The Jerusalem Post last month carried a series of lively articles on the subject of the growing "chareidization" of the American Orthodox world. Sociologist Samuel Heilman, identified four factors fueling this process. Rabbi Berel Wein, in his response, added a number of other factors. Finally, Efraim Zuroff lamented the entire process under discussion, charging that it would lead to an ever greater estrangement of non-observant Jews from anything Jewish.
Heilman has been declaiming on this particular theme for a decade, expressing nostalgia for the more easy-going Orthodoxy of his youth, when mixed dancing was still accepted in certain Orthodox synagogues. In the Post, however, he largely confined himself to a sociologist’s analysis of the trend. He identified four principal factors: one concerning the changing nature of secular society and three based on the internal dynamics of the Orthodox world.
As the morals of secular society degenerate, writes Heilman, it becomes ever more difficult to maintain the optimistic Modern Orthodox belief in a synthesis between general secular culture and traditional Jewish values. That leads Modern Orthodox parents, like their chareidi counterparts, to a greater recognition of the necessity to shield their children from much of contemporary society.
Heilman also points to the growing dominance of chareidim, on the staffs of the day schools in which most Modern Orthodox children are educated. Similarly, the Orthodox rabbinate is increasingly dominated by products of chareidi yeshivos.
The final factor listed by Heilman is the impact of the year or two of post-high school study in Israel that has become de rigueur for Modern Orthodox youth. The staff in most of the institutions catering to this clientele are drawn from the chareidi world. That year in Israel is often one of, profound changes, as for the first time the words of Torah do not have to compete with the background noise of radio, TV, movies, and other distractions.
Rabbi Wein is more sanguine about the developments under discussion than Professor Heilman. He notes the skill with which chareidim – at least in America – have drawn what is necessary from secular society, without exposing themselves full-force to its immorality. For instance, it is now possible for chareidim to earn their B.A. degrees without ever setting foot into a secular college.
Rabbi Wein describes the creativity shown by the chareidi world in improving the quality of Orthodox life in general. ArtScroll Publications is perhaps the prime example. The Schottenstein Talmud, for example, has led to an exponential increase in Talmud learning throughout the Orthodox community. "Shabbat homes near hospitals, Mincha services in major workplaces, convenient Jewish bus and transportation companies, and many other services, organizations, and institutions are creations of the [Orthodox] Right, which now serve all Jews," Rabbi Wein writes.
The various factors enumerated by Professor Heilman and Rabbi Wein are, in large part, a direct outgrowth of the respective philosophies of the Modern Orthodox and chareidi worlds. Modern Orthodoxy always preached the "synthesis" of the general culture with an Orthodox lifestyle, and taught that the success of Orthodox Jews in the secular world constitutes a great "Kiddush Hashem." Not surprisingly, the most gifted members of that community have tended to gravitate towards the business and the learned professions, rather than into chinuch or the rabbinate.
By contrast, the highest value of the chareidi world is Torah learning. As a consequence, anything connected to expanding the frontiers of Torah learning, whether teaching in a day school, learning in a community kollel, serving as a communal rabbi, or writing for ArtScroll, is a respected profession in the chareidi community. Since the focus of chareidim continues to be on strengthening the Torah community, it is hardly surprising that such a large percentage of the creative energies of that community are directed to initiatives benefiting all Orthodox Jews.
NEITHER PROFESSOR HEILMAN OR RABBI WEIN, HOWEVER, MENTIONED the impact of the chareidi world's emphasis on kiruv. In both America and Israel, the overwhelming majority of secular Jews who have taken on lives of full mitzva observance have done so under the auspices of chareidi educators. Those for whom a life without Torah and mitzvos is inconceivable are naturally most intensely pained by the fate of Jews who know neither, and are most likely to devote themselves to sharing the Torah with their fellow Jews.
In Israel, despite the emphasis in National Religious philosophy on influencing our secular brethren, the actual impact of the National Religious world in kiruv has been slight. In part, that is a function of the overwhelming emphasis, since 1967, on settlements – a political agenda from which the majority of secular Israelis are increasingly alienated.
More importantly, the philosophy that equated being together with secular Jews in the army or the workplace with influence has proven to be mistaken. Unquestionably, many young men identified with the National Religious movement are exemplars in the army and the workplace. But the admiration they arouse does not necessarily translate into influence. Too often the conclusion drawn by secular Jews about a respected comrade-in-arms or fellow worker is not that they should become more like him, but that wearing a kipa does not really make such a big difference – i.e., it is nothing more than a nuance in lifestyle. Those who find themselves prepared to undertake serious changes in their lives still gravitate to those most immersed in Torah, for they are looking for something completely new, not another variety of the lives they are already living.
(Within the National Religious movement, itself, there is a growing recognition of the damage done by the exclusive identification with settlements. So, too, has awareness grown that sharing the same physical space does not translate into religious influence. Zohar, a group of National Religious rabbis, has undertaken many important projects to provide religious services to the secular public in areas where the religious establishment has failed, including individualized premarital counseling, performing marriages without fee, and creating High Holyday services for those unfamiliar with the machzor.)
The huge resources, both human and monetary, invested by the chareidi world in kiruv work completely refute Efraim Zuroff’s claim that the chareidi world shows no concern for secular Jews, and seeks to live in total isolation from them. (Zuroff is a pathological hater of the chareidi world. A few years back, he spread the slander that the chareidi world’s efforts to rescue the great roshei yeshiva from the Holocaust were at the cost of the lives of other Jews, about which the chareidi world showed little concern.)
Bringing secular Jews back to Torah will never be done, as another recent writer in the Post suggested, by celebrating the mitzvos that they do perform. Only those who burn with a passion for Torah and can convey that passion will ever succeed in helping their fellow Jews find their way home.