Response to Jay Michaelson
May 28, 2013
In the summer of 1979, my wife and I came to Jerusalem on our honeymoon. I had completed two years of big-firm legal practice in Chicago and was headed to the Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical program in the fall. I soon left the preparatory program for which we had come, and my wife and I spent the rest of the summer splitting our time between ulpan classes and study at Ohr Somayach's men's and women's branches.
At the end of the summer, my wife, who was not even sure she believed in G-d when we married (but did not see that as problematic for a rabbi's wife), said to me, "If Judaism is going to be the center of our lives, doesn't it make sense for us to remain around people for whom it is the center of their lives for at least another year." We did, and are still in Israel 34 years later.
None of the tens of thousands of Jews from similar backgrounds to my wife and me (the so-called ba'alei teshuva) who have become members of the chareidi community over the last forty years would recognize the community we chose to join in Jay Michaelson's pointillist construct of chareidi society based on stringing together every negative headline he can find.
Let me try to describe the attraction of the community that induced my wife and I to dramatically alter our life trajectories. Though I admired various qualities of my professors at Yale Law School, it never occurred to me that any of them was a model for what a human life could be. I had not yet been exposed to role models whose lives were of a piece, and not divided by all the familiar dichotomies of modern life – work and play, work and family, public morality and private morality. That quality of living a unified life, which I could not define but found lacking in everyone I knew, most of all myself, has its source in the knowledge that whether we are in solitude or among a multitude, we are before G-d.
Our first teachers presented a vision of life filled with meaning and purpose, in which each moment presents an opportunity for growth or decline (standing still is impossible), and in which each correct choice opens up pipelines of Divine blessing to the world. It is a world in which "killing time" is tantamount to killing oneself.
The pure intellectual thrill of Jewish learning – a learning more challenging and rigorous than anything I experienced at the pinnacle of American academia – was also a powerful magnet. Nor is the joy of learning solely intellectual: Every time, I open up the Talmud I am joining a conversation/debate that has been ongoing for more than two millennia.
We discovered for the first time true communities, in which people extend themselves for one another in extraordinary ways and share the rhythms of the seasonal calendar. When a study partner of mine, a Harvard and Oxford-trained classicist, passed away suddenly, leaving behind ten orphans, we raised $300,000 for his family, most of it in the form of monthly bank orders from kollel scholars, with large families and monthly incomes of $2,000 or less. When a neighbor needed a liver transplant, a group of a hundred of so men gathered every night for two weeks, until he was out of danger, to recite Tehillim on his behalf.
It is a community of extraordinary generosity. In my neighborhood alone, there are 200 or so free loan societies listed in our neighborhood directory for everything from medicines to bridal gowns to infant pillows for the bris. Virtually every major volunteer organization in Israel was founded by chareidim: Yad Sarah, which dispenses medical equipment for home use; Ezer M'Tzion, which has created the world's largest Jewish blood marrow registry; Ezra L'Marpeh, which handles over 50,000 emergency medical referrals a year. The late Jerusalem Post columnist Sam Orbaum, himself a sometime chareidi critic, once wrote, "the charity, social consciousness, good deeds, communal welfare, and human kindness [of the chareidim] may be unparalleled among the communities in this country."
In both the United States and Israel, numerous chareidi-founded organizations offer summer camps, travel, and weekly activities for Jewish children suffering from cancer or other debilitating diseases. In the wake of the major aliyah from the former Soviet Union, chareidim created an entire school system in Israel, SHUVU, offering the highest level secular studies, with an enhanced Jewish curriculum, for children from Russian-speaking homes cut off from any knowledge of their Jewish heritage for seventy years.
IS EVERY MEMBER of the chareidi community, then, like the exemplars to whom my wife and I were introduced at the beginning of our journey? Obviously not. Is it an idyllic society, with none of its own pathologies? Again, no. As a member of the editorial board of an on-line journal, Klal Perspectives, devoted to discussion of communal challenges and the search for solutions, I know well the multitude of challenges.
