How I met my first Haredi

Born in Gateshead, England, in 1900, he had studied at a yeshiva in Jerusalem.

ULTRA-ORTHODOX JEWS pray next to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman, Ukraine, last month. (photo credit: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS)
ULTRA-ORTHODOX JEWS pray next to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman, Ukraine, last month.
(photo credit: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS)
I was a little boy in Melbourne in the 1940s. Our cheder teacher was ill and the Education Board sent us a temporary replacement. It was an anglicized community and he was known as “Reverend,” though maybe he had been ordained. His name was Joir Adler. Born in Gateshead, England, in 1900, he had studied at a yeshiva in Jerusalem.
In 1930, he became a minister and kosher slaughterer in New Zealand, where the community was disconcerted by his criticisms of local customs and his determination to build a mikveh (ritual bath). In Australia, he ran a Talmud Torah school and had a printing business called Eagle Press (Adler = Eagle). We wrote notes on the back of his invoices. For a while he was a rabbi in Japan.
He did not look like our local ministers who were mostly clean-shaven and wore clerical collars. He taught us basic elementary Hebrew, though I suspect that he would have enjoyed introducing us to Gemara. In those days we had never studied Talmud, seen an explanatory Gemara or even known that the Talmud existed. We knew he was very religious (we were mostly the opposite). These days I would have realized that he was haredi, ultra-Orthodox. Eventually our regular teacher returned to duty and we lost touch with Rev. Adler.
“Haredi” is from a verb that means to tremble. It occurs in Isaiah 66:5, “Hear the word of the Lord, you who tremble at His word (haharedim el devaro). Despite the popular belief, today’s haredim are not the direct continuation of pre-war Eastern Europe. Menachem Friedman argues (The Haredi Society: Sources, Trends and Processes), that the haredi movement can be dated from the 1950s as a response to secularism.
Individual pietists had always existed, but now they had a community. It feared that “because of our sins,” religion would vanish from post-Holocaust Jewry. It sought a solution in intense Torah study combined with a high degree of segregation from secular society. One concomitant was invective against “Jewish pig-eaters” who cut themselves off from tradition.
Targets of their slogans included Reformers, whom they accused of giving bar mitzvahs to dogs, and even Modern Orthodox Jews, whom they accused of making peace with the (Zionist) devil.
After the Holocaust, Jews were an endangered species. Most Jewish children got no Jewish education or a mere smattering. Communities were disintegrating. What our enemies could not do, we were bringing upon ourselves. Judaism was on its last legs.
There were two choices: Let’s not prolong the agony but say the kaddish mourner’s prayer for ourselves, or let’s say kiddush, the blessing over wine, not kaddish, and reinvigorate Judaism. But lo alman Yisrael – “Israel is not bereft.” Today there is hardly a spot on the Jewish scene which is without new commitment. Jews are opting in. People in search find a mentor – frequently a Chabadnik (though Chabad is not considered haredi) – who opens old doors for new people. Sometimes they enter Conservatism or Reform but often they don’t stay there.
A PROFESSOR I knew told me, “If I were religious, I’d be Orthodox.” Others beat him to it. Orthodoxy is today’s fastest growing Jewish movement. It has the highest Jewish birth rate, the lowest rate of drift and desertion, the largest cadre of ba’alei teshuva, returnees to Judaism, or first-time religious. Everywhere we see upward trends. In Britain 75% of Jewish babies are born to shomrei mitzvot (strictly Orthodox, observant) families.
The spread of Orthodoxy is evident. Schools, yeshivot, minyanim on campus, scholars, sages, books, online study, boys with kippot and protruding tzitzit, women with hair-coverings, mikvaot, kosher milk, glatt kosher meat, Torah study in city offices, and more. Rev. Adler, who got his kosher milk from a local ground-keeper’s cow, would have approved.
The eulogies for Orthodoxy in the 1940s were premature. Orthodoxy is alive and well. Many of the Orthodox are ba’alei teshuva who came in from the cold. We shudder that Israel is a haven for a few people who are hiding from the law, but it is also – far more significantly and positively – the place where Jews find themselves and their tradition.
Alas, Orthodoxy suffers from chronic fragmentation. Its sub-groups cannot always live with each other in what Norman Lamm called “the harmony of a complex of elements in which each retains its own singularity and cherishes its differentness.” Some elements present what Chief Rabbi Jakobovits called “an unacceptable face of Orthodoxy.”
Modern Orthodoxy (“MO”) has a sub-group which some call Open Orthodoxy (“OO”), a controversial movement critiqued in David Rosenthal’s Why Open Orthodoxy is Not Orthodox. It accuses Talmudic giants of holding dated views and implies that even MO has shut out history and science. MO does not say there are no problems but it thinks that OO has failed to find the solutions.
Standard Orthodoxy has respect for gedolim (great scholars), though it suspects that non-haredim are unlikely to be accepted as gedolim. Standard Orthodoxy wonders why the Israeli haredi world opposes working for a living when many Diaspora haredim take it for granted that men have jobs and support their families. It knows what haredim say about Zionism and joining the IDF, but it wonders why Israeli haredim take tax money but don’t pay taxes.
Logically, people who consider the Israeli government a cabal of heretics should refuse to accept government funding. No one objects to high levels of commitment, to the choice to be different or practice self-confidence and segregation, even to believe that the MO are beyond the pale of Jewish law. What about the blessing that praises Him who varies the forms of His creatures?
How should Orthodoxy handle the non-Orthodox? The latter are also looking for God and His word. Treating them with respect and courtesy does not imply that they are right. Denouncing them won’t make them change their minds. If they want to pray their way, that’s their decision, so long as they don’t intrude upon the activities of others.
The writer is the emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia.