Upon reading Jay Michaelson’s description of Haredi society in the Forward, I had a very uneasy feeling. Not because he didn’t quote examples of a great many problems in that world. The fact is that many (but certainly not all) of his descriptions are true. They are things I talk about here all the time.
What’s troubling me is that throughout his essay he weaves the idea that Haredi-ism is all about negatives and not in the slightest about the positives. He paints the entire Haredi enterprise in monolithic tones as if they are all guilty of the crimes of the few… or at least tolerate them. One would think that all yeshivos in America are ethically challenged… that they all use devious means to gain federal funding.
Israeli Haredim put American Haredim to shame, he says, in their ability to do that in Israel. He also goes into a litany of negative stereotypes painting all Haredim with the same broad brushstrokes and then calls for a virtual financial war against them – with the intent of de-funding them and ultimately destroying them.
What Mr. Michaleson does not understand – or chooses to ignore – is that the vast majority of Haredim are moderate. They are the mainstream. They are as opposed to the negatives as he is. But their philosophy is still Haredi in that they support full time Torah study and tend to be more stringent in various Halachos that allow for leniencies (like halav yisroel). Many also tend to have good jobs and often get professional training and become professionals themselves. There are plenty of successful Haredi businessmen, attorneys, accountants, doctors, dentists, and even university professors. At least here in the U.S.
Israeli Haredim do not generally have professions unless they are immigrants who’ve had a decent secular education. That is one of the problems I harp on constantly here. But even so, they are not the evil unethical people that Mr. Michaelson makes them out to be.
In response to Mr. Michaelson’s article, Jonathan Rosenblum does a good job in describing the good in the Haredi lifestyle. One which he joined by choice. Although he does not address the problems listed by Michaelson in this article, he has addressed them all in many separate articles. He acknowledges many of the problems Mr. Michaelson brings up… and has even at times been criticized for it by members of his own community.
Jonathan Rosenblum is one of those Haredim that I call moderate. I believe that his views reflect the views of most Haredim. While I don’t agree with him on everything, I respect his views as legitimate in an elu v’elu sense.
He actually sympathized with me in an e-mail exchange when I lamented the fact that there are no limudei hol (secular) studies in Israeli high schools. He had defended the Israeli educational system but conceded that he placed great value on the education he received at Yale – and he draws upon that knowledge quite often. I sensed that he feels it would not be the worst thing in the world if Haredim did have a bit of limudei hol in their curriculum – although he did not actually say so. He has often expressed understanding if not agreement with all those who advocate ‘sharing the burden’.
It is also interesting to note that Jonathan Rosenblum who puts himself foursquare in the Haredi camp – is an adherent of classical Hirschean “Torah Im Derech Eretz” (TIDE). He has said so many times and has written articles defending and supporting it in debate with those of us who believe in Torah U’Mada (TuM).
He is not the only Haredi who sees TIDE as the optimal way for a Jew to live. Although there are ideological differences between TIDE and TuM, I do not see all that much practical difference between them. I would be more than ecstatic if all Haredim would buy into TIDE for their hashkafas hahaim… their outlook on life.
The point of Jonathan’s retort to Mr. Michaelson’s is not to refute his allegations point by point. I’m sure that he would even agree with many of them. It was to counter the purely negative description by explaining why he bought so strongly into the Haredi lifestyle.
I agree that the Haredi world – even some of the more extreme segments of them – are very altruistic about their ideals. Those that are sincere and spend full time in yeshivos do spend the majority of their day studying Torah diligently. They probably work as hard intellectually as any secular scholar (or maybe even harder).
If one steps into the Mir at any given time of the day, one will see a Beis HaMedrash full of Bnei Torah in intense study – either with a havrusa (study partner), or in one of the many huburos (study groups) or even alone in deep concentration in one of the multitudinous seforim (books) written by commentators on a particular topic in the Gemara or Halacha. No matter what any given student’s level of expertise is on any given subject, no one can deny their dedication and diligence.
Of course there are also plenty of Yeshiva students in the periphery just hanging out and schmoozing – either in the halls or outside the building. But they are minuscule compared to the numbers on the inside. There is something quite inspirational in seeing this.
But their lives are not just about Torah study – as Jonathan points out:
People extend themselves for one another in extraordinary ways and share the rhythms of the seasonal calendar. When a study partner of mine, a Harvard and Oxford-trained classicist, passed away suddenly, leaving behind ten orphans, we raised $300,000 for his family, most of it in the form of monthly bank orders from Talmudic scholars, with large families and monthly incomes of $2,000 or less. When a neighbor needed a liver transplant, a group of a hundred of so men gathered every night for two weeks, until he was out of danger, to recite Tehillim on his behalf.
It is a community of extraordinary generosity. In my neighborhood alone, there are 200 or so free loan societies listed in our neighborhood directory for everything from medicines to bridal gowns to infant pillows for the bris. Virtually every major volunteer organization in Israel was founded by Haredim…
These facts are undeniable. Why would anyone want to destroy a society like this? Not that it is beyond any criticism… as people who read this blog know. It does need some serious tweaking in many areas – mostly in eliminating some of the problems mentioned by Mr. Michaelson – especially in Israel. I have written some pretty harsh criticism along those lines. But I have neither God forbid called for their destruction nor called mainstream Haredism a destructive force.
There is a lot to admire there. As in most things this is not a black and white issue. But one thing is certain. We can learn a lot about living a spiritual and altruistic lifestyle at great material sacrifice… and yet – while living the most modest of lifestyles – they are among the most charitable people in the world.
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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