“So what do you say about ‘back to basics’?” The “back to basics” slogan has been hurled around incessantly since the onset of the corona crisis. But when asked the question as part of an interview with BBC’s Middle East correspondent, I found my mind drifting off to consider another question, namely: what basics? What are the “basics” that we should be returning to?
Among other issues—those of a healthier, less stressful lifestyle, imbued with virtue and general wholesomeness—one significant matter often mentioned in the “back to basics” dialogue is the balance between community and individual. Many Charedi authors, both on Tzarich Iyun and elsewhere, have made a point of the need to learn the lesson of “coming home.” Rabbi Aryeh Malca decried the condition whereby “the community has become a substitute for God,” “Jewish values have turned into social norms,” and “the sanctity of the community has become the first of values.” He sees the corona situation as an opportunity to return to the “inner I” within each of us. In a similar spirit, Eli Stern asks us to “be Jews in our homes,” and to engage the difficult questions that our elongated stay at home raise: “Who are we as individuals? Are we defined only by the outside world, or even by the home?” And while relating to a somewhat different issue, Rabbi Reuven Leuchter too seeks to redirect our aspirations for greatness so that “they should apply to somewhere more private, more homely and more human.”
Rather than a return to the home, the message articulated by opinion columns in a vast range of newspapers and magazines directs us away from the individual and toward the community
While this has been the dominant “back to basics” strain in Charedi discourse, in the larger world the emphasis has been quite different, and in fact even contrary. Rather than a return to the home, the message articulated by opinion columns in a vast range of newspapers and magazines directs us away from the individual and toward the community. This unprecedented time of physical separation, so we are told, reminds us of our social nature and the attendant requirement of human interaction. It teaches us, the hard way, just how integral community is to the good life, and how troubled is the life of isolated individuals. We have become accustomed to a radical individualism that severs interpersonal ties, and now we must return to basics—to community.
One writer in this vein noted a discovery made by Dr. Brett Ford (University of Toronto), who sought (together with several colleagues) to answer the question: If you consciously attempt to make yourself happier, will you actually succeed? Research was conducted in four countries—the United States, Russia, Taiwan, and Japan—and results distinguished sharply between the different locations. In the United States, those who consciously tried to make themselves happier did not become happier on average, while in the other countries they succeeded in doing so. Further analysis discovered that in the United States, the idea of “making yourself happier” was manifest in “doing something for yourself”: working harder to get a promotion, buying a special treat, and so on. In the other countries, by contrast, the same efforts to make oneself happy were realized by doing something for others: friends, family, community. We are happier, as Harvard’s 80-year ongoing study has found, when we are blessed with close relationships: spouses, family, friends, and social circles.
What then is the “basic” to which we are to return: the community or the individual?
“Who Am I” Or “Who Are We”
A little less than a decade ago, Debora Feldman published her autobiographic memoir “Unorthodox,” documenting her flight from the Satmar community in Williamsburg—a community described as a cruel and oppressive society wielding absolute authority over its members and denying them self-realization—to the freedom of life in Belin. Feldman’s “unorthodox heroism”—the Hebrew version is aptly called “the rebel”—was recently granted the honor of a Netflix series bearing the same name, catapulting her to international fame and making her personal journey the talk of the Web. The tale, told of course from the (highly) subjective perspective of its protagonist, does us a service in accentuating the tension between community life and the “inner I.”
Feldman’s former neighbors in Williamsburg live within a collective identity, a community serving God in its own, special way. By contrast, Feldman herself spurned the collective identity she grew up with and exchanged it for a deeply individual identity. She is infatuated with “who am I,” and far less interested in “who are we.”
“Unorthodox” raises many issues worthy of discussion, and these have gained prominence in the wake of the recent series. Is the life of the unorthodox heroine “better” in Berlin that it could have been in Williamsburg? Would her newly made German friends be willing to travel the world to find her, as her husband did? Can a life of radical individualism, of the type ascribed to Berlin, supply a person with the type of security, stability and belonging as that which a community can provide? What, indeed, are the costs that community life exacts from its members? Do strong communities inherently negate their members’ capacity for self-fulfillment? Is the balance between infinite conformity and unbounded freedom a “zero-sum game”?
We will return to some of these questions later, albeit briefly, yet for now I want to emphasize an issue that underlies many of them: the question of identity.
