Haredim and Israeli Society

(Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

What Happened?

A video showing Jerusalem police stopping an ultra-Orthodox Haredi girl for failing to wear a face mask in line with coronavirus regulations went viral last week, sparking outrage from the ultra-Orthodox community. Thirteen-year-old Bessy Getter, who is seen weeping, said she was wearing a mask but had taken it off to drink a slushy when cops began questioning her. Israel’s Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman, who leads the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, called the incident “harassment” of the Haredi community, while Member of Knesset from the Arab Joint List party Ahmad Tibi accused police officers of singling out a minority population, making the case, “Would they do this with a girl from north Tel Aviv? The same age—would the cops do this? No.” Secular Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who oversees the police, said that the officers were simply carrying out coronavirus orders set by the government but acknowledged that the video “hurts” and called on police officers to “act with sensitivity where needed.” In a separate incident, four police officers tackled a Haredi woman to the ground for a mask that was not covering her nose. These events come as Haredi areas in Jerusalem are becoming hot spots of the second wave of coronavirus in Israel, leading the government to impose lockdown restrictions on these neighborhoods. This has prompted hundreds of Haredim to protest as they feel they are being unfairly treated by the government and police. And many Haredi Israelis already feel stigmatized from criticism of their community during the first outbreak of the virus. While Israel’s Haredi population was initially slow to respond to the pandemic, keeping their study halls open in defiance of government regulations, they ultimately overwhelmingly complied with health orders. At the end of March, prominent Haredi leader Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky ruled that anyone who defies social distancing orders is like trying to murder another person — and Haredim should pray at home. Rabbi Kanievsky even said that anyone who was waiting for coronavirus results must answer the phone on Shabbat.

Why Does This Matter?

Let’s define our terms: What is Haredi (or “ultra-Orthodox”) Judaism in the first place?

Let’s break down a few key terms. Haredi Jews (“Haredi” means “trembling” or “one who fears” God) are a group within Orthodox Judaism. They are also known as “ultra-Orthodox,” though not all Haredim like to be referred to this way, due to possible negative connotations of the word “ultra” as “extreme.” The most visibly identifiable subset of Jews today, many Haredi men wear black suits and hats (though not all hats look the same), while many women sport skirts or dresses that fall below the knee, long sleeves, high-cut necklines, and head coverings. Haredi society is large and diverse in terms of lifestyle, social status, and religious and intellectual ideology. It currently has a population of 1.1 million people in Israel and is united by some overarching characteristics. First, Haredim are united by a reverence for Torah as a central factor in all aspects of their lives. Second, as Jerusalem-based researcher of Haredi society Aharon Rose writes, “what primarily sets this Jewish movement apart from others is its total rejection of modern values, norms, and forms of inquiry.” What is behind this objection to modern life? Rose explains that this is both to prevent outside influence and “remain loyal to the traditional Jewish identity in Eastern Europe that preceded the Emancipation.” From the perspective of the Haredi community, it is only by safeguarding and expressing their particular identity that Jews can truly fulfill their religious obligations and ensure continuity of the community. Some argue that this worldview stems from the ideology of their forebear, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (known as the Hatam Sofer), who famously asserted, “Chadash assur min haTorah” (“All that is new is prohibited”). Responding to the growing strength of the Reform Movement, Neolog Judaism and other modernizing streams of Judaism in the early nineteenth century, and out of concern that traditional Judaism was under threat, his strategy was to preserve tradition at all costs and oppose any form of modernization or innovation.

Ultra-Orthodox vs. Neo-Orthodox vs. Modern Orthodox

Unclear about the world of Orthodox Judaism? Let’s demystify this movement. The late, renowned Israeli philosopher Michael Rosenak differentiated the Haredi school from other Orthodox Jewish movements in terms of its approach to Torah im Derech Eretz (literally, “Torah with the way of the land”), which refers to the idea of combining traditional Judaism and an engagement with the surrounding culture, including earning a livelihood. According to Rosenak, in contrast to neo-Orthodox and modern Orthodox Jews, Haredim fundamentally oppose Torah im Derech Eretz. Their basic educational ideal is a person whose personality has been completely fashioned by Torah study and the fulfillment of commandments. Those who are unable to study Torah or who are not obligated (e.g., women) can engage in “derech eretz,” provided that this is limited to earning a living, volunteering, or another activity that is not deemed to interfere with the ideal traits of the world of Torah. Neo-Orthodoxy, with the motto Torah im Derech Eretz on the other hand, believes that a person should be both “religious and modern.” The Neo-Orthodox recognize the practical value of studying general subjects, as well as religious ones, on the grounds that this enables a religious Jew to earn a respectable living and contribute to the progress of society. They also support participation in general society and believe that “a religious Jew should be no less intelligent (‘cultured’) than his non-Jewish peer.” The modern Orthodox school pushes this further by envisioning an ideal, religious person who does not seek ways to live “alongside” modern culture, but who “live[s] within the wider world.” Rosenak writes that modern Orthodoxy believes “there must be an openness to spiritual…possibilities within the general culture” and that “this ‘general’ culture cannot be detached from the world of Torah.”

