Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Charedi identity > The (Painful) Path to the State

The (Painful) Path to the State

The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates that there we cannot avoid Charedi integration into the state. But the path to integration involves no small anguish. To minimize it, both Charedim and non-Charedim need to understand that integration means strengthening the state’s Jewish character.

Kislev 5780 / December 2020

The recent second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the crisis in the relationship between Charedi society and the State of Israel to a new peak. The question of Charedi integration into Israel’s citizenry has long been among us, for good reason; nonetheless, it has sharpened considerably of late.

COVID-19 has exposed the catastrophic results of so huge a community as Charedi society managing itself independently, alongside the need for better internal Charedi governance. Virtually every subgroup in Charedi society acted without any regard for the rest of Israeli society. The baleful effects on public health led to a general shut down, with a crippling effect on the economy. At the same time, the lack of any official structure meant that no Charedi body could take broad responsibility for what was going on, even if certain individuals wished to do so. Municipalities with large Chareidi populations became dependent for help on non-Chareidi government institutions that they distrust. The non-Charedi public’s response is, basically and quite understandably, outrage.

The coronavirus period has clarified that in the long term, Charedi isolationism will undermine Israel’s economic and social trust. Even Charedim themselves feel the situation is untenable. The poverty created by detachment from the labor market is incentivizing many to enter the workforce, while civic needs have pushed many to specialize in municipal management, welfare, helping youth at risk, and so on. Others are heeding the call of the spirit to a deeper connection with practical, civic life. The detachment between “Torah and life,” between the beis midrash and practical living, is a cause for concern for many Torah students, and this has become one of the most popular topics for articles on the Tzarich Iyun platform.

It is a hopeful sign that some Charedim are moving towards a deeper partnership with the state: in economic activity, local government, mid- and senior-level bureaucracy, and even in affairs of government and security. Sooner or later, Charedim will become an integral part of the Jewish state. Those who think otherwise simply either do not know the Charedi community or fail to identify the deeper currents driving it today.

A range of paths is available by which to achieve integration, some more painful than others. We should focus our energies on making sure we walk the path of least anguish

However, despite my conviction that Charedim will integrate into the state in the long term, this does not exempt us from concern over the short term. A range of paths is available by which to achieve integration, some more painful than others. We should focus our energies on making sure we walk the path of least anguish. I will explain below why this process will likely be agonizing and what we can do to mitigate the pain.


“Exile Among Jews”

The tension between Charedim and the state does not derive from a rejection of the State of Israel, so much as from a lack of interest in civic participation in general. Charedim refuse to take responsibility for the proper state function of any state, and not only of the State of Israel. This refusal is the primary meaning of the term “exile.”

In the past, the common argument was that Charedim reject the State of Israel since they cannot accept a secular Jewish government in the Holy Land. This argument is correct to a degree, but we need to understand it in its proper context. Absent this context, we could construe the argument as implying that Charedim would in principle wish to belong to the state, encouraging national sovereignty and civic responsibility, but their shying away from aspects of the State of Israel deter them from doing so. This understanding would be very mistaken.

Part and parcel of belonging to Charedi society was the rejection of independent political sovereignty; Charedim had no interest in working to improve the civic order, preferring life in exile

The Charedi rejection of the State as an idea began well before the establishment of Israel. Part and parcel of belonging to Charedi society was the rejection of independent political sovereignty; Charedim had no interest in working to improve the civic order, preferring life in exile, a condition of non-sovereignty in which their sole responsibility is educating the next generation—a kind of spiritual imperium in imperio.  For this reason, there is much similarity between Charedi opposition to civic involvement in Israel and a similar refusal among many Charedi groups abroad. Both here and in the United States, Charedim prefer that others run the state. They live in exile.

The Charedi isolationist stance does not derive from an opposition to the State of Israel per se, as demonstrated by Charedi conduct during the COVID-19 crisis. This conduct harmed civic bodies that Charedim certainly wish to preserve, and it ultimately hurt them. Rather, the isolationist position derives from a Charedi lack of a civic mindset. The Charedi ethic simply does not include concern for the fate of the state; such concern is a matter for the days of the Mashiach, and while in exile there is no need for it. This does not mean, of course, that Charedim cannot be good citizens. Charedim generally observe the laws of the countries in which they live (in America or in Europe), so long as it does not pose a threat to their way of life. But there is a big difference between compliance with the law and demonstration of civic responsibility.

