Talking about, but without, the ultra-Orthodox

What if haredim were actually invited to participate in gatherings about them?

By SHIRA LEIBOWITZ SCHMIDT
January 1, 2006 21:53
Talking about, but without, the ultra-Orthodox

haredim 88. (photo credit: )

 
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Say you attended a conference on "Female Eskimo Etrog Growers." Would you be surprised to find that there were no women, no etrog growers, and no Eskimos present? Would it not be bizarre if all the speakers at such a conference were male orange growers from Oregon? Thus I find it incredible that at two recent conferences in Israel that had to do with haredim there were barely any ultra-Orthodox speakers. After all, haredim are not as rare as female etrog growers in the Arctic. Yakar, a Jerusalem synagogue, sponsored an evening to acquaint the English-speaking public with the platforms of the various political parties. No representatives of the haredi parties were scheduled to speak. Shas had been invited, but a suitable English-speaking representative was not available that evening. The Ashkenazi haredi party, United Torah Judaism, had not even been approached, ostensibly because there was talk the party would split. This omission was astounding given that there are thousands of English-speaking immigrants in Israel who vote for UTJ. Perhaps it was an unintentional oversight. The second venue, where the absence of ultra-Orthodox speakers is even more blatant, is an international conference this week at Tel Aviv University on "Ultra-Orthodox Jewry and the Holocaust," sponsored by the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center. You might think that during the three days of the conference (January 3-5, in English and Hebrew, in the Gilman Building) there would be more than one token ultra-Orthodox speaker out of a total of 24. Today there are dozens of ultra-Orthodox scholars in university and college settings throughout the world, and a number of them are working in Holocaust research. Certainly more than one haredi scholar could have been found who would have been able to participate. Research by haredi experts has received recognition by institutions with stringent standards of scholarship such as the Holocaust Research Institute of Yad Vashem and Bar-Ilan University; Haifa University regularly invites the ultra-Orthodox to lecture at their conferences. The conference invitation states that it is "open to the public." One wonders whether any effort was made to be inclusive and to pro-actively invite people from the haredi sector to be in the audience. All groups could benefit from such a conference: Academics could be challenged and receive feedback from the subjects of their research, and the haredim - the ultimate "other" in Jewish Israel - could be exposed to modern research and methodology, and learn how they appear in the eyes of their "other." The conference does have some intriguing titles such as "Righteous Judgment on a Righteous People: Rabbi Isaac Hutner's Implicit Theology of the Holocaust." Were I an organizer I would have invited the daughter of Rabbi Hutner to speak or respond to this lecture. She is four-square in the haredi world, has a doctorate from Columbia University, and as an only child of this preeminent scholar was involved in various aspects of her father's writings. TO THE session "Responding to the Unanswerable: The Haredi Press on Theological Implications of the Shoah," scheduled to be presented by a young non-haredi journalist who is a Hebrew University doctoral candidate, I would have invited a panel of haredi editors. A number of the American editors are college educated and could certainly participate in such an academic conference. It also would be interesting to hear from haredi journalists even if they are sans academic credentials because their views as insiders are invaluable. One top Israeli historian is set to speak on "Haskala, Emancipation, Zionism, Anti- Semitism: Cause and Effect in Jewish Orthodox Historiography." I would have paired him with a scholar from one of the hassidic courts known for their pre-Holocaust activities on behalf of the land of Israel. For example, researches are now becoming aware of what hassidim have always known: that the love of the Land was paramount in many hassidic courts. Families of Slonim hassidim even kept small pouches at home called "Land of Israel coins" decades before the blue-and-white JNF boxes came into being. The Slonimers added coins in "tandem mitzvot" such as together with Friday night candle-lighting. Large groups of Slonim hassidim settled Tiberias in the 1870s, well before what secular historiographers consider the first aliya. CAN HAREDIM be objective? Anthropologists have for decades dealt with the issue of whether a group studied can be self-critical. But one can also ask: Can academics be objective? Margaret Mead's studies of Samoans were considered the height of academic objectivity until Samoans themselves faulted her biases. I call this the "apologist versus the anthropologist." The subjects of a study, in our case the insider haredim, may have a tendency to be apologists for their sector. But anthropologists are also handicapped; by virtue of being outsiders they miss or misinterpret important details. I am not suggesting that haredim merely be exploited to decorate conferences with token representations, or given four minutes on a panel to address cliche topics such as: "As sheep to the slaughter: the ultra-Orthodox view" or "Pre-Holocaust haredi anti-Zionism." Rather, invite academic and non-academic haredi scholars as full participants who will share their own research, who can choose their own topics from the panoply of subjects to which they are privy as is no one else. The idea that multiple viewpoints can contribute to a closer approximation of the truth is expressed in the Midrash on Creation: The Creator threw "truth" out of the heavens; it smashed into smithereens on earth. Only when the pieces are brought together, as in a puzzle, will "truth spring from the earth," as the Psalmist says. A conference on haredim that includes a representation of fervently Orthodox along with modern Orthodox, non-Orthodox and secular scholars has a better chance of puzzling out the truth than does a homogeneous group of academics. The author, a translator, is associated with the Haredi College in Jerusalem.

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