The great Asifa at Citi Field was “the event” for the faithful, the culmination of years in which the haredi community has been struggling and ringing its hands over the calamity befalling “Am Yisroel”: the pernicious Internet and its ubiquitous presence in almost every household and business. Worse than that, the availability of smart phones and the relatively inexpensive tablets have made it almost a foregone conclusion that the kulturkampf between the enlightened West and the haredi world was indeed lost. That is, up till this auspicious community of the righteous came together demonstrating en masse that they were not willing to accept the encroachment of technology into their lives causing irreparable erosion of their sacred way of life.
The subtext of this last ditch effort is that the haredi community is resistant to not only the internet but determined to staunch the encroachment of Western values into their lives and communities. They are determined to preserve the lifestyle their ancestors led in Eastern Europe, as is evidenced by their normative behavior. An obvious, demonstrative example is their reluctance to wear Western clothing. Unlike the sheitel and tichel, which have halachic justification, the shtreimel, and variations of the frock coat worn by the different hassidic sects and the exaggerated wide brimmed Borsalinos donned by those of “misnagdesh” / “litvish” persuasion have no justification other than their determination not to embrace western culture. Parenthetical to this is the nexus between haredi communities in Israel and America. If there is perceived slippage of the faithful in Israel due to political compromise than the American haredi community become more resistant.
In some aspects this community of another age brings to mind the struggle between the great nations of the Native Americans and the encroaching American settlers bringing with them western values, foreign and rejected by those noble Native Americans. Their resistance was worthy and honorable but futile, not only because the white man was technologically superior but also because the message of progress and modernity was irresistible. While there was some downside to modernity, the infinite upside and the promise it held out for those who embraced it was remarkable. History teaches us that new ideas, promising to improve the human condition trumps everything else. To resist is folly.
The Asifa brought to mind another similar turning point in haredi history when Belz hassidim under the imprimatur of their Admor Rabbi Yehoshua Rocheach launched their newspaper Machzikei Hadas in 1879. The haskalah movement and Zionism was gaining traction, making significant inroads into the haredi communities all across Eastern Europe. Members of the inner circle of the Admor were concerned that too many young hassidim were abandoning their homes and way of life attracted to the intellectual challenge of the enlightenment and the future promised by Zionism. The number of defectors was substantial; enough to give pause by the Admor and to reconsider ways and means to combat the onslaught of modernity. Hitherto their methodology was the tried and true method of generations: preach, preach and pray to god that the hemorrhaging will be staunched.
Realizing the inefficacy of this method the Admor, embarked on a new controversial approach, which sparked the ire of his colleagues and sometime competitors, Admorim from different hassidic courts. His approach adopting the strategy that “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, gave new meaning to this aphorism. At that time, the typical means of communicating news, culture and other worthy events was through the newspaper. Hitherto, haredim were enjoined from reading newspapers because of the heretical ideas “apikorses” that would be picked up, somewhat similar to the enjoinder today by haredi rabbis of not using the Internet. The Belzer rebbe initiated a newspaper, Machzikei Hadas written and controlled by them, with an editorial board that would censor the news and information printed. By promoting an internal haredi newspaper Rocheach assumed that the need to read the “secular” papers written by Maskilim (apikorsim) would be appreciatively diminished, thus preventing the youth from going astray. Other Hasidic sects vehemently rejected the efforts of the Belzer rebbe, claiming that Chadash Asur Min Hatorah, that using methods without generational rabbinic precedence had no merit. The Gerrer rebbe so incensed at the Belzer rebbe’s hubris, burned an issue of the newspaper in a public gathering, rebuking the Belzer rebbe.
The newspaper Machzikei Hadas was a success and a failure. It succeeded because it was published bi monthly and then weekly uninterrupted for over thirty years until the outbreak of World War I. It failed because the journalists employed by the newspaper were Zionists and Maskilim, the very thing that the hassidic community rejected. Because the haredim had been adverse to secular education, and having no knowledge of journalism were left no choice but to reach out to their declared enemy, enlightened Jews, in search of journalists who would be willing to tow the line for a wage. Those journalists brought on to the paper saw a Trojan horse, a means by which they could get their message of Zionism and enlightenment out to the haredi public. Even though there was an editorial board censoring the articles they managed to get their message out to the youth, resulting in an alarming number of young people abandoning their families for the enlightenment and Zionism.
Belzer hassidim under the leadership of a very popular and powerful Admor failed then, operating under the old order in the crucible of European shtetl Judaism when history was still on its side. The Asifa, a last ditch attempt at staving off the march of progress will have fought the good fight, in the name of their ancestors, and like them will find the march of progress to irresistible for their youth.