Sunday, December 18, 2005

Ultra-Orthodox Jews

American haredi triumph


By May 1912 the idea that European Jewish life should be governed by Halacha had been under assault for some 200 years; first by the Enlightenment, then by Emancipation, next by the birth of Reform Judaism and finally by political Zionism. Modernity - defined by historian Paul Johnson as the end of absolute right and wrong and the birth of moral relativism - had dawned.

Still, I wonder what impelled a group of German, Hungarian and Polish-Lithuanian rabbis to gather in Kattowitz, a town east of Krakow near what is today the Czech border, precisely 93 years ago this month to establish Agudat Israel.

The holy men, both hassidim and mitnagdim, united by their opposition to the liberal Jewish response to modernity, put aside their own differences. They set up a supreme religious authority, the Council of Torah Sages, and hunkered down. Faced with undermining societal threats within Europe and the seductive allure of emigration to a 'Godless' America, the rabbis could not have been sanguine about the future prospects for ultra-Orthodox or haredi Judaism.

And then things got worse. The rise of Nazism left some haredi luminaries, such as rabbis Aaron Kotler and Abraham Kalmanowitz, no choice but to abandon the Old World for the goldene medina.

So in 1939, the year Joe DiMaggio led the American League with a .381 batting average and Manhattan's Sixth Avenue elevated subway was being torn down, the American branch of Aguda was established. The organization united hassidic tzadikim, the yekke Breuer community in Washington Heights and pious mitnagdim.

The American ultra-Orthodox establishment was up and running. But who would have imagined it would get very far? The societal threats faced by European Orthodoxy must have seemed trivial compared to what the Old World rabbis were up against now: a welcome mat to American decadence.

And, yet Aguda proved remarkably adaptive, establishing yeshivot for boys and girls as well as seminaries for rabbinical students. Politically, the Nazi menace caused the movement to shift from being singlemindedly anti-Zionist to pragmatically non-Zionist. While some fanatics rebelled to create the Neturei Karta sect, in Israel an Agudat Yisrael Party has competed (and won) seats in every Knesset; and American Agudath, only loosely affiliated with the movement in Israel, is staunchly supportive of Israeli security.

The Aguda world - here and in the US - has steadfastly adhered to roughly the same reactionary theological, societal and political worldview it first articulated 93 years ago. No to acculturation; no to non-halachic Reform Judaism; no to Masorti's efforts to harmonize Halacha with modernity; mostly no to a secular higher education, and no to political Zionism.

Of course changing times have brought new 'nos': no to homosexual unions; no to the Internet (you won't find an Aguda Web site, nor will the movement give an imprimatur to home use of the Internet); no to doctor-assisted suicide, and no to the egalitarian participation of women in Judaism.

While US Agudath is purely an advocacy group representing mitnaged, yeshivishe and hassidic movements (though not Chabad or Satmar) under the direction of an eight-member Council of Torah Sages chaired by the Novominsker Rebbe, Yaakov Perlow, in Israel Aguda is a political party with its own Council of Torah Sages. A schism with the mitnagdim led them to form a separate Degel Hatorah Party; however, together with Aguda's hassidim they campaign under the United Torah Judaism ticket and have five seats in the current Knesset.

Aguda's constituency tends not to serve in the IDF (because it would expose their boys and girls to alternative lifestyles); young males tend not to work, and families tend to be dependent on government subsidies and charity. Aguda haredim here are fragmented over ethnicity and ritual. They oppose the political messianism of national-religious extremists, but that does not win them any points with the country's secular majority.

AMERICAN HAREDIM are far better integrated into the Jewish mainstream. There's no love lost between them and the more liberal streams, but, on the bright side, there are no theological differences within American Orthodoxy. What most distinguishes Agudath types from the OU and Young Israel crowd is the haredi emphasis on living life - geographically, linguistically and culturally - as separately as possible from the majority; the more inward-looking, the more haredi.

When Agudath's Rabbi Avi Safran recently denounced the biased portrayal of Orthodoxy on the popular American television program Grey's Anatomy, his arguments were based not on personal observation - he doesn't own a television - but on the complaints of non-haredim.

Yet not only have American haredim not gone the way of the dodo, their lifestyle is thriving. Haredi rabbis easily fill Madison Square Garden for religious revivals; their scholarship dominates Orthodoxy; their Artscroll publications set Orthodoxy's liturgical direction; and the stringent haredi approach to ritual has largely become the Orthodox norm.

What's more, American haredim have managed to thrive with minimal government aid to their yeshivot, with only a handful of elected politicians, and with most of their young men in the workforce. Because they pay their taxes and go to work no one but the most closed-minded or self-hating bigot can call US haredim 'parasites.'

It is a healthy haredi lifestyle that has taken root in America, one that balances steadfast commitment to religious ultra-conservatism with dutiful responsibility to the wider society. Haredi America is raising a future generation of accountants, lawyers, physicians and businesspeople - many of them also Torah scholars.

Paradoxically, and by contrast, 'our' haredim here, operating in a Jewish political and social milieu, have failed to calibrate the May 1912 Aguda platform to meet the needs of modernity. Why? Because Israel's political system fosters a partisan rigidity, where splinter groups vie for a piece of the loser-takes-something pie.

That haredim here operate in an environment of secular nihilism further complicates matters. A cute Puerto Rican girl wearing a provocative outfit on the F train is no great peril to haredi values. A cute secular Jewess similarly clad on Jerusalem's No. 4 Egged bus is an entirely different matter. When Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman warned back in 1937 that 'The Jewish state is our greatest woe' my hunch is that's what he meant.

American Agudath is a success story. With government support it operates a network of social service centers and a lobbying office on Capitol Hill. It has achieved entree to the White House. American haredim have earned the respect of even those who reject their theological worldview.

Those rabbis gathered in Kattowitz could not have been unaware that, as they were meeting, the first investigatory reports on the April 15 sinking of the Titanic were being issued. I'd like to believe that today's Torah sages are not unaware of the disaster that awaits haredi Israel if it does not rethink its response to modernity. I'd recommend along American haredi lines.

– From a May 30, 2005 Jerusalem Post column

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