Is there too much endemic poverty aside great wealth? Yes. But as economist Herbert Stein famously noted, "Trends that can't go on forever won't." Israel's child support allowances, niggardly by European standards, and its highly regressive tax structure (18% VAT) make it impossible to feed large families, even within the parameters of the simple chareidi lifestyle, without gainful employment. Chareidi young people are flocking into academic degree programs and into the labor force – though not fast enough to satisfy their critics.
Over the last twenty years, I have become a widely read communal gadfly pushing the community – and myself – to live up to the ideals that led my wife and I to join the chareidi world in the first place. But those ideals provide a language for self-criticism, and common core of assumptions around which communal debate can proceed.
DAVID GOLDMAN, WRITING UNDER THE NOM DE PLUME SPENGLER, notes an interesting pattern. Churches that have lost all religious vitality – the Church of Scotland, the Church of England, Presbyterians and Episcopalians in America – and nations facing demographic demise – including nearly all of Western Europe – become consumed with hatred for the Jews and the state of Israel. The eternity of the Jewish people, its exemption from the otherwise universal historical pattern of civilizational rise and fall, engenders bitter animosity from those suffering premonitions of their own societal death.
The same impulse animates Michaelson's screed. His ultimate complaint about the chareidi world is that there are too many of them and they are too high a percentage of world Jewry. But instead of telling me to have fewer children, he should be addressing his complaint to his contemporary American Jews. Urge them to find something that gives meaning to their lives, a set of values dear enough to transmit to future generations by producing children.
And if he and his friends hope for a Jewish future, let them heed the numerous jeremiads of Jack Wertheimer, former provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, warning that without a reversal of current trends – anti-natalism, acceptance, even celebration, of intermarriage, declining sense of Jewish peoplehood, and lack of theological seriousness – there will be no future for non-0rthodox American Jewry. Above all let them rediscover, in Wertheimer's words, "the distinctive commandments, beliefs and values for the sake of which Jews over the millennia have willingly and gratefully set themselves apart."
The Talmud states that God took the children of Israel out of Egypt and called them, "my son, my firstborn son," on account of the two words the nation uttered in anticipation of the receipt of Torah "na'aseh ve'nishmah – we will do and [then] we will understand." A Sadduccee once saw Rava learning Torah with such intensity that he did not even notice that he was sitting on his hands, which were dripping blood. The Sadducee charged Rava with being the member of an am pezizah – a heedless, uncalculating people – just like his ancestors who accepted G-d's commandments without first knowing what they were.
Rava acknowledged the charge, for in that reckless passion for Torah lies the secret of Jewish eternity. No Jewish community that has cut itself of from Torah observance and study has ever survived for long. The greatest contribution of the chareidi world is to have miraculously rebuilt in sixty years an entire world of Torah learning destroyed by Hitler, and to have maintained a passion for Torah study that radiates out to the entire Jewish world.
Below is the article to which I'm responding. Only for the strong of stomach.
By Jay Michaelson
American Jews are actively supporting a demographic trend that threatens the fabric of American Jewish life: the unchecked growth of Jewish fundamentalism. Call them what you will — ultra-Orthodox Jews, "fervently Orthodox" Jews, Haredim, black hats. They will soon become the majority of affiliated Jews in the metropolitan New York area, and the religious majority in Israel. The results will be catastrophic.
What has emerged from all this is a picture of a subculture that looks more like "The Sopranos" than like "Fiddler on the Roof" — a world in which a small elite maintains power at the expense of thousands of serfs.
What we've also learned is that this entire apparatus of fear, manipulation and power mongering has been supported by you and by me.
