The Morning After Ideologies

Response Article To "Toward a Charedi Middle Class"

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Rabbi Chaim Navon Heads the Lindenbaum Institute in Jerusalem; author of many popular volumes

Haredi society distinguishes itself from traditional Jewish society in its ideological foundations. The transition made by Charedi society, from a mimetic tradition to a fierce and ideologically-charged conviction, created a sharp social exclusion of non-religious life. But like all ideologies, the shelf life of the pioneering spirit is limited. Today, Charedi society stands at the same crossroads as the religious-Zionist, contemplating the transformation from the ideological to the natural.

Elul 5778, August 2018

Rabbi Chaim Navon

Both the Charedi and the religious Zionist communities are founded on ideology. For the purposes of this article I will avoid the debate on the precise definition of “ideology,” and suffice with the following: ideology refers to a specific blueprint for molding and leading a given society.

Tuvia the Dairyman, the archetypal representative of the simple Eastern European Jew, did not live in an ideologically charged atmosphere. He certainly had no special insight about how to build a society, and his community was not organized along ideological lines of any sort. This doesn’t mean that Tuvia didn’t lead a life full of values. His life was saturated with them, and with no small measure of holiness. But these expressed a local reaction to events in his life, and not an ideological system. When he had time between Mincha and Maariv, he studied Torah; when he saw a poor man and had a coin in his pocket, he gave it up willingly. He had no specific approach about the way in which the community should be organized: around Torah study, social justice, or some other value.

Tuvia the Dairyman, the archetypal representative of the simple Eastern European Jew, did not live in an ideological atmosphere…. He had no specific approach about the way in which the community should be organized: around Torah study, social justice, or some other value.

Religious Zionism grew out of a Zionist ideology. Its original ideology, in the years preceding and following the establishment of the State of Israel, was religious socialism. Failing, as it did, to touch on the deep psychological nerves of the Jewish spirit, the ideology could not last long, and was quickly replaced in the wake of the Six Day War by that of Gush Emunim, founded on the teachings of Rabbis Kook pere et fils. This ideology succeeded in touching the believing soul. The Land of Israel and the redemption of its people—values fundamental to the Jewish religious system from time immemorial—became a contemporary and fully realizable driving force.

The encounter between the study hall Rabbi Kook, who provided the profundity, and the vibrant Bnei Akiva community that supplied the masses, led to a very powerful spark, which settled Judea and Samaria and changed the face of the State of Israel irreversibly. Even the invigorated youth of the 1950s and 1960s, who spoke highly of the ideals of Torah and Labor, were not quick to join a religious kibbutz. But their younger brothers of the 1970s flocked en masse to establish settlements in the liberated land of the forefathers, their Holy Arks laced with slogans like “You will yet plant vineyards in the hills of Samaria” and “It will yet be heard in the hills of Judea.”

Charedi society tends to describe itself as a direct continuation of the exilic Jewish existence in Europe. But by contrast with Tuvia’s Anatevka, which was a religious and values-based community, Bnei Brak is an ideological society

Charedi society tends to describe itself as a direct continuation of the exilic Jewish existence in Europe. But by contrast with Tuvia’s Anatevka, which was a religious and values-based community, Bnei Brak is an ideological society. It was built not on a shared set of general values, but was rather the embodiment of a well-defined plan for mending the world: rebuilding of the decimated Torah world by means of self-seclusion in the newly formed batei midrash. This Litvish-oriented ideology, modeled by the leadership of the Chazon Ish, was later (partially) adopted even by the Chassidic and Sefardi sectors, granting effective preeminence to the Lithuanians.

Charedi ideology has been enormously successful. I once took part in a discussion on Ben Gurion and Judaism. At the end of the discussion, we answered questions from the audience. The first question was: Why did Ben Gurion agree to exempt yeshiva students from army service? My response was simply that Ben Gurion was certain the four hundred yeshiva students of 1948 would be the last in history. The professors sitting next to me agreed. Not only Ben Gurion, but almost all his generation believed this as a simple truth. The growth of the Charedi community from a tiny group under threat of extinction to a central sector in Israel society is a true marvel.

 

Ideological Separation Between the Holy and the Secular

Charedi ideology transformed the community into a religious order. By this I mean the following. The life of the religious individual includes the holy and the sanctified together with the secular and the mundane. Some religions are indifferent to the secular. By contrast, it is often said that Judaism wishes to impose holiness on the secular realm. This concept has many formulations, beginning with “know Him in all your ways” and ending with the Chassidic slogan that urges us to avodah begashmius, “labor in the material world.” But the Charedi society of the Twentieth Century chose a different path: Rather than impose holiness on the secular, it preferred to reduce the realm of the secular to the barest minimum. Its ambition, seldom articulated but certainly lived and experienced, is that an entire community embody the tribe of Levi. To be more precise, it should be an incessant embodiment of the tribe of Levi at its Temple duties. Of course this is practically impossible; everyone needs to occasionally close the Gemara and pay a visit to the dentist. But the ambition is there.