Compliance implies respect for laws passed by somebody else, while a civic mindset implies a sense of responsibility for the maintenance of the state—a sense of responsibility for the law. Charedi Jews have never entered politics to save the state, in Israel or abroad. Even if some serve in senior government positions here and there, those officeholders are not generally motivated (though things might be changing, as I will note below) by an ethical mission or concern for the state itself. They either seek to preserve Jewish life through state channels or wish to make a remunerative living (court Jews represent these two functions). It is important to stress that this does not affirm the anti-Semitic claim that Jews don’t care about what happens in the state they live in because of “dual loyalties.” My argument is that Charedi Jews have no interest in political life as such. It plays no part in their ethics, whether the majority population of the state in which they live is Jewish or Gentile.

Charedi Jews have no interest in political life as such. It plays no part in their ethics, whether the majority population of the state in which they live is Jewish or Gentile

What makes Charedi-state relations in the State of Israel unique is the impossibility (or, at the very least, great difficulty) of feeling a sense of exile while living in a Jewish state. It is far easier to cast off the life of politics while living among non-Jews. Charedim are a foreign minority in the diaspora, and Charedi operators can thus limit themselves to advocacy, seeking nothing more than protecting the Charedi or Jewish interest. This attitude does not place them in a tight spot since it is generally understood that they need not play a significant role in the state. A foreign minority is always in a precarious position vis-à-vis the local majority, and it is only to be expected that it predominantly cares for its own affairs. Charedim in other countries can thus live their lives, manage their communities, work for a living “by the goyim” and go home to their own communities.

Charedim in Israel are a political minority, but not a foreign one. They are Jews in a state for Jews. Charedim thus do not qualify for some informal exemption from civic involvement often extended to national minorities. The notable difference in public attitudes towards Israeli Charedim and Israeli Arabs is ample proof of that. The Jewish public understands why Israeli Arabs are not involved in civic activity and is not bothered by it. It’s clear to Israeli Jews that Arabs are a national minority and that there is no point in expecting them to fill the roles occupied by the majority. Moreover, as a national minority, it is entirely understandable that they should focus on their community’s internal interests and protect them from majoritarian abuse. The Charedi community, however, is not treated with the same kind of understanding. Charedim are very much a part of the nation, making it much harder to accept their choice to remains (at least mentally) in exile within the Jewish state and disavow any civic involvement or sharing of the burden with their Israeli brethren.

Furthermore, because Charedim are not a foreign minority but rather part of the nation, their refusal to bear the civic burden with others leads to a severe moral indictment. The charge of “Are your brothers to go to war while you remain here?” pierces the heart, and it cannot be casually waved aside. For this reason, to justify the feeling of exile, Charedim needed to entirely abstain from involvement in practical life in Israel, by contrast with Charedi Jews living abroad who could combine everyday involvement with an exilic mindset. The reason why Charedim in Israel abandoned the world of trade and economy is the understanding that Jews cannot be treated like Goyim; in the Jewish State, a condition of enjoying the good of civil society without earning their keep is untenable. For the Charedi community, living like everyone else implies a moral obligation to pitch in like everyone else. This is the moral significance of making employment conditional on military service—a policy that remains partially in force until today.

Charedim understood they had two options alone: to join the state and become a part of the Israeli melting pot, forgoing the belief that leaving exile requires Torah-based political life, or simply to abstain from the practical world. They chose the latter

But the option of civic involvement was never on the Charedi agenda. The Torah was unwilling to leave exile. According to Jewish tradition, leaving exile does not just mean restoring a state, but also “restoring our judges as in ancient times”—a return to a state run according to Torah principles. At the time of Israel’s founding, there was no room for such an option. The Charedim understood they had two options alone: to join the state and become a part of the Israeli melting pot, forgoing the belief that leaving exile requires Torah-based political life, or simply to abstain from the practical world. They chose the latter.

Thus, for several decades Charedim continued living in exile within the State of Israel. Moreover, the State of Israel deepened the state of exile. After all, Jews were able to be somewhat involved in the world in pre-Israeli exile. While remaining detached from state affairs, they were engaged in trade and in making a living. This concern bound them, even if loosely, to the earthly realm. But in Israel, even this connection was severed. The Charedi community broke off entirely and limited itself to a social sphere isolated from the rest of the world, notwithstanding the harm this condition entails.

Yet, as noted above, this level of detachment cannot be maintained. Economic and civic pressures, topped by the spiritual need to be connected to the practical world, is pushing Charedim to reintegrate into civic life. However, the push to reconnect with earthly life resurfaces the question that led to the break in the first place: Can we return to the state without abandoning the Torah?


Return to the State Without Abandoning the Torah

Charedi society today—much of it, at any rate—feels a need to integrate into state institutions and start demonstrating civic responsibility. Yes, the obstacles that prevented integration at the outset have not been removed. If we merely ignore them, the inevitable results will be a significant delay in this much-desired integration and an unwanted escalation of tensions.

