The Death of Heroism

Response Article To "Toward a Charedi Middle Class"

Eli Lifshitz

The birth of the bourgeois middle class heralded a hallowing of everyday life and the death of heroism. This change deeply influenced the social order, including the development of a vibrant and egalitarian public space, and a newly-found meaning in the small details of private lives. Charedi society, by contrast, continues to live in a world of heroism. The development of a Charedi middle class highlights the gap between the heroic and the bourgeois narratives, and raises significant challenges for those standing at the crossroads.

Elul 5778, August 2018

Rabbi Pfeffer’s article “Toward a Charedi Middle Class” tries to reconcile two contrary worldviews: Charedi on the one hand, and bourgeois on the other. The bourgeois concept brought economic prosperity to the world as well as critical values such as citizenship, free enterprise, liberty, and decent society. But the cost of these was forgoing of the ethos of the “genius” and making peace with a modicum (or more) of mediocrity. By contrast, Charedi society espouses the ideal of asceticism, which is profoundly contrary to the good life of the bourgeois. But with generational change and a population explosion, the ascetic ideal, adopted for a small community at the beginning of its journey, is melting away. The younger generation of Charedim is no longer pioneering its way to a revive the Torah world, but is rather born into existing institutions, lacking religious fervor and ideological passion. Today, Charedi society is raising a generation that barely adheres to the ascetic model and tends, almost inevitably, toward the bourgeois.

The question that Rabbi Pfeffer tackles in his article is: How can we guide the embourgeoisement of Charedi society so that it will have positive religious significance? How can one reconcile these two ostensibly contrary ideals—the bourgeois and Charedi? To answer this question, Rabbi Pfeffer turns to define the crux of Charedi society. In his opinion, Charedi life is primarily expressed in the striving for religious excellence within a social and group framework. Building on this insight, Rabbi Pfeffer proposes that Charedi society can be integrated, to a degree, into general society, and yet continue to espouse religious excellence. The essence of Charedi life will not change, but rather the ideal of asceticism will moderate and receive proper proportions. The bourgeois Charedi will be a model citizen who believes in free enterprise and civic initiative, with the refreshing added quality of “religious excellence” that will make its contribute even to broader Israel. All this will occur under the umbrella of the existing Charedi society. Rabbi Pfeffer calls this combination a “heroic bourgeois.”

an integration of “bourgeois” with “heroism” creates a contradiction too fundamental to be bridged. There is a multifaceted clash, or at the very least a sharp tension, between the Charedi life and the bourgeois concept, and I do not see how an ethos of “excellence” alone can resolve it

But in my opinion, the combination of “bourgeois” with “heroism” creates a contradiction too fundamental to be bridged. A deep and multifaceted tension lies between Charedi life and the bourgeois concept, and I do not see how an ethos of “excellence” alone can resolve it. In this response, I wish to point to a number of challenges which face the formation of the new Charedi society as a “heroic bourgeois.”

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As Rabbi Pfeffer notes, the bourgeois were pioneers in molding and setting the values of modernity. The rise of the bourgeois eroded the power of the aristocracy, thus having a decisive impact on the democracies of modern society. Charles Taylor, a twentieth century Canadian philosopher, described the deep change that bourgeois society underwent with the phrase “confirming daily life.” In ancient times, human life had meaning only under a heroic ethos. Only the ascetic monk or the heroic acts of the knight had true human significance. The ordinary person had no part in supplying the world with meaning and purpose. Nobody wrote poems or books about them. Women, children, and the lower classes had no place in the real chain of existence.

Today, bourgeois man finds meaning in his daily routine, at work, in his relationships, and in active civic involvement. By contrast with this understanding, Charedi society continues to live the heroic ethos.

With the coming of modernity, in the wake of Luther’s Reformation and other social revolutions, the concept of equality became established as a fundamental value. As a result, the locus of meaning in our lives was transferred. Today, bourgeois man finds meaning in his daily routine, at work, in his relationships, and in active civic involvement. By contrast with this understanding, Charedi society continues to live the heroic ethos. The ethos of the Yeshiva student is one of ultimate sacrifice, casting aside all things earthly and focusing solely on Torah. Women, baalei batim, and children (aside from thoughts about their future) have no place in this world.

