Over the past couple of decades Charedi society in Israel has been undergoing a quiet but deeply significant process of “embourgeoisement.” More and more Charedi men and women are integrating in the workforce, often with academic degree in hand. Some climb their way through the public sector, others thrive in white collar jobs, while those with the requisite acumen continue to succeed in business and entrepreneurship. But the point I wish to raise is not so the widening range of occupations, but rather the mindset and social status underlying the shift. In ever increasing numbers, Charedim are leaving the conventional lifestyle of “getting by with the bare minimum,” and embracing the habits of a well-developed middle class. Advertisements in Charedi publications,1 including luxury cars, exclusive trips abroad and high fashion, are perhaps the best indication of this recent trend.
Alongside car importers and travel agents, the change has been picked up by the broader Israeli public, and an item on “Bourgeois Haredim” was recently aired on the evening news of the (now defunct) Public Broadcasting Corporation.2 By its very nature, the process of a developing middle class involves a range of challenges and difficulties, some of which are yet to receive serious attention. The process is long underway, but its personal implications, its society-wide ramifications, the obstacles it raises and the challenges it creates—all await scrutiny.
This article means to raise these challenges, and especially the internal tension created by the very expression “Bourgeois Charedim.” Despite this tension, my proposal is that this odd combination may bring a refreshing opportunity to both Charedi society and the bourgeois idea itself.
The word “bourgeois,” originally meaning “middle class,” has long since become something of an expletive. It is usually identified with a human archetype that seeks indulgence and pleasure, that lacks deep longing and aspiration (other than financial ambition), and that displays a selfish character bereft of values and ideology. Tahar ben Jelloun, among the most celebrated of contemporary French authors, enlisted the bourgeois to express wonder at human achievements since the end of WWII: “We have empowered petty bourgeois regimes, in which everything is average and mediocre.”
But Bourgeois Man has positive aspects too. One of the best descriptions of these can be found in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Rabbi Avigdor Brazil, The Mashgiach (spiritual mentor)3 in the yeshiva I attended in my youth, directed my attention to the fact that of all the characters Tolkien wrought with his rich imagination, Samwise Gamgee—the man on the Hobbiton omnibus if ever there was one—is arguably the true hero of the text. Sam represents the simple British citizen that Tolkien wished to shape and even to extol. He is attracted to the regular things every Hobbit cherishes: rural quiet, good company over a cup of beer, and of course his beloved garden. He was not born for greatness, is not gifted with rare intelligence or an excess of spirit, and his ambitions are earthly and normal. He represents a kind of anti-hero, who somehow finds himself getting dragged into a story several sizes larger than his fit. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, Tolkien gives Sam an entire kit of good virtues: praiseworthy humility, exceptional dedication, unending loyalty, adherence to the mission, and even heroism when needed—all peppered with common sense, healthy intuitions, and simple faith.
Sam represents all that’s good about being bourgeois. He is cautious (a clearly middle-class trait), and like the rest of his kind he disinclines to risk and adventure. He despises injustice of all types, and nothing makes him angrier than the violation of his city’s private property. He works hard and expects to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He never loses hope, even when everything looks doomed. He loves his master, his wife, and life in all its richness. He is also a model citizen. Upon returning home, he leads the struggle against the evil forces that took over the Shire, ultimately becoming mayor in his hometown.
Charedi Gedolim—rabbinic leaders, luminaries, ultimate role-models—represent an ideal fundamentally at odds with the bourgeois epitome. They express uncompromising ambition, deep contempt for an “average” life, and a very different concept of citizenship.
For those very same reasons—earthiness, good citizenship, “normalcy”—the odds would be stacked against Sam as a Charedi hero. As I will explain in greater detail, Charedi Gedolim—rabbinic leaders, luminaries, ultimate role-models—represent an ideal fundamentally at odds with the bourgeois epitome. They express uncompromising ambition, deep contempt for an “average” life, and a very different concept of citizenship. If one were to characterize the Charedi world according to its heroes (as Rabbenu Yonah recommends in his commentary on Ethics of the Fathers)4, we would conclude that Charedi society is exceedingly distant from Tolkien’s British bourgeois.
Despite this, I will argue that parts of charedi society are undergoing a process of becoming bourgeois, and it may be that the gap is not as fundamental as we might assume. I will also claim that this process may be significant not just for Charedi society and its interaction with general Israeli society, but also for the bourgeois idea in general and its Israeli realization in particular. All of this will come shortly, but first, by way of introduction, I will devote a brief chapter to the definition and history of the bourgeois.
The Rise and Fall of the Bourgeois
In a recently delivered lecture, Dr. Hanan Shai (Schwartz) mentioned an instruction he was given in the kibbutz he grew up on: “You must not buy from the bourgeois grocery store, but only from the Mapainik’s.” The “bourgeois” storeowner, by the way, was a modest Holocaust survivor, a man who simply wished to earn his daily bread honestly. The contempt of the bourgeois articulated by the kibbutz management was in no way personal, but entirely ideological; it was not the bourgeois individual they abhorred, but the underlying idea he represented.
Contempt for the bourgeois did not begin with the Kibbutz Ha-Meuhad movement. Antagonists of the bourgeois have been warning of its perils for many years. Already in 1840, French poet Arthur de Gobineau complained of “our poor country mired in Roman decadence.” When he looked around him, de Gobineau sensed that “[w]e have no spine or moral energy. I no longer believe in anything […] money has destroyed it all.” In 1823, William Poe wrote that “[t]wo selfish idols, pleasure and profit, are enslaving the Americans.” Throughout the Twentieth Century criticism of the bourgeois continued unabated, its critics directing most of their arrows at the United States (and the Jews). As David Brooks noted in his article “Bourgeoisophobia,” the mutual enemy even succeeded in creating a surprising partnership between European intellectuals and Islamist radicals, who continue to fight, each in their own way, the American-Jewish decadence of bourgeois capitalism.5
To understand the rise of the bourgeois and its enemies, we must briefly survey the historic background to its development. In the pre-capitalist era, systems of society and government were directed toward creating a high and exclusive culture, appropriate for a thin layer of humanity. The dominance of this aristocratic class, which knew how to protect its ranks from the entry of outsiders, continued until the appearance of capitalism (along with the Industrial Revolution, mass urbanization, and other related phenomena) and the democratization of society. The merging of these phenomena gave birth to the middle class, promoted the idea of equality, and created a new reality in which the fruits of civilization were offered for mass consumption. These fruits continued to reflect the spirit of the people and the nation, but their form changed. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French thinker who visited the capitalist America of the beginning of the nineteenth century, gave detailed expression to this process:
In aristocratic societies, the class that shapes public opinion and manages affairs, since it is there in perpetuity and thanks to heredity above the mass of the people, it forms an exalted vision of itself and of Man by the very nature of things. This class loves to invent noble affectations and set glorious goals for its ambitions […] In aristocratic periods, exalted ideas are usually shaped for the dignity, strength, and greatness of man.