What does integration involve? Many believe that the present trend of Charedi integration can be interpreted as adopting the doctrine of separation of religion and state that serves as the basis for modern religion in non-theocratic states. The expectation is that Charedim limit the expression of their faith to the personal sphere while leaving the public realm to secular state mechanisms. In other words, Charedim are expected to adopt the position of many Jews of the national-religious variety, who ostensibly separate between the (privatized) religious sphere and the (public) political sphere. They recognize that the state is secular, and are committed to it as such, while adhereing in their private lives to every aspect of halacha.

Some even hope for Charedim to undergo a deeper process of secularization, adopting the multicultural ethos—Charedi Judaism as one legitimate option of many—in their private lives, too

This combination effectively means giving up the Charedi insistence on not leaving so long as the state remains secular. More importantly, it means a secularization of Charedi Judaism itself by agreeing to recognize a secular state that does not draw legitimacy from religious sources and authority. My impression is that most of those working on behalf of Charedi integration into the state see their efforts in this light. Some even hope for Charedim to undergo a deeper process of secularization, adopting the multicultural ethos—Charedi Judaism as one legitimate option of many—in their private lives, too. But even those who do not promote this kind of multiculturalism yearn for an integration that will train Charedim to recognize a secular government. To put it another way, the popular hope is for Charedi Judaism to liberalize, and for Charedim to move closer to the liberal wing of the national-religious group in Israel.

To my understanding, this process is unlikely to materialize. Charedim will not uphold a separation between religion and state or grant legitimacy to state secularism. Moreover, a push for the adoption of such principles will significantly slow the organic integration of Charedim into the state, creating a backlash that could be disastrous both to Charedi society and to the entire country.

I find proof for this in religious-Zionist society itself. The national-religious community is at a crossroads no less critical than that of Charedi society. The duality of private religiosity and public secularism is being challenged from two opposing directions. On the one hand, the liberal engine pulls towards secularization of the private sphere, refusing to accept religious norms in individual life and considering them a form of oppression (its main critique is of the most private of realms: women’s status and the matter of sexual preference). On the other hand, the “Charedizing” engine pushes for the religionization of the public sphere, opposing the artificial divide between the private and the public. The simplistic liberal option of upholding religion in private while recognizing the secular nature of civic life is under threat even among religious-Zionists—a society with a wealth of experience in trying to make such a combination work. Why should it suddenly work for Charedim, who have resisted this approach for decades?

Moreover, there is no reason to assume that the Charedi community has changed its principled position. The Charedi public has always refused to commit to a secular state. For this reason, it was unwilling to integrate into civilian life when the State was founded, and as a result, it was driven to abandon the earthly aspects of worldly living. The latter involves significant sacrifice: sitting in Kollel for an entire lifetime is far from easy, and it isn’t for nothing that every groom who chooses to stay in Kollel is considered to be “sacrificing for the sake of Torah.” There is doubtless a “sacrifice dimension” in devoting one’s life to Torah study, and it exacts a far from insignificant price. Pressures internal and external notwithstanding, it is therefore hard to assume Charedi society will abandon its principled opposition to serve a secular state.


Anything but the “Diaspora Model”

This analysis leaves us with two possible scenarios. One is that Charedim return to practical, earthly life while refraining from a recognition of the State. This effectively implies importing the diaspora model to Israel, becoming part of commerce and industry, hi-tech and medicine, while rejecting service in the IDF and significant positions in the senior bureaucracy. More generally, it means that Charedim in Israel, just as their contemporaries abroad, will continue to look out for themselves rather than the rest of the state. Unfortunately, I hear this option raised all too often. Many believe that Charedi “normalcy” means simply adopting a middle-class life without the concomitant adoption of civic responsibility.

Many believe that Charedi “normalcy” means simply adopting a middle-class life without the concomitant adoption of civic responsibility

There is no need to go to lengths to explain why this is a terrible idea. We have already noted how the only moral justification for Charedi avoidance of military and civic service is the complete abandonment of earthly life. Charedim effectively tell their Jewish brethren: We neither benefit from the State nor are partners in its maintenance. There is no other argument that holds water.

If truth be told, following the dramatic increase in Charedim demographics this argument is of course highly implausible. Despite their low standard of living, Charedim benefit tremendously from the State. And the more Charedim enter the Israeli middle-class, the more demands they will likely face: “Why do you perform your civil duties if you live off the land like its masters?” “How can you travel abroad all the time, go on vacations and drive fancy cars, while not bothering to help manage and maintain all this plenty?” The diaspora model would solve certain problems while leaving serious moral failings—principally the refusal to serve in the army—all the more conspicuous.