We've learned, for example, that flagship institutions of ultra-Orthodox life are basically on the dole. Seventy-six percent of students at one of the most prominent yeshivas in the country, in Lakewood, New Jersey, are receiving Pell grants. Indeed, the top three institutional recipients of these grants are ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. The Chabad-affiliated Michigan Jewish Institute scored $25 million in federal aid meant to go to low-income students, despite an appalling academic record and due largely to chicanery involving an online application mill.
And of course, Haredim in Israel put their American brothers to shame, diverting millions of shekels to schools that don't provide a basic Western education, rabbinates filled with cronyism and a welfare system that keeps an entire sector of the population dependent on government subsidies.
In other words, the entire edifice of ultra-Orthodox power rests on gaming the system.
Meanwhile, "modesty brigades" and families willing to disown anyone who dares to leave patrol the walls of this contemporary shtetl. Imagine you're an 18-year-old woman in a Hasidic enclave. You're married, with two or three kids already, and you've been told that "outside" everyone is evil, depraved and miserable. You barely read English. And you know that when your cousin left, she was destitute, disowned and disgraced. There is no one to help you if you leave. You're on your own. So of course you stay.
We are abandoning thousands of our fellow Jews to this hierarchy of power and abuse. We are doing nothing to help them.
And pretty soon, the hierarchy will overwhelm us. Demographers tell us that 49% of New York's Jewish children are Haredi (either Hasidic or "yeshivish"). Especially in light of non-Orthodox disaffiliation, New York Jewry, within a generation, will be fundamentalist, poor, uneducated and reactionary. Non-Orthodox Jews will look like the secular Persians of Iran: once the complacent majority, now a minority oppressed by fundamentalists.
The good news is that since we are propping up this system, we have the power to weaken it.
First, mainstream American Jewish organizations must stop pretending to have common cause with Jewish fundamentalists. Just as mainline Christian denominations recognize Christian fundamentalism to be a threat to their religious values, so the mainstream of Jewish denominations — including Modern Orthodoxy — must recognize that this distortion of Judaism is actively destructive to Judaism itself.
Like Christian fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism is extremely new. It arose in response to modernity, and it radically changed Jewish values. Formerly, the Jewish mainstream balanced strictness and leniency: In the battle between the strict Shammai and the lenient Hillel, Hillel always won. But the Haredi world is a phalanx of Shammais. The strictest is always the best. Moses wore a shtreimel, the fur hat that many married Haredi men wear, at the Red Sea. Scientific knowledge is evil. These are radically new Jewish ideas presented as radically old ones. Those of us who do not share them must recognize them as a threat.
And then we can begin to act. Fortunately, we don't have to fight coercion with coercion. We don't have to compel anyone to change his or her religious beliefs. We just have to stop artificially propping up a system that otherwise would not exist.
For example? We can demand an end to all federal and state subsidies to yeshivas that do not prepare students for contemporary economic and civic life. We can oppose all Jewish-fundamentalist efforts to take advantage of government or Jewish communal largesse. We can support our allies in Israel that are fighting for religious pluralism, for equal conscription of all Israelis, for civil marriage and for the defunding of the rabbinate.
And perhaps most important, we can publicly and financially support those struggling to escape from the oppression of ultra-Orthodoxy. For example, the organization Footsteps does wonderful work to help ex-Haredim transition to the modern world. But it is tiny in comparison with what we need. We need a Giant Footsteps —a major federation initiative to support those who leave and communicate to those trapped outside that there is vibrant Jewish life beyond the ghetto wall.
We fail to act because, I think, deep in the hearts of non-Orthodox Jews there lingers the belief that the Haredim are the real Jews; or the safeguards of our future, or perhaps the sweet, cuddly Tevyes of our imagined Yiddish roots.
But they are not. Of course, there are wonderful Haredi Jews out there. But the Haredi system threatens the demographic and cultural stability of the Jewish community, both in the United States and in Israel. Jewish fundamentalism is not good for the Jews.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity, Biographical - Jonathan Rosenblum, Chareidim and Their Critics
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