Is the Haredi Community Turning Inward or Outward?
R. Yonah Goodman
Outwardly, it seems that the Haredi community remains faithful to Torah as it understands it, while maintaining maximal opposition to modernity. Is that true? A new book focuses on some profound recent changes in the Haredi community. What does that teach us about our own religious Zionist path?One of the core differences between the religious Zionist community and the Haredi community involves their respective attitudes towards modernity. The emergence of modernity challenged the Orthodox Jewish community. Many asked, "How should we react?" Is modernity an enemy or a blessed challenge? In the face of this complex question, the Orthodox religious community split in two parts. The Haredi community concluded that modernity is a dangerous enemy, from which it is necessary to isolate oneself, with the possible exception of certain technological necessities. In contrast, the religious Zionist community saw in modernity part of God's world, and was prepared to examine carefully each aspect of modernity to determine what should be adopted and what should be rejected. There are subgroups within religious Zionism with different attitudes toward the proper measure of openness, but complete rejection of modernity is not a religious Zionist option.
This description of the two responses is clear and sharp, but there is one problem. It is not completely correct. A new, fascinating book, Strictly Kosher Reading, written by Dr. Yoel Finkelman, uncovers what is happening behind the scenes in the Haredi community. The book shows that the Haredi community's relationship with modernity is much more complex than what it presents outwardly. Practically speaking, Haredim do not succeed in cutting themselves off completely from modern content. In recent years, they are influenced profoundly by modern ways of thinking, and they have various ways of explaining that.
There has already been much research examining the goings-on in the Haredi community, but Finkelman adopts a unique perspective. He chooses to focus on changes in Haredi the encounter with modernity by examining popular literature. In a deep, fascinating (and wonderfully documented) analysis, marked by fair and respectful prose, Dr. Finkelman identifies the ways in which the Haredi community is developing a diverse literature -- children's books, thriller novels, marriage guides, and parenting manuals -- many of which draw directly from Western culture and its principles. He systematically reveals and maps the ways that writers justify this borrowing of modern content (whether by claiming that it is already contained in Torah, by various unconvincing apologetic strategies , or even by explaining why in particular cases it is necessary to draw from a foreign culture [chapter 3]). This analysis leads to a discussion of modern literary styles within much of the Haredi community, and the rabbis’ attitudes toward this development (page 97), as well as discussions of biographies of great rabbis that include discussions of their personal weaknesses (parts of chapter 4), and more. In between the lines, there is a clear conclusion: the Haredi community has also discovered leisure, and it is fascinating to see how they are dealing with that.
Why is this so important for us, the religious Zionist community? Primarily because we face the same processes and challenges. The tension between conservatism and isolationism; the tension between reliance on the tradition and novelty; the discussion of the proper attitude to notions such as “da’at Torah” -- all of these exist among us as well. For example, Finkelman offers a fascinating discussion of the ways in which the Haredi community struggles with internal criticism ("May we wash dirty laundry in public?") and the ways in which the Internet and Internet comments undermine the attempts of authoritative bodies to silence internal criticism (chapter 6). This very issue has occupied us quite a bit recently (and hints are enough in this context).
Put differently, an examination of what is happening within the Haredi community in these foundational issues offer is not only a window into what is happening in that large and important Jewish community, but also places a mirror in front of us, in order to examine the important developments that are occurring so intensively within our community. We are also trying to blaze a trail (albeit a different trail) between the extremes, and we have a lot to learn from what is changing within that community, from their successes and their failures.
A closing thought: the Haredi community succeeded in creating literature and culture of its own (though some might call it "Haredi-lite”), and the community refuses to consume secular culture. In a kind of chicken and egg paradox, Haredi literature reflects the Haredi path even as it forms and changes it. In the religious Zionist community, the market for our distinctive culture is not nearly as big, since so much of our population does consume secular culture (within minimal limits). What is lost -- in our community and education, as well as in larger Israeli culture -- when we refuse to develop a market for culture with a unique religious Zionist voice? The first sprouting some such a literature has appeared in recent years, but it is a mere drop in the bucket. A little more pride and self-confidence would certainly not hurt us.
Yonah Goodman is director of the field of faith studies in Orot College.