The ‘new’ haredim

A silent revolution is occurring on the streets of Israel’s insular ultra-Orthodox enclaves.

Sea of Haredim 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Sea of Haredim 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
They can be seen walking the streets in Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan. Men wearing black velvet skullcaps and sporting blue shirts. With an appearance similar to the ultra-Orthodox career yeshiva students of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, but with subtle yet significant differences visible to those in the know, these working haredim represent a significant shift in the thinking of Israel’s haredi community.
During the media coverage of the September 2011 violence in Beit Shemesh surrounding the opening of the national-religious Orot Banot school on the border of the insular hassidic neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, one man, whose views are representative of this new way of life, came to national prominence as a spokesman for the faction of the haredi community endorsing dialogue and mutual understanding between the two warring sides.
Rabbi Shmuel Pappenheim is the former spokesman for the Eda Haredit, the ultra-Orthodox community’s alternative to the state Rabbinate, and a member of the staunchly anti-Zionist Toldot Aharon hassidic sect. While he does not dress the part of a new haredi, by accepted definitions he certainly acts the part.
During a series of interviews in his office, Pappenheim explained that while learning Torah is of paramount importance to the fervently Orthodox, one who is incapable of studying fulltime must not use yeshiva studies as an excuse to defer military service or join the workforce. While denying any Zionist tendencies, Pappenheim stated boldly that serving the Jewish nation militarily does not require, in his view, an acceptance of secular nationalism.
Several years ago, Pappenheim opened a vocational training center in Beit Shemesh’s Kirya Haredit neighborhood. The intention was to provide services for those full-time Talmud students who could no longer provide for their families without entering the workforce. The divergent reactions to his program highlight the two approaches within the haredi community to his approach.
Avreichim, full-time students who attend kollelim or yeshivot for married men, began attending and taking advantage of the program to enable their families to rise out of poverty. However, a backlash soon ensued and Pappenheim came to work one morning to find his office trashed.
Extremists, belonging to a sect known as the Sicarii, had broken into his center’s computer lab and poured a mush composed of oil and decomposing fish on thousands of dollars worth of electronic equipment. Sicarii is a name applied to an extremist group of Jewish Zealots, who attempted to expel the Romans and their partisans from Judea using concealed daggers in the decades after the destruction of the Second Temple.
Some time later Pappenheim was beaten violently when he attempted to enter a synagogue.
The confrontation between what academic experts like the Israel Democracy Institute’s (IDI) Haim Zicherman call the “emerging haredi middle class” and extremists within their communities is normally not quite so violent or sensationalist as what Pappenheim has experienced. He happens to live in a flashpoint of conflict between especially extreme factions. However, there is certainly an underlying tension between the “new” haredim and their peers which manifests itself in discrimination in matters of school admissions and matchmaking.
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In a paper co-written with the IDI’s Lee Cahaner, Zicherman noted that, “Over the last decade in Israel, cultural and economic developments and changes in leadership have been weakening the ‘society of learners’ – in which ultra-Orthodox Jews devote themselves to full-time study rather than joining the workforce – and strengthening the individual haredi. At the same time, however, a significant sub-group has begun to emerge: a haredi middle class.”
This should not be confused with Western haredim living in Israel who, being generally more educated and acculturated, have long participated as members of Israel’s professional class. American members of the ultra-Orthodox community, as opposed to their Israeli counterparts, have not been raised in an educational milieu in which working for a living is stigmatized.
In the haredi community, ideology and communal identity is fortified by the concept of Daas Torah, “the knowledge of Torah.” Daas Torah refers to the idea that the rabbinic leadership, usually drawn from the ranks of the deans of the largest yeshivot, have an almost mystical understanding of truth, even in areas in which they are not experts, by dint of their years of Talmud study. Following the dictates of the gedolim, the great rabbis of the generation, in all matters is a must if one is to be part of the haredi community.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Zicherman noted that while this group has gone against the prevailing Daas Torah, which emphasizes learning fulltime as the guiding principle of their community, they still consider themselves fully haredi.
“They are still haredi because they think that they are haredi, they are connected to the haredim,” he explains. “They still vote for the haredi United Torah Judaism party in national elections.
“They wear black kippot and they pay a price for that. The price is that if you go to a secular workplace with a haredi sign like that you are a stranger. They believe in the haredi ideology; they are not Zionists. In everything connected to ideology they remain haredi,” he says. “They are very connected and interested in what is happening in the haredi world and on the haredi street.”