Who are Haredim? Are Hasidic and Haredi Jews the same? Yes…And No. 

We’ll explain. Within Haredi Judaism are various subgroups, with many smaller groups within each subgroup: Hasidic, Lithuanian, and Sephardic. We have put together a brief overview of each one.

  1. Ḥasidic Judaism originated in 18th-century Eastern Europe and was founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (more commonly known as the Baal Shem Tov), who was a teacher, mystic, and folk healer. Hasidim (meaning “pious ones”) aimed to have a direct experience of God through ecstatic prayer and other activities. Today there are more than one hundred different Hasidic sects including Satmar, Belz, Ger, Breslov, and Chabad, to name just a few. 
  2. By contrast, Lithuanian Haredim (also known as “Mitnagdim,” meaning “opposers” of the Hasidic movement) focused on the centrality of Torah study. Their group was also born in Eastern Europe under the leadership of Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (the Vilna Gaon), who galvanized resistance to hasidic Judaism. Both Hasidic and Lithuanian Haredim are mainly Ashkenazi and usually vote for the United Torah Judaism party in Israel.
  3. Sephardic Haredim are Jews of Sephardi and Mizrahi descent who are adherents of Haredi Judaism. This subgroup originated in the 1950s when Middle Eastern and North African Jews emigrated to Israel and is connected with the Shas political party and its founder, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Don’t all religious Jews support Zionism? Not exactly.

Although Jews had prayed to return to the Land of Israel for close to two thousand years and studied the laws applicable to living in the land of Israel, when Eastern European Haredi authorities initially learned about Theodor Herzl’s vision for a Jewish state, they objected to the plan on a few grounds. First, Haredim pointed out a distinction between Medinat Yisrael (the state of Israel that Herzl dreamed of) and Eretz Yisrael (the land itself). For most of them, the Land of Israel was inherently holy, and the connection of Jews to that land was indestructible. However, many Haredim believed that any future Jewish state was meant to be established in a messianic time and that the Zionist political movement violated that divine plan. In opposing political Zionism, many Haredim were also influenced by the famous “Three Oaths” aggada, found in the Talmud, in which the Jews were sworn not to reclaim the Land of Israel by force. Additionally, Haredim were concerned about the secular approach of many leaders of the Zionist movement and whether secular society would replace traditional Jewish life in a future state. Would Haredim be welcome in the bold Zionist vision of a “new Jew” who left a European, traditionally Jewish lifestyle behind? How could these secular Zionists create a state that was devoid of Jewish law? Pursuing a political state was potentially already problematic; saying that state would be completely secular added insult to injury. 

Out of these concerns, in 1912, European Haredim banded together and established Agudat Israel, an organization that opposed the Zionist movement. Little did they know at the time that this would eventually become a political party representing ultra-Orthodox Jews living in the state of Israel. Finally, we should note that even though many Haredim were opposed to political Zionism, this was unconnected to their commitment to “Eretz Yisrael.” At the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century, many Haredim, primarily from Eastern Europe, immigrated to Israel, joining Sephardi Jews who were already living in the Holy Land. These religious Jews became known as the “Old Yishuv” and created communities that were entirely dedicated to Torah study and prayer. When the Zionist movement emerged, they opposed the idea as secularizing and heretical for the reasons we explained above. Later, at the end of the nineteenth century, tens of thousands of Jews again began to immigrate to Israel, mostly prompted by outbreaks of riots and persecution in Russia. While some of these immigrants joined the Old Yishuv, many held secular and socialist ideals and created the “New Yishuv.” They established “moshavot” (colonies or little communities) in Israel that emphasized land ownership and an agricultural lifestyle. Tension that exists today between secular and religious Israelis has roots in the “Old Yishuv” and “New Yishuv.”

How have Haredim integrated into the modern Jewish state? 

