A recent video offers the latest in a sporadic series of indicators that the tides of change in the yeshivish haredi — i.e., “black hat” — Jewish world, however glacial, may be upon us.
Most people are unaware of the fact that the Black Hat phenomenon is actually quite new. It’s trademark fedora did not make its debut until the early 1970s.
Entire volumes can be written on what haredi Black Hat Judaism is, and how it evolved. Yet the one critical aspect of its ever-escalating extremism is that this impetus for draconianism has been driven from the bottom up, not from the top down. It certainly was not the Lithuanian rosh yeshivas who advocated for glatt kosher, chalav Yisrael, wigs for married women, separate seating at banquets and weddings, and most notably a visceral rejection of Zionism — all of which are by now the norm.
Indeed, these were instigated by a younger generation of home grown activists and yeshiva people who craved and created an imagined pre-War authenticity by syncretizing Lithuanian and Hasidic elements into a new hybrid Orthodoxy. In this, especially regarding anti-Israel politics, they were goaded and influenced by the Agudath Israel which served as the hot house in which this new Yiddishkeit was, to a significant extent, nurtured. The classic rosh yeshivas, nearly all of them ‘Litvaks’, only adopted this zeitgeist as relative latecomers, in effect playing catch up with what had already become standard practice.
Over time it became pretty much the norm for political and lay activists, known as askanim,– both in America and Israel – to feed their ideas and their carefully edited political information to the ‘Gedolim’ so that, in turn, it would appear as if the Sages themselves had issued the new directives and practices.
A headline in the Jerusalem Post regarding the new video is; “Leading haredi rabbi: Children who leave fold should be treated with kindness, not ostracized.” For haredim this is nothing less than revolutionary. Reflexive rejection of children who stray has long been the norm in haredi circles, especially in Israel. And the normative reaction of the haredi community to, for example, a boy who chooses to serve in the IDF has been hostility at best if not outright violence.
The ‘leading rabbi’ referred to in this article is Rabbi Gershon Edelstein who is acknowledged as the successor to the recently deceased Rabbi Aryeh Leib Shteinman. Until now, Rabbi Edelstein was not known for his sentimentality. Indeed he has been described by those who know him, if indeed they know him at all, as a cold fish. And yet, his first major videotaped pronouncement as the Gadol Hador, the new leader of the generation, flies in the face of business as usual, and demands that “Parents need to accept (their non-religious) children without laws or conditions or restrictions.”
Even more interesting than this courageous declaration is the fact that Rabbi Edlestein was responding to “questions that were frequently rather leading” which is how the askanim have traditionally succeeded in putting words into the mouths of the Sages. As the article then tells us “the rabbi nevertheless insisted throughout … on a non-confrontational attitude of ‘friendship’ ”.
In this Rabbi Edelstein is building on a precedent set by the unimpeachable Rabbi Shteinman who, in two videos, can be seen castigating askanim. In the first video these lay leaders are attempting to hornswoggle Rav Shteinman into endorsing a new ‘elite’ Beth Jacob school which would openly discriminate against Sephardi girls. In the second they seek his okay for the rejection of two fatherless boys from a particular cheder (elementary school) because they do not entirely match the look of the other pupils. Rabbi Shteinman forbade the creation of the new girls school and insisted on the admission of the orphaned children into the cheder while excoriating the askanim for their “gaaveh” i.e. their hubris. Furthermore, Rabbi Shteinman repeatedly made it clear that, while hardly advocating for haredi enlistment in the IDF, he was certainly not hostile to those from the community who did choose to serve. For this he was reviled in even more extreme haredi quarters, and his death was occasion for unbridled celebration.
Going back further, Rabbi Shteinman’s predecessor Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv had attempted, without success, to spur the creation of a haredi school for boys in which those youngsters who are not cut out for a lifetime of learning, might be channeled into meaningful occupations and professions. Unfortunately, Elyashiv, – despite the lip-service with which he was venerated – was ignored on this issue. No self-respecting haredi parent was prepared at that time to enroll their child in such a school as this would be an unbearable social stigma that could affect the marriage prospects of all the siblings. Better for their son to become a total failure, loafing on street corners and doing nothing than to be labeled a wage-earner.
Yet, while Rabbi Elyashiv was not heeded, at least his windows were not broken and the community continued to honor him. For the haredi world of Jerusalem this was serious progress.
And now we have two instances in which Rabbi Elyashiv’s successors have actually behaved like leaders, showing the gumption to defy the askanim and speak truth to the power hungry.
What does this mean for the future? At the very least it means that when there is a genuine leader, he will feel more empowered to actually lead, and in so doing will hark back to a time when Sages called the shots not the hoi polloi. Genuine sages have historically been more enlightened than the masses
Of course these three examples are but the first flickering indicators of shifting tides. The question remains whether these tentative steps are harbingers of a sea change in haredi thinking, and if so what the speed of change will be. But at least there is now some hope.
JJ Gross is currently finishing his book “Gypsies play violin, Jews learn Torah,” a memoir of growing up in the post-Shoah crucible that yielded the new “Black Hat” Judaism.