Living Amongst the Ultra-Orthodox

It is much safer writing flowery, descriptive narratives or depicting stories of unsung heroism, but any wannabee blogger worth his salt has to occasionally shake off the shackles of his own inbred cowardice over the prospect of stepping on toes and  inviting controversy. Goodbye mysterious writer and welcome  to know-it-all opinionated propagator of the hereby called, “Opinion Piece.”

I am taking the plunge into uncharted waters owing to a curt question posed to me in an email by my beloved first cousin, Jacob Burland, living in San Diego. He is a recently retired lawyer, who is deeply concerned about the welfare of the world and the Jewish people in particular. We shared many experiences together growing up in South Africa.

These are his exact words:

“I know there are no short answers but I would love to know your opinion on the current concern among secular Jews that the Ultra Orthodox who shun interaction with secular (even with orthodox) Jews and separate themselves from the modern world are a very serious threat to Israeli democracy.”

Cousin Jacob -full of questions
Cousin Jacob -full of questions

 Dear Mieliekob (my father’s nickname for him)

As you say, “there are no short answers”.  A wealth of material on haredi (ultra orthodox) life encompassing lifestyle, philosophy, historical perspectives, personal experiences, novels, have been written in the modern era. I am sure I could come up with something echoing my own views for recommended reading. Instead, I am indeed flattered that you want my opinion. I have no idea exactly where all this is going, but let’s get the show on the road:

Firstly, I have to insert a little background about myself which no doubt has had an enduring influence in my own search for life’s elusive meaning.  I enrolled at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva many years ago and was soon swept away by the words of the rabbis, who I found to be teachers in the true sense of the word.  I was pretty much immediately committed to the cause, but have to add that I had already possessed a basic level of “emunah” (faith) instilled especially by a mother, who had lovingly weaved stories of outstanding Jewish feats and raised her children with the usual traditional pride common to  a large number of Jewish homes in South Africa.  Ohr Somayach is a haredi yeshiva which espouses the general values represented by the movement.  I emerged impressed by the meticulousness of adhering to the Torah, and yet I would say as you are quite aware that in many ways I am still the same person who takes an interest in sporting activities around the world  and manages  to play tennis regularly, participates in a night cricket league,  and even arranges an occasional game of soccer with family and friends.  I avidly keep up with the news.  Of course, needless to say, my love for the bioscope continues unabated.  I served in the Israeli army, did additional reserve duty and some of my kids did their stints as well.  Others legally got deferments by studying in yeshivas or getting married.

Okay.  Now down to the “question” directly:

Even though practically to align oneself with a political party, an idea, a way of life, is part of society’s structure, I am against the categorizations of people into types.  We are all individuals, with things in common, for sure, but we have our unique abilities, characteristics and personalities, which inevitably promotes dynamic debate and differences within the various segments of our periphery, not to speak of the wider world out there.  I believe that while delineating our principles we need to be open minded and realize that we can certainly learn from most folk, and more importantly, leave the judging of peoples’ actions to a higher authority.  After all, can we really put ourselves in the shoes of others and know for sure that we would have acted differently?  A famous Jewish concept gleaned from the Ethics of the Fathers which teaches, “Give the other person the benefit of the doubt”, comes to mind.  Of course, let me add at the outset that nothing is black and white and the way we govern our lives in relation to ourselves and others, is full of complications, extenuating circumstances, unique scenarios etc.  All the more reason to avoid categorizations.


“This current concern among secular Jews” needs to be addressed.  In Israel approximately 10 percent of the population are keepers of the faith with the vast majority of the remaining population being secular – but then again a large proportion do go to shul on Yom Kippur, eat matzot on Pesach, marry other Jews, have strong affinity for the land of Israel.  Furthermore, one cannot ignore the trait of human kindness and concern for others, embedded in the Jewish neshama.  We can ask how many secularists actually consider the haredim a threat to democracy?  Let’s start with military service.  My gut feeling is that the majority of Jews in Israel do believe that someone diligently learning in yeshiva and praying for their well-being whilst they are on the front lines risking their lives does provide them with a  spiritual safety net.  People often believe in a Creator without necessarily being frum.  Jews by and large consider themselves as part of a team with each doing their own part for the security of the country.  The bone of contention revolves around just how many haredim have the dedication to study on such a high level.  A groundswell of orthodox followers albeit a minority concur with their secular counterparts that a great number of their ranks would be better off in uniform defending the homeland.  This would enable them at a later juncture to join the work force in a productive surge aiding the economy and benefiting the general well being of the country.  It remains to be seen exactly how the majority including various streams of chassidim from those who are more moderate in their outlook to those more anti the State would deal with the proposals for changing the status quo being projected by the recently elected government of Israel.  The same can be asked of the mitnagdim (the non chassidic world) where army service is frowned upon to put it mildly. Bearing in mind that a crucial mitzvah revolves around “emunat chachamim”, which infers that in every generation we have to look to our pious leaders for direction.  There are those chachamim who state that permitting their underlings to undergo army service should be an exception to the rule.  And the rabbis, of a more nationalistic bent, hold that serving in the military should be compulsory for everyone barring students of exceptional caliber.  The issue is most complex and fraught with dissent.

