The Haredim – Why is He Alive ‎

What is the Meaning and Purpose of Life? | Total Comments: 0 | Total Topics: 0

			Background ‎
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They are the most misunderstood group in the contemporary Jewish world. Most Jews have ‎never met one and likely never spoke with one, yet they comprise over 10% of the Jewish ‎population. In another 20 years that number might very well be over 30%. They manage to ‎make headlines all over the place despite their desire to remain insular and out of the public ‎eye. They are probably the single most hated faction within Judaism, yet all the while are ‎begrudgingly respected as the true bearers of Jewish tradition. ‎
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The word Haredi (rhymes with ‘parade-y’) comes from the Hebrew word that means ‘to ‎tremble’. Theoretically, the Haredim tremble at the word of God, specifically at transgressing ‎the word of God. The exact origins and first use of the term to define the so-called ‘ultra-‎Orthodox’ are murky at best, though it probably began some time in the 1970’s. Now the ‎word is heard or seen all over the streets of Jerusalem, B’nei Brak, in large sections of the ‎New York area, and in parts of many cities around the globe. It is used to describe political ‎parties and revered rabbis, in the same sentence. More important than all that, it stands a good ‎chance to be the face of religious Judaism in the 21st century. ‎
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Who are the Haredim? They are the ultra-Orthodox. They claim their origins lie deep in the ‎Biblical past, long before philosophy or mysticism, Talmud or Midrash, even before the ‎ancient kings and temples of Israel. They go back to Mount Sinai itself. In other words, to the ‎Haredim, they are simply upholding the centrality of the Torah as it was always meant to be ‎upheld. To anyone who disagrees with them and says that they are hopelessly outdated and ‎flat out wrong in their convictions, they invariably have a Biblical or Talmudic quote in ‎response. Arguing with the Haredim is like arguing with God. ‎
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They began, like many of the groups in the modern Jewish world, in the post-Napoleonic ‎world of early 19th century Europe. They wholeheartedly rejected the opportunity to break out ‎of the Jewish ghettos and assimilate into secular society. In Hungary first, and then in Poland ‎and Lithuania, they battled all Jewish attempts to integrate into the goyish world. Their first ‎opponents were the Reformists in Hungary, but soon they included the socialists, the ‎communists, the Zionists, the Bundists, and anybody else who challenged the supreme ‎authority of tradition. For the past 200 years that has been their function – to keep Jewish ‎tradition alive by fending off all threats to change and modernize. ‎
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The rabbinic leaders are invariably referred to as ‘the Gedolim’ (the great ones). The biggest ‎names are generally well known, but it has always been a little unclear who really calls the ‎shots. The Gedolim rarely if ever meet at a joint convention, so their decisions are made by ‎some uncertain method of consensus. In general, there is an assumed infallibility of ‎the Gedolim in major decisions. The common name for this infallibility is the term ‎‎‘Daas Torah’ (opinion of the Torah), a phrase that lends divine approval to rabbinic views. ‎
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Probably more than anybody else, Rav Elazar Shach (1899-2001) of B’nei Brak defined the ‎lifestyle of the Haredim, especially those in Israel. His was an uncompromising outlook in ‎which one was either totally dedicated to the Haredi system or one was not really Haredi. ‎One of Rav Shach’s main achievements was establishing the Haredim as a major force in the ‎Israeli political scene. Within the Haredi parties there is invariably a good deal of infighting, ‎but they generally are able to present a fairly unified front on the issues that concern them. ‎
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One recent example of this that has been gathering steam over the years and reached a ‎crescendo in 2013 is the contentious matter of drafting Haredi men into the Israeli army. Due ‎to a long-standing agreement with the Israeli government, the Haredim had a general ‎deferment because of their dedication to Torah study. When their numbers were small ‎nobody was bothered by this arrangement. By 2013, with tens of thousands of Haredi males ‎of draft age, and tens of thousands of older men permanently off the legal books because of ‎their undrafted status, the situation had become a matter of national concern. The Haredi ‎position, largely based on the intransigence of Rav Shach, is that Torah study takes ‎precedence over anything else, including sharing the burden of national defense. Virtually ‎everybody else in the country strongly believes that this is just a pitiful excuse for what ‎amounts to holy draft dodging. The Haredi side is extremely hard to defend without ‎understanding their raison d'être. Rav Shach probably stated it better than anyone else: ‎
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‎‘The entire purpose of life is that man should be elevated by the battle against the yetzer hara, ‎which is the struggle against the urges within the conscience (nefesh) of man. If he doesn’t ‎fight to break those urges, it would have been better if he had not been created. The soul ‎‎(neshama) would have remained pure in the heavens without coming down into this world ‎and sinning, but it also would not have had the benefit of the battle against the yetzer hara.’ ‎
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Analysis ‎
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Rav Shach said this statement in a speech he wrote in the summer of 1979, long before the ‎draft deferment was on the Israeli political agenda. There is little doubt that he would have ‎said the same thing in 2013, had he been alive and confronted by that issue. In that speech, ‎his main topic was something that we have seen before – the statement of the Vilna Gaon that ‎the entire purpose of life is for tikkun hamiddot (breaking the natural urges). Rav Shach asks ‎how this could be so? How could tikkun hamiddot outweigh all the other commandments ‎including Torah study? In answering this question, he introduces another idea we have ‎already seen: that the purpose of the commandments is not to accomplish something in the ‎world or to please God, but to purify human beings. Then he introduces a third idea that we ‎are familiar with: that it would have been better had we not been created, but now that we are ‎created we should search our actions. ‎