This cannot be so in democratic nations […] the souls are not overflowing with energy, but the customs are comfortable and the laws humane. If we do not encounter the most exalted expressions of dedication, the most exalted, radiant, and purest virtues, the arrangements are orderly, violence rare, cruelty almost unknown […] Genius becomes rarer and education more common. The spirit of man develops thanks to the combination of all the little efforts of people, not by force of an enormous push by a few. There is less perfection, but there is more plenty in the work of Man.6
Bourgeois-democratic society wished to transfer the aristocratic cultural heritage into new vessels, more popular and widespread. Obviously, the quality of this version could not match the qualities of aristocratic society—hence the biting criticism it received from intellectuals and artists (primarily Frenchmen). Despite their genius and status, intellectuals suddenly found themselves on a lower social level than merchants and bankers—a bitter pill they had great difficulty swallowing.7 As the balance of forces in society changed, a newly-established middle class heralded an era of public responsibility and deep communal involvement, which embraced both teachers and students, artists and tradesmen alike. The common image of the bourgeois as a selfish and pleasure-seeking creature is a later phenomenon. In its early days, the bourgeois was the moral backbone of established and flourishing societies.
The common image of the bourgeois as a selfish and pleasure-seeking creature is a later phenomenon. In its early days, the bourgeois was the moral backbone of established and flourishing societies.
Alongside his renowned The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith, the famous thinker of bourgeois capitalism, wrote another book entitled The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). In this book, he instructs readers “to examine our behavior as we would conceive any fair and objective viewer would examine it.” In greater detail, he requires us “to bear the burden of others more than we would see to ourselves […] to limit selfishness, and deepen the feelings of benefit for the other, establishes the perfection of human nature.” Much like him, Milton Friedman, among the most eminent free-market economists of the twentieth century, underscored how the motivation of “self-interest” should not be confused with selfishness. According to Friedman:
Narrow preoccupation with the economic market has led to a narrow interpretation of self-interest as myopic selfishness, as exclusive concern with immediate material rewards. Economics has been berated for allegedly drawing far-reaching conclusions from a wholly unrealistic “economic man” who is little more than a calculating machine, responding only to monetary stimuli. That is a great mistake. Self-interest is not myopic selfishness. It is whatever it is that interests the participants, whatever they value, whatever goals they pursue. The scientist seeking to advance the frontiers of his discipline, the missionary seeking to convert infidels to the true faith, the philanthropist seeking to bring comfort to the needy—all are pursuing their interests, as they see them, as they judge them by their own values.8
Tocqueville was impressed on the one hand by the entrepreneurship and diligence of America’s citizenry, but noted at the same time his amazement at their political and civil involvement in the form of free association, and deeply praised the centrality of religion in society. He may have been documenting bourgeois life, but it was of the sort that strives for more than just earthly comfort. In the same spirit, Benjamin Franklin, an American icon who made his riches as a publisher and later invented several significant inventions (and even became a politician of note), included in his autobiography a detailed set of moral instructions. This would later become, by the mediation of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lappin of Stanov (and with the encouragement of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter), a well-known book of mussar (entitled Sefer Heshbon Nefesh).
Clearly, Bourgeois Man need not necessarily be entirely mired in the world of matter. He may be closely tied to reality, and economic prosperity is a cornerstone of the capitalist system he works under, but his self-interest does not by definition imply an exclusive pursuit of comfort and pleasure-seeking.
Despite this, it is difficult to deny that over time, a change has occurred among the characteristics of the middle class. In his article entitled When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness, neoconservative thinker Irving Kristol characterized bourgeois capitalism by way of three fundamental traits: personal freedom, economic prosperity, and virtue. However, he claimed that the third characteristic, virtue, had been sacrificed over time in favor of freedom and economic prosperity. Kristol warns of a process in which the development of capitalism poses a threat to bourgeois society itself. Today, according to Kristol—the article was published written in 1970—the bad reputation of Bourgeois Man is well-earned. His sole ambition, Kristol laments, is for a long, comfortable, and secure life.
Tocqueville also noted the tendency of democratic society for unrestrained materialism. “Democracy,” he wrote, “encourages the attraction to material pleasures. This attraction, if it is excessive, quickly encourages people to think that all is but matter; and materialism for its part drags them in a frenzy of excitement to those pleasures themselves; this is a disastrous cycle, which democratic nations are pushing towards. It would be good if they saw the danger and pulled back.” Not everyone, it seems, heeded his warning.9
Against the background of such a bourgeois, Christopher Dawson (a noted Catholic historian) noted that “The real opposite of the bourgeois is not to be found in the figure of the communist, but in the religious man—the man with passion.” In this context, Dawson sees a deep common denominator between communism and religion. Simply put, striving for a better world—whether spiritual in the religious context, or material for the communist—does not align with the bourgeois ideal, which feels good with the comfortable, the familiar and the proximate. If this is the case for religion in general, we can assume that it is all the truer for Judaism, and certainly for its Charedi variant. I will elaborate on this presently.
A Triple Asceticism
What is the opposite of bourgeois? We can think of many possibilities: radicalism, revolution, non-conformism, bohemianism, adventurism, socialism—and so on in this vein. But it seems that one of the most prominent of the non-bourgeois or anti-bourgeois figures is the ascetic: a man who lives separated from the world. This gives us a convenient point of departure concerning the relationship between Charedi society and the bourgeois idea.
Judaism, in the great majority of its traditional variants, does not display a significant tendency towards asceticism. By contrast with Christianity, where the idea of asceticism inheres in the theology of Original Sin, Judaism (writ large) means to advance life rather than retire from it. The reading of Talmudic Sages thus presents the positive aspect of monastic life as part of a process of rehabilitation, while the basic status of the Nazir is that of a sinner. According to some Sages, the forgiveness mentioned in the verse “and he atoned for it for having sinned for his soul”10 is required because “he denied himself wine.”11
Broadly writ, Judaism sanctifies life in all its opulence. Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg could thus write that “Judaism did not behold life with angry eyes and did not consider itself an enemy to it.”12 He proceeds to explain that the Jewish religion could never “reduce itself to the limits of ritual alone,” and that it “necessarily strives to encompass all areas of life.” He quotes his renowned teacher, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, in a similar vein: “Judaism means complete and refined humanity—humane and Jewish.”13
Even the Charedi version of Jewish living does not incline towards monastic asceticism. Those who are blessed with means may live a good life without this harming their level of piety and their Charedi credentials. Donations to the “right causes” will even procure admiration and respect. The same is true when it comes to the average Charedi Jew: Hared society adopted and continues to endorse tools of modern comfort, including a wholesale absorption of technological and cultural progress (in “kosher” versions). In this sense, as well as in some others, Charedi Judaism is far from being Amish.
However, even though it does not endorse monasticism in its harder variant, Charedi society does represent a spiritual movement of asceticism, which receives expression on three distinct levels: physical, cultural-civil, and religious.
