Trembling for change

The extremist fringe has managed to put a stranglehold on the Haredi community.

Mea Shearim segregation 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Mea Shearim segregation 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The term “Haredim,” used as a general name for the entire ultra-Orthodox community, is probably rooted in a verse in Isaiah (66:5): “Hear the word of the Lord, you who tremble at His word.”
The meaning of the verse is clear: We tremble because our deepest desire to fulfill the word of the Lord brings us close to fear. We are like a father and mother who tremble in fear out of concern for their children.
We Haredim wish to define ourselves through our commitment to the word of the Lord and the way in which we fulfill His commandments and study His Torah. Our fear is a metaphor for our commitment.
But recently, Haredim have become increasingly fearful – literally.
Within our own community, we face a wave of unprecedented extremism. Separation of men and women in buses and on the sidewalks in Mea She’arim, a Haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem, a prohibition against hearing a woman speak on the radio and preventing a non-Jew from repairing a broken water pipe on Shabbat – are just a few of the most recent and the most publicized examples.
Extremism is spreading. We are fearful because we sense that we are sliding down a slippery slope. We are unable to break our fall and we are unable to climb back up.
Those familiar with the community know that the Haredi mainstream does not support this extremism and that these strange customs are promoted only by a separatist, radical fringe. These extremists want to define what it means to be a Haredi Jew and to determine who is part of the community.
And, as we have seen, they are willing to use verbal and physical force, as well as the tremendously effective pashkevilim (wall posters) to deter anyone who thinks differently. And for now, they are succeeding: gradually the influence of this fringe is permeating into the heart of the mainstream.
These extremists have established a consistent, orderly process for creating new prohibitions and enforcing them on the public. First, they define a new prohibition, then they attempt to enlist rabbinical support for their new idea. After speaking briefly with an elderly rabbi, and with the backing of the rabbi’s aides, they ask the rabbi to sign a public statement in support of this new extreme measure.
In most cases, after they manage to obtain the support of one revered rabbi, it becomes easy to recruit others. It is often enough to merely state that a well-regarded rabbi has endorsed the new extreme measure for others to quickly endorse it as well. Utilizing the pashkevilim effectively, the sponsors plaster the rabbi’s letter, together with the names of the other rabbis who endorse the measure, on every available wall and billboard in the Haredi neighborhoods.
A new extreme measure, an invented prohibition, is born.
Should anyone object, he will immediately be subjected to irrelevant criticism that has no basis in Jewish law. Most frequently, he will be attacked, “How dare you rule against the great rabbi who endorsed this new measure?” As Haredim, we revere our rabbis, so the tactic is very successful.
The pashkevilim will be filled with expressions of horror and shock over anyone who dares to disobey the new extremism or refuses to toe the line. Rabbis and leaders who think differently will fall silent, unwilling to voice their objections to the new distortions, fearful that they may find themselves excluded from their own community.
Imagine a man sitting alone on a bench. Suddenly another man appears and sits to his left. The first man automatically moves to the right to make room for him. When a third man appears and sits to the left of the second man, the first person will move further to the right; each time, he must adjust his position according to the push from the left.
This is what is happening to the mainstream Haredi public. Each time someone comes from the fringe and, armed with these tactics, pushes the public to move further to the right, they cannot resist.
Every attempt to reclaim their original space involves confrontation and threats, and these are particularly painful in our small, tightly knit communities.
This is the trap in which the Haredi majority finds itself. While the extreme measures grab the headlines in the secular press, it is actually the Haredim themselves who suffer the most. The extremism is growing in their own community and so it affects them more than it does any other community.
Actually, most of these extreme measures contradict rulings in Jewish law that have been traditionally accepted throughout the generations. Numerous sources in Jewish law and thought have cautioned against issuing decrees that the public cannot fulfill and imposing extreme measures that will lead to conflict. Extremists are warned to be cautious, lest they appear arrogant.
In the past and in our own times, great rabbis occasionally demanded of themselves and their families that they follow the laws especially carefully and observe special prohibitions; yet, these same great men did not attempt to impose these observances on their followers and congregants, with whom they remained lenient.
But now things have changed. Anyone who fancies himself as great thinks that he can impose new and stricter measures on himself; but unlike the truly great, these men try to demand that the public observes these new rules, too.
What purpose do these prohibitions serve? Why is the community facing this wave of growing extremism? There are several possible explanations.
According to one explanation, when the surroundings are threatening and full of conflict, extreme prohibitions provide security. They offer a sense of protection, something to hide behind. As Haredim, we see that the quality of public life is deteriorating, and some Haredim believe that they must be ever more careful to keep themselves separate from the society that surrounds them. They must make the walls that separate them from the secular public higher and higher.
The prohibitions help them to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world – not only from the secular, but from the modern Orthodox and even from Haredim who are “less strict” than they are.
The people promoting these prohibitions are acting out of a sense of persecution. To maintain a sense of safety, they must declare a holy war on anything that contradicts their assumptions and their separatist definitions of themselves.
A second, comprehensive explanation can be found in the distortions that have crept into Haredi society over the past few years.
The Haredim have invested all of their resources and energies in the effort to rebuild the world of Torah that was destroyed in the Holocaust.
Before the Holocaust, only a small minority of the Haredi community did not work for a living and was engaged in full-time study.
However, after the establishment of the state, the situation became reversed. Today, a majority of men aspire to spend their entire lives in a yeshiva studying Torah, while only a small percentage, those who have no choice or are incapable of study, go to work. They are not highly regarded in the community, which has now come to accept that everyone should become a Torah scholar and adopt those strict standards of behavior once reserved solely for the few great scholars.
The third reason stems from deep underlying processes in Haredi society and the push against the expectation that most men will spend their days and nights in the yeshiva. Most of the Haredi public understands this situation cannot continue for much longer. The decision to devote their lives to Torah study leads to a life of poverty, and the Haredim are not oblivious to the consumer culture and wealth that surrounds them. The numbers of young men dropping out of Haredi frameworks, together with the options provided by the ID F and academic studies, are generating great changes in the community. Even though serving in the military and pursuing academic studies are not yet considered fully legitimate, many young Haredim are doing just that.
The extremism and the prohibitions are thus a central part of the extremists’ backlash; they represent a desperate attempt to regain their control over the community by constraining it.
The solution to this extremism rests first and foremost with the rabbis, the great men of our generation. It is they who must make their voices heard against these prohibitions, against the new extremist rulings that seem to appear daily. A clear statement by the rabbis, based on their great wisdom and knowledge of Torah and Jewish law, could put a stop to this and reverse the trend.
But sadly, I do not think that this will happen. The current generation of great men of Torah is too old to fight this war. Even if these men were willing to risk their prestige, their relatives and aides would not allow them to suffer the attacks that would ensue.
The solution must come from somewhere else. The majority of the Haredi community opposes this situation. These demands have affected them directly, and they are seeking a spokesman. This critical mass of people will gain political power and will fight for its right to live a sane Haredi life. They will break the stranglehold that these marginal people have managed put around the neck of the Haredi community.
It is for this reason that I established the Am Shalem (The Whole Nation) movement – to fight for a return to sanity and a return to the religious rulings that have been with us throughout the generations.
We will struggle peacefully and respectfully.
But if change does not come from above, it must come from below.
And that change, even if it tarries, will come.

The writer is a Member of Knesset and Chairman of the Am Shalem movement.