The Many Shades of Black: The variety of voices in the ultra-Orthodox community

February 1, 2007
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Sima Zalcberg

There is a tendency to see the ultra-Orthodox society as a solid mass of “black hats.” In actuality, however, this society includes a variety of groups that differ from one another in their worldview, way of life, and degree of commitedness to the tradition and halakha. Moreover, even these subgroups, contain voices which are not only different but sometimes even opposite, on various areas of life.

I will present a concrete example of this claim by describing the women in one of the most extreme groups in the ultra-Orthodox community, Toldot Aharon. I will then discuss the significance of the variety of voices among these women.

The hassidim of Toldot Aharon are known for their extreme stand against modernity, secular knowledge, and Zionism. Moreover, the women (as well as the men) also stand out due to their unique outward appearance. The women are required to wear plain, dark-colored clothing, and they must shave their heads upon marriage and wear a black kerchief. This outward appearance sends the message that the group has a unified collective identity.

As I studied these women, however, I encountered a variety of voices, which reflected the existence of different camps within the group — ranging from extreme zealots, who reject all innovation, to those who favor more progress and openness.

There were, for example, a variety of voices about the character of the girls’ school. The women differed on whether art classes should be offered in the school. Some of them were against such classes because they believed that they would confront the girls with “elements that will taint their spirit.” In contrast, the more moderate camp supported the art classes, saying that “the girls live in this world, so they must be given the tools to cope with it.” The debate eventually led to a split in the school and great tension.

This was not a trivial debate, as it involved essentially different opinions about how the girls should be educated, as well as the group’s view of its relations with the secular society and modernity. The different views reflect a continual tension between tradition and modernity — between the need to change things in order to adapt to the changing situation, on the one hand, and the tendency to conservatism and the rejection of all novelty, on the other.

Another example of the variety of voices in the group is the external appearance of the women. Outsiders may have trouble distinguishing them, as they all wear similar dark-colored clothes and black kerchiefs. However, one can see differences even in the black kerchiefs. The differences are not trivial — they do not merely reflect the woman’s personal taste, but attest to differences in the strictness with which the women adhere to the community’s modesty restrictions and their degree of religious zealotry.

My findings show that the kerchief considered “most modest” is the longest one. It fits closely to the woman’s head and covers the entire scalp. In addition, the two ends of the kerchief come down the woman’s chest, thus serving to hide it. In contrast, the kerchief, which is considered “the least modest,” not only fails to hide the woman’s neck and chest, but is raised from her head by a thin sheet of foam, which the women feel provides a more flattering appearance.

These differences among the women show that there are different voices in the group on the issue of the modesty restrictions. Even though one of the reasons the color black was chosen for the kerchiefs is that “there are no shades of black,” the women have figuratively introduced “shades of black” by wearing the black kerchief in different ways.

These differences attest that Toldot Aharon is not monolithic and that human reality is never black-and-white, but includes shades of gray. The reality of the group is that the ultra-Orthodox society, including Toldot Aharon, defines itself apriori as the most religiously stringent and uncompromisingly committed to the halakha. As a consequence, a hierarchical structure develops, according to the commitment of each group to tradition and the halakha1. Since the members of Toldot Aharon inevitably adapt to modernity to some degree, different camps arise, which differ from one another in the degree to which they deviate from the practical and ideological aspects of the tradition.

This multivocality thus reflects the complexity of the ultra-Orthodox society, demonstrating that there are different camps even in the most extreme groups and that even they are not invulnerable to the influence of modern society.

Friedman, M. (1990). The market model and religious extremism. In: M. Kahane (ed.), The Pangs of Tradition in Transition (pp. 262-277), Rehovot: Kivunim (Hebrew).

1Friedman, M. (1990). The market model and religious extremism. In: M. Kahane (ed.), The Pangs of Tradition in Transition (pp. 262-277), Rehovot: Kivunim (Hebrew).

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Sima Zalcberg has a PhD in Sociology and Anthropology, and works as a social researcher at the Meyers-JDC-Brookdale Institute in Jerusalem.

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