At the material level, we have already mentioned that the (primarily Lithuanian) Charedi gadol—the ultimate role model for others to follow—is a man separated from the world in all aspects. His cleaving to Torah and the service of God leaves no room for a real connection with earthly reality. Of the “Steipler,” Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, it is told that “in his last months, when it was hard for him to get up and hard to walk… they had to beg him to bring in a chair with wheels. … [H]e would not allow an air conditioning unit to be installed in his room, and not even a fan… [and] would even bathe all his days in a cold mikveh.”14
Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l, who became the undisputed leader of the Lithuanian Charedi world during the first decade of the 21st century, continued to represent the paradigm. Rabbi Elyashiv devoted (virtually) every moment of his life to Torah study, detaching himself from the world to the extent that is humanly possible, within the parameters of Jewish law. His daughters testified that his total adherence to the ideal of Torah study ensured that everyday conversations with his wife and children “virtually never happened.” They reported that idea of his “going out” with his wife was simply “absurd.”15
In the Lithuanian variant, this Charedi asceticism is expressed at the simplest earthly level: physical appearance, surrounding conditions, aesthetics (or lack thereof) of all kinds. Indeed, Lithuanian gedolim from the “Chazon Ish” (Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz) to Rabbi Elyashiv (and certainly including the recently departed Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman) lived and live in the most modest of homes, with a bare minimum of old furniture and worn out artifacts. When media figure Judy Shalom-Nir-Moses visited the home of Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky (wife of Rabbi Chaim Kanievskly, a contemporary leader of Charedi Judaism), she was shocked to see “separate iron beds of the sort that haven’t been sighted since old movies,” and quickly concluded that “they simply have no interest in all things material.” It goes without saying that an entire society (Charedi society included) cannot live in such a manner, but as noted, these leaders define the ideal to strive for and to realize to extent possible.
The idea of a middle-class Charedi society, a “bourgeois Charedism”, seems to be an oxymoron. However, a look at processes taking place today within Charedi society reveals a more complex and nuanced picture.
The ascetic idea of the Charedi community is not limited to the material; it extends to include other dealings with the world, both in its cultural and civilian aspects. The very word “culture,” and the more so the term “leisure,” are decidedly uncommon; they are frowned upon as representing secular values, and the principle of isolation from non-Charedi life requires their distancing. De facto, Charedi society has for some years been creating an alternative culture—Charedi literature, music, and more recently even movies. But despite this development, interest in philosophy, art, literature, and other parts of (western) culture is kept to a minimum. The only “cultural heroes,” as it were, are the gedolim themselves, whose “culture” is undivided commitment to Torah, to the exclusion of other pursuits that would flaw their perfection.
As for citizenship (also a foreign, uncomfortable term for Charedi ears), it sometimes seems that Charedim still identify the State of Israel—the same is to a large degree true of the Chassidic US and UK community vis-à-vis the respective establishments—with the feudal lord (paritz) of 19th century Eastern Europe. Clearly, this does not contribute to the development of good citizenship in the ordinary sense of the term.16 Prominent examples come from two areas which are considered (by the average Israeli) crucial for good Israeli citizenship: military service, morbidly referred to by Charedim as the “draft decree” (reminiscent of the Jewish cantonists who were forcibly conscripted to the Czar’s army in 19th Century Russia), and general workforce participation. Concerning the latter, the majority of Charedi men refrain from (legal) gainful employment, and certainly from non-Charedi or non-Torah related occupations.17
The alienation and suspicion that exist, to varying degrees (depending on the sub-group), between the state and Charedi society is of course hardly conducive to an involved citizenship, as can be seen in many other areas: care for the environment, safety regulations, payment of various taxes, and so on. Even concerning politics, discussion of which is a significant Charedi pastime, real political involvement is reserved to a limited group appointed as “rabbinic agents” who act for the good of the Charedi public. The rest are expected, of course, to vote for the “correct party” every few years, but only as an act of compliance to the gedolim and not as an active expression of citizenship.
The third part of Charedi asceticism is the religious sphere, its central expression being halachic stringency—“legal asceticism,” to use the formulation of the famous ethical work Mesilas Yesharim (Ch. 14). It is natural that the more a person separates from the world in its simple, earthly sense, the more he will tend toward stringency in his approach to religious halacha, which regulates human interaction with reality. The Charedi public adopted this asceticism in its fullest sense, taking a hard line in many areas of Jewish law. Rabbi Simcha Elberg,18 an American rabbi who visited the city of Bnei Brak in the early sixties, would define what he witnessed with the following phrase: “a world of stringencies.” Bnei Brak, he continued, “embodies an enormous change in the entire system of religious life.”19 In complete contrast to the traditional rabbinic approach, which searches for leniencies that bridge between the demands of Torah law and the realities of everyday life, Elberg noted that the Bnei Brak model sought out the stringent ruling rather than the lenient one.
These three expressions of asceticism—from the physical-material world, from citizenship as commonly understood, and from commonly accepted halachic norms—raise the assumption that the foundations of Charedi society are indeed contrary to the principles of the bourgeois. The idea of a middle-class Charedi society, a “bourgeois Charedism”, seems to be an oxymoron. However, a look at processes taking place today within Charedi society reveals a more complex and nuanced picture.
Between Public and Individual
The principles of asceticism, which as noted are practiced to a degree by Charedi society, are not its own invention. As noted, its presence in Jewish tradition is far from dominant, yet at the same time it is far from marginal, and finds expression in various statements made by the Talmudic Sages. For example, the Sages note the instruction to “sanctify yourself with what is permitted to you,”20 which one leading commentator (the Ramban) derives from the biblical injunction of holiness: “You shall be holy.”21 The innovation of Charedi society is not the principle as such, but the extent of its application. Most occurrences of asceticism in writings of the Sages refer to individuals, rather than to the masses. Asceticism, in its various forms, is a characteristic of greatness embodied by people who are exceptional in society. It is not the lot of the entire public.
After explaining the correct method of asceticism, the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato) makes this precise point. He begins with the question: Since the principle of asceticism is important and central (as he lays out previously), why did the Sages refrain from declaring it obligatory? His response is that the Sages did not obligate a praxis that most of the public could not fulfill: “But the ardent among the people, those who desire to merit His closeness, may He be blessed, and thus benefit the rest of the masses who depend on their merit—it is proper for them to fulfill the precepts of Chassidim, which cannot be fulfilled by others; these are these orders of asceticism.” Asceticism is appropriate for the truly unique, the holy people in the land, “and through the disposed, the undisposed will also merit His Love, may He be blessed, and the connection to His presence.”22
The principle of separating between the individual and the multitudes is explicitly mentioned by the Talmud. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and Rabbi Yishmael were famously divided on the question of the balance between the Torah study and involvement in “the way of the world”—earthly labor. According to Rabbi Yishmael, the righteous path of Torah study was “to balance [Torah study] with the way of the world”—to combine Torah with labor. Rabbi Shimon disputed this, stating that the student must invest the entirely of his human resources in Torah study, and rely on Divine providence for his sustenance: “When Israel does the will of God, their work is done by others.” The debate was decided, centuries later, by the Talmudic Sage Abaye: “Many did as Rabbi Yishmael instructed and succeeded; as Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai instructed and did not succeed.”23
This teaching reflects a reality that most of the world is subject to. For better or for worse, active involvement in earthly affairs is a staple of human society—for the sake of the world, but also for the sake of human beings themselves. The Sages consider deviation from the boundaries of “the way of the world” to be a tangible danger. It is “the toil of both” (Torah combined with labor) which “makes one refrain from sin.”24 As Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin said, Abaye’s instruction is indeed to the multitudes, since for the masses “it is virtually impossible that they engage themselves all their days in Torah study alone, and not devote even one hour for the sake of earning their sustenance.”25 Unique individuals, on the other hand, may take the path of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, as did exceptional personages throughout the generations. These individuals served as a lighthouse for others, while separating themselves from the practical world; their livelihood, as Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai promised, was secured “by others.”