Charedi ideology transformed the community into a religious order… . Rather than impose holiness on the secular, it preferred to reduce the realm of the secular to the barest minimum

The decision to refuse to bear the military burden, to refrain as must as possible from working for a living, and to devote the day (to the degree possible) to study and prayer, was a true ideological revolution. In the history of the Jewish People there was never an entire community of men, women, and children, young and old, who saw themselves as a religious order dedicated to holiness, and separated to the farther possible degree from all that is secular.

As is the case with religious orders, even the Charedi version also has a uniform, its small details depending on the brigade and division: Chassidish, Litvish, and smaller sub-groups. Jews in Europe wore clothing that separated them from the Gentiles, but they were never so precisely defined; no synagogue in Eastern Europe had a hundred men all wearing the same clothing, as we see today in any Charedi shul and study hall. My great grandfather was a Vizhnitz Hassid living in a different era—he actually studied with the Rebbe in Vizhnitz itself. As his oldest great grandson, I remember him well. Worked his entire life in a grocery store, he always wore respectable clothes, but never a uniform prominently identifiable with any group.

Let me once again emphasize: The Charedi order met with huge success. Prof. Eric Kaufmann, in his book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth, sees Israeli Charedi society as the most prominent example in the world of the sharp rise in the power and influence of religious groups. But the choice of a life within a right religious order has a steep price tag, and Rabbi Pfeffer is right to quote Abaye who stated: “Many followed Rabbi Yishmael and succeeded; Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai and did not succeed” (Berachos 35b). Life within religious orders, a holy life dedicated entirely to service of G-d, is the way of the individual and not of the many. It always has been. When the religious order exceeds a certain maximal size—and regardless of where the demographic limit lies, Charedi society has unquestionably surpassed it—it can no longer sustain itself. If there is no flour, both literally (physical sustenance) and figuratively (involvement in the earthly), there is no Torah.

Charedi society is a victim of its own success. The social and ideological structure that unprecedentedly magnified a small group of several hundred families and created a dizzying success story can no longer maintain tens of thousands of families.

Charedi society is a victim of its own success. The social and ideological structure that unprecedentedly magnified a small group of several hundred families and made created a dizzying success story can no longer maintain tens of thousands of families. The question is how to translate Charedi success into a new communal structure, which will no longer take the form of a closed religious order.

Rabbi Pfeffer proposes placing religious excellence as the new supreme value of Charedi society. I am not sure this is an appropriate alternative. Charedi society today does not necessarily radiate religious excellence. It is built around an entirely different value: religious intensity. The diligent student fulfills this value, but so does the Charedi girl who regularly reads chapters of Tehilim on the bus. In the name of this value, even a yeshiva student who neither learns nor wishes to is instructed to remain in Kollel for post-marriage Torah study. Religious excellence is relevant for the High Priest serving in the Temple, and perhaps also for the Levites charged with song—but not for Levite guards, and certainly not for drawers of water to the Home of Our Lord and its audience of pilgrims. And these are the overwhelming majority of every community.

 

The Challenge of Moving From Pioneering to “Normality”

Religious Zionist society also faces serious challenges. Religious Zionist ideology is not being undermined by demographic growth, yet it is weakening due to the very fact of ideologies having a limited lifespan. Values like love of the nation, respect of parents, and compassion for the weak have an eternal shelf life. But ideology, which is a detailed plan for shaping society and state, has a much shorter existence. Just as the Charedi ideology of rebuilding the world of Torah after the Holocaust cannot continue to excite forever, so the ideology of settling the land as the first step toward redemption is nowhere near as exciting today as it was in 1967.

Values like love of the nation, respect of parents, and compassion for the weak have an eternal shelf life. But ideology, which is a detailed plan for shaping society and state, has a much shorter existence.

Both societies were founded on a pioneering ethos; today, they both need to translate their fundamental values into the new language of bourgeois living. Who are the bourgeois of today? Basically, they are what our Sages called “people in the fields”: Good Jews, whose spiritual world can be simple and complete, and who maintain healthy families, work hard to sustain them, pay their taxes, and honestly play their part in all that is necessary for the upkeep of a stable society. Their lives are not devoted to the immediate fulfillment of any ideology; yet, it is a life which can also be full of zest and spirit.

The move toward a bourgeois existence is difficult for both communities, but it is significantly harder for Charedi society

The move toward a bourgeois existence is difficult for both communities, but it is significantly harder for Charedi society. From inception, religious Zionism made room for a combination of Torah with the way of the world. It recognizes, and has always recognized, the importance of a significant and upright secular life. Religious Zionist ideology constructs a building with a ground, material, floor, atop which is another, spiritual floor. It is no great revolution to recognize that the ground floor cannot always be the source for great national movements; sometimes, it will be no more than the foundation of private, family life.

But how will Charedi society successfully undergo this transformation? How will a religious order transform into a normal community without losing its essence? Years ago, I believed that in many ways Charedim will ultimately become religious Zionists. Today, I think otherwise. The Charedi community is a model and a marvel in many areas; certainly, these achievements of spirit and of community ought to be preserved even when its sons need to work for a living and, in good time, even serve in the army. What can be the founding principle of the new Charedi society emerging before our eyes? I have no good answer for that question. All I can say is that the future of Israeli society and the Jewish People depends on us finding one.


Photo: Bigstock

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