Who is ‘haredi’

‘I dream of shifting Israeli society to a culture in which no person has to define himself.’

Haredi and secular in Mea Shearim 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi and secular in Mea Shearim 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population has been in the news a lot this past year. The episodes of religious extremism earlier in the year led to significant debate about the haredim. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Tal Law, which exempted the ultra-Orthodox population from IDF service, must be discontinued.
These and other related news items have brought the word “haredi” to the fore throughout Israel.
But the fundamental question is: Who is haredi? That question must be asked because many people, including myself, consider themselves haredi but are not viewed as such by many in the haredi community. It would actually be easier to clarify who is not a haredi according to preset standards, since the haredi press tends to focus on this issue.
So, who isn’t haredi? Here is the list as I understand it.
A person who waves an Israeli flag is not haredi. Zionists are not haredim.
A person who believes in service to the country is not haredi. A person who believes in joining the workforce on principle is not a haredi. A person who believes in gaining a secular education even while studying Torah at the same time is not haredi. A person who believes that there is “wisdom among the nations” is not haredi.
A person who uses the Internet is not haredi. A person who does not adhere to every pronouncement of one, specific rabbi is not haredi. A woman who wears the wrong head covering is not haredi. A person that does not wear black from head to toe is not haredi. A person whose kippa is not black is not haredi. A person who wears a blue shirt is not haredi. And the list goes on and on.
I know that many people who view themselves as haredi fit into one or more of the non-haredi categories listed above. And this captures the problem burning within the haredi community today. There is a pressure to maintain haredi status even though many haredim recognize that the demands being made by their leaders and media outlets are absurd and many who view themselves as haredi do not fit into the mold formed by the leadership.
Based on the above criteria, “haredi” as imposed on the community by strong and controlling powers describes an anti-Zionist, non-working, uneducated, isolated, unreasonably strict, uncultured, black hat, white shirt, black pants wearing Jew.
This is ridiculous because that is not how most haredim want to be defined by others and certainly not how they want to view themselves.
Therefore, I and my partners in the Am Shalem movement, have committed ourselves to restoring the original meaning of the word haredi, which is “one who trembles,” a reference to individuals who “tremble to fulfill His [God’s] word” (Isaiah 66:5).
Let’s face it – a person can “tremble to fulfill God’s words” and be Zionist, “tremble before God” and work to sustain his family, “tremble before God” and receive a well-rounded education, and “tremble before God” while wearing a knitted kippa and colored shirts! It is my hope that the hundreds of thousands of people who view themselves as haredi will begin to see through this labeling ploy which many in the ultra-Orthodox leadership and media use to help them keep control over the community and will feel empowered to live the true haredi lifestyles defined by “trembling to fulfill the word of God” while not conforming to man-made, extremist demands.
The issue I have raised in this column proves the necessity of the fulfillment of my dream for Israel and motivates me to work even harder to help make it become a reality. I dream of shifting Israeli society to a culture in which no person has to define himself. I dream of Israel mirroring the tradition which was common in North African Jewish communities, from where my family hails, where Jews were simply “Jewish,” with no further definitions or barriers that define one group of Jews as separate from the other.
Of course, people had varying levels of religious observance, but no one labeled them based on their degree of observance and especially not based on their appearance, remembering the Talmudic warning to never “look at the outside of the jar.” People simply focused on their own Judaism that was meaningful to them without rating which “box” others fell into.
This led to far greater unity and respect for all Jews. No one had to act or prove that they lived up to the demands of any other human being.
Everyone understood that we were all Jews and that is what mattered most.
The individual, private religious practices of others were not on the radar and certainly not the focus like they are today.
We are currently in the time period of the Jewish calendar called the Omer, during which we mourn for the deaths of 24,000 Torah students and scholars.
The Talmud teaches that they died in a plague which punished them for “not giving honor from one to the other.” Let us learn the lesson from their failure and begin to tear down the walls and labels which are ripping us apart as a nation. We can begin by enabling everyone who sees themselves as “trembling to fulfill the word of God” to view themselves as haredi.
The author is a member of Knesset, an ordained rabbi, and the chairman of the Am Shalem movement.