Channel 10 ‘Haredi affairs’ correspondent Avishai Ben-Chaim is at it again. After his series of reports on the collapse of Haredi society made waves several months ago, he’s back with a more in-depth look at the demographic trends behind his overall hypothesis.
The first series was somewhat general and impressionistic, with Ben-Chaim talking to various people in a position to report first-hand on mass exodus from the Haredi world. His big takeaway was the estimate that 1 out of 10 children growing up being educated in Haredi institutions, will no longer be Haredi when they grow up (viz. finish school). In this new series he tries to back up that claim with more concrete stats from experts on Haredi demographics, with an emphasis on demonstrating that the long-held assumption that Haredim would eventually make up a majority in the country is no longer supported by the numbers. He also deals with the perception of Haredim in the secular sector, and the fall of Shas as a powerful political and demographic force.
In my post commenting on the first series, I argued that whether or not Ben-Chaim’s statistics are correct, the general thesis of the “collapse” of the Haredi world is correct–even if it is expressed in a way that’s a tad melodramatic. I outlined my view that Haredi society and culture as currently constituted (from which I still don’t entirely exclude myself), while containing much to be admired, is a historical fad that must pass, due to its reliance on ignorance and misinformation, and non-functional economic model. This time I’d like to make a more general and speculative argument about the true nature and ultimate results of the shifts that Ben-Chaim is highlighting.
I think that what’s happening isn’t a mere “secularization”, as Ben-Chaim insinuates, with increasing numbers of Haredi youngsters becoming relatively or totally secular; but rather a total redrawing of the lines between groups, based on a shift in the religious and social tectonic plates, this overall secularization of Haredim being just one of the results. I think that the old sharp divisions between secular, Masorti, Religious-Zionist and Haredi are becoming more and more blurred, so that these labels become increasingly less useful. Allow me to elaborate.
In his landmark 1994 essay “Rupture and Reconstruction”, Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik (“The Rov”‘s son) claims that Jewish society before the enlightenment era, and even afterwards within Orthodox society until World War II, was overwhelmingly “traditional” in the sense that people got their knowledge about Judaism and sense of Jewish identity primarily from personal experience in their homes and immediate social surroundings. The enlightenment and responses to it, and then finally the mass displacement of what was left of European Jewry after the war, caused the need to “reconstruct” Jewish life, and this was done primarily through academic institutions–the Yeshivas.
The salient point of his thesis is that while Jewish societies’ Judaism used to grow ‘naturally’ out of the way Jews lived their lives, it has now become something that is largely constructed artificially from the top down, under the guidance of leaders and experts. I humbly submit that what we’re seeing now is the slow reversion to the previous, ‘natural’ state.
One of the most important consequences of this shift to a more constructed Judaism is the fact that Jewish observance became largely synonymous with being Haredi. The image of the very religious Jew became the image of the Haredi rabbi, and the irreligious contrasted themselves with the same image.
The Haredi world’s internal development over the past 50 years exemplifies the artificial type. We have reached a point where Students attending Yeshivas are now encouraged to completely discard attitudes and practices they’d absorbed in their homes and communities and to replace them with the attitudes and practices mandated by the Rabbis in the Yeshiva, through their particular interpretation of the sacred texts. Very little respect is accorded to the organic development of the student’s Jewish identity from home. The Rabbis in the Yeshivas see themselves as subordinate, in turn, to a hierarchy of Rabbinic competency going all the way up to the top: the “Gedolei Hador”–leaders of the generation, whose rulings on even the most minute and non-Halachic aspects of the lives of people who they’ve never met, living in circumstances with which they are utterly unfamiliar, have ultimate authority.
To be sure, Rabbinical authority played a central role in the old traditional days as well, but it was local Rabbinical authority, and primarily held by community Rabbis intimately familiar with their constituents’ practical way of life, rather than by the denizens of ivory towers as it is now. The
This state of affairs seems to me unsustainable. The artificiality of the Jewish identity being imparted by Haredi education is only becoming more pronounced, as it flees further and further from the complications and uncertainties of the religious life as actually lived by Jews. It has begun to almost consciously and intentionally void itself of meaning, at least as that is understood by normal people. You cannot hope to control people’s spiritual and religious choices from the top down for long, much as you can’t hope to control the economy in the same way for long. Even deep within the Haredi world, the organic traditional Judaism sometimes pops out. The best example of this is the Haredi attitude to Yom Yerushalayim.
By all accounts the Haredi reaction to the events of the Six-Day war at the time was exactly the same as that of the rest of the Jewish population: sheer jubilation. The liberation of the old city awakened something in the Jewish soul that is far deeper and more real than anything learned academically in a Yeshiva. This soul-stirring is captured in this famous picture:
What is in these men’s eyes is not the result of something they’ve been told or taught. It’s the result of something that they’ve absorbed, lived, experienced for themselves. Notice how when contemplating how they must have been feeling at that moment the matter of their particular religious group affiliation seems utterly irrelevant.
No Haredi (insert obligatory exception-making disclaimer here) thought that this historical development was anything other then miraculous and joyful in 1967. At that moment they were being organic Jews, not constructed ones. Now, Yom Yerushalayim is not marked at all in Haredi educational institutions, and any celebration of it is frowned upon. It’s not quite like Yom Ha’atzmaut, to be sure, but every year brings a flurry of articles in the Haredi press about why it is religiously wrong to celebrate Yom Yerushalayim. This is one of many things that is becoming increasingly incomprehensible to the somewhat independent-minded Haredi youth, contributing to the breakdown.
There is another side to this story, though. I think that the general population in Israel is also being affected by, and contributing to, the return to a more traditional and organic form of Jewish life and identity. Ben-Chaim mentions at some point in the series that there are still many people becoming observant, but they are not becoming Haredi. As the artificial/constructed form of Jewish life recedes, a renewed commitment to Jewish observance no longer has to come with a pledge of allegiance to a group representing an abstractly idealized version of Judaism. It can just be a person making their own commitment on their own terms.
It was always an open secret that the majority of Israelis weren’t really “secular” in the pure sense of the term, but very traditional, and there seems to be a renewed interest in engaging more deeply with this “traditionality”. Rav Benny Lau’s 929 Tanach initiative is a thing. “Tikkun Leil Shavuot” gatherings are a thing. I was also absolutely astonished to hear one of the demographic experts Ben-Chaim interviewed saying that the birth rate among secular Israelis has gone up, while it still decreases everywhere else in the western world. This seems like a sure sign of a re-connection to traditional values, although I obviously can’t be sure that it is.
If I’m even somewhat right about all of this, there are exciting and troubled times ahead. The Haredi world will not only lose many of its children, but will lose its role as the über dominant expression of traditional Judaism. In a way, Haredi hard-liners would rather those who are not Haredi be completely secular and hostile to Judaism, because that way their monopoly is secure. Now other forms of Jewish expression will grow and develop, clamoring for attention and recognition. Our neat, comfortable definitions will become less applicable, and we’ll probably have to learn to live with new religious developments that we don’t particularly like or know what to do with. Ultimately though, I think this is a very good thing, yet another stage in our true spiritual return to, and entrenchment in, our land. The spiritual and social developments of nations full of flesh-and-blood independent thinking human beings is a messy business. I know my ancestors would have given everything they had to just to witness the reality I often take for granted.
So today I am deeply thankful for the opportunity to live in the holy city of Jerusalem, in the holy land of Israel, with my Jewish brothers and sisters (and all the others), looking around me trying to read the portents of tumultuous change. I wouldn’t have it any other way.