One can perhaps argue that the heroic ethos does not define Charedi existence; yet, I do not see how a move from an ethos of total dedication to Torah study to one that respects such mundane matters as developing a career and relationships will not bring an enormous change to Charedi society. Below, I will dwell on several focal points where this gap is particularly poignant.

 

The Public Space

The public space, as we generally know it, is geared toward enabling a healthy, lively and rational exchange of ideas. A necessary condition for its proper function is that it be free of control and manipulation. In addition, discussions must adhere to “public reason,” which means refraining from introducing conversation-stoppers such as supernatural authority. It is thanks to these conditions that the public space earns our trust—a trust that has brought human society huge profit margins. By contrast with bygone years, most stormy debates taking place today in the press and other social media platforms have no murderous consequences. The nature of the arena—the public space—is what makes this possible.

The formation of the public space was contingent on a lengthy process of liberation from the authority of political and religious authorities, and their transformation into a complex system of separate and restrained powers. If pre-renaissance medieval society had to suffer the absolute political voice of the King and God, post-Grotius and post-Locke European politics was subject to a public morality established as an extra-political institution. The people, not the ruling class, molded and informed the new social norms. Another stage in the growing independence of the public space from political authority was the change in our social imagery—from a hierarchical social world to one of complex social relations, extensive and (generally) harmonious. In addition, the rise of industry and international finance led to the establishment of an independent and powerful economic sphere. Theories of social contract led not only to a one-time agreement between subjects and rulers, but rather to the continuous consent of the governed to be governed.

Does Charedi society have a “public space”? Do members of Charedi society recognize the legitimacy of such a sphere? Charedi society lacks a robust network of newspapers, journals, media networks, and social networks that discuss the legitimacy of public representatives and their methods.

These complex social processes led to what we face today: A complex, multi-layered social system. Politics does not rule alone; the political, economic, legal, and cultural systems maintain elaborate ties between them. The public space is the fruit of the weakening of the political government, and its role is to manage the exchange of opinions and consent-based legitimacy to the actions of the government, founded on rational debate.

The development of the public space was a significant milestone in the creation of a healthy bourgeois society, which for our purposes is also a civic, democratic society. It is difficult to imagine the existence of civilian bourgeois society without an active public space. It is this kind of society in which the New Charedim now wish to be partners.

But does Charedi society have a “public space”? Do members of Charedi society recognize the legitimacy of such a sphere? Charedi society lacks a robust network of newspapers, journals, media networks, and social networks that discuss the legitimacy of public representatives and their methods. It lacks it by definition. A prerequisite for the existence of such a network is the recognition of its legitimacy and necessity. But in Charedi society the very concept of a public space for free and open discussion runs contrary to the principle of Daas Torah—unquestioning compliance with rabbinic authority. Charedi society simply does not recognize the secular and rational character of political activism. The opposition to common-sense, enshrined in the well-known expression (first used in this sense by Charedi ideologue Moshe Sheinfeld, based on the Sema, Choshen Mishpat 113, and attributed to the Chazon Ish) “The opinion of baalei batim is the opposite of Daas Torah,” is also an opposition to the public space.

Against this background, there is good reason to doubt the feasibility of integrating a bourgeois element into traditional Charedi society. The flourishing of bourgeois society requires an open and egalitarian medium for debate and discussion. But if the bourgeois Charedim establish such an active public space, how will debates between themselves and traditional Charedi society be conducted? One group believes in religious arguments, anchored in a Daas Torah framework that rejects rationalization, while the other espouses a modern, rational framework. I fail to see a sufficient common denominator that can bridge this gap.

 

A Charedi Narrative vs A Modern Charedi Narrative

Another reason to doubt the capacity for peaceful coexistence between the new and old Charedim is the deep vacuum felt by those who leave the heroic ethos of Charedi society. I will call this vacuum “the need for a narrative.”

As human beings, we function best when we wake up in the morning for some purpose—a purpose that sets each of use aside from the other. An enormous gulf separates between the Polish farmer working his ancestral land and a Zionist pioneer leaving the ruins of Kishinev to redeem the lands of Israel. They both sweat, toil and suffer, but one of them lives his tiny, local story while the other lives a grand, epic history. Another example: one man gets up each day to work at a law firm, his sole purpose being the provision of food for his family, while a feminist Charedi lawyer gets up to promote the interests of her gender, break glass ceilings, and fulfill herself. They meet at the same office, perform similar tasks at work, but their divergent narratives mean they occupy entirely different worlds. So what story and which narrative do we, Charedim, live in?

