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Ḥaredim

ḤAREDIM

ḤAREDIM (lit. "reverently fearful," from Hebrew ḥared, "fearful, trembling, pious"; common definition, ultra-Orthodox Jews).

Introduction

Orthodox Jews constitute the smallest major Jewish religious denomination. Although found in all principal areas of Jewish settlement, they are primarily resident in the United States and Israel. Numbering about 500,000 in the United States, the Orthodox constituted nearly 10% of American Jewry. About three-quarters of these are those called "Centrist Orthodox," Jews who choose a middle-way between whole-hearted acculturation to America and strict insulation from it. These are Jews who, although attached to halakhah (Jewish law, literally "the way"), value and receive a general education in addition to their intensive Jewish one (commonly by means of attendance at a Jewish day school), attend university, and embrace middle class aspirations of a professional career and material comforts. They share high concern for Israel, accept the idea of modern Zionism, and more than any other Jewish denomination, entertain the idea of moving to Israel, often but not always settling in the territories. While practicing birth control, American Centrist Orthodox Jews tend to have just under three children per family, giving them about a 33% greater fertility rate than the rest of American Jewry. Located mostly along the northeast corridor of the Eastern United States and in metropolitan Toronto and Montreal in Canada, they are also established in Los Angeles, Southern Florida, Cleveland, and Chicago.

In addition to Centrists, about a quarter of American Orthodox Jews qualify as ḥaredim, sometimes called "ultra-Orthodox." In Israel, conservative estimates have put the number of those qualifying as ḥaredim at between 250,000 and 300,000. Included here are not only Jews of Ashkenazi origins but also some of those of Sephardi, North African, and Middle-Eastern origins who are affiliated with Orthodox lifestyles and commitments, though not always in as consistent a way as their Ashkenazi counterparts. These latter Jews often effect a folk-religious attachment to ḥaredi rabbis and customs even as they sometimes deviate from some of the strict rules and regulations of the rabbis.

Definition

The term "haredim" – once used to simply denote the religious – is today commonly reserved for those most extreme of Orthodox Jews who, although they have changed over time, claim to have made no compromises with contemporary secular culture or essential changes in the way they practice their Judaism from what the tradition and halakhah have sanctified throughout the ages. Yet ḥaredim are not simply pristine Jews who quiescently live a traditional Jewish life but rather culturally combative proponents of tradition who often seek to aggressively assert their connection to the ways of the past in the precincts of modernity, most often contemporary U.S. and Israel.

On the surface, they have used some relatively simple mechanisms to establish and maintain their traditional quasi-ethnic identity and the separation or insularity it demands. These include dressing (and grooming themselves) in ways that make them clearly stand apart from those in the surrounding culture. For men this means wearing a beard and long earlocks as well as black caftans and black hats (fur hats or shtreimels on the Sabbath for married or adult men), and often some form of knee pants and black shoes. For women it means dressing in modest clothing which covers most of the body and for the married among them, a head covering that may range from a kerchief over a shorn head for the most extreme to a wig for those less so. Variations are determined by sectarian affiliation within the ḥaredi world.

Ḥaredim also distinguish themselves by speaking Yiddish, a Jewish language that increasingly is limited only to them. In addition they have created environmental and residential barriers – segregated neighborhoods, for example – behind which they build their relatively insular neighborhoods and communities. They also send their children to private schools in which only those who share their values and lifestyle are included.

Beyond these relatively passive aspects of their identity, ḥaredim struggle actively against the influences of secular culture. Often this has led to their fighting to keep the contemporary lifestyle of permissiveness and sexual openness from entering their domains. In Israel this has taken the form of forcing the secular out of ḥaredi neighborhoods, demonstrating and militating against vehicular traffic on the Sabbath, fighting against what are viewed as the culturally corrosive effects of television, newspapers, or the posting of immodest advertisements in public, or against archeological digs in areas where they claim Jewish graves are to be found. In America, this has taken the form of struggling against legitimating non-Orthodox definitions of Judaism and Jews as well as trying to keep non-ḥaredim at a distance.

