Of yuppies and haredim
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 20, 1998
Futurologists are by nature an optimistic group; they assume that technological advance is inevitably correlated to an increase in human happiness. Oz Almog, whose crystal ball gazing was featured in the Jerusalem Post Magazine two weeks ago, is no exception. He celebrates Israel as an up- and-coming yuppie society, increasingly indistinguishable from America.
(His daughters, Almog proudly informs us, prefer the Spice Girls to Arik Einstein, and for some reason he finds that particularly comforting.)
No doubt Almog's excitement over the Americanization of Israel will seem misplaced to those who grew up thinking of the Jewish people as a 'light unto the nations' - rather than as a pale moon reflecting the American sun. Others will be surprised at his presentation of American popular culture, hitherto thought to represent the nadir of vacuity, as the apotheosis of the Hegelian Idea in history.
Almog envisions a society based on maximizing the individual's ability to pursue pleasure according to his own lights. Such a society will not be valueless, he argues. No, it will be humanistic and devoutly secular, freeing one and all from any transcendent vision of the purpose of life.
Indeed, it would appear that Almog's utopia has already arrived in some quarters. Not everyone, however, is as sanguine as he about its advent.
Haifa University researchers Orit Eshbal and Ella Alexander recently published a study of Israeli youth magazines, as part of a profile on the future of Israeli society. They chose Kulanu, a secular magazine, for comparison to two value-laden youth magazines serving the religious community.
Despite the left-wing politics of Kulanu's editors, the only values Eshbal and Alexander found touted in the magazine were materialism, affluence, and the latest fashions.
Like the kids at whom it is aimed, the magazine focuses exclusively on the present moment, golden youth. Its world is without past or future; everyone is young, and parents or other grown-ups are blessedly absent. Israel, Jewish history, and religion, even current events are barely mentioned.
Ha'aretz summarized the researchers' findings: 'Competitiveness is glorified, prying is encouraged, television is venerated. And the main message: Anything goes.' Bring on the California Dream.
Almog saves his best news for last. As more haredim work and possess computers and the Internet, they too will prove unable to resist the blandishments of secular society. Phew! No rough stuff will be necessary to deal with the black scourge. We need only infect haredim with the Internet, like the Conquistodores infected Native Americans with smallpox.
Kill them with kindness.
Such predictions give futurology a well-deserved reputation as academic astrology. Like Jeanne Dixon and other astrologers, Almog relies on the fact that no one will remember his predictions in a few years.
Almog's forecast is based on two fallacies common to much secular comment on haredim. First, he imagines an unvariegated haredi society extrapolated from Mea She'arim. Many, if not most, haredim - even in Mea She'arim - already possess computers, and their society is not tottering as a consequence. Far from being the death of haredi society, employment in computer-related fields in America has been the salvation for hard-pressed families, whose tuition bills alone often reach $30,000 a year or more.
Jews have lived according to the Torah in every imaginable form of human society - at once participating in that society and remaining aloof from it. Flourishing haredi life in America demonstrates that they will continue to do so even in the modern, acquisitive society.
Like most of his secular contemporaries, Almog has no inside knowledge of Jewish religious life. From his outsider's vantage point, he cannot help imagine haredim sitting glum-faced around the Shabbat table, with nothing to do, only because they are unaware of the beckoning beach. Clueless about the intellectual and spiritual richness of Torah study and a Torah life, he cannot understand how haredi society continues to attract and absorb so many with the finest of secular educations. Seeing only the relative material deprivation of haredi society, he assumes that if haredim only knew of all the good things money can buy, the urge would prove irresistible.
Why this great need to insist that only ignorance keeps haredim from being as materialistic as the next person? Because haredim are ruining the game for everyone else. Every game loses its attraction if bystanders look on in boredom and show no interest in playing. They force the participants to wonder why they are taking the game so seriously themselves.
Haredim have refused to accept the basic assumption of yuppie culture: Success or failure in life is measured by the accumulation of toys. It is not their poverty that ultimately grates so much, but their refusal to be miserable about it. They are hated because they refuse to admit that they are life's losers.
By foregoing so much of what others consider necessities, Torah Jews raise the niggling suspicion that neither material acquisition nor sensual pleasure provide life's greatest joy.
And if there is one thing that no yuppie can tolerate, it is the fear that someone is having more fun than he is.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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