A New York Times review by James Poniewozik makes the point well. The piece dwells on a scene depicting a family Seder Night led by one of the community elders, who explains the eternal significance of the redemption from Egypt for the Jewish people: “Its lesson is that whenever they assimilate into the larger community, they are punished for it: When we forget who we are, we invite God’s wrath.” Ultimately, says Poniewozik, the protagonist of “Unorthodox” is also searching for her identity, escaping what she perceives as oppression in favor of a coveted liberty: “She’s chasing the same insight that her former neighbors find in ritual. She wants to know who she is.” The distinction between the collective and the individual adds nuance to this insight. Feldman’s former neighbors in Williamsburg live within a collective identity, a community serving God in its own, special way. By contrast, Feldman herself spurned the collective identity she grew up with and exchanged it for a deeply individual identity. She is infatuated with “who am I,” and far less interested in “who are we.”
For liberal societies prevalent in today’s West—and to a growing extent even in the East—society organizes itself around the individual. This is its basic unit, drawn from the assumption that a person lives a true life only when he “tells himself his own life story” (paraphrasing from Joseph Raz). He, and he alone, ought to make the fundamental decisions that navigate the crossroads of life. Based on this perception, there is no person more true or “authentic” than the teenage rebel who defies accepted norms of his society and forges himself a new, individual path. When asked the question “who are you?”, somebody brought up with this mindset will respond with his own name—his given name. His life motto, expanding a little on Descartes, is “I think for myself, therefore I am.” When he follows the dictates of society, rather than those of his own heart, then “he is not.”
For the non-liberal, true life is not lived by following one’s heart but by following the path of tradition—a tradition preserved by family and by community. The primary questions he asks are objective rather than subjective, such as the the traditional Jew’s primary question of “What is the halacha?”
Somebody more traditional, who is yet to internalize liberal values (at least not to the same degree), will think in different terms. For him, society is not merely at the service of the individual, but quite to the contrary: a person’s group—his family, his community, his tribe or his nation—supplies meaning and purpose to a person’s individual existence. For the non-liberal, true life is not lived by following one’s heart but by following the path of tradition—a tradition preserved by family and by community. The primary questions he asks are objective rather than subjective, such as the the traditional Jew’s primary question of “What is the halacha?” Questions like “How do I find self-fulfillment within the halachic system?” are secondary at best. For such a person, conformity to group norms does not raise the modern specter of living an unauthentic life; he is content to live a life of truth—not his own subjective truth, but the transmitted truth (or Truth) of the entire group, which supplies his deepest identity. Asked who he is, his first reply will single out the group: I am a Jew.
The Torah includes both elements, a group identity as well as an individual one; yet its primary emphasis, its “basic unit,” is the group. We did not emerge from Egypt as individuals, but as a nation: “This nation I have created for Myself; My glory they shall tell” (Yeshayahu 32:21). Likewise, we received the Torah at Sinai and proceeded to enter the Promised Land as a nation. These were collective experiences that transcended individuality. Even when the Torah instructs us with mitzvos, promises their reward and warns of their punishment, the passages refer to a collective, to an entire people. Biblical highs are national highs, and lows are national lows. Avraham Avinu was an individual, yet the covenant God struck with him—including the promise of the Land—was essentially national, and was later reaffirmed on a national level, as we find at the covenant of Sinai:
“Moshe took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled upon the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded: We will do and we will hear everything Hashem has said. Moshe then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said: This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Shemos 24:6-8).
Halacha, the part of the Torah that gives us specific directives of how to act, is likewise national in its nature. Halacha is not personal but rather collective: “You shall have a single law, for the foreigner and the native-born alike” (Vayikra 24:22). The recent halachic controversy over transmitting Seder Night via Zoom hinged to a large extent on this matter.
Collapsed into the simple words “I am a Jew” are tremendous meaning and deep commitment. They declare upon their bearer a belonging to an eternal covenant—a covenant between Man and God that defines a profound identity, obligating him to consider the national covenant even in his most private decisions
Collapsed into the simple words “I am a Jew” are tremendous meaning and deep commitment. They declare upon their bearer a belonging to an eternal covenant—a covenant between Man and God that defines a profound identity, obligating him to consider the national covenant even in his most private decisions. Alongside a fidelity to God, it demands even a fidelity to the nation, whose members are all “brothers” (as the Torah repeats multiple times). One cannot simply shake off this identity and its attendant duties; they are built-in to the words “I am a Jew.” Millions throughout history were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of these short words, which express a belonging that transcends the “personal I.”
And then came modernity and liberalism—the kind so succinctly articulated in “Unorthodox.”