Groupings

Although to outsiders ḥaredim often appear to constitute a single ultra-Orthodox group, they are in fact subdivided into Ḥasidim who are organized around their fidelity to a particular charismatic rabbi-leader or rebbe on the one hand and benei yeshivah, those who identify with a particular academy of Jewish learning and its leading scholar (rosh yeshivah), students and interpretive traditions on the other. Within each of these two subcultures, there are divisions. Hence one group of Ḥasidim may clearly distinguish itself from another while those who are attached to one yeshivah may have little to do with those associated with another. Thus a ḥaredi is either a particular kind of Ḥasid, or a member of a particular yeshivah community, follower of a particular rabbi's interpretation of Jewish law. The divisions, supported by customs and quasi kin-group ties, may be so great as to erupt in conflict and even violence. Yet what divides these ḥaredim from one another pales in comparison with what divides haredim in general from the rest of society. Ḥaredi identities take on a quasi-ethnic dimension as they become increasingly taken for granted because of common residence, endogamy, and a host of other instrumental links. They transcend time, place, and generation, precisely as does ethnicity.

Psycho-Social Worldview

Like ethnics, ḥaredim share a psycho-social worldview. This is their common (often hostile) perception of a world that opposes them and seeks to undermine their attachments to one another and to the tradition. They see themselves as an often lonely force endlessly combating obstacles, convinced that catastrophes of existence come as the inevitable culmination of past choices and experiences, which most contemporary members of secular society have made and had. While a few ḥaredim – most prominently Lubavitcher/Chabad Ḥasidim – have tried to engage and reach out to this world in order to try to bring it in line with their image of what is authentic, most ḥaredim are content to try to struggle against it by demanding it provide protection for their way of life or at the very least leave them alone. They view the culture of yesterday (as imagined nostalgically) as inherently more authoritative than today and as a genuine guide for tomorrow. They consider their lives as a service to God and Jewish tradition and the only true merit that which is prescribed by the Torah and its accepted rabbinic interpretations. In general, in the ḥaredi worldview, conformity to group norms and collective solidarity holds greater importance than individual self-actualization and personal liberty. Individuals only have merit insofar as they serve God and follow the dictates of tradition; that is their primary raison dêtre. To know precisely how to go about this, they must be guided by those who know the law and whose understanding is informed by the tradition – the rabbis.

The modern world may be used as an instrumentality to improve this service to God, but there is nothing about modernity – including science, medicine, and technology, all of which ḥaredi Jews utilize and exploit – which has ontological value in and of itself. The modern world is only to be valued insofar as it makes it more possible to serve God, continue Jewish tradition, and enhance Torah values. Studying Torah for as long as possible is thus the ideal for men, while women are expected to give birth to and rear children who will serve God and grow to be Torah scholars or the wives and mothers of scholars.

Although there are many other elements that distinguish ḥaredim from other contemporaries, Jews and even other Orthodox Jews, perhaps the most outstanding has to do with their attitude toward sexuality. Unlike mainstream and so-called modern Orthodox Jews who allow for the free mixing of males and females in social and educational settings, ḥaredim are scrupulous about separating the sexes from the earliest years of life. Not only do they offer separate education of males and females, they also discourage dating and the free selection of marital partners but rely instead on arranged marriages, usually accomplished by the very early twenties or late teens, and commonly to other ḥaredim. Although there are variations within the ḥaredim world, for the most part sexual relations between husband and wife are strictly regulated by Jewish law, custom, and habit. The aim of sexual relations is procreation, and ḥaredi men and women are expected to be fruitful and multiply; a childless ḥaredi couple is a rarity, their situation invariably the result of fertility problems. While pleasure plays a part in these relations between husband and wife, it is not expected to become central to the relationship. In some groups, for example followers of the Ger ḥasidic dynasty, sexual relations between a married couple are to be as brief and unemotional as possible. Thus for a Ger Ḥasid, almost any desire for extended sexual experience would be viewed as excessive and hence sinful. But even in the most liberal of ḥaredi groups, sexuality is to be rigorously regulated. Even husband and wife may only have sexual contact at certain times of the month (specifically, seven days after the end of the woman's menstrual period and after she has immersed herself in a ritual bath or mikveh) and even within the permitted period there are those ḥaredim who consider some times superior to others (the Sabbath, for example).