Haredi separation goes beyond the army.  Parents prioritize shielding their children from what they consider negative influences stemming from the outside.  Of course, this protective curve is a duty that most western families worldwide impose upon their offspring with various degrees of application.  In haredi circles the determination to insulate the community is far more acute.  However, it should be noted that there are weekly newspapers and magazines published in Israel and abroad in an assortment of languages which are generally deemed “kosher” and are being read on a constantly growing scale. Daily papers also exist.  This, however, does not detract from a prevailing attitude that making a point of keeping up with the news on a daily basis is largely an unnecessary pursuit.  To that end, a small minority do not even have radios in the house, not to speak of possessing more graphic ways of knowing what is going on around them.

” If I need to know about some earth shattering event or any thing local taking place, I will hear about it one way or another”, is a remark often bandied about.  This makes for sufficient “histadlut” (effort) to incorporate some new factor into prayers, or take measures to change the newly arisen situation.  Although personally I find that whole approach difficult to comprehend, but if that what works for them – “Gesundheit”.  So long as this attitude is not coerced onto me.  I find that in all walks of life there are those insisting in a most self-righteous manner that their approach or service to mankind constitutes the “only” way.  Mingling with others outside the circle is also minimized to avoid the fear of secular culture wreaking havoc with their almost idolatrous perceived foreign ideologies and technological advancements.  On the other hand,  a pervading love of one’s fellow-Jew and possessing diverse interests encourage a significant number of haredim “davka” to live among their non-religious brethren in order to spread around their principles mainly by example and definitely not  by forcing their ways upon those with whom they come in contact.  These include I would say a fair amount of “bale tshuva” (newly religious), immigrants, and native born Israelis, who on their own familiar turf, comfortably live side by side with their countrymen.  Although only making up a small percentage of the working population, they still provide a vital cog in the country’s work force.

Another highly debatable issue which has a bearing on the haredi way of life is that of education.  Without going into great detail, the traditional method since the establishment of the State involves an early childhood separation of boys and girls in the classroom and a formulated program of Torah study intensifying for boys as they approach their teen years. Secular studies such as Math and English are not part of the general curriculum once they reach barmitzvah age.  There are those schools, however, which cater for the others subjects and a few special institutions offer bagrut (matric) study. For the girls it is quite different and the mainstream does provide a far wider range of classes catering for working on the outside at a later date.  Attending a university is mostly discouraged, but there are some adult courses with recognized degrees available to learn computers, become lawyers, accountants and other professions.  Like military service, this issue is to be dealt with by the new government which intends to make core subjects like Math and English compulsory for all children.  To put it mildly, a storm is brewing, and all I can say at this point without much conviction is that an equitable compromise can hopefully be reached which will satisfy all parties.

Whether separating themselves present a very serious threat to Israeli democracy in the modern world is a tricky one to grapple with.  The Jews have survived a long history of destruction, holocaust, persecution, virulent antisemitism, and still face threats today of annihilation.  In my opinion. our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were the progenitors of our great people, blazed a trail for the future Jewish nation to emulate.  This manifested itself in the Torah and the allegiance pledged enables us to survive constant catastrophe.     Some of its precepts most certainly uphold aspects of democracy.  Nevertheless, within this belief of absolute truth there are countless examples of codes which seemingly run counter to democracy as we know it.  Therefore, I think the question is a non-starter to begin with as democracy itself can be interpreted in different ways according to manifestly various cultures worldwide.  Jews who shun interaction and separate themselves, for all we know, are bastions of the Torah and conceivably live exemplary lives.  Some of them are in the forefront performing  mitzvot that we are not even aware of such as being members of “hatzollah” (going out  after bombings and identifying torn limbs), setting up food and shelter facilities, establishing “gemachs” (loan funds with no added interest payments), also providing medication, and a myriad of other essential services and appliances.    Then again, it cannot be denied that a bad name is attached to the whole by hate-filled venom spewed forth by a few. This is not the forum for outlining these disgusting and terrible actions. There are misguided and uncontrolled people no matter what their beliefs, including Jews.  Again, sweeping statements condemning an entire group for the antics of a sick few is a dangerous game often without seeing the forest from the trees.  I just wonder as to what extent the leaders are able to help bring about a cure.

 We are in an age of exile owing to the destruction of the Second Temple.  This was caused in the main by “baseless hatred” among ourselves.  We have yet to extract ourselves from that morass.  But I do believe as part of our faith that the redemption will occur with the coming of the Meshiach and the world will reach its fulfillment.  But first this melting pot embracing so many types of one nation and which forms such a minute fraction of the human populace will have to come to grips that we are each and everyone different united by our common heritage.


The Neps

About the Author
Joe Neppe, a former journalist at some of South Africa's leading newspapers, spent many years after making aliyah in different working and learning areas. Today, somewhat retired, he involves himself mainly in various writing projects. He lives on Moshav Matityahu in the Modiin region.