Rabbi Shalom Cohen, Shas’s new spiritual leader, appointed to replace Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is making headlines.
In his first public controversy since taking over the leadership, Cohen has placed himself – and the largest haredi party in the Knesset – squarely on the side of reactionary extremism. In an official letter, written in response to a question from a female principal of an ultra-Orthodox post-high school educational institute for women, he ordered a ban on academic colleges that teach secular subjects. Cohen said that the courses and the people who taught them did not adhere to Torah principles.
Cohen was not the first to launch an attack on institutes of higher learning that cater to the haredi community.
At the beginning of the month, the centenarian leader of the Lithuanian (non-hassidic) Ashkenazi haredi community, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, declared that haredi women must forgo academic degrees even if it results in monetary loss.
Shteinman’s order was in keeping with the Ashkenazi haredi world’s religious extremism.
But Cohen’s statement was more surprising. Yosef, Cohen’s predecessor as spiritual leader of the Sephardi political party, had embraced the idea that young haredi men and women could gain an academic degree – based on a curriculum that was both acceptable to a rabbinical council and that met academic criteria – so that they could find respectable jobs that would allow them to support their families.
In any event, Cohen and Shteinmen should not concern us. They and the many like-minded rabbis who regularly issue irrational and impractical decrees on a wide range of subjects, from IDF service and Internet usage to secular education, cannot stem the tide of change. Faced with conflicting values, haredim are increasingly taking pragmatic courses of action – with or without rabbinical consent.
For instance, the haredi rabbinic leadership opposes the teaching of math, sciences and foreign languages to its high school-aged boys. Yet, when they need the services of doctors, computer technicians and pharmacists, haredi defer to the benefits of science. Faced with this glaring contradiction, many young haredi men and women are opening up to the wonders of technology.
Some have begun pursuing academic training that will enable them to integrate into the hi-tech and science fields. Haredi men have it more difficult than haredi women because they are not taught English and math in high school. But they are making up for their ignorance by taking preparatory courses. Haredi high schools that teach math and English are being founded.
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis vilify the IDF and promote the myth that Torah study is the secret to Israel’s military success. But the haredi masses realize that the vast majority of young men who indefinitely postpone their military service to study Torah do not take their studies nearly as seriously as the young men and women serving in combat, intelligence and hi-tech units in the IDF.
Many, particularly those with less of an interest in Torah study, realize that it is possible to serve in special IDF units that enable haredim to maintain their unique identity while making a substantive and not just a metaphysical contribution to Israel’s defense.
Haredi rabbis glorify traditional gender roles in the family and provide an essentialist approach to these roles in which women are domesticated and involved in child-rearing. But the haredi masses acknowledge the economic necessity of women integrating in the workforce to support their families if haredi men are to continue to devote themselves to Torah scholarship. Haredi men also understand that if the woman is to be the primary, or sole, breadwinner, they must help her with domestic chores and the upbringing of the children.
Haredim are aware that many of the dictates of their rabbinic leadership are not only indefensible according to any rational criteria, they are ultimately dysfunctional.
This is not to say that haredi society as a whole has become more moderate in its views or is undergoing a process of Israelification. If anything we are witnessing more gender segregation on buses and in public places.
Exclusively haredi cities, which did not exist a few decades ago, have been created and more are planned.
Increasing numbers of haredim, however, faced with conflicting values, are choosing pragmatism over extremism. They are doing what they believe is good for themselves, their families and Israeli society as a whole. And they are doing this no matter what rabbis such as Cohen and Shteinman say.