The Charedi public, especially its Israeli variant, was established as a society aiming to make this individual virtue a collective one—albeit in a softer version that permits some involvement in worldly affairs
The Charedi public, especially its Israeli variant, was established as a society aiming to make this individual virtue a collective one—albeit in a softer version that permits some involvement in worldly affairs (rare is the individual who is unaware of the family bank account and does not know nor care about the main course of his Shabbos meal). We should not dismiss the innovation inherent in this approach. As Rabbi Moshe Sheinfeld, the chief ideologue of Tze’irei Agudas Yisrael (the Agudah youth movement) in the 1950s noted, establishing the model involved a true rebellion of youth against their parents, often leading to family “tragedies.”26 The approach derived from a conscious and deliberate decision: to adopt a segregating approach, separating the nascent Charedi community from general Israeli society in all its aspects, thereby avoiding its corrosive, caustic effect.
Even today, every child in Charedi society (certainly in the Lithuanian sector, but to a great degree even in other groups) is educated toward a total devotion to Torah study—unending sacrifice for the highest ideal of Torah study. Charedi society does not set its personal goals in the form of a Torah-related occupation; to the contrary, accepting a job, even Torah-related, is often seen described as a demotion (unlike the Eastern European model, where post-marriage study in yeshiva was geared toward finding a rabbinic position). The Charedi ideal is embodied in a Torah student who cleaves to Torah study his entire life, without making any compromise with the practical world. As one headline in the (Charedi-Lithuanian) Yated Neeman daily emphasized: “A yeshiva student must be proud of being a yeshiva student alone.”27
Women are likewise taught to absorb “that the Torah student is the crown of humanity and the underlying purpose of creation.”28 The prevalent ambition among young ladies is therefore to marry a “ben-Torah” and support him in all his everyday needs. The foundational story of this model is that of Rachel, wife of Rabbi Akiva, who unflinchingly sent her husband to study Torah for twelve years, and for a dozen more after these elapsed. True, today we speak of twelve hours rather than twelve years, but the principle remains the same, and its foundations are clear: self-sacrifice; readiness for a modest life; excellence in worship of God; rising above the natural condition of humanity.
The model has enjoyed unprecedented success. From the ashes of the Holocaust, an enormous and high-quality world of Torah arose in a relatively brief period, including innumerable Torah institutions for all ages, thousands of synagogues and batei midrash, and hundreds of Chassidic courts. Charedi communities were established in a variety of cities, all devoted to the cause of passing on the torch of Torah, with a sincere readiness for a life of sacrifice to living the exalted ideal.
increasing exposure to the wider world—the result of a growing population (and expanding margins) as well as the new accessibility of our Internet age—has become a tangible threat to the accepted form of isolation
However, with the impressive growth in Charedi ranks, Abaye’s statement rings all too true: “Many did as Rabbi Yishmael and succeeded; as Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and did not succeed.” The model of sacrifice for the sake of rebuilding the Torah world was practical for a relatively small community, and even allowed for extensive earthly labors (for those who so desired) in the form of Torah-related occupations available to yeshiva students.29 These have dwindled with the increase in population, leaving many yeshiva graduates with all-too-limited options. In addition, it is far easier to organize a group around an exalted ideal, demanding maximal separation from the surrounding world, when the group is of modest dimensions. But when the number of families increases from a few hundred to tens of thousands, the rules of the game necessarily change. Under these circumstances challenges of poverty, a need for personal satisfaction and fulfillment, and the simple human urge for attachment to the earthly, raise piercing doubts concerning the ethos of collective asceticism, and put the boundaries of separation to a serious test.
Alongside this, increasing exposure to the wider world—the result of a growing population (and expanding margins) as well as the new accessibility of our Internet age—has become a tangible threat to the accepted form of isolation. Exposure of internal strife by the new media channels, from institutional corruption to serious criminal affairs, also weakens the ascetic ideal, tarnishing the purity of its image.
Numerical increase and its corollaries are one reason why many within Charedi society are turning to academic studies, to greater integration into the general workforce, and to new cultural channels. In a movement that is proving hard to stem (and impossible to reverse), it involvement in derech eretz—occupation with the worldly—is slowly returning, by force of necessity, to its traditional place. Yet, we cannot ignore another dimension taking its slow but inevitable toll: time.
The Generational Challenge
In any ideological movement, from Chassidus and the mussar movement through Zionism and the kibbutz movement, generational change is a particularly difficult challenge. I will focus specifically on what I will label the “third generation problem.”
The first generation of an ideological movement is made up of pioneers, people driven by a fierce passion, who act to create a better and more perfect society. The ideological fervor burning in their bones empowers these individuals to live a life of want and sacrifice for the great ideal in which they believe. This generation is characterized by a fired-up dynamic, with rapid growth and with the exhilaration that accompanies the pioneering labor of love. The second generation is also raised in the electrifying atmosphere of foundation and continues the ways of its fathers by solidifying the foundations, bringing order and systemic stability that were absent in the heady days of creation. There is indeed no longer a need to found things ex nihilo; instead, consolidation, and down the line politicization of the first generation’s achievements is the order of the day.
The third generation is born into an organized and well-founded system. […] It need not make any conscious choice of belonging; certainly, it does not need to fight for it.
The third generation is born into an organized and well-founded system. Its members lack a proximity to the passion of the founding generation, hearing of it anecdotally and in meetings with older people speaking a different language. They are not tasked with the challenge of founding, and consolidation has already been achieved by others. In these circumstances, and by contrast with its predecessors, the third generation need not make any conscious choice of belonging; certainly, it does not need to fight for it. Members of the third, and the more so the fourth generation after inception, being to ask themselves questions of meaning and identity. When it comes to a life of sacrifice, some even start to wonder: Is it worth it? To what degree? Can we not enjoy the best of both worlds?
