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.
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.
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 To anyone who disagrees with them and says that they are hopelessly outdated and flat out wrong in their convictions, they invariably have a Biblical or Talmudic quote in response.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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
‘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.’
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.
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.
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.
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?’
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.
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?
Food for Thought
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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