The Charedization of the State

The remaining option for Charedi integration is a partial “Charedization” of state institutions. The more Charedim integrate, the more they will influence the mechanisms into which they are integrated. We might see government ministries demanding a dress code, increasing limitations on public activity out of line with the spirit of halacha, increasingly religious law proposals, and so on.

The equation is simple: The Charedi agreement to partial recognition of the state in 1947-8 was accompanied by a demand for state institutions shutting down on Shabbos, independence in the fields of conversion and personal status, and legally anchored observance of kashrus laws, alongside the initiation of a separate Charedi education stream. All these are items in the status quo agreement signed by Charedi and state leaders before Israel was founded. At the time, the Charedi leadership did not commit to civic participation and responsibilities, but only to partial recognition and partnership. Today, however, we expect Charedim to expand their involvement. But for some reason, there are many who are convinced that the increase of Charedi involvement means narrowing the status quo in matters of religion. That seems plainly absurd. If Charedim demanded Shabbos observance, kashrus, and traditional family law while they refrained from accepting civic responsibilities, why should they reduce their demands when they adopt a track of integration?

So how will Charedi integration look? Will there be greater religious coercion in private affairs? Will the criminal justice system adopt religious principles? Since even the Sages refrained from stoning Shabbos desecrators, I assume the answer to the first question is generally in the negative—yet these are indeed excellent questions to which I have no firm answers. In fact, the entire “Torah world” has no answers. The Torah community knows how to take care of the realm of the individual: education, modesty, communal life. What about tax collection? Foreign policy? Individual freedoms? Seeking throughout to abstain from civil involvement, it has no answers to these questions. What I am therefore describing is a trend: Charedi integration into the State will be accompanied by an increased interest in determining civic policy. When Charedim are called to do so, they will likely not consult with the (secular) likes of Kremnitzer and Aharon Barak but will instead turn to the Rashba and the Ran, the Rambam and the Ramban.

The process will not be easy, as indicated by the unfortunate recent saga concerning the Charedi “civil service cadets.” The State of Israel established a special training program aimed at placing Charedim in senior positions in the state bureaucracy, as part of a general agenda to encourage Charedi integration into civil society. This is of course a burning need: Charedi municipalities are presently filled with non-Charedi civil servants. Indeed, the need was confirmed by the program being launched with the consent of Rabbis and Charedi public figures, but on one basic condition: that the program ensures complete separation of the sexes. The Women’s Lobby was quick to file an appeal to the Supreme Court, with the result that the program was halted for a time, and almost entirely shut down.

Some will argue that the court’s decision was illiberal; but in such matters, I prefer to trust the court’s own interpretation of liberalism, and I certainly understand its concern for a “slippery illiberal slope.” The court understood that integrating Charedim into the state means giving up something of its liberal character, and it was not willing to agree to such a trade-off. This small decision reveals a deeper truth: The secular government wishes Charedim to integrate into the state, but on its own terms. It expects Charedim to loyally serve the secular state but is unwilling to give them a stake in the government—not even a relative one. This is therefore one reason why the process of Charedi integration into the state will be painful. The secular elite will be reluctant to let them share power.

But there is also another reason, this one internal-Charedim. Existing Charedi institutions are built on an exilic ethos. The yeshiva society was built on a “Noah’s Ark model,” protecting its inhabitants from the secular flood raging outside. The fact that scholars of the beis midrash are integrating into civil life constitutes a true earthquake that will shake the foundations of Charedi education. For this reason, many strongly object to any integration trend. Some simply fear the unknown: ignoring internal tensions might be costly, but the potential danger of integration is far more dangerous. And there is also a more sinister opposition to integration from old power brokers—those who understand how the tectonic change in relations between Charedim and the state might corrode or entirely eliminate their traditional power. This latter group is prepared to oppose integration by any means necessary, legitimate or not; it fans the flames of hatred between Charedim and the State, pouncing on any unfortunate statement by a secular politician and rejoicing with at every slur made by a crude journalist. All means are legitimate in justifying continued control via traditional institutions.

For these reasons, the process of integrating Charedim into the state will involve some measure of pain. If we wish to minimize it, we need to do everything we can to extinguish the fires of hostility between Charedi society and the State. We cannot let either escalate matters. Even when it is difficult, we need to remember the larger picture and understand the requirement for self-restraint. In addition, we need to launch an extensive public education campaign to prepare the secular public for a state that will become more religious, even slightly. Moreover, for those who delude themselves concerning Charedi liberalization, it is important to clarify that this scenario will simply not materialize. Charedim will integrate into the state, but this will come at a cost. The more the non-Charedi public accepts this, the smoother the process of Charedi integration will be.

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