The making of post-haredism

As a result, many people in haredi society have grown dissatisfied, and are forced out by dissatisfaction with the narrow boundaries of haredi thought.

By
November 2, 2011 23:38
Protester is arrested in Jerusalem

haredi orthodox protester arrest 311. (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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Seven years ago, three of my books were banned by three dozen leading rabbis from the haredi rabbinic establishment in Israel and the US. This was due to my Maimonidean approach to resolving conflicts between Torah and science – that the account of creation is not to be interpreted literally, and that the sages of Talmud were mistaken in some of their statements regarding the natural world. While I sympathized with the concerns of these rabbinic leaders about the effects that such an approach could have for some members of their communities with simple faith, I could not accept the charge that the fundamental approach was heretical. It became clear to me that in my line of work, I could not continue to lead my life in the haredi community.

But I was not (at the time) ready to define myself as modern Orthodox or religious Zionist. So when people asked me what I was, I replied with what I thought was an original response: If people who are disillusioned with Zionism are called “post-Zionists,” and people who are disillusioned with Judaism are called “post-religious,” then someone who is disillusioned with Haredism is “post-haredi.”

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To my surprise, my “original” phrase had been used before. The label “post-haredi” (in Hebrew, haredi leshe’avar, abbreviated as harla”sh) is used by many people. Yet this group is little-known and little-understood.

Post-haredim are not to be confused with the Orthoprax Jews described in a recent Jerusalem Post Magazine article (“Haredi against their will,” October 14). Whereas Orthoprax Jews lack belief in the fundamentals of Judaism, postharedim do not (necessarily) suffer from any such lack of belief.

Instead, they are regular Orthodox Jews who no longer subscribe to haredi ideology. Some post-haredim remain in the haredi community, either due to inertia or due to their valuing their social ties and community.

Others secede, changing their manner of dress and moving into different social and cultural frameworks.

There is no clear line between more moderate haredim (such as many Anglo-haredim) and post-haredim; in Betar and Beit Shemesh, the revolutionary Tov political party rejects the haredi system of rabbinic authority, and is supported by a spectrum of people ranging from moderate haredi to post-haredi.

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What is it that causes post-haredim to reject the haredi ideology? The answer to this question is best understood by analyzing how the haredi approach to Judaism developed.

Contrary to popular belief, neither Moses nor Maimonides was haredi. Haredi Judaism developed from Orthodox Judaism, which itself differed in small but significant ways from the traditional Judaism that preceded it.

Orthodox Judaism, as the term is used in the academic study of Jewish history (as opposed to in the colloquial sense of “observant”), arose in the 19th century as a response to the challenges of the Enlightenment and emancipation, and particularly in response to the assault upon traditional Judaism led by the Reform Movement. In the face of systematic and sweeping deviation from traditional beliefs and practices, traditionalists found it necessary to separate themselves into a distinct sub-community within the Jewish people and to develop a more conservative approach to Judaism in general.

Originally there were a variety of streams of Orthodoxy in Europe, but over time, extreme forms of ultra-Orthodoxy began to overwhelm the other approaches. In the face of the novel phenomenon of Jews organizing themselves politically (such as with the Zionist movement) and the new personal autonomy offered by the modern period, Orthodox Jews created organizations such as Agudath Israel that began to dramatically recast traditional models of rabbinic authority into their modern manifestations.

THE PROCESS whereby Orthodoxy became ever more withdrawn from the modern world was further assisted after the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust and the subsequent re-creation of Jewish communities in Israel and the US, when the structure of the Orthodox community changed. Instead of the synagogue being the focus of religious life and the community rabbi being the main rabbinic authority, the ivory tower of the yeshiva took center stage, and the heads of the yeshivot gradually assumed the reins of rabbinic authority.

Furthermore, with the increasing laxity and encroachment of modernity, the conservatism of Orthodoxy accelerated to an unprecedented degree. As contemporary culture became ever more antithetical to religious values and became harder and harder to keep out of the home, haredi Judaism responded by building ever higher walls in an attempt to keep it out.

The resultant problems are well-known to all observers of haredi society. The system of mass open-ended kollels, originally created to recover the losses of the Holocaust, has long since exceeded its original goals and is ultimately unsustainable.

Increasingly, the extreme conservatism of haredi society results in intellectual and social mores that are often excessive in their restrictions.

When rabbinic authority is vested in yeshiva deans who are isolated from wider society (and often “handled” by various assistants), abuses of rabbinic power are inevitable. And a siege mentality has developed in which any criticism of haredi society, even coming from the inside, is to be fought or silenced.

As a result, many people in haredi society – including both those born into that society and those who joined in a spirit of youthful idealism – have grown dissatisfied. Some, myself included, were forced out by dissatisfaction with the narrow boundaries of haredi thought, which stands in sharp contrast to significant classical schools of thought within Judaism. For others, it was dissatisfaction with various aspects of haredi society including its relative indifference to wider national issues of the economy and national security, heavy social pressures regarding even non-halachic lifestyle aspects and the application of rabbinic authority.

Ironically the post-haredi movement is occurring at a time when the haredi world itself is undergoing a process of reversal from its previous excesses. Many more haredim are entering the work force, and there is even a haredi division in the army. The Internet is radically changing the dynamics of discourse and free speech in the haredi world despite rabbinic attempts to restrict or even ban it.

Weekly magazines such as Mishpacha feature positive profiles of non-haredi figures and delicately air a variety of criticisms of haredi policies, despite the shrill protests of “establishment” publications such as Yated Ne’eman.

But for post-haredim, it’s too little, too late.

The writer is the author of a variety of works on the relationship between Judaism, zoology and the natural sciences. His website is www.zootorah.com, and he blogs at www.rationalistjudaism.com.

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