This phenomenon can be found in multiple forms, from biblical times and through to the present day. Following Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the continuum of Moshe, Yehoshua and the Judges represents the phases of foundation, consolidation, and questioning, respectively. We can perceive the first three generations of the House of David in a similar light: David provided foundation, Solomon institutionalization, and Rehoboam questioning. In the context of this article, this process itself can be referred to as a “process of embourgeoisement”—increasing consolidation and institutionalization, with a consistent descent from the elevated plateau of the founding generation to an earthly reality demanding compromise and concession, tarnishing the purity of the original idea with the grit of reality. Those born into the third generation, after a robust social reality is established and consolidated, reap the fruits of their predecessors. At the same time, this very condition leads to increasing spiritual discomfort, and with it to a new search for insight, meaning and inspiration.
The history of Charedi society in Israel divides nicely along these lines. The first years (the fifties, sixties, and part of the seventies) were years of intense pioneering and ideology, a passionate building of the Torah world, saturated with personal and public sacrifice for the name of an exalted ideal. Later, a period of politicization and consolidation began, with an aim of securing previous achievements, emphasizing a deep commitment to continuing the path of the founding fathers. Today, in the twenty-first century, we seem to be living a new era, characterized on the one hand by a Charedi lifestyle replete with robust institutions that are taken for granted, and embodied on the other by an increased confusion among the young—those who were never required to choose it or work toward its realization.
Benjamin Brown describes this as a process of “normalization.” To quote, “Haredi society is a movement of religious-spiritual revival undergoing a process of routinization or normalization.”30 Public rhetoric continues to cling to the pioneering model. It will routinely speak of the “supernatural existence” of Torah students, of those who “consume the Divine manna” while urging adherents to refrain from all involvement in the worldly and the earthly. It will cite the “great miracle that God has given us to sustain ourselves despite being totally steeped in Torah,” such that seeking a livelihood is unnecessary (or even counterproductive): “After all, the more we toil in Torah, the more God will augment the miracle.”31 Indeed, the subsistence of certain Torah scholars seems, at times, to be nothing short of miraculous.
Yet, on the other hand, certain social phenomena indicate an existence that is anything but miraculous. Shidduch requirements of leading yeshiva students, for example, will generally include demands both for an apartment (or large portion thereof) paid for by the prospective father-in-law, and a promising career track on the part of the prospective wife. Contemporary expectations concerning quality of life attest to the growing gap between rhetoric and reality among yeshiva students.
the process of “normalization” Brown refers to finds succinct expression in the recent lowering (among certain parts of society) of the defense walls isolating Charedi society from broader Israel. Many thousands of Charedi men and women have already making their way into Israeli academia, the general workforce, and public service.
Among other phenomena, the process of “normalization” Brown refers to finds succinct expression in the recent lowering (among certain parts of society) of the defense walls isolating Charedi society from broader Israel. Many thousands of Charedi men and women have already making their way into Israeli academia, the general workforce, and public service. Even in terms of culture and leisure, large swaths of Charedi society have over recent years moved closer to general society, a proximity that can be discerned both in development of a Charedi cultural alternative to that of general society, and in increasing Charedi consumption of general culture (the popular Shtisel series, depicting a Charedi family residing in Me’ah She’arim, is a good example). Growing numbers of Charedi Facebook groups and a significant presence on other social media platforms also indicate an unprecedented level of openness and integration.
The great numerical increase, alongside a significant generational change, have had their effect on Charedi society. The Charedi ideal of asceticism is eroding at the ever-growing margins, and a younger Charedi generation is without a doubt far more “bourgeois” than its predecessors. My intention here is not to express judgment concerning these far-reaching social dynamics—some see them as a blessing, some as a grave danger, and many as a combination of the two—but rather to point them out as facts on the ground, and to pose the pressing question: What do these processes mean for the future of Charedi society, and how do we deal with them?
New Charedim on Both Sides of the Spectrum
The processes Charedi society is undergoing are not universally applauded. Voices of protest—voices rallying against Charedi academia, against the army, against joining the secular workforce, against Internet, and generally against the deepening integration of Charedi society into its Israeli surroundings—can be heard loud and clear. However, the continuing development of the integration movement seems irresistible, and the central leadership is rightly unwilling to remove those who take part of it from the ranks of Charedi society. These individuals might not be living the Charedi ideal, but despite the costs involved, it remains hard to argue against (let alone to ban) someone going to work or studying in academia with the innocent intention of making an honorable living.
Considering these developments, we need to reexamine the possibility of a “bourgeois Charedi society.” A substantial portion of “integrating Charedim,” a somewhat disjointed and eclectic group often called the “new Haredim” (among other terms, some pejorative), is certainly showing signs of becoming bourgeois. When it comes to the triple asceticism of classical Charedism, this group is thoroughly familiar with the material side of this world, sees working for a livelihood as a core value, and even leaves room for leisure. When it comes to halachic stringency, a mainstay of Charedi living, this group is also somewhat removed from the ideal: for example, few among the group will be overly concerned about obtaining “kosher Shabbos electricity” by connecting with the local generator.32
But even within the more traditional ranks of Charedi society, those who continue to be immersed in Torah study and live the Charedi ideal, the movement towards embourgeoisement is unmistakable. Car ownership in Charedi society has risen sharply (up to 41%, based on latest surveys), and many allow themselves to enjoy an occasional meal at a restaurant and even family vacations abroad. The phenomenon of “new Charedim” is not taking place in a societal vacuum, but within a Charedi-wide motion toward the Israeli middle class.
Throughout the generations, a combining of Torah with an earthly “way of the world” was taken for granted. The trend of Charedi “normalization” raises weighty religious challenges in its wake, but in essence it can be seen as a return to a model that has always been accepted and remains prevalent outside of Charedi Israeli society.33 But in what sense is there Charedi-ism here? Can somebody who does not fulfill the triple asceticism outlined above, rooted in a profound detachment from surrounding society, be numbered among Charedi society? Are external markers—clothing, language, food, culture—sufficient for entry into the community? Can Haredi-ism dwell in peaceful coexistence with the bourgeois tendency toward comfortable mediocrity?
Are external markers—clothing, language, food, culture—sufficient for entry into the community? Can Charedi-ism dwell in peaceful coexistence with the bourgeois tendency toward comfortable mediocrity?
These questions, among other factors that we will not discuss here, have brought the voices of opposition mentioned above to establish a breakaway faction within Lithuanian Charedi society, known as the “Jerusalem Faction.” This large and seemingly growing group opposes the alleged conciliatory tendencies of central Charedi leadership, and demands a return to the isolationist and militant Charedi model of past years. Their 2018 election slogan is simply “charedim kemo pa’am,” “Charedim as once before.” In addition to an increasingly biting criticism of the centrist Charedi leadership, this group and its new leadership seek to represent what they consider to be the authentic Charedi model, with vocal and sometimes violent public disputes against the normalization of Charedi-Israeli relations in general, and relations with state institutions in particular.
This explains why the so-called “draft decree” looms so large in the group’s propaganda repertoire, even when “decrees” of this sort seem quite detached from the current political constellation. External threats, imagined or not, are the ideals means by which to sabotage the prevailing winds of the new Charedi bourgeois. The fact that the campaign runs against common sense is a defining element of the struggle itself: common sense is one of those bourgeois values that the “Jerusalem Faction” has declared war against. Its anarchist demonstrations, cloaked in the mantle of opposition to the secular regime, are demonstrations against against pragmatic compromise, against a “common sense” that runs against the grain of Charedi thinking, against a creeping “normalization” that centrist leadership refuses to censure.
