Anat – A Different Perspective on the Orthodox Community

Anat Hoffman, I am glad we have begun a respectful dialogue.

I appreciate that you wrote that “The nuance you talk about in the Orthodox community is important,” and “Of course one should never paint an entire group with a single brush.” Yet, you seem to consistently see and describe the Orthodox community in a very negative light.

Haredi society in not the monolith you portray when you write that “ultra-Orthodox men in Israel do not study the national curriculum in school…are basically unemployable in anything other than the lowest paying non-skilled jobs…a burden to the rest (of) Israel.” You fail to acknowledge the degree to which both Haredi men and women have begun to integrate into highly skilled professions (here, here, and here), the substantial progress made in recent years in providing advanced secular education and job placement to both Haredi men and women (here, here, here, here, and here), and the trend towards further employment (here and here). Thousands of Haredi men have completed academic degrees in areas which include architecture, accounting, law, and computer science. Others have chosen the path of entrepreneurship, with one successfully gaining the recognition of companies such as Google and Yahoo. Many would argue, in my view correctly, that a highly analytical Yeshiva education, though not a substitute for career specific training, is a very meaningful professional asset to Yeshiva alumni once they obtain the skills to enter the workforce. This is separate from the religious and ethical value of intensive Torah study.

While you are correct that it is a real issue that some Haredi men wish to join the workforce yet lack the necessary skills, the way to address this is by building more bridges between Haredi and non-Haredi society – not by erecting more walls. Some of the words and actions of broader Israeli society, including some of your own stated positions, reinforce Haredi insularity by not being sufficiently sensitive to their perspective. In Rochester, you stated publicly that if Haredi students eventually attend Israeli universities, they will insist on the separation of men and women. And you pointed to several Haredi physicians you met in New York, who studied in secular universities, as proof that this accommodation is unnecessary.

This argument does not withstand scrutiny. Every Orthodox Jew balances an all-encompassing commitment to an exalted spiritual ideal, which demands a degree of separation from the outside world, with the material realities of life, which require engagement with the broader world. Different people strike different balances to resolve this tension. You cannot judge the choices made by one person on the basis of the decisions made by another. Some moms decide to work full time while others stay home – reasonable people will balance competing priorities differently. Some members of the Haredi community may want a high level of integration, some may desire very little integration, and others may wish for something in between.

One of the outstanding figures in 20th Century American Orthodoxy was Rabbi Dr. Bernard Lander, founder of Touro College. He enabled thousands of American Orthodox Jews to obtain advanced secular education. He succeeded because he worked with people on their own terms and did not impose his worldview on others. If Haredim want separate classes and same gender teachers, as long as they’re not imposing this on others, they should be accommodated to the greatest extent possible. Don’t demand that Haredim integrate into broader society on your terms.

Along similar lines, if policymakers truly desire greater Haredi participation in the IDF, then the decision to include an incarceration clause in the recent draft bill has been very damaging. That there have been, at times, inadequate accommodations for the needs of Orthodox soldiers (here and here) has also been unhelpful. Sending a message that greater integration into Israeli society means that the Haredi worldview must yield to a secular mindset is counterproductive and threatens to reverse progress that has been made.

Another key point is that inflammatory and inaccurate rhetoric, including some of your own, reinforces false, negative stereotypes held by some non-Orthodox Jews about Orthodox Jews, and reinforces the (largely untrue) belief held by some Orthodox Jews that secular society is anti-Orthodox. You publicly said in Rochester that contemporary Orthodox Rabbis are threatened by the education and earning power of women and respond by oppressing them, including by making them cover their hair and dress modestly. This is deeply offensive to hundreds of thousands of Orthodox women, from Haredi to Modern Orthodox and everything in between, who dress as they do because of a self-determined fealty to halacha, and not because of any coercion or misogyny. And it is equally offensive to Orthodox men who do not deserve to be unfairly stereotyped. This type of rhetoric widens divisions in society and results in greater Haredi insularity.

I think that fostering greater integration requires that all of us try harder to accentuate the positive, not the negative. The Talmud stresses the importance of having a “good eye”. If you desire greater participation by the Haredim in the workforce and mainstream Israeli society, and greater social cohesiveness and tolerance, start by looking for the good in people who are different than you. And I will tell the same thing to my Haredi friends and colleagues who are overly critical of non-Haredim. And I will work on it myself.

The relationship between the more religious and more secular parts of our society is one of the most pressing issues facing us. We can build bridges and bring people together by acknowledging the positive, while still working to address the negative (which I acknowledge exists in both Orthodox and non-Orthodox society) – or we can dwell on the negative, erect walls, and drive people apart. Anat – let us build bridges.


About the Author
Rabbi Micah Segelman writes both scholarly and popular articles on Jewish topics. He is a health policy researcher and completed his PhD in health services research and policy at the University of Rochester.