“For many disillusioned haredim leaving their close-knit community is like moving to a foreign country”
Under the above title, the Jerusalem Post (9.3.07) published in its ‘In Jerusalem’ section an essay about haredi (ultra-orthodox) youth who left the fold and turned completely secular. Some of the reasons given for these drop outs are indeed very understandable – an overly dogmatic and strict religious upbringing at home, the total rejection of secular knowledge or the world at large causing a lot of harm. Additionally there are the obviously overwhelming attractions such as the world of entertainment, cell phones and computers. For some of these youngsters this is a traumatic and painful experience especially when they are rejected by their families and have no place to turn. An Israeli organization called Hillel tries to help these people find their way into secular society without getting itself involved in religious debate or trying to draw them out of their religious communities. They are only willing to help once they have already left the fold. Other organizations, however, such as Daat Emet, founded in 1998, try to teach the haredi public that they live an unethical, mistaken and inequitable system (1), while others maintain that since their lives were based on lies (2) they had no choice but to leave.
I responded to these accusations and called for another way to deal with this tragic phenomenon. The following letter was published by the Jerusalem Post in In Jerusalem on February 17 2007/
In your article “Beyond belief” (In Jerusalem, March 9) Haredi Judaism came under severe attack of those who chose to break with its way of life. While I have no desire to personally criticize these young men and women (all of whom, I am sure, have gone through great hardship and distress), I would like to respond to some of the sentiments expressed in the interviews. To describe Judaism as “a lie” displays tremendous ignorance and naivety to condemn Haredi Judaism as “unethical, mistaken” or full of “inconsistencies” is far from the truth. Those who make such observations – the breadth of their Talmudic knowledge notwithstanding – reveal little to no understanding of the inner spirit of Judaism. I personally discovered the Haredi world after spending several years in the world of secular philosophy (of which I am very proud), studying the works of such critics of Judaism as Baruch Spinoza; the many years I subsequently spent in Haredi yeshivot, while never fully adopting their weltanschauung, deeply impressed me by the profound sense of commitment, honesty and religious authenticity I encountered.
No doubt there are serious problems within the Haredi community. That it is possible to spend a large part of one’s life in yeshiva and arrive at such misguided notions of Judaism as those expressed in the abovementioned quotes, indicates a fatal flaw within certain circles of contemporary Haredism, including the emphasis on the minute details of Halakha, at the expense of a true understanding of its spirit and philosophy.
Authentic Judaism is by no means a tradition frozen by the awe of rigid dogma. Nor is it a religion evaporated into a utopian reverie. Rather, it exists out of the fluid liquid of spirituality, transformed by Halakha into a solid substance so that man can live a healthy life. Unfortunately, this great truth is not always understood by the Haredi community and its leaders.
Would it not be so much more constructive, then, instead of guiding their way out of Judaism altogether, to introduce these “yotzim” to a Judaism which they know nothing about? A Judaism which might just provide the answer to their quest for spirituality and religious meaning? While “Hillel” must be commended for helping those who have been expelled by their families (which is, incidentally, a most un-Jewish thing to do), these Haredi outcasts may benefit less from lessons on how to rent a flat in Tel Aviv and more from the daring teachings of great chassidic masters such as the Kotzker or the Ishbitzer Rebbe, from the profound thoughts of Jewish philosophers such as Franz Rosenzweig and Abraham Joshua Heschel, even from the remarkably pro-Jewish writings of Christian theologians like William James or Reinhold Niebuhr. The last thing we need in Israel of 2007, with its burgeoning identity crisis, is more people who have no idea who they are.
In the immortal words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “In der Beschraenkung zeight sich erst der Meister. Und das Gesetz nur kan uns Freiheit geben.” – Man can only prove himself when he masters the art of dealing with limitations and when he realizes that real freedom is only possible when upholding the law.
1: Quotation by the founder of Daat Emeth in the JPost
2: Quotations by one of those interviewed.