The broader Charedi public perceives the extremist voices as being detached from reality, while their sharp (and hitherto unheard of) condemnation of centrist leadership, rabbinic and political, places them outside the pale of normative Charedi practice.34 The “Jerusalem Faction,” in a certain sense, is also a group of “new Charedim,” only on the other side of the mainstream block than those calling for greater integration. But their argument remains worth hearing. The claim, to simplify, is that all possibility of integration into general Israeli society must be vehemently opposed; those who support it, from within or from without, must be fought without mercy. To paraphrase their basic claim: “If we neglect the struggle, if we fail to protect the basic values most cherished by Charedi society, then the toil and sacrifice of our own founding fathers will have been in vain.”
The question, however, must now be: What are in fact the fundamental tenets of Charedi society? Given the impracticability of the hard-liners, the matter of how to go forward will depend, to a large degree, on the answer to this question.
The Ideal of Religious Excellence
Much like Judaism in general, Charedi society is a lived experience, a mimetic tradition passed on from generation to generation, rather than a written ideology. Indeed, and in stark contrast to the world of modern orthodoxy and religious Zionism, there is precious little philosophical-ideological writing in the Charedi space. This does not mean that there are no ideas underlying the Charedi way of life; there are many, including Torah study as a totality, a rejection of modern values, maximal isolation from secular culture, halachic stringency, rabbinic leadership, among others. Some of these depend on the specific Charedi sub-group, while others are universal across the Charedi board. But at the risk of stating the trivial, I wish to underscore that all of these are corollaries of a value that stands at the center Charedi living: religious excellence.
The Chazon Ish was profoundly repulsed by religious mediocrity. As he explained to his student Rabbi Shlomo Cohen, his opposition to the religious-Zionist Mizrahi movement was based on his understanding that it had emblazoned the emblem of mediocrity on its flag: “The Mizrahi is a system that strives for nothing beyond mediocrity—for the entire Jewish People.”35 He added in a letter that “mediocrity has a right to exist on in those who love extremism and strive for it with all their might, even educating their children in the peak of extremism; but how pathetic is a mediocrity that is full of contempt for extremism.”36
Charedi society wishes to institutionalize excellence, creating a social framework that empowers all its members to rise above the fray of everyday living
Leaving aside the matter of religious-Zionist ideology and lifestyle, these words of the Chazon Ish articulate what is surely the founding value of Charedi society: religious excellence in Torah, in mitzvos, in a life replete with fear of God and with an acute appreciation of Divine providence. In other words, Charedi society wishes to institutionalize excellence, creating a social framework that empowers its members to rise above the fray of everyday living. The familiar aspects of Charedi society: isolationism; opposition to military service; Torah study as an elevated and total ideal; rabbinic authority in all matters; dress codes; a close-knit community; halachic stringency; tribal loyalty—all these serve the great ideal of Jewish religious excellence.
Charedi living is in this sense a direct expression of the general Jewish ideal, which wishes to elevate the lives of its adherents to a level of holiness, reflecting the Divine image inherent to humanity. It is true, of course, that Charedi society achieves this aim by means of a specific way of life, which to a great degree can be traced to a reaction to modernity in general, and in particular to secular enlightenment and humanism. But only the means are new—the type of social institution that Charedi society and culture represents—while the end is not. The Torah itself, after all, gives us the mission of becoming a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation” unto God. Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai gave special expression to this virtue, finding the excellence of the Jewish People even in the horrors of the Destruction: “Praised be Israel! When they perform God’s will, no nation or tongue can rule over them; and when they do not perform God’s will, He hands them over to a lowly nation—and even to the beasts of a lowly nation.” The Maharal of Prague explains that while other nations can exist in a condition of mediocrity, this is impossible for Israel, “which has no mediocre level.” The Chazon Ish, in his emphasis on excellence and rejection of mediocrity, continues a line of thought that cuts across Jewish tradition.
This relatively simple insight can supply us with a useful direction toward answering the question, reverberating in the spaces of Charedi society, of “where do we go from here?” (the question is asked in the title song of the Shtisel series). To some degree, it is true that the isolationism practiced in Charedi society is a prerequisite to religious excellence. Deep assimilation into general society and culture does not align with the foundation of religious (or any) excellence. For the Talmudic Sages, the very term “excellence” is a synonym for the separation and isolation. We note this on Seder Night concerning the Jewish People in Egypt: “This teaches that they were metsuyanin [separate, distinct] there.” Somebody mired in the vanities of western culture cannot expect to merit the “crown of Torah,” and will have difficulty even seeing it from afar. As the Rambam puts it, the words of Torah are extant only within somebody who “remove the desires and pleasures of the time from his heart and works each day only so he may live if … and the rest of his days and nights he is engaged in Torah study.”
by contrast with a life of asceticism, the demand for excellence is not reserved for individuals alone. It is shared by all of Jewish society, in all its components: individuals, community, nation
And yet, Charedi living need not demand, by necessity, a maximal asceticism. Asceticism remains instrumental, “coincidental” as the Sages would have it, and it is given to changes according to time and place. By contrast, religious excellence is essential, primary, fixed. And while it demands a certain level of isolation, there is no reason why Charedi living cannot be at peace with deep political and social involvement, with effective integration into the workforce, and with reasonable standards of living. Moreover, by contrast with a life of asceticism, the demand for excellence is not reserved for individuals alone. It is shared by all of Jewish society, in all its components: individuals, community, nation. It is relevant both for those who devote their life exclusively to Torah study, for those who work for a living but are careful to devote an hour a day to diligent Torah study, and for those who devote their hours of leisure to volunteer at a charity organization. These forms, and of course there are more, represent different versions of Jewish religious excellence. Charedi society combines them within its social framework, encouraging them and seeing them as the realization of the religious ideal. All the rest—communal and sociological characteristics—are “accessories” alone.
The erosion of Charedi asceticism that has taken place over recent decades is not problematic in and of itself. As explained, the new reality is an inevitable result of numerical increase and generational change, and need not be considered ipso facto a negative phenomenon. The problem is that the process of erosion has heralded a phenomenon that by definition contradicts the ethos of Charedi life: mediocrity. On one hand, the condition is expressed outside the Torah study halls by the new Charedi middle class, but on the other it can be found even deep within the world of Torah study. For instance, while just some decades ago the yeshiva was defined as an incubator for excellence, today the walls of the yeshiva must contain everyone, due to the spiritual danger involved in “going out.” Referring to married Torah students, one yeshiva dean noted that even those who lack all desire for Torah study, and who learn virtually nothing, should not leave the study hall for the sake of learning a profession, since “this is the destruction of Judaism…. They begin to become acquainted with the world… and this may God forbid lead their abandonment of proper observance of Torah and mitzvos.” The conclusion is that “it is better that he should sit for the meantime in kollel and absorb the atmosphere, so that this itself will protect him!” It is not clear exactly until when the individual should sit idly in the security of his kollel environment.