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In incorporating these three insights from across the spectrum of rabbinic thought into one ‎theme, Rav Shach lays out the radical proposal that the actual doing of the mitzvot, including ‎Torah study, is really devoid of any significance if it isn’t accompanied by some internal ‎struggle. In making this claim, he cuts through any mystical overtones that the mitzvot might ‎have, any philosophical insights that they might reveal, and boils it all down to the inner ‎struggle to gain control of the nefesh – the place in the mind in which this struggle is ‎manifested. In other words, the nefesh, which is frequently translated as soul, but which can ‎be better understood if translated as ‘conscience’, is the scene of this apocalyptic battle. It is ‎the battle between the pure soul and the yetzer hara. This is what it’s all about – everything ‎else is just a prop. ‎
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Why was man created? He was created solely so that this battle could take place. ‎The neshama didn’t need any of this. It would have been perfectly content basking in the ‎glory of God somewhere in the heavens. But such a soul would have never accomplished ‎something essential that only coming down into the world can fulfill. That something is the ‎elevation of ‘man’. It appears that man is made of several components: a soul (neshama) that ‎is completely pure and good, a body that is purely physical and serves as a vessel for the soul, ‎a conscience (nefesh) that is the interface of the negative and positive drives, and a will that ‎must make the fatal choices. Man really is that last component, the will. The will can only be ‎elevated by the soul interfacing with all the aspects of the conscience and forcing spiritual ‎choices to be made. The will makes those choices. It struggles. Each time it fails it falls a bit, ‎and puts the next struggle on a lower spiritual level. Each time it succeeds it raises the bar of ‎the next spiritual struggle. This is the battle in a nutshell. ‎
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We were created to search our actions, to struggle within the conscience, and to make those ‎choices that elevate us into becoming greater human beings. If we shirk this responsibility, we ‎would have been better off never having been created. Rav Shach concludes that every ‎mitzvah is nothing more and nothing less than an opportunity to play out this struggle once ‎again. If the mitzvah isn’t done, or if it is done with no inner struggle, then it is essentially ‎worthless. He says the same for tefilla and for Torah study. As great and as holy as they may ‎be, if they involve no inner struggle they are simply rote actions that actuate no elevation of ‎the person. In which case, as the Rav Shach quotes the Vilna Gaon: ‘Why is he alive?’ ‎
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Practical ‎
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If this all sounds like hard line, no nonsense, all-or-nothing Judaism, it is. This is really what ‎Haredi Judaism is supposed to be. The watered-down version that all too often makes the ‎rounds on the Internet is the Haredi equivalent of Madison Avenue. The real thing is going on ‎behind the scenes, in out of the way study halls or in middle of some huge yeshiva, where one ‎can see students struggling to understand a difficult section of the Talmud, arguing back and ‎forth until some understanding is gained. It is going on in the homes of countless families, ‎who struggle to raise their children as God-fearing Jews, who seek little in terms of physical ‎comfort but much in terms of spiritual growth. It is going on in the ‎countless Hesed organizations, some that are well known and some that do not even have a ‎name, that do everything they can do alleviate the pain of an impoverished family or a house-‎bound person suffering from some incurable disease. It takes place in the shuls tucked away ‎in back alleys where one finds men getting up before dawn and staying till all hours of the ‎night, and women crying their hearts out as they recite the Psalms. This is the real ‎Haredi world. There is little question that this is what Rav Shach had in mind when he ‎insisted that Haredi men refuse the draft. ‎
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To live life so that each moment is grasped as another opportunity to serve the Creator of the ‎universe, the Creator of our very being, by constantly struggling to resist and refine, by ‎always seeking spiritual elevation in every action and thought, this is to live life as a true ‎Haredi Jew. Maybe all those Haredi guys shouldn’t waste their time toting guns for the Israeli ‎army but should use it doing what they have been trained to do – to serve God through ‎improving themselves as individual people. Maybe such individuals would become an ‎exemplary society, a microcosm of the Jewish world as it should be. Perhaps the external ‎trivialities of dress code would become irrelevant. Perhaps the insular walls built from fear of ‎negative influence from the ‘outside’ world would disappear as the Haredim themselves ‎would see their role in a clearer perspective. Who knows if such a Jewish world could ever ‎be? If anybody could make it happen, it is the Haredim themselves. What are they waiting ‎for? ‎
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Food for Thought ‎
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This is all very well and good on a theoretical level, but has it ever happened on a real life ‎scale? In other words, are all these Haredi ideals nothing more than bravado that has no place ‎in actual society? How can the Haredim make their ideal world become real? ‎

		


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