A Chareidi Jewish State!
The hand writing is on the wall. In a matter of years, the State of Israel will be led by chareidi (2) political parties. There will be a chareidi Prime Minister and the majority of the members of the Government will be of chareidi affiliation. This will have enormous consequences for the Jewish People at large. Either it will become one of the greatest success stories in modern Jewish history, or it will ruin the Jewish State entirely. It will either pull the Jewish people out of its severe and far-reaching quandaries, enabling a much brighter Jewish future, or it will cause a disaster which will actually destroy the Jewish State and create unprecedented havoc for all Jews throughout the world.
By the year 2020, according to several academic studies (3), the chareidi population in Israel will have doubled to one million, constituting 17% of the total Israeli population and a third of all Israeli students will be studying in chareidi schools. (The same is true for the USA and Britain: by the second half of the century the majority of the Jewish population in both these countries will be “ultra orthodox”.) The cause for this is well known: While the overall numbers of Jews is declining due to assimilation, intermarriage and lack of Jewish commitment, the Chareidi families are growing rapidly, creating strong communities with an even stronger commitment to traditional Judaism. In the years to come the majority of Jews throughout the world will be chareidi or at least orthodox.
While it is true that nobody can really predict the future and events may take place that will drastically change these predictions, one can no longer deny the facts on the ground. In all likelihood it means this: to its own utter surprise the chareidi leadership will find itself left with a State it neither knows how to govern, nor agrees should exist. Unlike in the United States and European countries, the young chareidim in Israel are, with some exceptions, not receiving the kind of education which will prepare them for a major role in the building of the State. Not only will this become a serious problem as far as Statesmanship is concerned, but a large part of its society will be unable to provide for itself and become an impossible and dangerous burden on the State’s finances. This will cause havoc throughout the whole country and just like assimilation and extreme secularity, it could lead to the undoing of the State. Along with this, it will create more and more animosity towards the chareidi world and henceforth to Judaism. Such a society can obviously never be conducive to making secular Jews appreciate what real Judaism is all about.
The responsibility for such a tragedy lies to a very great extent in the hands of the chareidi leadership, its rabbis and heads of yeshivoth. As long as the chareidi community does not come to terms with the modern Jewish State, disaster will ultimately follow. If this community wishes to continue to live in this land, and it no doubt does, then, whether it likes or not, it will have to make radical changes in its educational system and approach. It will have to introduce a comprehensive secular educational curriculum and think in the broadest terms about the future of the Jewish people world wide. This would not however entail a compromise on the values of Judaism, as secular studies can be integrated in such a way that it will enhance deeper religiosity and a greater appreciation of Judaism. (A different approach to educating future teachers will surely be required than what is currently offered and a great amount of creative thinking will be needed on the side of the chareidi leadership. Moreover the wealth of Jewish religious sources provides ample opportunities to reach this goal.)
There will be a need for orthodox statesmen who are well educated in world politics and who understand the importance of international relationships, economy, warfare and the enormous impact of the globalization of our world. Chareidi members of parliament will have to be aware of the enormous implications of scientific discoveries and technology. But for such a scenario at the present time the chareidi world is not in any way ready. While it is true that, among its followers, there are some very talented people who would quickly adjust to the new circumstances and find alternative ways to gather the knowledge they require, this cannot be said of their constituents. They will not understand the need for this knowledge and will denigrate it, and consequently vote the wrong chareidi people into power. Only when Chareidi leaders will realize this fact and actualize it, instead of paying lip service, can a drastic change take place. A re-education of the chareidi community at large will be necessary but, since these communities are very homogeneous and due the tremendous respect for their leaders, it will be less problematic than one might think. However it all depends whether its leadership will have the courage to travel that road.
It is here that the modern orthodox world has a major role to play. It should initiate a dialogue with the chareidi leadership. It has much to offer but the chareidi world will only listen if their leaders would pay much more attention to its own followers’ dedication to Jewish Tradition and religiosity. It will have to emphasize religious inspiration and devotion. It must invoke in its followers a keen interest in kedusha (holiness) and tahara (purity). It must send a message that Judaism is not just a religion consisting of Shabbath, kashruth and other rituals. It will have to show its constituency that Jewish life is an experience of spiritual transformation, in which even the trivial must become holy. It must realize that a major part of its community, especially its older generation, too often sees their Judaism in terms of a Saturday morning religion.
