A Conversation on Haredi Life, Israel, Learning, and Divine Providence

February 1, 2007
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Shmuel Goldin: I just returned from a year’s sabbatical in Israel where I had the opportunity to spend time with my sister who lives in Har Nof, a Haredi community. Are the two Haredi communities — in the U. S. and in Israel — different?

Nosson Scherman: While I can’t really speak authoritatively, the Haredi community in Israel seems more self-contained — they don’t mix much with the rest of the population, which is a shame. Haredim here in the U. S. interact more — there are more people in a profession or in business. Even those in hinuch, education, do outreach and are therefore less insular. It’s changing, but by and large the traditionalists anywhere tend to be insular. By the way, insularity cuts more than one way; non-religious Jews are often quite ambivalent about getting to know us.

Goldin: How do you feel about the title Haredi?

Although I don’t like labels, rightwing or fundamentalist, the title Haredi was adopted by the fervently Orthodox people 100 years ago. It comes from the last chapter in Isaiah, where God describes people who serve Him zealously.

Goldin: Why are the Haredim insular?

Scherman: Primarily because Haredi Jews must preserve their values and religious way of life. I think we both agree that what passes for modern culture — the worship of money, loose sex, general crassness, and vulgarity — is not what we want for our children. All Haredim agree about that. But there are subtle differences between the so-called Lithuanian yeshiva world, which is more study-oriented and more rigid in matters of principle, and the Hasidic world. Hasidim are more likely to be in the business or workforce and often more ready to negotiate. But these are generalities, not hard and fast rules. Much of the insularity in Israel, getting back to your question, dates back to the early waves of aliyah. Most of the immigrants who came to Palestine were rebelling against the Orthodoxy of their parents and grandparents. They arrived and saw the traditional Haredi community that was already living in Yerushalayim. The newcomers derided it as a black, medieval community that refused to come into the 20th century, and this created a great deal of hostility. The ill will remains. One must know history to understand current events, just as we must know the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction to understand race relations in America.

Goldin: In my Modern Orthodox community, Zionism is a major part of our gestalt. How do you feel about the existence of the State of Israel?

Scherman: The Haredi community, whether in the U. S. or in Israel, is opposed to the political leadership of the country. The Knesset, the government, and the Supreme Court under Aharon Barak, are engaged in a stealth war against traditional Judaism. Both the Haredim and the secularists are demonized by one another.

Goldin: Are you opposed to the policies of a particular government, or are you opposed to the institution of the state?

Scherman: I’m not opposed to the institution of the state.

Goldin: Is the Haredi community supportive of the existence of the state of Israel?

Scherman: Yes, the vast majority are. In the last two U.S. elections, the general Jewish community was over 80 percent Democratic, but Haredi Jews voted over 80 percent for Bush in 2004 and for Republicans in 2006, primarily because of Bush’s support of Israel. It’s true that in the pre-state years, Haredim were afraid that the secularists would mount an all-out war against traditional Orthodoxy. And many of them wanted to do exactly that. It took Ben Gurion — as non-Haredi as they come — to convince his colleagues that unity was more important than ideological victory. While many Haredim opposed statehood on theological grounds, history shows that the vast majority went along, voted, and were represented in the Knesset from the start. A few years ago, there was a mass rally in Washington in support of Israel. There were mostly Modern Orthodox Jews but there was a large representation of Haredim as well. But in the papers and on the television, the stars of the show were a dozen or so Neturei Karta people demonstrating against Israel. And in Israel, in the Knesset there are Haredi political parties — Agudath Israel, Degal HaTorah, and Shas. The political system in Israel is sick — but not because of the conflict between Haredim and seculars; it’s just a sick system.

Goldin: One difficult issue is that most Haredi children do not go to the army. I hear many Israelis say, “My children go to the army. My children defend the country. And I find it problematic that there is an entire population within Israel that isn’t doing that.” There’s a perception that the Haredi community is benefiting from the sacrifice of others.

Scherman: It’s hard to respond to that because the response is something that most people today cannot accept. A young Hasidic man tells this story: “How does Israel come through all of these crises? Well, there’s a miraculous way, and there’s a normal way. The miraculous way is if the Jewish people can settle their differences and become unified and work together, and the Arab people are ready to make peace.   The normal way is for God to intervene.” Theologically, the Haredim are learning and praying and doing breathtaking amounts of chesed in Israel. The mayor of Yerushalayim created an organization, Yad Sarah, where tens of thousands of volunteers help the sick and needy. Of course there are other people who smoke cigarettes on street corners and say that they’re Haredim so they don’t have to go to the army. I hold them in contempt. But as for the people who are really learning Torah, we believe they are our protection; the survival of Israel depends on God’s mercy and protection. The Talmud, based on a verse in Jeremiah, teaches that if there was ever a moment when there was no Torah study happening, anywhere on earth, Creation would cease to exist. And it is the people who serve God sincerely and often at personal sacrifice who earn that protection for the entire country.

Goldin: How do you feel about secular knowledge, culture, pursuing a career? Do the benefits of secular knowledge and secular culture go beyond just making a living?