Charedim live in a vast envelope of meaning. Take a young Charedi man named Zvi, sitting alone in Ponovezh yeshiva during the intermission between first and second seder, who thinks to himself: “Who carries true meaning in the world?” “The Jews.” “And who, among the Jews?” “Charedim.” “And who, among Charedim?” “Ponovezh.” “And who is the only one in the study hall right now?” “Me.” To a large degree this is the basic story of Charedi society

Charedim live in a vast envelope of meaning. Take a young Charedi man named Zvi, sitting alone in Ponovezh yeshiva during the intermission between first and second seder. We might catch him thinking to himself: “Who carries true meaning in the world?” “The Jews.” “And who, among the Jews?” “Charedim.” “And who, among Charedim?” “Ponovezh.” “And who is the only one in the study hall right now?” “Me.” To a large degree this is the basic story of Charedi society: The ability to grant Torah study enormous ideological power. By contrast, to the bourgeois Charedi individual this story sounds delusional. “Well, what about economists and physicists,” he might ask himself. “What about soldiers in the IDF?” The bourgeois Charedi individual feels detached from Zvi’s story—a detachment that can lead to a deep crisis. The deconstruction of the Charedi narrative leaves him without an appropriate envelope of meaning. A great chasm opens beneath his feat in lieu of Zvi’s simple and impressive story.

For this reason, it is hard to imagine that bourgeois charedim can make do with plain “normality” while continuing to admire the excellence of Zvi from Ponovezh. The new Charedim must create an alternative narrative that will fill the void created at the departure point from the old envelope—the heroism embodied by Zvi, sitting alone in the yeshiva study hall. You simply cannot endorse Taylor’s “confirmation of daily life” and continue to admire the old, yeshiva-style excellence. The heroism of traditional Charedi society cannot be grafted onto a bourgeois ethos that sanctifies the small print of everyday life.

The new Charedi group deals with this challenge by critiquing traditional Charedi society. In so doing they celebrate their newly acquired autonomy and enlightenment and highlight their difficulty in breaking through the walls of Charedi society.

The founding narrative of the two societies, the bourgeois and the Charedi, are profoundly different. Charedi society lives an exalted ideal in which the Torah sustains the world. The individual living in Charedi society is empowered by an overarching story that grants monumental significance and profound meaning to Torah study and mitzvah performance. Bourgeois society does not grant, nor wish to grant, such ideological empowerment. The new Charedi individual thus finds himself in a position of weakness vis-à-vis his colleague immersed in Torah study. A deep asymmetry separates between them.

There are of course exceptions, but my general impression is that the new Charedi group deals with this challenge by critiquing traditional Charedi society. In so doing they celebrate their newly acquired autonomy and enlightenment and highlight their difficulty in breaking through the walls of Charedi society. Their lives receive meaning precisely by undermining the old Charedi order, rather than by making peace and reconciling with it. Thus, the new Charedim grant meaning to studying a trade or discharging civic responsibilities not as a “normalizing” of traditional Charedi society, as Rabbi Pfeffer suggests, but as a critique of it. By building the image of an idealistic “counter movement,” new Charedim succeed in creating an appropriate solution for the enormous ideological vacuum formed upon leaving disembarking from the great Charedi ship.

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Bourgeois Charedi society, despite its deficiencies and challenges, is not a luxury but a necessity. It must cohere, and fast. The state of Israel needs a stable economy for its security, and primarily for its quality of life. The Charedi sector requires it no less than anybody else—and perhaps more. In this response, I tried to point to a number of challenges facing the formation and integration of the new Charedim, a group that displays a distinct tendency toward the middle class.

Rabbi Pfeffer addresses the difficulties of combining Charedi society and the bourgeois ethos yet remains optimistic about its odds of success. Unfortunately, it seems that despite these hopes, a significant portion of the new Charedi society is adopting the bourgeois ethos wholesale—the negative with the positive. To create a healthy Charedi middle class requires a positive narrative rather than a confrontational one, a healthy public space for the expression and discussion of founding ideas, and a preparedness to pay the price of social independence and a mature civic responsibility.

To end on a positive note, I hope that the new Tzarich Iyun publication, certainly a first in the Charedi public space, will be able to fulfill (and at least to kickstart the process toward achieving) some of these important goals.

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