This has to change radically in order to remove the suspicion on the side of the chareidi leadership which often sees the modern orthodox approach as one of compromise. It cannot be denied that there is some truth here, but this is also the result of not appreciating or understanding the philosophy of modern orthodoxy.
Fortunately we are witnessing a great “comeback” among large sectors of the younger generation of modern orthodoxy. They are deeply learned, motivated and full of enthusiasm about their Jewishness. Especially in Israel, this community is growing and dynamic, yet its leaders will have to retreat from their sometimes overly messianic tendencies. They will have to become much more realistic and, instead of mainly dealing with the land of Israel, start focusing on Jewish education and Judaism’s mission in the world.
But even more important is the fact that, to a great extent, it is the secular Israeli world which is responsible for the unfortunate condition of the chareidim. The erosion of Jewish identity, firstly in the general Israeli society but, above all in the dominant secular school system, is having disastrous results and repercussions. Swept away by a frantic zeal to promote all sorts of secular universalisms, post modernism, and an obsession with consumerism and hedonism, it is running the State of Israel into a nearly irrevocable situation of disasters. Undermining the Jewish heritage by refusing to give it a priority status in the secular school system, secularism has created a most dangerous situation for the State of Israel. And, in many ways, this is even more dangerous than the dangers caused by the chareidi leadership. In its attempt to de-legitimize Zionism, secularism obstructs any chance for the Jewish State to survive. No nation can live on a borrowed identity. Despite its negative outfall, the Chareidi world does not sell out on Israel’s uniqueness nor does it fall victim to all sorts of hedonism. It continues and enforces Jewish meaning and, if one day its leadership will wake up and radically change its mind towards the Jewish State, it will have enormous manpower and resources at its disposal which could become a great blessing for the State of Israel. Sadly this can not be said about the secular community. Many of its youngsters are at this hour undergoing a severe identity crisis and many will leave the country with feelings of deep animosity. (Fortunately, there are signs that some secular youngsters are aware of this problem and are trying to find, in their own way, the road back to some kind of affiliation with Judaism. An important example of this is the phenomenon of the “secular yeshiva”.)
This scenario is being carefully observed by the chareidi leadership. Scared to the core and not able to cope with all this secularism due to its own limitations, the chareidi world has adopted a policy of ultimate “disengagement” It will do anything to disconnect its followers from modern life and education. Believing that the only way through which one can guarantee the life of religious devotion, it creates self-made spiritual ghettos. The possibility that one day this approach will crash is very substantial and the repercussions will be enormous but, until that moment, they will continue in this way. Had the secular Israeli society held on to a greater amount of Jewishness, like in earlier days of the State, and not fallen prey to many of all these, often hollow, “isms” , the chareidi world would have had more reasons to emerge from its self imposed confinement. As such, the secular community is indirectly responsible for the chareidi disengagement.
Obviously this does not justify chareidi policies. They should have created such a superb educational system that would not only be able to cope with the secular challenge, but also defy the secular community itself in a serious and sophisticated way. That they did not succeed in doing so, is not only due to the fact that the chareidim never set this as their goal, but also because, most of the time, they are completely unaware of the spiritual and the intellectual problems that the secular community have to cope with. One cannot just reject post-modernism, declare it as a lot of hot air or put a ban on scientific books whenever they seem to oppose the Jewish Tradition. The secular intellectual world is a serious place and needs serious answers whenever it challenges religious beliefs or looks for religious answers to its own quandaries. Here too the chareidi leadership needs to rethink its policies and stop fearing secular studies. Having enjoyed an ongoing tradition for nearly four thousand years, they should be able to overcome such a challenge. They should integrate secular studies in a way that is no longer considered secular but part of a religious experience. At the same time, secular Israel will have to wake up (with a real bang!) and realize that it is selling out on its most important commodity: Judaism.
To be continued.
(1) This is the first of a series of essays on the future of the State of Israel’s religious – secular situation. Do not draw any conclusions until you come to the end of this series!
(2) The Hebrew word “chareidi” means “devoted” or “pious” but is unfortunately often identified with “ultra orthodox”.
(3) See Jerusalem Post of August 2, 2007 which mentions the results of a comprehensive academic study by University of Manchester historian Dr. Yacov Wise and Professor Joshua Comenetz at the University of Florida.