Liberalism and Charedi-ism
Today’s secularism is not defined by questions of God’s existence, His supervision over the world or the meaning of mitzvah performance—though all these are of course related issues—but rather by the question of authority. The familiar version of twenty-first century liberalism does not scorn religion per se—neither religious belief nor religious practice—but rejects out of hand religious authority. Many individuals who have internalized the liberal mindset continue to believe in God and to observe His directives, however understood; yet they reject out of hand the authority vested in religious communities. It is up to each individual to decide “the good” for himself; the community has no part in doing so. The religious tension inherent to liberal societies is not with personalized religion, but rather with institutionalized religion.
In other words, the liberal ideal has transformed religiosity from a collective identity to a privatized one—a casing for subjective beliefs based on each person’s individual religiosity. Being Jewish thus loses its collective meaning, infused with content defined by society-driven tradition, and becomes an (almost) empty category that can be infused with a huge variety of ideas and beliefs. We have thus become accustomed to Torah observant Jews, traditional Jews, secular Jews, atheistic Jews, national Jews, and non-national Jews—and of course far more besides. Today’s liberalism declares all these legitimate forms of being Jewish. To each his own Judaism.
This is where the Charedi version of Jewish identity comes into play—for nothing could be further from the Charedi mindset.
The isolationism that defines Charedi society should not be understood merely as isolation from the ills of Western culture that threaten the moral fabric of Jewish life. Deeper still, Charedi society isolates from the threat of enlightenment values that urge us to reject a communal identity in favor of a personalized one
A deep part of the Charedi ethos is a rejection of the individualist trend of liberal society and an attempt to preserve the collective nature of Jewish society. Rather than provide a loose framework for individuals who serve God each in his own way, it seeks to maintain a “God-serving community” replete communal values, beliefs, and specific ways of serving God.
Many concepts and ideas, both ideological and sociological, combine to define the nature of Charedi society, setting it aside from other branches of Orthodox Judaism. These include central and binding rabbinic authority, universally strict halachic standards, Torah study as an ultimate value, a preparedness for self-sacrifice, a rejection of Zionism, a uniform dress code, and so on. But behind these lies a social structure that rejects the individualist liberalism of our modern world, thereby enabling the function of a society collectively directed at zealous service of God. The isolationism that defines Charedi society (and from which many of the defining qualities noted above draw) should not be understood merely as isolation from the ills of Western culture that threaten the moral fabric of Jewish life. Deeper still, Charedi society isolates from the threat of enlightenment values that urge us to reject a communal identity in favor of a personalized one.
Charedim and All the Rest
It seems to me that for most Charedi Jews, “Charedi” is the primary identity. Asked “who are you?”, many will thus answer “I am Charedi” rather than “I am Jewish” or “I am a religious Jew” (or “a Jew loyal to Hashem and His Torah”—my own preference). To a degree that surpasses other Jewish communities, Charedi identity is a basic element of belonging to a Charedi community.
Indeed, from my experience of Israeli Charedim, children and adults alike, I find the term “a religious Jew” has been supplanted by “a Charedi Jew,” creating a binary Jewish world in which people are either Charedi or secular—“secular” referring to anybody who is non-Charedi. This binary outlook was prominent in a recently broadcast interview with Rabbi Gershon Edelstein (Rosh Yeshiva of Ponovezh and president of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah), who explained the high rate of victims among Charedi Jews by citing from the Chazon Ish:
“In our times, those that never studied Torah and did not repent—when they transgress, they are considered shogeg (unintentional). They are tinokos shenishbu (children who grew up in captivity). They are not at fault; they never had any education. But a Chareidi? A Chareidi that transgresses is not a shogeg! Therefore, Midas Hadin (Hashem’s attribute of justice) is more harsh for Chareidim, as we have seen abroad as well” (see https://bit.ly/3cLcqWE).
To understand why is to grasp that for the Charedi Jew, living a Torah life is not about individual religiosity alone, but about being part of a collective identity that demands allegiance to Hashem and the Torah. This is what “being Jewish” used to represent. Today, when being Jewish can mean many things other than religious commitment, the collective identity that declares fidelity to Hashem has become “I am Charedi”
This explanation works in the framework of a Charedi-secular binary, but what about people who are religiously observant yet not Charedi? They remain conspicuously (and somewhat jarringly) absent from the equation. To understand why is to grasp that for the Charedi Jew, living a Torah life is not about individual religiosity alone, but about being part of a collective identity that demands allegiance to Hashem and the Torah. This is what “being Jewish” used to represent. Today, when being Jewish can mean many things other than religious commitment, the collective identity that declares fidelity to Hashem has become “I am Charedi.” Charedi identity thus becomes central to religiosity itself, and the world takes on a binary division between Charedi and non-Charedi.
