In The Name Of Judaism, Haredim Have Turned Inward
Tue, 04/17/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
Eugene Korn
Eugene Korn

While flying home from Israel recently I struck up a conversation with the bright young haredi man sitting beside me. Before our talk, he had been busily studying a wonderful rabbinic text, “Mishnah Zevachim,” which details the laws concerning Temple sacrifices in ancient times. But God, it seemed, continued to be found in the text and not in me, so when I sensed that he was more interested in resuming his studies, I found a way to end the conversation so we could return to our respective pastimes.

My airplane neighbor reflects what religious life in Israel is hurdling toward at an alarming speed. Many of the boys of the yeshiva world, the men of adult study communities (kollels), their wives and their daughters inhabit a universe far removed from society at large. They have divorced themselves from responsibility for the welfare of the broader Jewish people and their institutions, and from concerns for justice, social policy or building a better world where people can lead better lives. They lack personal identification with Israeli society and persons beyond their small immediate observant circle. 

All they do is done in the name of Judaism and its religious values. Truth be told, however, their lifestyle represents an assimilation to a Christian philosophy of withdrawal from society and the material world. This worldview was initiated by the (Jewish) Essenes who influenced early Christianity. But these isolationist Essenes were forcefully repudiated by the Pharisaic rabbis who the laid the foundation of normative Judaism and the rich Jewish heritage that our parents and grandparents gave us.

For most of our exilic history Jews fought assimilation to Christianity that destroyed Jewish identity. During the Middle Ages assimilation took the form of conversion to the church, and post-Emancipation it morphed into blending totally into gentile society, though this latter phenomenon is really an acceptance of secular values.

The real threat of assimilating to Christianity today, however, is found in adopting the worldview that teaches that God is found only in isolation and personal contemplation, but not in the material world or in human striving within society. This was the theology adopted by early Christian monks and ascetics, and it stood in stark contrast to rabbinic Judaism.

All of the great rabbis of the Talmud and medieval times participated in society and their communities, nearly all worked in professions unrelated to teaching or study, and all felt a religious obligation to contribute to the larger public good. They lived the rabbinic adage, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” There was one Talmudic sage, Shimon bar Yochai, who advocated a religious life of exclusive study and avoidance of society, but the Talmud unequivocally rejected him for this, and says he later repented and grew to value human social activity as essential to religion.

What the rabbis understood early on and what Shimon bar Yochai came to realize later in life is that much of the Torah commands us to bring spiritual values into the material world and human society.

Although the rabbis over the ages rejected monastic isolation, this type of assimilation is growing rapidly today. Are not the burgeoning populations of today’s yeshiva students — who have no desire to ever leave their study halls and are absorbed exclusively in individual contemplation — and religious Jews who cloister themselves in isolated communities and feel no responsibility to contribute to broader society, really a version of Christian monks, albeit with families?

This phenomenon is ripping away at Israel’s social solidarity, politics and economics, with many seeing it as a greater threat to Israel’s survival than her external enemies. While more intense and overt in the Jewish state, this dynamic is on the rise in America also. How many religious students or adults strive to connect to the Jewish people as a whole, not just like themselves? How many feel a deep responsibility to contribute to wider American society, participate in its public institutions or repay the benefits of America’s blessings? Sadly, too many rabbis and religious adults have lost interest in relating to the entire Jewish people in a real, not merely rhetorical, way. And many have even lost the vocabulary to deal with larger society’s burning challenges of social policy, the economy, poverty, justice and the building of a civil culture. 

Jews have always rejected Christianity — in all its various forms. They held fast to Judaism’s original covenantal vision of bringing God and divine values into the material world, into every arena of human endeavor, and of fairly sharing society’s burdens and blessings. Surely we need to resist assimilation to alien ideologies that include monasticism and separatism, even when advanced in the name of God and Torah. This is the only way we can remain strong as a people and be faithful to God’s calling to Abraham to “be a blessing,” so that “through you all of the nations of the earth will be blessed.”

Rabbi Eugene Korn is North American director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat, and editor of Meorot—A Forum for Modern Orthodox Discourse.

