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Dovid Kornreich
Dovid Kornreich

Killing hareidism with patronizing paternalistic kindness

Or, Why the Ultra-Orthodox aren’t rushing to embrace Israel’s new minister of religious services and how it fits into the Hanukkah story.

It might seem baffling to many Israelis—even some religious Jews—that the Ultra-Orthodox are rejecting Matan Kahana’s revolutionary reforms. He would seem to check all the right boxes: he is religious, committed to a strictly Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law, and wants to promote the Jewish character of the State of Israel. Founding editor of the Times of Israel David Horovitz, in a recent Op-Ed asserted that the only way to explain the words and actions of the hareidi politicians who are trying to stymie Kahana’s agenda is by ascribing to them the worst of motivations: to maintain oppressive control over their constituents at their own expense.

Kahana and the liberal media assume they know for certain that these reforms can only benefit the hareidi population. After all, what could be wrong with decentralizing the chief rabbinate and giving more authority to local councils to decide standards of kashrut and conversion? What’s wrong with lowering the age at which hareidi young men can enter the workforce without having to serve in the IDF? What’s wrong with providing incentives to help hareidi families out of poverty and encourage integration into the wider Israeli society?

To those like Matan Kahana, all these reforms have to be positive because they are loosening the grip of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians, and they more effectively address the material needs of the hareidi community. Hence, any attempt to stymie these reforms must be out of the malicious will of the hareidi politicians to keep their constituents poor and in constant need of hareidi political leverage to receive all their exemptions and benefits.

Well think again, because there is an entirely different way of looking at the situation.

Let us begin with the issue of lowering the age to be exempt from the draft from 21 to 24, which arguably will have the largest impact on hareidi society.

Mr. Horovitz in his Op-Ed was quite candid and specific about what kind of long-term ‘benefits’ this particular reform is intended to have on the average hareidi family: (emphasis added)

24-year-old ultra-Orthodox men tend to be married with children, which means it is hard for them to then get the kind of education that enables them to secure reasonably paid and fulfilling work, condemning many of them to lives of relative poverty.

Kahana and the government acknowledge that this reform may not be fair to non-ultra-Orthodox Israelis, who carry the burden of military service. But they argue credibly that it is wise — that, in time, ultra-Orthodox men entering the workforce at a younger age, and appreciating the benefits, will encourage their younger siblings and their sons to consider both military service and studying a core curriculum, en route to a better life workwise and economically.

This last sentence—quoting Matan Kahana’s words almost verbatim– is what is called “saying the quiet part out loud”.

It needs to be appreciated that a single, 21-year-old hareidi young man without the anchor of a wife and children who finds himself outside the sheltered yeshivah environment is simply not adequately prepared. He can easily find himself gradually drifting away from his upbringing—especially if the workplace or academic program is not sufficiently re-enforcing his hareidi religious standards and values (which they rarely do).

Yes, I know it may sound strange to those living in a liberal, open society, but I have news for you: hareidi society is not a liberal, open society. It relies heavily on insularity and the constant shunning of outside influences during one’s formative years. A young person’s identity is a fragile thing and it is easily influenced. Being regularly exposed to environments that celebrate the loosening of religious restraints and taboos is a recipe for, well, loosening one’s religious restraints and taboos. It’s not exactly rocket science.

So it is absolutely vital for a young, single hareidi man to remain within a yeshivah environment until he has established a family that is firmly enmeshed within the fabric hareidi society—especially if he is not the best and brightest with a likely future position in a religious institution.

And this isn’t the haredi politicians talking. This is coming from the very top.

I refer the reader to Birkas Peretz, a compilation of insights on the weekly Torah portion of the Steipler GaonRav Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky, father of Rav Chaim Kanievsky. He was the spiritual leader of the Lithuanian Ultra-Orthodox community in Israel in the mid to late 20th century after the passing of his brother-in-law, the Chazon Ish—Rav Yeshayahu Karelitz.

In his piece on Parshas Vayeitzei (page 17), the Steipler writes explicitly that in the modern era, life outside the sheltered yeshivah environment poses a clear spiritual danger for religious youth. The mere fact that he will be shielded from the secularizing influences of the street by being in a yeshiva—even if he isn’t going to excel in his religious studies–is enough to justify deferring one’s entering the workforce. He must first be sufficiently mature to withstand the permissive behaviors and liberal attitudes which absolutely dominate in the world outside the yeshivah.

Mr. Horovitz may prefer to delicately couch Matan Kahana’s agenda in terms of purely economic benefits for the ultra-Orthodox– in order to soften the boldness of his reforms. But Kahana was absolutely clear in his interview: full integration of hareidim into Israeli society is indeed the ultimate goal. He may claim he wants to accommodate those who live a hareidi lifestyle and eschew any secular coercion in Israeli public life. But inevitably, those who will insist on maintaining a hareidi lifestyle will gradually and consistently dwindle over the years under his plan for social integration of hareidim. And Kahana certainly knows this:

“We’ve just lowered the age at which you are exempt from the IDF draft. Why are their representatives opposed to this? Because they prefer to have them captive in a world where they cannot enter the workforce, and they’re afraid that if [ultra-Orthodox men] are exempt from the army at 21, they can start to study and they’ll start to open up to Israeli society. We lowered the age precisely so that they will integrate earlier.

So, as the prime minister says, it is not fair, but it is smart: It is not fair that they be exempt from military service at 21, but it is smart. Why is it smart? Because their younger brothers and their children will choose to serve in the army — because they’ll be part of Israeli society, because they’ll study and they’ll go to work, and they’ll work in tech.

I meet the ultra-Orthodox and they tell me that it’s terrible that they don’t know English, and that they’re unhappy that they didn’t serve in the army.

We have to build frameworks that enable them to fully maintain their way of life [while serving in the army], and to fully integrate into Israeli society.

Because I regard myself as being so supportive of them, I find it very sad that their politicians depict me as an enemy of Judaism.

This is where the ‘Antiochus’ vilification and name-calling by the haredi politicians is actually somewhat justified.

A lesser known part of the Chanukah story is the role of the mityavnimHellenized Jews mentioned in the Book of the Maccabees and Josephus. They collaborated with the Antiochus and the Greeks in their attempt to eradicate Jewish observance.

Although their methods may have been different than Matan Kahana’s, their goal was the same: to integrate all members of the Jewish nation into the dominant culture of ‘modern’ civilization. Instead of coercion, we now have enticements to lure fragile hareidi youth out of the yeshivah and enter academia or the workforce before they are capable of maintaining their identity in very challenging environments.

You know, it’s hard to claim to be liberal and tolerant of others when you surreptitiously try to bring about the demise of an entire religious culture of which you do not approve.

If hareidi society wants to sacrifice integration and better economic opportunities in order keep their youth insulated in a yeshivah environment for longer, that’s their call. In a democratic country such as Israel, hareidi society should be allowed to refuse integration if they believe it will come at the expense of their very identity as hareidim.

Stop trying to save hareidim from being hareidim.

About the Author
Dovid Kornreich grew up in the U.S. and made aliya when he married in 1996. He has been studying and teaching talmud and Jewish thought in two Jewish institutions in Jerusalem for over 15 years. He has an enduring interest in the conflicts between Torah and contemporary thought, specifically Science & Feminism
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