in Israel was long linked to military service, it became virtually impossible for those haredim who were actually disposed to enter the world of gainful employment to do so.

It’s also true that Israeli haredim saw participation in the general workforce as in itself a threat—a far greater one in Israel than it would be in the diaspora, since in Israel it meant exposure to a secular Jewish alternative to Orthodoxy. Hence, haredi men originally sought jobs within the community as rabbis, scribes, kosher butchers, and so forth. Demand for these services has failed to keep pace with the rapid growth of the population. Thirty years ago, according to the Taub Center, the rate of haredi unemployment was 21 percent: high, but less than half of what it is now.

Another factor in the equation is the incentivizing influence of government stipends and welfare handouts. And here (especially given the Israeli parliamentary system), partisan political loyalties enter the picture and can result in distorted policy decisions.

Nevertheless, in spite of all these complications, the trend lines of late have begun to move in the opposite direction. Causes are various. For one thing, the legal connection between gainful employment and army service has loosened; for another, as Lavi notes, voluntary haredi participation in the IDF has increased. Meanwhile, both government stipends and donations by private philanthropists have shrunk—and there can be no greater impetus to work than the prospect of impoverishment. Haredi fear of exposure to secular Jewish culture has also lessened, in part because the more militant brands of Israeli secularism have themselves faded and in part because haredim have grown more self-confident. Secular culture is still seen as a threat, but the deterrent power of that threat is waning sharply.

The single greatest internal obstacle to haredi participation in the workforce today is lack of education. Haredi men often enter the labor market with twenty years of schooling, but not of the kind that would prepare them for a modern economy. (Tellingly, haredi employment rates have long roughly equaled those of non-haredim who failed to complete elementary school.) Special colleges have been created to help repair this deficiency, and they are brimming with students; there have also been efforts at the primary and secondary levels. Much more remains to be done.

The role of government in this development, as Lavi wisely writes, should not be to bureaucratize the process but rather to encourage efforts already under way by insuring that properly accredited schools receive the support and facilities they need.


5.5 Haredim are perfect


Haredi society actually has a lot going for it. As David M. Weinberg writes:

The haredi world is admirable in many ways. Haredim live modestly, they prioritize Torah study and spiritual aspirations, their communities are suffused with good works and social assistance ventures, they are meticulous in observance of [religious commandments], they emphasize family values and are generally free from the drugs, booze, pornography, sleaze, and slavish devotion to stupidity (as expressed in most TV shows and movies) that characterize much of modern society.

You would not get this impression from media reports. Granted, “Hasidic Family in Jerusalem Enjoys a Happy, Wholesome Shabbat Dinner” is hardly headline material. But every time a haredi “rabbi”—to journalists, every male haredi adult is automatically a rabbi—is accused of fraud, child abuse, or some other criminal offense, the media have a field day. The underlying message is along the lines of “These people act so righteous, but they’re the same as everyone else.” Or even: “haredi society claims to make people better, but really it makes them worse.”

There is no society without criminals or deviants; the crime rate in the haredi community is low, but it is not zero. In common with all other human beings and every human community, haredim are hardly perfect, and don’t believe themselves to be.

So: the next time you meet a haredi man, please don’t assume that he is a fundamentalist, anti-Zionist, right-wing dove with at least fifteen children. You needn’t, and you shouldn’t, assume that he’s perfect; but likely as not, he’s no criminal, either. Who knows? He might even be holding down a job.

More about: Haredim, Israel, Ultra-Orthodox