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Dear Rabbi Korn,

I must admit , when I first saw this article, I was concerned that there would be no one else having replied to protest the picture painted put forth by your opinion piece . As I log on to the website, however, I am grateful to others who have stood up for the Torah way of life.

Rabbi Korn, You will certainly agree that Torah is Emes/Truth. To that end, there are two ways to spread and share the truth. By going out into the world and spreading/teaching Torah as well as by acting as the Torah instructs. Agudath Israel of America in Washington DC were the first offices to be open full time in our nation’s capital to promote a Torah way of life, while interacting daily (a lack of insularity , to be sure) with Jews of all affiliations as well as Non-Jews in a matter that can best be described as promoting the sanctification of G-ds name.

Others, like perhaps this young seatmate of yours, would like to live a life of Emes and welcome you into the world of such Emes. I have no doubt that had you entered the world of the very relevant Mishnah Zevachim, you would have more than welcome.

On an individual level, I will share with you the story of my neighbor who worked with a 6’3” African American fellow who carried a black, yeshivish, yarmulke in his glove compartment because he understood that his height and brawn may be intimidating to some but a yarmulke would get any charaidi Jew to stop and help if his car broke down.

Some use the above anecdote to show how Charaidim only will help their own but my friends African American linebacker of a big man explained that “…those religious guys will help anybody but they just got to want to be helped” Perhaps, Rabbi Korn , had you been more interested in getting to know this black hatted young man instead of viewing him through the lenses of an article for the Jewish Week, you would have found a young man with more in common with you than you think.

On a personal level, I don’t assign myself any labels other than Torah Observant however I have been called Chairaidi. I am not only , not insular, I try to represent Torah values as the Facebuker Rebbe (www.facebook.com/facebukerrebbe ) Rather than judge or be judged, I respect , honor and cherish interaction with Jews of all stripes based on the interpretation of the Rambam/Maimonides that V’ahavtem es kol habriyos Umkarvon LaTorah is one mitzvah.

Do the first part and second will follow.

Respectfully in either world I remain,

R’ Dovid Winiarz

Anyone familiar with the reallity of the Modern Orthodox and Charedi worlds both in the US and Israel would realize that both communities have far more in common than as depicted by R Korn and that the communities have evolved to that mutual appreciation for their unique takes on Torah Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim, while reserving the right to chart their own individual and communal destinies. Articles such as the above article ignore the fact that bboth MO and Charedim share the same goals, but with different means of achieving the same.

They certainly do have adherence to illogical, medieval interpretations of Torah in common.

Rabbi Eugene Korn, apparently not much of an original thinker, has joined in the chorus of secular zionist Israeli and religious zionist Israeli scapegoating of the Haredim for the ills in their society. Is it because of the Haredim that people in Israel act with such arrogance to each other? That they treat each other with such selfishness and contempt and anger? That their road manners entail such violence and aggresiveness? That millions of Israelis travel abroad every year but charitable giving seems to be a (n) (exlusive?) diaspora trait as exemplified by the naming of seeminly every institution in the country. Has Rabbi Korn ever contemplated that the Israeli law system for the last more than sixty years has made it impossible for Haredim to join the work force unless they first served in the Israeli Army? So they refuse people the opportunity to work and then they are angered that they don't work. If Rabbi Korn wants the Haredim to participate in the workforce, he should insist that no barrier be placed to entry into the workforce regardless of army service. But Rabbi Korn won't do this. His real issue isn't that Haredim don't work. It is really all about him. He wants to show that he is not one of those "bad" Orthodox to shore up his own identity to himself and to prove to his friends, secular, religious zionist and non-Jewish, that he is "good" Orthodox. He is shameful to use another group as a scapegoat for his own benefit.

A belief system can help you to forget your ignorance, but it does not destroy it.

Theology, is all mind-projection.

Truth can only arise within you.

Nobody else can give it to you.

Remember the truth cannot be borrowed.

Either it is yours, or it is not there.

The end result of believing, of having faith in a truth that you have not realized yourself.

It is hearsay.

