Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?

"Whatever the Orthodox statistics are, it is the healthiest, fastest growing Jewish movement, in all its forms."

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man holds a Bible as he protests against a monthly prayer session of the Women of the Wall group at the Western Wall, 2013 (photo credit: REUTERS)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man holds a Bible as he protests against a monthly prayer session of the Women of the Wall group at the Western Wall, 2013
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?” is an English children’s song. The current widespread beat-up on the haredim suggests a new song, “Who’s afraid of the big bad haredi?”
“Haredi” is from a Hebrew verb that means “to tremble.” It occurs in Isaiah 66:5: “Hear the word of the Lord, you that tremble at His word” (haharedim el devaro).
Despite the popular belief, today’s haredim are not the direct continuation of pre-war Eastern European Jewry. Menachem Friedman argues in his book The Haredi Society: Sources, Trends and Processes that the haredi movement, as a movement, can be dated from the 1950s as a response to secularism. Individual pietists had always existed, but not in an organized fashion until the haredi community came into being for an ideological purpose, says Friedman.
It feared that “because of our many sins,” religion would vanish from post-Holocaust Jewry, and 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 mitzvas 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. Intermarriage was on the rise, birth rates were low. Most Jewish children got no Jewish education or at best a mere smattering. Communities which survived the Shoah were disintegrating. What our enemies could not do to us, we were bringing upon ourselves. Judaism was on its last legs. There were two choices. One was: let’s not prolong the agony but say Kaddish for ourselves. The other: let’s say Kiddush, not Kaddish, and reinvigorate Jewish religious identity.
But there is a rabbinic phrase, “lo alman Yisrael” – Israel is not bereft. Whatever the factors, and they certainly include haredism, today there is hardly a spot on the Jewish scene which is without new Jewish commitment, development and determination. Jews are opting in. People in search find a mentor – frequently a Chabadnik – who opens old doors for new people. Sometimes they enter Conservatism or Reform but often they don’t stay there. An academic I knew told me, “If I became religious, I would be Orthodox.” Others beat him to it. Whatever the Orthodox statistics are, it is the healthiest, fastest growing Jewish movement, in all its forms. In both quantity and quality.
In terms of statistics, orthodoxy has the highest Jewish birth rate, the lowest rate of drift and desertion, the largest element of ba’alei teshuvah (“master of return,” meaning a Jew that returns to Orthodox Judaism). The statistics, however, are not the real test. Static figures describe things as they are. What is more important is to take a dynamic look and see how things are developing. It is trends which chart the struggle for the future, and what we see are upward trends. In Britain 75% of Jewish babies are born to Orthodox families.
The spread of Jewish quality is also evident. Day schools; yeshivot; religious cadres at universities; scholars; sages; books; online versions of classics; boys with kippot and tzitzit; women with covered hair; mikvehs; mechitzot (partition between women’s and men’s prayer areas); kosher milk; glatt kosher meat; religious classes in city offices; tefillin in cabin bags – the list is endless. There is more antisemitism, but there is more Judaism.
It’s one of the miracles of our age. The eulogies for Orthodoxy were premature. Orthodoxy is alive and well. A fair proportion of the Orthodox are ba’alei teshuvah – returnees, reversioners who come in from the cold. We shudder that Israel has become the haven for a handful of people who are hiding from the law, but Israel is also – far more significantly and positively – the place where Jews find themselves and their tradition.
Nonetheless, orthodoxy has its problems. It suffers from chronic fragmentation. Its subgroups somehow cannot live with each other without name-calling, in place of what Norman Lamm has called “the harmony of a complex of elements in which each retains its own singularity and cherishes its differentness.” Tragically, the denigration of others involves the haredim in both directions – not just what some of them say but also the invective which their denigrators hurl at them.
The extremist elements are passionate and sincere, but they do not always serve the overall good of the Jewish People, often presenting what chief rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits called “an unacceptable face of orthodoxy.”
How ought orthodoxy to handle the existence of non-Orthodox movements? They too are looking for God and His word. Treating them with respect and courtesy does not imply recognition that they are right. Denouncing them is unlikely to make them change their minds. If they want to pray in their way that’s their concern, so long as they don’t intrude upon the activities of the Orthodox. One only hopes that they will want to pray 24/7 at the Western Wall like the Orthodox.
Within standard (non-haredi) orthodoxy there must also be a live-and-let-live among the elements. Haredim are more isolationist, modern Orthodox are more open to Western culture. Within modern orthodoxy (“MO”) there is now a controversial divide involving what has been dubbed Open Orthodoxy (“OO”). Open Orthodoxy pushes the envelope into areas that other Orthodox elements regard as beyond the fringe. I have heard it said that Open Orthodoxy is becoming so open that the mitzvot (commandments) fall out.
It’s a controversial movement, instituted by Rabbi Avi Weiss and critiqued in David Rosenthal’s “Why Open Orthodoxy is Not Orthodox”. OO’s ideology openly dismisses Talmudic giants as holding dated views and implies that even MO has closed itself off from developments in philosophy and science. MO does not say there are no problems but it fears that OO has failed to find the solutions. OO has controversial answers to sexual and gender issues. MO is troubled by OO but should say so without invective. For its part OO could do with more humility in its response to MO.
Another problem: whatever the reasons, standard orthodoxy has tightened its positions so that things that once were taken for granted are now being questioned. There is a preference for humrot (stringencies); people even joke about the “Humra of the Week Club.” Shabbat and kashrut for instance are becoming more difficult.
Standard orthodoxy has respect for gedolim (great rabbinic scholars) though it suspects that non-haredi scholars are unlikely to be recognized as gedolim and that some of the haredi gedolim have that title because of political reasons. Standard orthodoxy also questions whether the Torah world needs to set its face against working for a living; it points out that in haredi circles in the Diaspora it is taken for granted that men have jobs and support their families.
It knows what haredim say about Zionism and joining the Israel Defense Force but it wonders why the Israeli haredi movement seems ready to take tax money but not pay taxes, to accept IDF protection but not participate in at least its supportive agencies. Logically, haredi parties that consider the Israeli government a halachically illegitimate regime of heretics should refuse to accept government funding.
The non-haredi community, Orthodox or otherwise, has the right to pose these challenges to the haredim. It is not that we object to their level of commitment, their choice to be different or their self-confidence and segregation. We do not deny their right to regard us as beyond the halachic pale. But the disparate segments of the Jewish People share the blessing that praises the One who varies the forms of His creatures.
The author is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.