In 1947, forced to concede on some level to the Zionist vision, Haredi representatives from Agudat Israel met with soon-to-be Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. In what became known as the “Status Quo Agreement,” Ben-Gurion acceded to the following requests made by the group: Shabbat would be a national day of rest, Kashrut would be observed under state auspices, religious courts would decide matters of marriage and divorce, and existing religious educational systems would be recognized by the Jewish state. Agudat Israel even sent two representatives, Rabbis Yitzhak Meir Levin and Meir David Loewenstein, to sign Israel’s Declaration of Independence and to join Israel’s first government as a political party. The state of Israel was officially born, and so was its complicated relationship with its Haredi citizens. Since 1948, issues pertaining to religion and law such as marriage, military service and Shabbat policies have driven wedges between Haredi and secular Israelis. However, many Israeli Haredim have grown to identify more with the state of Israel in that time. This is partly the effect of simply living and growing up in Israel, and partly due to the involvement of Haredim at the highest levels of Israeli government. As Batsheva Neuer puts it, “The day-to-day transactional politics have had the side effect of bringing the Haredim [citizens and politicians alike] closer to a Zionist worldview.” In 1977, Prime Minister Menachem Begin asked the Agudat Israel party to join his Likud coalition; the party’s influence was deepened in 1992 when it joined the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) alliance. UTJ currently holds seven seats in the Knesset, while the Shas party holds nine. The current Knesset also includes Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich of the Blue and White party, who is the first Haredi woman to hold a cabinet position in the Israeli government. Outside of politics, while Haredim still harbor concerns about the influence of secular Jews on Israeli society, many also feel a sense of national belonging. And according to Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer, more and more Haredi men and women are integrating into academia, the workforce, and general Israeli life, raising the possibility of a “bourgeois Haredi society.” Pfeffer reports that “car ownership in Haredi society has risen sharply (up to 41%, based on latest surveys), and many allow themselves to enjoy an occasional meal at a restaurant and even family vacations abroad.”

Diversity of Perspectives

Since Israel’s founding, conscription into the military has been mandatory for all Jewish Israelis. While Israeli Arabs are exempt, mandatory service includes Israeli Druze men. Since 1978, women have been allowed to claim an exemption for joining the military on the basis of religious observance and instead volunteer for national service. The Haredi community was opposed to joining the army and insisted it should be exempt from military service; instead they would learn and pray – a life philosophy known as Torato Umanuto, “The Torah is his occupation.” Prime Minister Ben-Gurion granted an exemption to the Haredi community while Israel was fighting for its existence. However, this applied to a relatively small population compared to today: In 1949, 400 Haredim were exempted from military service. Now that Israel’s population has grown by 15,000 percent, 62,500 Haredim are excused from serving in the army. This issue has caused significant controversy in Israeli politics and society, contributing to Israel’s recent political deadlock. In 2002, the Knesset passed the Tal Law, which allowed for the continuation of Torato Umanuto, but with the hope that the number of Haredim exempted would gradually reduce. However, in 2012, Israel’s Supreme Court determined that the Tal Law was unconstitutional. In 2017, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that Haredi exemption from army service was unconstitutional, and gave the government until December 2018 to come up with new legislation. This prompted protests from the Haredi community, and the Supreme Court extended the deadline for passing new legislation. The issue continues to be debated by politicians and Israelis. The general Haredi opinion is that Torah study is its community’s contribution to society. Plus, many Haredim live insulated lives and avoid contact with secular culture, including the IDF. There is a Haredi unit in the IDF, and while the number of Haredi men and women serving in the army has grown, this still represents a small fraction of Israel’s large Haredi population. On the other hand, the majority of the population (four out of five Israeli Jews, according to a 2018 survey) thinks that Haredim should have to serve in the army (or do national service) just like everyone else. They do not like the fact that they and their own children risk their lives protecting the country while Haredim enjoy the safety of yeshiva. An outspoken Israeli politician representing this view is head of the Yesh Atid-Telem party, Yair Lapid, who has argued, “If your name is Moshe and you’re an 80-year-old grandfather who fought in all of Israel’s wars, you’ll receive a [monthly] stipend of NIS 2,432 [$681]. But if your name is Moishe and you’re a 19-year-old yeshiva student dodging the IDF draft, you’ll get NIS 8,000 [$2,240] from the state.” Aryeh Deri, head of the Shas party, has spoken for the Haredi community, insisting that “those same Torah sons who chose to dedicate their lives to Torah study will continue to study Torah here in the land of Israel, the holy land” and be exempt from military service.