This phenomenon, of a haredi professional class that participates in military or civilian service, gains a high education, sometimes in some of the newly established haredi technical and vocational colleges and works for a living, is primarily limited to the “Lithuanian” stream of non-hassidic, Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy, says Zicherman.
Sephardi haredim and hassidic movements do not, as a general rule, stigmatize work and it is common to see hassidic males employed, he says.
While providing any sort of accurate figures for the number of new haredim or the percentage of the ultra-Orthodox population for which they account is difficult, says Zicherman, the rise of the Tov political party highlights the rise of their ideology from scattered individuals to a movement with its own organization.
“We know it’s something real because now they have started to organize,” he says. Most Israelis will not have heard of Tov, as it does not compete with the more established Shas and UTJ parties in national elections. It does, however, directly compete with the haredi establishment parties in municipal elections in cities with a large haredi community such as Betar Illit and Beit Shemesh.
The polling numbers in recent local elections can provide insight into the growing popularity of Tov, and by extension the new haredim, says Zicherman.
While the leaders of Tov have said they have as many as 10,000 supporters out of some 700,000 haredim in Israel, Zicherman isn’t sure of those numbers.
However, he says, “I am sure that we are speaking about thousands of people.”
His evidence? During the last elections the party gained significant support. In Betar Illit, he estimates, one out of 15 haredim voted for Tov, and in Beit Shemesh, one out of 10.
Aryeh Goldenberg, a new haredi and a spokesman for the Tov party, explained that according to Jewish tradition Torah learning must be accompanied by a livelihood. While not impugning those who study full time, something he believes to be important but not realistically attainable by most members of his community, he explained that such full-time study is not the historic Jewish way of life.
“Seventy years ago all the haredim were working,” he says. “It was part of the mentality, and I don’t agree that we have to be called the ‘new haredim.’” To Goldenberg, the ideology of the new haredim is really a revival of tradition.
Citing the talmudic adage that “Any study of Torah when not accompanied by a trade must fail in the end and become the cause of sin,” Goldenberg said that a main principle of Judaism is that “every Jew has to be a contributor to society and not be a burden.”
Israeli society needs those who can become great in Torah, to study full-time and become “vessels for holiness, but for the people who cannot do that and don’t have the abilities to do so,” it is unrealistic to expect them to study full-time and be supported by the state.
“They have to find themselves a place in the society as well, and they can do that by keeping of course a Torah life inside their family, fixing a daily time for Torah learning, but also working, meaning not only not being a burden for the society but a real contributor on a spiritual and material level.”
Another voice calling out for change in the haredi world is Rabbi Dov Lipman. An American-born rabbi from Beit Shemesh, Lipman also came to national prominence during the Orot Banot affair as a haredi advocate for the national religious and secular Jews of Beit Shemesh. A former senior member of the Am Shalem movement, which could be considered to represent the views of the new haredim, Lipman has been working to implant the American haredi ideology which values combining work and study amongst his Israeli counterparts.
According to Lipman, “The community has grown in numbers and people look around and see it is not possible that all of us are supposed to be sitting and learning Torah our entire lives. It’s not possible economically, it’s not possible that the Torah had this in mind. Throughout the Torah you see over and over again that people were involved with work.”
Many haredim, seeing their growing community and concomitant rise in poverty, “began to question the system, which has told them that everybody is just supposed to sit and learn Torah.”
“I think there is some awareness of what I would call the ‘American haredi,’ where they see people that are able to be haredi and combine that together with working and being part of society and I think that has had some level of influence as well. But the primary [reason] is one of need.”
Another cause for change in the haredi community is the increasing role that the “religious stringency” has played in haredi society. When extra-legal stringencies and appearance begin to matter more than personal piety, Lipman believes, people begin to search for a way to reform their community.
“Much relates to these externals. You know, guys who [ask] ‘you mean you won’t accept me if I wear a blue shirt?’ With the new haredim you see the dress, it is very much clear from externals such as the dress. You see women who are comfortable going out of the home dressed modestly but in a more modern, puttogether type of way, and you see it in the men, once in a while in a polo shirt, and these things aren’t problems and they are comfortable saying ‘this is who I am.’”
What is interesting about the new haredim, many observers believe, is that while their numbers are still small relative to the larger haredi population, they have grown tremendously since the turn of the millennium. Beyond the actual members of this diffuse and often disorganized societal group, however, are the large numbers of quiet supporters that Lipman believes exist within the mainstream haredi community.
