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On the alleged collapse of Haredism

Ultra-Orthodoxy in the modern day is a reactionary over-correction, but the relativism it combats remains a threat

Channel 10 news has come under a lot of fire recently (mainly from Haredi media figures) for airing a series of video segments entitled “Haredim: Disintegration”, in which their Haredi affairs correspondent (yup, that’s a thing, and rightly so) Avishai Ben Chaim lays out his contention that Haredi society is in the midst of a great collapse. In the first episode of the series the controversial claim is made that 1 in every 10 people who are in the Haredi education system at age 15 are leaving the fold later in life. This figure has been challenged on statistical grounds and the usual kind of debate has followed.

There is some confusion over what is meant by becoming not Haredi (it seems that it includes people who remain observant, so that would kind of include me). After the second episode aired, the Channel 10 anchor even mentioned a previous series they had aired which covered how demographic trends in Israel very much favor the Haredim. Some Haredi media figures have complained bitterly that Ben-Haim completely misunderstands what Haredi life is actually like, while some have congratulated him for saying what everyone’s been thinking for years.

I don’t really know what to make of the actual numbers and don’t find it particularly interesting, but I live in a Haredi neighborhood and have many Haredi friends, and my feeling from the ground is that the general trends that Ben Haim is talking about are very strong, and spreading. There is a great deal of jadedness among young people here. In addition to the people actually leaving observance, there are many others seriously questioning their Haredi beliefs and way of life.

There is also much talk about a shadowy group of people referred to as “החרדים האנוסים”, “the Haredi Marranos”, meaning people who continue to live a completely Haredi lifestyle outwardly, but have lost any belief in God and Judaism. This is all actually happening and is significant, whatever the exact numbers. I think that the collapse of the Haredi world is inevitable as it faces Historical forces much more powerful than even it’s own high and much-fortified walls.

Haredism is essentially a reactionary over-correction. When the ghetto walls started coming down in the 18th century, traditional Judaism rightly recognized an existential threat. So it developed an intensely anti-modern ideology. But I mean more than this. The aspect of modernity that so frightened and disgusted the rabbis of the time, the thing that got such a primal rise out of the religious establishment, is the modern tendency toward relativism. They saw the world moving towards a society where anything goes, to an ideology that claims that there is no objective reality to transcendent non-physical things, no absolute standards for goodness or beauty, no moral difference between cultures, and no actual ultimate meaning and purpose to anything.

To counter this an ultra-Orthodox culture developed, where everything is thrown into stark relief as either black or white. Where absolutely all aspects of life, from the most exalted religious duties to the most mundane trivialities of daily existence, is either done the right way or the wrong way. A world of hyper-absolutism, demanding (at least in theory) a total commitment of one’s time and efforts. This culture has been quite successful, with some stops and starts, and has reached it’s crowning glory in the past 30 years or so, as it has cemented it’s place as the gold standard for what observant Judaism should look like.

Humans (I firmly believe) need to have purpose. They need to feel that it is possible to get closer to truth and transcendence. Frankly, we need this more than anything. So the Haredi mindset holds great charm for people who are looking to find something worth dedicating themselves to. It certainly held great charm for me when I was in my 18-21 years old reckless-idealistic phase.

But there is a downside to all this. Beyond the fact that the lifestyle has become increasingly non-functional financially, the Haredi mindset is extremely vulnerable to outside influences. It presents a world where not only everything is absolute, but where all these absolutes are known with complete certainty to (at the very least) certain leaders. The prototypical Haredi has a picture of reality that is simply obviously false. He disdains science and thinks that it doesn’t have anything of interest to teach him. He thinks that the outside world is completely and totally evil and unpleasant. He thinks that all people who disagree with any of the numerous and highly specific tenets of his weltanschauung do so either out of malice, or usually (he is graciously willing to concede) out of sheer stupidity or ignorance. Now it is possible that the actual prototypical Haredi doesn’t actually exist, (he does, I’ve met him, but for the sake of argument…) and any actual individual varies from this to at least some degree but the stereotype is useful for showing the general trends. The properly Haredi mindset tends to collapse completely the moment any degree of honest doubt enters the equation.

The internet has brought about a situation where a very significant proportion of the young people in the community simply know for a fact that the version of reality that they are given by their respected elders is at the very least shockingly simplistic, if not outright false. Most people of course just find a way to live with it without disrupting their lives too much (this is always true of humans), but some don’t, and even among the apathetic majority the discontent continues to fester. The world just isn’t so simple and stark as it was portrayed to me by my Haredi mentors (most of whom are wonderful, kind and intelligent people, just blindly committed to a set of unexamined premises). This whole philosophy developed as a reaction to something else, it has not developed on its own merits. It is therefore really just a historical fad. An “ism”. This kind of thing does not survive well in the free marketplace of ideas, which is why said marketplace was kept so un-free for all these years. That has now changed. Irrevocably. The internet is in, and once it is in you cannot get it out no matter how valiantly you try. It’s over.

The thing is that the great danger which Haredism was reacting to has not gone away. Not by a long shot. It is currently playing itself out, fascinatingly, on the great stage of the west’s war of ideas. We see every basic concept being challenged as just a figment of our imaginations, just a social construct. Cultural relativism is now the norm among the West’s intellectual elites (with potentially grave consequences for Israel). So how does observant Jewry (at all levels of observance) counter this now? The “Ultra” approach worked for a while but it won’t anymore, and the problem is there is no ready alternative available. The mild American version of Haredism is really just parasitic on the Israeli version, and has it’s own fatal weaknesses. But I get ahead of myself. This is a topic for a different post.

About the Author
Born in the US, made Aliyah at 3 years old. Going to Hebrew U to study law in October. Was in Yeshiva for 7 years. interested in basically everything. Aspiring writer, somewhat-more-than-amateur musician, armchair philosopher, and connoisseur of human folly (including, hopefully, my own).
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