Nonsense! This poem represents a dangerous philosophy for example this line...
"Truth can only arise within you"
for Nazis and Hamas leaders the "truth that arises within them" is that Jews are filth and should be destroyed.
Judaism brought the concept of Monotheism to the world.
Which implies there is One G-d who defines right and all for everyone.
Before that time, in a polytheistic world anyone could say...
Yes you believe murder (for example) is wrong but my god or gods or better,
"the Truth that has arisen in me" says murder is right.
When people hear or read lovely poems or speeches by enlightened "leaders"
they should ask not only did the poem sound nice but was the content true?
This poem is a good example of something that sounds lovely but is simply wrong and even destructive.
It does not represent a Jewish approach of Truth coming from G-d, but rather of the disastrous philosophy of Truth coming from man.

Are comments for this article being barred? I find the article quite offensive, petty, and dishonest. There are plenty of issues to discuss within non-Haredi society (racism, blaming every sector for Israel's problems except that to which we happen to belong...). Accusing the Haredim of being Christians for taking such sources as the berayta de-kinyan Torah seriously - because the author's neighbor on a plane preferred to learn Torah than talk to him - is a fairly extreme and historically distorted view to take. Perhaps Rabbi Korn should focus on the work that needs to be done within Dati Leumi society (to which I too belong) rather than rant about Haredim. Enough people are ranting about Haredim.

Rabbi Dr Korn, this kind of discourse is problematic in so many ways I don't even know where to begin. First let me concede: Is Haredi society in Israel and elsewhere insular? Yes. Is Haredi dependence on welfare in Israel both economically burdensome and a hillul hashem? Yes. How we got to this point is pretty complex historically, and the blame lies with everyone. But the guy on the plane may have had all kinds of reasons to get back to his learning - maybe he's behind in his seder, maybe he's a shy fellow, maybe he's trying to make a siyyum in time for something... I believe that it's written somewhere that you should give the benefit of the doubt.

But here are two points that are pretty unforgivable: 1. Your wishful and dishonest negation of ascetic trends in Judaism (which you shamelessly and simplistically reify) - you want to find asceticism in Torah? Contrary to your position, it's not very hard to do. (There are some very obvious examples, of which the "berayta de-kinyan Torah" is only the first to pop into my head.) What is essentially Christian or essentially Jewish is not really up to you to decide. Puq hazei mai 'amma debar, as they say. If Jews have been doing it for a millenium or two, I'm afraid it's Jewish.

2. The worst bit: Like many people in Israeli society, it seems that you like to find fault with others for causing social fragmentation. The secular left loves to blame the religious right for the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict (ignoring most of Israeli history in the process); the religious right loves to demonize the left as traitors; some rather weird American 'olim want to plant YU-style Modern Orthodoxy on Israeli soil and think that that will solve everything... And of course, everyone loves to hate the Haredim (who are also not so great at getting along with others, one must admit). And wow, does everyone like to hate the non-Jewish minorities! So why don't we start with some criticism at home: Every sector of Israeli society is guilty of promoting hatred and social fragmentation. You and I are to blame, not Yosl the yeshiva bochur sitting next to you on the plane.

How about this: Follow the advice of the Chasam Sofer, who said that whenever people tried to attack him he just focused on what he was doing and tried to do it as best as possible. That, and not blaming other people, will help you to positively redefine Judaism.

The secular values that many Jews accepted post-Age of Enlightenment were equality under the law; free, universal and compulsory education; belief in continual progress into the future. These ideas may have arisen during a progressive, liberal time, and they may have been forcefully promulgated by Christian ministers, but they are undoubtedly Jewish in origin, and that may explain why so many Jews were very willing to embrace modern thought. I would wish for such trends to come again soon. Despite many linguistic and belief differences, the profound sanctity of life should be apparent enough to temper discord between various religious groups, and that is what free people should ascribe to.

If Haredim are the heirs of the Essenes, then Korn is the heir of the Manichaeans, viewing things - Haredim and non-Haredim, Jews and Christians - in stark binary categories.

So we extrapolate from one young man to an entire community of a half million? Have you ever heard of introverts and extroverts?