“The quiet sympathizers are a huge number. Let’s remember, it takes a tremendous amount of courage to be that way. It means it could impact your children and their schools. It could impact your daughters in terms of shidduchim [matches]. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to be someone who is openly embracing this new approach... I would say that the numbers that are willing to go out are very small at this point in, who are willing to go out and say ‘this is my ideology.’ Many of them couch it in [language such as ] ‘I have no choice, I have to go out and work but not as an ideology that I believe this is the way it should be,’ but that’s going to change.”
Lipman predicts as more and more go to work, and see that they can still study Torah, things will change.
“As more haredi men go to work and they see they can combine together Torah with being part of the world and they see that secular people aren’t the devil and can get along with each other, slowly but surely I think that people will feel more comfortable.”
Lipman says that haredim regularly seek him out to complain bitterly about their situation and to encourage him to continue seeking change in a community in which change is often anathema and slow to take hold.
Often, he says, there will be tension within marriages in which the wife works to support her husband in kollel and brings home a more modern outlook that clashes with the insular ideology of her husband.
The problem, many believe, is the concept of Daas Torah.
“If you sit down with a haredi quietly in a room and say to him, ‘Do you see something wrong with combining together Torah and sustaining your family properly?’” Lipman says, “Most of them will tell you, in that setting, I do not see a contradiction.” When you ask why they do not support such a societal structure, he continues, they will explain that they do not act on this belief because of Daas Torah. “So as long as that’s in place it’s going to be very hard for massive type of change.”
There is a disconnect between the rabbinic leadership and the laity, he continues, saying that during a recent meeting with a number of 18-year-old yeshiva students in Bnei Brak, secretly in a parking lot in the middle of the night, he was told that they were actually interested in military service within a religious framework.
“They weren’t waving the flag for Zionism but they were saying the land of Israel and it’s important and we want to contribute our part.”
However, “they said the pressure from above is so strong that it is very hard to have the courage to do it.”
The issue of rabbinic support is key in this matter.
A recent editorial in Yated Ne’eman, which represents the more extreme rabbinic faction, recently railed against the new haredim, explaining that while “it is clear that working for one’s livelihood does not disqualify a person as a haredi,” to a true haredi, the editors wrote, “his career is no source of pride for him.
“If circumstances force him to leave the beit hamidrash and seek a livelihood, he will do so against his will and not proudly declare that he is ‘a working haredi.’” Even more telling is the newspaper’s assertion that “A haredi Jew unequivocally accepts Daas Torah and Halacha in every area of his life.”
Asked if there is any chance that a new rabbinic leadership would emerge that would support the new haredim, Lipman is not optimistic.
“The issue of the gedolim is very largely the askanim who surround them,” he says. Askanim are the community activists and assistants who normally surround the leading rabbis and act as a buffer between them and the communities they lead.
“They are totally controlled by people around them and that’s the biggest problem.
That’s why it’s going to be hard, because the moment anybody emerges with another kind of ideology, they are branded immediately as being outside the camp and as not being haredi.
“That happens immediately and there is a massive campaign against any person who voices anything different.
So the chance of the new gedolim, so to speak, developing to lead this way, I don’t see that happening.”
However, despite severe censure from leading rabbis, the members of the Tov party, and by extension the new haredim, are not deterred. While they have suffered discrimination regarding school admissions and have soured potential matches for their children by coming out publicly with their views, they have thus far stood firm and they seem to have chosen their own, more accommodating rabbis.
“For me Torah are the rabbis that I follow. They are rabbis that are expressing of course the importance of the Torah world, the Torah learning, but they are rabbis who realize the need and the importance of a person who has to go out and work, especially when he has a family to feed, and each person has to pick a way of doing it that is appropriate to him,” says Goldenberg.
“And of course a very important point is that even if a person is working, he has the same obligation of Torah learning as any other Jew and has to make a time that is good for him to learn every day. And a person who does that really learns every single day no matter what, realizes his obligation of limud Torah [Torah study] as much as a person who learns all day.”
However, as the rabbis of the new haredim themselves face delegitimization for supporting Tov, says Lipman, the only chance for communal change rests on the common people.
“The more opportunities you give and the more programs you provide, the more people will take advantage of it,” Lipman concludes. “That’s how the change will happen, not by forcing them. If you force them to change, the haredim will just call for jihad, but by providing them with opportunities people will take hold of it.”