I usually look at the State of Israel as a modern wonder, something that in the history of humankind is unprecedented. And other times, I look at Israel and find myself deeply disappointed by its failure to live up to its considerable potential.
There are lots of reasons for Israel’s many failings. Widespread government corruption is one. A lingering socialist ethic that views customer service as bourgeois and government protectionism (in the form of prohibitive tariffs on most imports) as necessary is another. One, though, that profoundly disturbs me are the many conflicts within Israeli society created and perpetuated by haredi Judaism.
This is not a haredi-bashing post. I have long had sympathy for the haredi movement (because it’s every bit as much a movement as Reform Judaism) with its goals of repopulating the world with Jews after the great losses in the Shoah and returning Torah study to the center of Jewish life. However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that many of the stories in the Israeli news these days have as their source problems with the haredi sector of society. Here are but a few:
- Rioting in Meah Shearim over plans to move pagan graves (which haredim insist are Jewish graves) in order to build an emergency medical center as part of Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center;
- Tight restrictions placed on those who wish to visit the newly completed Hurva Synagogue in the Old City to allow a handful of haredi Torah scholars to sit and learn during the non-prayer hours of the shul;
- The continued problems encountered by non-Jews and non-halachic Jews in trying to live here and dealing with a haredi-controlled rabbinate which converts only a small percentage of those who seek halachic conversion and full participation in Israeli society;
- An increasingly wide swathe of Jerusalem city employees (some of them haredim) being arrested for the corruption that allowed the Holyland housing monstrosity to be built, and the reaction of many in the haredi community that it’s all because the haredim arrested had spent too much time around secular Jews;
- The alarming statistics which show a continued drain on Israel’s society, workforce, and coffers over the next generation or two if haredim continue to receive substandard educations (at state expense), evade military service and work, and live below the poverty line.
I could go on, but I think that’s enough. In the dozens of interactions I’ve had with haredi Jews, the negative ones (perhaps 1 in 4 of my encounters with them) have been centered around strict sexual taboos (such as a man and woman sitting next to each other on a bus) and a belief that I’m barely even Jewish, much less religious. Much of what drives religious Jews (and not just those in the haredi world) is fear: fear of God, fear of screwing up in their ritual practice, fear of being led astray. These fears lead to the enforcement of sex-segregation on buses by violence, the rejection of potential converts because they might not keep all 613 commandments all the time (despite the fact that Jewish law itself does not require that), the refusal to teach subjects such as math, science, and English in haredi schools which lay the foundation for employability later because those subjects are seen as irrelevant to Torah study, and the strict code of conformity as to dress, behavior, and life prospects for young haredim. Those who don’t fit the mold of the ideal haredi Jew in those communities—who aren’t gifted Torah scholars, who have talents in other areas, who try to venture into the non-haredi world—are cause for worry for their families. Some are given tentative support; others are rejected by their family and community and forced to make their way in the outside world without useful skills or even an ability to function behaviorally in a normal environment with men and women together.
Some in the haredi community have made significant contributions to Israeli society. Haredim were the first to create educational frameworks in Israel for autistic and Down’s syndrome children. ZAKA, an organization whose 1000 volunteers perform many post-disaster functions, including identifying the victims, was founded by Yehudah Meshi-Zahav who, along with many of the volunteers, is haredi. David Zilbershlag, another haredi Jew, is the founder of Meir Panim, a network of soup kitchens and relief centers across Israel whose goal is not only to feed and clothe the needy, but to bridge the gap between religious and secular Jews. It seems that where the combination of communal conformity and intensive Torah study lead some Jews to retreat from greater society, others feel moved by what they learn to venture outside the walls of the study hall and bring Jews together to create something that benefits all of Israeli society.
But every bit as important as the accomplishments of these haredim is the fact that they have shown themselves able to work with haredi and non-haredi Jews alike, and not stray from the path of Torah. Their contact with non-haredi Israelis, and embrace of ahavat Yisrael (love of fellow Jews), are not abstract concepts to be discussed and debated over a volume of Talmud; they are real and meant to be lived on a daily basis. They are fully observant Torah Jews, and fully functioning members of Israeli society and the human race. The anger, mistrust, and even hatred that exists between haredi and secular Jews (and the modern Orthodox in between, who seem to each extreme to be part of the other extreme) could be eradicated, or at least drastically reduced, if haredi Jews were to come out of their Torah cocoons and see the presence of Torah values outside their own communities, the caring Jews have for other Jews, and the spiritual and ethical commitment to Jewish ideals even among those who don’t keep kosher or observe Shabbat.
The answers to the increasing divide between the haredi world and the rest of the world need to come both from outside and from inside. The Israeli government needs to take a stand about the quality of education it is willing to support for all Israeli students. Paying 80% of the cost of haredi education that only teaches 80% of the government’s require curriculum is not a solution to the certain brain drain that is to result. Haredi children can and should be brought up with the values of Torah and family. But they should also be given the opportunity to work as well as learn Torah all day. They should be given an education that leaves them with choices. Their military service, like that of non-haredi Jews, should entitle them to tuition assistance at either a university or yeshiva, based on their qualifications and aptitudes. If haredi Jews believe their interpretation of the Torah is true and valid, there should be no need for them to fear being led astray by secular society. Their adherence to haredi values should be based on knowledge by comparison that they are the ideal, and not by fear, isolation, and ignorance.
The accomplishments of many haredi Jews have improved life for Israelis and people around the world. But still, the rest of the haredi world is a vast, untapped resource. It is to their benefit, and that of all of Israeli society, to have them participate fully in it.