And what of those Jews who remain committed to Torah while not belonging to the collective vision of Charedi society? For the Charedi individual this model of Judaism is difficult to swallow. It represents a religious commitment of a new type, one that traded the community model—a God-serving community—with an individual model in which each serves God as he sees fit. This of course is a misrepresentation that fails to account for the complexity and diversity of religious communities outside Charedi society. But for the average Charedi Jew a binary vision is far more convenient: either you’re Charedi or you’re not.
In the midst of the corona crisis, with institutions closed and synagogues empty, Eli Stern asks himself (and us all) the piecing question: Who are we without community? For the Charedi ideal, for somebody who has rejected the liberal mindset, the answer ought to be: “Without community we do not exist.” Just like one cannot be a Jew without the existence of a Jewish people, so one cannot be a Charedi Jew without the Charedi community. If your basic identity is Charedi, the closure of community thus becomes no small crisis—which is one reason (among several) why keeping to government regulations was complex for Charedi society.
Charedi society is modeled on a distrust of individuals […]. But notwithstanding the community disposition, Charedi isolation has its limits, and values such as self-fulfillment, individual liberties, and even a watered-down version of a liberal rights discourse, have all filtered their way into Charedi society
But though this is perhaps the answer the Charedi ideal would dictate, facts on the ground are quite different. Possibly excepting the most isolated and segregated Charedi communities, the reality is far more complex. The dichotomy between Williamsburg and Berlin does not represent real life; the truth is that even Williamsburg (as an archetype) does not represent Williamsburg (in reality). Yes, Charedi society is modeled on a distrust of individuals; a little like the conservative mindset described in Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, it is acutely aware of human weakness, and offsets that weakness by means of community. But notwithstanding the community disposition, Charedi isolation has its limits, and values such as self-fulfillment, individual liberties, and even a watered-down version of a liberal rights discourse, have all filtered their way into Charedi society—in varying degrees for varying sub-communities. We, too, are modern; we, too, have embraced democracy as more than just a political system, and its ideas have become part and parcel of our conception of the good. Nobody wants to live in an oppressive society, a society in which “I do not think for myself, therefore I am”. Deciding between community and individual thus becomes a matter of balance, a question of finding the right equilibrium.
The corona crises, as mentioned at the outset, has provoked different and even opposite reactions from different groups. Many living in individualist western societies chose to adopt a message of community, of strengthening group interaction and seeking to remedy the curse of hyper-individualism. By contrast, many in Haredi society, which in some versions suffers from hyper-communitarianism, chose the opposite message, reasserting the centrality of the home and the individual—the “inner I” as distinct from community. To each the “basic” he chooses to go back to.
In the present article I have attempted to characterize how the “Charedi basic” is intricately tied to community. Charedi society adopted a strategy vis-à-vis the threats of modernity that relies on the strength of community to protect individuals. The strategy has ups and downs, strengths and weaknesses, and taken to an extreme it can be harmful and destructive—like most things in life. But when somebody wishes to work within Charedi society, to make necessary improvements and adaptations, he should ensure his awareness of this fundamental property. The delicate challenge of the day is to ensure that modern, liberal ideas that have penetrated (and will continue to penetrate) Charedi society will be integrated within the community system in a healthy and constructive way, without threatening to undermine the basic foundations on which it stands.
Making our communal journeys in a post-corona world, I deem it safe to assume that most of us will not find ourselves in Williamsburg. But we should be quite clear about it: We do not want to be in Berlin either
The task is far from simple. Yet in conclusion, I wish to emphasize that this challenge should be taken up with relish and not with remorse. All of us—Charedi, secular, whatever—feel privileged to live in a world that provides us with individual freedoms and liberties. Yes, being Charedi while belonging to this world is a matter of some complexity—a complexity I have tried to partially explain. Yet such complexities are far from new for us Jews, and as staunch traditionalists we ought to welcome them. They present us with an opportunity to improve, to find ways to incorporate the desirable aspects of individual self-expression while preserving the basics of Charedi community life. Making our communal journeys in a post-corona world, I deem it safe to assume that most of us will not find ourselves in Williamsburg. But we should be quite clear about it: We do not want to be in Berlin either.