The necessary result of this approach, which might not be ubiquitous for married individuals but is certainly the norm for unmarried men, is the transformation of the yeshiva institution from a breeding ground of great scholarship to a Noah’s Ark. Its primary role, rather than the cultivation of excellence, becomes the protection of every (young) Charedi man from the spiritual dirge outside. Given this starting point, it is hardly surprising that many yeshiva students no longer see themselves as responsible for living a model life, beacons of light for the rest of Jewish society, but rather as members of a survival community. The emphasis on a war of survival, and the investment of all available public and spiritual energy in the efforts of preservation and isolation, cannot come without a cost of internal weakness. Rabbi Dr. Yitzhak Breuer identified a similar, albeit more extreme instance of the same issue when visiting the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem. His visit, which was initially intended to morph into a permanent dwelling, ended prematurely. In explaining his frustration, Breuer painted a picturesque image of a house whose owner had devoted all his material assets to securing his house. Eventually, he ended up with a well-guarded but entirely empty house. By his lights this could hardly represent the Charedi ideal.
To preserve the principle of excellence that stands at the foundation of Charedi society, it seems that we must learn to “expand the model,” enabling a possibility of combining high level Torah scholarship and service of Hashem with a way of life that also incorporates earthly pursuits. Certainly, the concept of toraso unamuso, dedication of all one’s time to Torah study, will be preserved for those worthy of it, but it will cease to be the exclusive path for realizing the Charedi ideal. By broadening the scope of religious excellence within Charedi society, it will become possible to retain the basic value even in these times of turbulence and change.
A booklet that was published several years ago claimed that by contrast with previous generations, today a father is not commanded to teach his son a craft, since doing so today “brings his son to sin and actually kills him, since the reality today is that those who are not bnei torah are lax in many Torah precepts…. Diligence in keeping this halacha causes him to cease his observance of many others.” The message is loud and clear: Those who leave the sheltered ark, for purposes of earning a livelihood or for other reasons, face a particularly bleak future with low chances for spiritual survival. Hence, the operative recommendation for individuals is to refrain at all costs from stepping outside the ark. The price is simply too high.
In my opinion, the very opposite is the case. Instead of fighting pointlessly against a tide of change that cannot be stemmed, we need to build educational frameworks that present involvement in practical life as a legitimate option, with an emphasis on the possibility of living the life of a ben torah even after leaving the traditional study hall. In this manner, we will be able to fulfill the ethos of religious excellence that stands at the heart of Charedi society, and empower broader circles to share the moral and spiritual level of Torah scholars for whom Torah is their craft. This will require some degree of structural change by comparison with to what is customary today—but the change is already taking place, in broad and deep strokes, and the numbers of youth leaving the (relative) safety of the study hall is all too high. Social change is taking place “bottom up,” while institutional change “top down” is dithering. The sooner it comes, the better.
Back to “Heroic Bourgeois”
It is high time we returned to the subject we opened with—the bourgeois and the Charedim. The “heroic bourgeois” referred to at the outset, such as the American example Tocqueville so readily praises, is a combination of private initiative with good virtue. Loosely translated, we could call this virtue “excellence.” I think I would fall only partially into the naturalistic fallacy of confusing “is” and “ought” if I claim the Tocqueville model is a description, not precise but not too far off, of the foundations of Charedi society.
Anyone who knows Charedi society cannot fail to be impressed by the degree of private initiative within it. This initiative can be seen in innumerable institutions, primarily in the fields of education and religious (but also in civil fields), which serve a Charedi target audience. Of course, these will do what they can to procure government budgeting, but the institutions themselves are the pure fruit of private initiative. Even at the organizational level, Charedi society knows an enormous number of independent organizations in areas such as charity, health, kiruv, Torah study, and many others. Some of these, such as Yad Elizer in medical services, United Hatzalah in emergency medicine, ZAKA in handling disaster areas, and others, have enjoyed broad public resonance in serving the entire Israeli population. Others, smaller or more focused on internal Charedi affairs, are less well-known. All in all, Charedi society is replete with intensive organizational activity, to the point that almost every second Charedi adult is involved in this or that volunteer activity.
If Tocqueville was amazed at the voluntary activity of the churches in America, he would likely have been no less impressed by the activity surrounding the synagogues of Charedi society. Gemach (free loan) societies translate voluntary organization to the arena of the private home: anyone with a fax machine opens a gemach for sending and receiving faxes; somebody who amasses an excess of medicines will open a medicine gemach; others will open a gemach for inhalation devices, baking products, pacifiers (very useful), and so on—not to mention the traditional gemach offering free loans.
This phenomenon may be related to the economic positions of Charedi society, which are surprisingly similar to those of early Americans. A 2015 poll of the Social-Economic College revealed that among voters of various political parties, Charedim lead the way in support for free-market positions, way ahead of other sectors of the population. A variety of explanations can be suggested, but it seems that the traditional distrust of the state, the centrality of the close community, and the fact that this sector was never indoctrinated by Ben-Gurion-style socialism (or by a left-learning academia), all contribute their part. Like the founders of bourgeois-capitalist society in the 18th and 19th centuries, Charedi society is founded on the concept of virtue, which translates in a society-wide aspiration for religious excellence. This ambition places the study of Torah at the center of Charedi life—the Sages have already said that “there have no greater virtue than this”—but it does not stop there, and includes the community structure and private initiative in areas of charity and good deeds.
The “heroic bourgeois” referred to at the outset, such as the American example Tocqueville so readily praises, is a combination of private initiative with good virtue. Loosely translated, we could call this virtue “excellence.” the Tocqueville model is a description, not precise but not too far off, of the foundations of Charedi society.
However, this Charedi organizational work is primarily of communal rather than civil character. Tocqueville wrote of his amazement at a hundred thousand people who publicly declared that they would not take alcohol: Why don’t those people suffice with drinking water with their family? He proceeds to explain:
“I at last understood that these hundred thousand Americans, alarmed by the progress of drunkenness around them, had made up their minds to patronize temperance. They acted in just the same way as a man of high rank who should dress very plainly in order to inspire the humbler orders with a contempt of luxury. It is probable that if these hundred thousand men had lived in France, each of them would singly have memorialized the government to watch the public houses all over the kingdom.”
Perhaps due to a stubborn exilic approach of a strong state facing helpless civilians, combined with economic dependence on the modern welfare state, Charedi society finds itself on the French side of the map. Moreover, it is relatively easy for the Charedi public to adopt an approach of “moral capitalism,” since this would be a somewhat odd form of capitalism, which we could coin “capitalism without capital.” Faith in the free market has not lead Charedi society to thrive economically, and not even to economic ambition worthy of note. Accordingly, the private initiative prevalent among Charedi society focuses on religion, mutual aid, education, and health, and less on business enterprise. Despite some recent developments, the “Charedi Nation” is not yet a “Start-up Nation,” and Charedi life can hardly be identified with bourgeois capitalism. Despite certain shared characteristics, the differences are great, and indeed they should be: the one focuses on material, the other on spirit. Charedi virtue is also different to that of the early bourgeois: while the bourgeois ethos sees economic prosperity as a religious positive, the Charedi ethos is largely indifferent on the matter.