Hasidism, the Yeshivah World, and the Ḥaredim

Among Jews of Ashkenazi origin, most ḥaredim affiliate with Ḥasidism. There are many hasidic courts. In Israel the Gerrer Ḥasidim are probably the most numerous, followed by the Belzers, Vizhnitzers, and Lubavitchers. However, there are also other important groups who, although smaller in number, have had an impact on the character of hasidic life. These include Klausenbeger, Karliner, Lalover, Bobover, and Satmar Ḥasidim. In addition small sub-groupings, like the Toldos Aharon ḥaredim, who share many traditions with Satmar and distinguish themselves by their fellowship and attachment to traditions begun by Rabbi Aharon *Roth, play an important role through their activism on behalf of their customs and world view.

The yeshivah world, as distinguished from Ḥasidism, is populated by those who identify with a particular academy of Jewish learning and its leading scholars, students and interpretive traditions. These often see themselves as heirs of the Mitnaggedim, those who opposed the religious excesses of Ḥasidism and its cult of personality. In general, these ḥaredim represent the most liberal group within the ḥaredi world. They tend to allow for greater individual initiative as well as more extensive contact with the outside world.

While the differences between these two categories of ḥaredim are significant, when compared with other American Jews the similarities between them are striking. Over time, Hasidim have embraced the idea of yeshivah study over the pietism and zealotry that first shaped them during their emergence in Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. On the other hand, the yeshiva world, which traces its primary origins to the same era in Lithuania, has transformed its attachment to its scholar-rabbis into a charismatic attachment to them in personality cults not altogether unlike those characteristic of Hasidim. Moreover, both Hasidim and the heirs of the Lithuanian-style yeshivah society today are both the most noticeable of Orthodox Jews and share a common goal of eschewing the values and many of the lifestyles of contemporary secular society and emphasizing instead a punctiliousness in religious ritual, a cultural separation from what they view as the corrupting influences of the outside world, and an attachment to the idea of preserving tradition, seen as a sacred order containing venerable truths and customs that may not be abrogated. Externally, they look and dress similarly, the men embracing black hats and coats and the women modest dress and head-coverings, and the use of Yiddish among themselves as their lingua franca and linguistic vehicle for keeping themselves separate from general society and bonded to one another. Although continuing to be attentive to what distinguishes them from one another, all share a common sense of being engaged in a culture war against contemporary secular culture in general and the principles of secular Zionism which has sought to redefine Jewish identity in particular. Zionism is also regarded as an expression of religious hubris and rebellion for it assumes that Jews can act to end a divinely imposed exile which, according to most ḥaredim, can only be ended when God acts.

Confrontation with Modernity

Because the inherent attraction of contemporary culture is so powerful, many Orthodox Jews have managed to find ways of entering the situation of modernity and the spirit of the times while still keeping strictly within the letter of the law. This has led ḥaredim to become partisans of the stringent rather than the lenient interpretations of Jewish law. The espousal of stringencies led ḥaredim to take on customs that were often beyond the demands of the Jewish law; another group – in order to demonstrate its greater piety – would find an even stricter interpretation. Thus there are repeated calls by ḥaredim to oppose any inroad of contemporary culture, whether this be acceding to the passing of cars through their neighborhoods on the Sabbath, allowing for archeological digs that "desecrate" Jewish graves, or countenancing immodest dress in their neighborhoods or even approving the wearing of wigs by married women rather than their shaving their heads and covering them with kerchiefs. Moreover, the requirements of the Jewish law are always enlarged in scope to include custom and folkway, and there are frequent efforts to shun material pleasures and insert an ascetic strain into Judaism.