Article is Wrong! From my discussions with Haredim they have withdrawn from the Israeli secular society because of its hedonism and pervasive destructive/filthy internet- that floods the world. They have withdrawn to their "Ark" like Noah, and when Mashiach comes and all the polluted waters of hedonism and promiscuity have withdrawn only then they can come safely out of the ark. They don't want to live like the secular Israelis. With the internet, the Modern-Zionist Orthodox Jews are being pulled to a lifestyle, values, habits and a way of thinking which are antithetical to a moral Torah life-style.

Your comparison of Charedi Judaism to Christianity is specious to say the least. The Hungarian Rabbonim were extremley strong in their belief in 'opteiling'. They are surely not being accused of Christian beliefs. Even the Polish/Russian Rabbonim who were not pro 'opteiling' per se, never advocated going out and betterring the world around us. When a charedi jew sees a Mishna in Zevochim as more important than mindless chitchat with a stranger, he should be commended for his dedication, not chastised for someone elses perception of what he should do.

Don’t generalize from a single case. I tried doing that once, and it failed badly.

while i and many fellow charedim agree basically that we cannot divorce ourselves from society, there is one little issue we all keep running into. and that is everyone else. chareidim cannot come down to everyone else's level in order to "relate" to them. every time a frum community or even just a chabad sets up shop secular jews oppose them. fight them call them extremist etc. kiruv organizations are called brainwashing cults. basic things like no buses on shabbat in the worlds only jewish nation is called extremism. take the segregated busing incident for example, or the charedi soilders in the tzahal being forced to break halacha. the talmud clearly says you cannot help someone who will not appreciate it. furthermore, last time i checked it is charedim who run many of the worlds largest charitable institutions.
lastly, kollelim are indeed somewhat unusual in jewish history but consider the alternatives. in the american army they will bend over backwards to encourage and assist various religious needs to be met. in the israeli army they consistently break promises to chareidim about issues that shouldn't even be worth mentioning(how hard is it to exempt charedi soilders from listening to a women sing for 5 minutes and then let them back in the ceremony?). what choice do they have, then? if they leave the kollel or find work they are automatically drafted! we can not be expected to be dragged down on behalf of other people who don't even want our help in the first place.

I daresay that I might also find my current read - be it a technical article, work of fiction or my current Talmudic tractate - more interesting than a conversation with Rabbi Korn. Does that make me an isolationist? I don't think so.

In truth, the real isolationist here is Rabbi Korn. He is completely isolated from the chareidi world, the values it espouses and its relationship with the world at large. He is beating a straw man of his own creation.

By and large we chareidim live in communities among Jews of all kinds and non-Jews, work at jobs among the same and otherwise function as productive and contributive members of society at large.

Do we have boundaries that we don't cross because our value system often conflicts with prevailing societal values? Of course. But I daresay (and hope) that Rabbi Korn has his uncrossable lines, too. Perhaps he and I don't draw our lines in the same place. But that doesn't make me any more of an "isolationist" than he is.

Haredim do not share society's burdens? Rubbish and slander. Their lifestyle may be fiercely insular, but their magnanimous outreach involving all sorts of social and charitable organizations is unmatched. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5zNjQktisI.

Perhaps the most important message in Judaism today

Kol ha-kavod.

Ritual, while required, comprises mere mnemonics to refresh our memories of various Torah principles to be applied in real-life practice, relating to others around us, including the world of goyim at large. Whomever gets this backward is doomed to search for answers in ritual futilely, always needing stricter ritual in the vain hope of finding answers where there are none. That is why those focused primarily on ritual as the goal always wind up in "frummer than thou" increasingly extremist strictness -- until, eventually and inexorably, the truth of the emptiness of blind ritual becomes unavoidable. That is exactly why the end of their road, for those most successful, is complete turn-about rejection, and often closet atheism.

The practice of Torah in real life and the real world -- all of it including the goyim -- is the only answer. Goyim isn't an ugly word. Torah defines Israel as a goy, with the mission of bringing the Light of Torah to the rest of the goyim. The practice of ritual as the end goal is the path to "frum" extremism with no answer at all.

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