Scherman: I’m certainly not opposed to having a profession to make a living. Secular culture for the sake of secular culture is not a traditional Jewish value. That’s a difference between the Haredim and the Modern Orthodox. Going to the ballet because the ballet is beautiful or going to the Metropolitan Opera, that’s where we diverge.

I think we diverge more about the study of mathematics, or science — the acquisition of knowledge. Is there intrinsic benefit to secular knowlege, or is such learning only to be pursued for the purpose of a career? Is the Haredi community closing itself out from beneficial dimensions of knowledge and culture?

Scherman: It happens. It’s wholesome to be insular but not extremely so. And most people I think are really not extremely so. It’s impossible to draw hard and fast lines because human beings can’t be pigeonholed.

Goldin: The kolel (adult male yeshiva) has always had a major place within the Jewish world. But it has always been a place for the best and the brightest who would then somehow give back to the Jewish world in kind, whether it was as a dayan or rabbi. But today it appears to have become a goal within the Haredi community that everyone should sit and learn all day. Is such a situation sustainable financially, or humanly?

Scherman: Young men do not become really serious about learning until they’re 16, 17, 18 years old. So several years in the kolel is part of the educational experience. When you’re just a young man getting married, you still need more learning; even a year or two in a rarified Torah atmosphere sets the tone for future family life.

Goldin: Many of our children go for a year of study in Israel immediately following high school, which is definitely beneficial. But more and more young people within the Haredi community, and some within Modern Orthodoxy, are choosing to sit and learn as a life goal.

Scherman: For many people it’s an excellent idea. For others, it’s horrible. In my observation, when the men reach a point where they can’t manage anymore or are not growing anymore, they leave the kolel. Either they go into teaching or business or a profession.

Goldin: There are lots of families, though, who are living in poverty, who are not managing in Israel or the U. S.

Scherman: Let’s be practical. When it can’t be sustained anymore, people will go to work. There is a tension between two important values. On the one hand is the importance of Torah study as a benefit to the family and its spiritual influence on the cosmos. On the other hand, a husband has the responsibility to support his family. Families make their own decisions.

Today, there are parents who are not sitting and learning so they can provide for the children who are sitting and learning. But when the children who are sitting and learning have children, they’re not going to be able to provide for them.

Scherman: Societies and individuals cope with economic realities — over time making needed adjustments. The explosive growth of yeshivas and kolels has transformed Jewish life exponentially for the better. The Orthodox world was almost moribund before it happened. I think it was Divine Providence that gave the Jewish community and this country the prosperity that made this possible. What will happen next, no one knows.

But you can project learning as one option; not the sole option. Doing so would prevent giving those who don’t sit and learn the sense that they’re failing because they’re not in the elite.

Scherman: I agree with you. Some of the men who are not suited to full-time learning feel that they’re failures. Every yeshiva recognizes that problem. But if the Rosh Yeshiva gives options, then their institutions — and the Jewish people — might lose the most talented.

Goldin: But we are saying two things to our community: first, that there is one particular goal that everybody should aspire to, and anyone who doesn’t quite make that grade really isn’t cutting it. Then, quietly, we say to those who aren’t cutting it, “you’re not really a problem.” Aren’t we creating an unhealthy situation particularly for the men who can’t sit in a yeshiva and learn? If we create an unreasonable expectation in the community at large, aren’t we doing our young people a disservice?

Scherman: On the other end of the spectrum, in the U. S. — especially in the Jewish community — the ideal is a college education, preferably graduate school. But there are plenty of good Jewish boys and girls who can’t hack it.

Goldin: You’re right. No community benefits from having just a cookie-cutter mentality. I wonder whether we wouldn’t all be better served if we reset our expectations. What about the dropouts — people leaving the Haredi world?

Scherman: I think that by and large it’s like the Neturei Karta demonstrating with the Arabs or going to Teheran to embrace Ahamanidinejad. They get the headlines. Of course   a tiny percentage leave, but nothing like what the publicity tries to portray.

Goldin: How does the Haredi community perceive the concept of or l’goyim, playing a role in world events on a positive level? Will this be accomplished by active interface with the non-Jewish world, or by just having non-Jews emulate our lives?

It’s not by close interaction. The Talmud’s definition of kiddush haShem is to live the way the Torah wants us to live and have people look at us and say, “Wow, how fortunate and praiseworthy are the parents who have such children.”

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Rabbi Shmuel Goldin has served as spiritual leader of the Orthodox congregation, Ahavath Torah in Englewood, New Jersey, since 1984. He is an instructor of Bible and Philosophy at the Isaac Breuer College and the James Striar School of Yeshiva University and serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America.

Rabbi Nosson Scherman studied at Torah Vodaath and its post-graduate division, Beth Medrosh Elyon. After fourteen years as a teacher and principal, he became general editor of ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications. He is the author of the Stone Edition of the Chumash, the ArtScroll Siddur and Machzor, and the recently completed three volumes of the Rubin Edition of the Early Prophets.

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