The American ḥaredim could not and for a long time did not want to fight America, their new diaspora haven. They tried instead to ignore its culture whenever possible – even to the extent of some of the most extreme traveling through it inside their own buses – and saved their most active battling in the struggle to keep other, non-Orthodox Jews at bay. In America, the ḥaredim withdrew themselves from intra-Jewish organizations as much as possible, maintaining only the ties they needed to get money coming into their institutions. They vilified the Reform and Conservative Jews and were privately contemptuous of those who called themselves modern Orthodox. They refused to join most intra-communal Jewish organizations and even organized their own rabbinical association ("Agudas Ha-Rabonnim") that was made up of Orthodox rabbis who were not affiliated with the more mainstream Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America.

In America, the contra-acculturative Orthodox thus paid much attention to making money, the ultimate American power, and limiting the influence of non-Orthodox Jews in Jewish life, particularly in determining matters of personal status (deciding who was a Jew or who was married and divorced). The money, the result of an open society which provided many economic opportunities never before available to those who remained Orthodox, would give independence and help support the Orthodox way of life. For some this meant developing strength in the diamond trade, for others real estate, the garment industry, and in the last 25 years, the electronics business. Based on a community of people who trust one another and a no-nonsense approach to business which – somewhat akin to the Protestant ethic – reinvests profits and limits spending to necessities and charitable giving, seeing nothing inherently valuable in money except in what it can do to help maintain the Jewish way of life, these Jews succeeded in this goal.

Moreover, to keep America responsive to their needs, these Jews (like their other co-religionists) were careful to vote at election time, making increasingly certain that the parties and candidates knew that they voted in high numbers and en bloc. In this last regard, they allowed themselves to be publicly identified as Jewish voters – so much so that candidates seeking Jewish votes often have themselves photographed with ḥaredim, hoping that this will symbolize their attraction for all Jewish voters.

In Ereẓ Israel and later in the new Zionist state, ḥaredim also tried to recreate and resurrect their traditional experience. To these Orthodox Jews – even those who shared similar hasidic or mitnagged affiliations – their American counterparts were not really "ḥaredim"; they were "Americans." They read American newspapers, worked with Americans, spoke English, and had subtly been swept up by America and the ways of the gentile society. They could not really overcome so powerful a cultural giant as the American way of life. True ḥaredim, the Israelis maintained, fought relentlessly against all outside influences – including the host society – and did not allow themselves to be assimilated by the modern world even in the quest for funds for the institutions.

For Israeli ḥaredim this meant not serving in the Israel Defense Forces, viewed as a secular institution that would undermine the insularity and authoritative order of ḥaredi society. As part of an agreement made during the early years of the state, all male students studying in a yeshivah were exempted from the universal Israeli military draft while Orthodox girls were likewise exempted. For the men, this served to encourage increased yeshivah study for longer periods. Thus insulated in the yeshivah in order to remain free of the draft, ḥaredi men tended to become more extreme and stringent, and less compromising with the demands of contemporary secular society than did their American counterpart who went to work in the outside world and learned to yield and adjust to it more easily. It also made the Israelis more dependent on financial stipends from ḥaredi political parties who in turn drew funds from the government in return for their political support. Over time, ḥaredi educational institutions have absorbed increasing amounts of money devoted solely to maintaining the ḥaredim who spend their time in study in place of gainful employment. In addition, haredi society depends heavily on "gemaḥim," communal charity organizations and philanthropic donations from abroad. This economic precariousness of a society that absorbs more money than it generates remains among the most severe crises confronting contemporary ḥaredim.