But this state of affairs may change, and in fact is already changing. The development of a Charedi middle class can transfer an impressive point of departure into a broader civilian framework. According to Haim Zicherman and Lee Cahaner, the Charedi middle class could serve as an “economic anchor for the society of Torah study.” It would contribute to the continued support of the Charedi elite “with its economic prosperity and contribution to the Torah world.” At the same time, it could serve as a force for bringing the different parts of Israeli society together, due to “its involvement and integration with the Israeli public sphere.” At the same time, the conscious social activity of Charedi society will merit a civilian version, broader and less tribal-communitarian.
The creation of a Charedi middle class could lead to a religious and bourgeois revival. A religious revival, because it offers a model that merges religious excellence with civilian and earthly involvement as a path for the many
In this vision, the creation of a Charedi middle class could lead to a religious and bourgeois revival. A religious revival, because it offers a model that merges religious excellence with civilian and earthly involvement as a path for the many. This path could allow a life of profound religious striving balanced with involvement in earthly affairs, while reviving the Charedi ethos of excellence. As a byproduct, it would also allow the truly gifted Torah scholars of Charedi society to provide a Torah perspective on the profound questions of managing the country and its institutions—something that has never been done in a serious and systematic manner. And a bourgeois revival, since the Charedi middle class may restore some of its former glory to the bourgeois, in combining economic and civilian prosperity with spiritual aspiration and achievement—a combination whose absence creates a threat to the stability of modern society everywhere. Hannah Arendt feared a world of “workers without work”—of citizens for whom a lack of work creates a void of meaning that cannot be filled. A working Charedi society would know how to fill the void.
Of course, the development of a Charedi middle class entails walking a delicate tightrope. It involves the preservation of founding Charedi principles—of religious excellence with all it entails—alongside the adaptation of civic values foreign to the Charedi ethos. It must also overcome the considerable hurdle of materialism Tocqueville warned of (in relation to democratic bourgeois society). In addition, it requires the adoption of the “new Charedim,” those who choose a path of greater integration with Israeli civic society, by the core Charedi community. This is a dual (and deeply interrelated) challenge which should not be taken lightly. The situation today, on both counts, leaves much to be desired. Success in this matter depends on social and personal investment in both Torah and in derech eretz—an investment in educational institutions, in community building, in establishing appropriate Torah frameworks, and so on. Despite a profound need, the process is still in its infancy, and the results on the ground—the spiritual level of the Charedi middle class and the degree of legitimacy it receives from the mainstream—are correspondingly challenging. However, I am cautiously optimistic that with all its pitfalls and obstacles, the process is beginning to show signs of greater maturity and robustness, and that it will ultimately bring much good—for the Charedim and for the world.
I am often consulted with concerning increasing integration of Charedim into general society. What will the Charedi public contribute to the sectors it is beginning to engage with? Does the Charedi who enters the hi-tech industry or the psychology department bring special qualities? Rare skills? A new spirit? Or is he just a “black yarmulke variant” of the religious Zionist, with no real difference between them outside of external appearance?
In the present article I have attempted to demonstrate that the entry of the Charedi public into new worlds of employment and research may, indeed, introduce a new spirit. Charedim have their own fundamental beliefs, cultural characteristics, and communal traits. The point of departure for Charedi society is vastly differently from that of other sectors. Its entry into new fields—what some refer to, tongue-in-cheek, as the latest wave of immigration to Israel—could certainly refresh a variety of fields in research and employment. One department head at Hebrew University told me that he and many colleagues eagerly await the entry of Charedim into the ranks of academic researchers, which will bring a new and refreshing approach. While all these are fascinating prospects, my specific focus in this article has been the middle class.
One of the sharpest critics of the bourgeois, precisely because of its tendency to mediocrity, was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche heaped scorn and contempt on the comfortable and convenient mediocrity of Bourgeois Man:
“Round, fair, and considerate are they to one another, as grains of sand are round, fair, and considerate to grains of sand. Modestly to embrace a small happiness—that do they call “submission”! and at the same time they peer modestly after a new small happiness. In their hearts they want simply one thing most of all: that no one hurt them. Thus do they anticipate every one’s wishes and do well unto every one. That, however, is cowardice, though it be called “virtue.”— And when they chance to speak harshly, those small people, then do I hear therein only their hoarseness—every draught of air maketh them hoarse. Shrewd indeed are they, their virtues have shrewd fingers. But they lack fists: their fingers do not know how to creep behind fists. Virtue for them is what maketh modest and tame: therewith have they made the wolf a dog, and man himself man’s best domestic animal. “We set our chair in the midst”—so saith their smirking unto me- “and as far from dying gladiators as from satisfied swine.” That, however, is—mediocrity, though it be called moderation.”
Charedi Judaism cannot make peace with a bourgeois approach which strives to this sort of pleasure-seeking mediocrity. Suffice to note the unequivocal statement by the Mishnah Berurah at the beginning of his commentary: “And he who sets his thought in material matters and the vanities of the world not for the sake of Heaven, just for pleasure and the chasing of honor, has failed to fulfill this commandment [= love of God], and his punishment is great.” If a Charedi bourgeois does emerge, it will have to find a way to translate its ethos of religious excellence into a framework of earthly involvement—a life of religious commitment which combines Torah and spiritual matters with material and earthly concern in all its variety.
Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi states in the Mishnah that man must choose a straight path which is a “glory to him and a glory to him from man.” Man must know how to be at peace with the world, living an exalted life without rejecting reality—”glory to him”— and even be accepted and find favor in the eyes of others—”glory to him from man.”
Rebbi himself (Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi) was the embodiment of his own words. On the one hand, we know of his great wealth, to the point that his table never lacked “horseradish nor squash nor radish, not in the summer days or in the rainy days.” On the other hand, he excelled in every religious virtue, to the point that at his deathbed he pointed his ten fingers toward Heaven and declared: “Master of the World, it is open and known to you that I utilized ten fingers to toil in Torah and did not derive pleasure even in my little finger.” As a community leader (nasi), Rebbi was of course deeply involved in the world, yet was never mired in it. He certainly saw no contradiction between his public community role and religious excellence.
I hope and pray that walking this path will herald a dual tiding: a healthy middle class for Charedi society, and a new spirit for the Israeli bourgeois.
3 thoughts on “Toward a Charedi Middle Class”
Very well written and made me hopeful for the future! I lived in Bet Shemesh for many years. This article needs to be shared far and wide.
Really liked this inspiring article. A condensed version would be easier to share with frum people that are lacking some literary french and British, maybe US culture
Sounds like Torah I’m Derech Eretz, Rav Hirsch