Outreach

While most ḥaredim remain inward-looking, concerned only with maintaining their own members, Lubavitcher Hasidim, at the urging of their late leader, Menachem Mendel *Schneersohn (d. 1995), have established a large outreach program serviced by emissaries who travel the world and try to bring back wayward Jews to a more stringent and Orthodox Jewish way of life. This large outreach effort has made the Lubavitcher Ḥasidim often the only ḥaredim with whom outsiders have had any sort of extended contact. In contrast to the disregard that most ḥaredim seem to have for those unlike themselves, the Lubavitcher attitude seems to have made friends for the ḥaredi way of life. The actual numbers that Lubavitcher ḥaredim have recruited to their version of Judaism, however, by most counts remains relatively small.

[Samuel C. Heilman]

The Challenge of Material Subsistence

While the ḥaredi population in Israel has maintained its coherence and single-mindedness, it has not been unaffected by the winds of change. Exposure to the ethos of a consumer society and a steadily worsening economic situation have created pressures from within, often coming from the woman of the house, on whose shoulders the financial burden of earning a living often falls in the absence of a working husband. Two factors have contributed to the increasing impoverishment of the ḥaredim in Israel: the mushrooming of the nonworking yeshivah population, which embraced some 80,000 men in the early 2000s, about half of them married, and the drastic cutback in welfare spending by the Israeli government in the face of the deep recession brought on by the second intifada and global factors. The system of army deferment and state support for "professional yeshivah scholars" has a long history in Israel. Originally the number of such scholars qualifying for support in the new state was just 400, earmarked to revive the lost yeshivah world of Europe. In 1968 their number was doubled. In 1977, as part of Menahem Begin's coalition agreement with the religious political parties, the quota was abolished and virtually all ḥaredi men who wished to do so could engage in protracted full-time yeshivah study. The inducements to remain in the yeshivah were great: a government stipend and perpetual draft deferment. In the United States, where such inducements did not exist, a different kind of yeshivah world had evolved. Ḥasidim, who lacked a strong scholarly tradition, would leave the yeshivah at around the age of 21 and enter the labor market, usually in low-paying, unskilled jobs, which indeed caused many with their large families to subsist beneath the poverty line. However, the "Lithuanian" ḥaredim, while prolonging their studies in a flourishing yeshivah world, though rarely beyond the age of 30, often combined vocational and even academic studies in suitable frameworks, like the *Touro college system, with yeshivah study, and consequently were able to get well-paid jobs in high-tech industries and other professions. In Israel no such socio-economic differentiation existed as between hasidim and "Lithuanians" in the United States. All stayed in the yeshivot under the Israeli system, including "Eastern" ḥaredim who had adopted the lifestyle of Ashkenazi ḥaredim under the influence of R. Eleazar *Shach, the mentor of their leader, R. Ovadiah *Yosef. Ironically, unlike the Lithuanian Jews of Europe, who had closed themselves in against the temptations of the outside world, Eastern Jews had never feared assimilation in the surrounding Muslim population and had therefore lived in a more open society in which working to earn one's keep was a natural part of life. It was only in Israel that they became "Ashkenazim."

Starting in the mid-1990s, bending to the pressure from within to raise the standard of living among ḥaredim and alleviate their traditional "voluntary poverty," ḥaredi rabbis began to show a certain measure of flexibility with regard to the subject of vocational training. However, their attitude has been ambiguous and they have often wavered in determining what is permissible. Nonetheless a number of frameworks were established permitting such study, like the Ḥaredi Center for Technological Studies in Bene Berak and Jerusalem, and thousands of men and women have enrolled over the years, though fewer than might have been expected. It is clear, however, thata new direction is tentatively being explored in keeping with economic and social realities. Though political realities could very well reinstitute a regime of government largesse and reverse the trend, it would seem that the ḥaredi world, too, is being affected by modern life.

[Fred Skolnik] (2nd ed.)]

add. bibliography:

A. Gonen, From Yeshiva to Work: The American Experience and Lessons for Israel (2001); J. Lupu, A Shift in Haredi Society: Vocational Training and Academic Studies (2004).

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