Alt+SHIFT: Guide to Haredi Society

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | February 8, 2024

Alt+SHIFT is the keyboard shortcut allowing us quick transition between input languages on our keyboards—for many readers of TRADITION that’s the move from Hebrew to English (and back again). Yitzchak Blau continues this Tradition Online series offering his insider’s look into trends, ideas, and writings in the Israeli Religious Zionist world helping readers from the Anglo sphere to Alt+SHIFT and gain insight into worthwhile material available only in Hebrew. See the archive of all columns in this series.

Benjamin Brown, Madrikh la-Hevra ha-Haredit: Emunot u-Zeramim (Am Oved, 2017), 451 pp.

My students and children know my rule that authors who publish very frequently either repeat themselves or end up publishing somewhat shallower volumes, but this rule does not apply to Prof. Benjamin Brown, author of a monumental biography of Hazon Ish and of nearly countless scholarly essays. Among other areas, he is an expert on Haredi society and his Madrikh la-Hevra ha-Haredit (Guide to Haredi Society) provides an excellent survey of that world.

Brown divides Haredim into Mitnagdim, Hasidim, and Sefardim, and explains why we can view such disparate groups as having one shared identity. The opening chapter isolates ten principles of Haredi thought: faith in the sages, the dwindling stature of each subsequent generation, halakhic conservatism, philosophical conservatism, rejection of modernity, negation of Zionism, isolationism, the importance of yeshivot, essentialism in differences between Jew and gentile as well as men and women, and a stress on fear of heaven and stringencies. The three groups share a common commitment to these principles, and form their identity around them.

Chapters 2 through 4 analyze each of these groups in turn. The chapter on Hasidut discusses the sexually restrictive practices of Ger hasidim and adds the less-known fact that the Slonimer Rebbe, author of the popular Netivot Shalom, shares this ascetic streak. Brown informs us about the infighting between rival groups in Vishnitz and Satmar and about the uniqueness of Habad in its endorsement of technology and the prominent leadership place given to women. The chapter ends with mention of the contemporary phenomenon of neo-Hasidic leaders such as R. Elimelech Biderman and R. Itche Meir Morgenstern, who influence without leading an identifiable group.

The chapter on Mitnagdim catalogs the many disputes Rav Elazar Menachem Shach undertook. He not only polemicized against Zionists and Lubavitch, but also took issue with Ger, R. Adin Steinsaltz, R. Shimshon Dovid Pincus, and R. Shlomo Wolbe among others. I wish he had expanded more on the latter two disputes, which are not well known, and this work does not even inform us of the subject of these debates.

The topic of R. Shach’s polemics spills over into the next chapter on Sefardim. R. Shach was instrumental in the creation of the Shas party but then felt betrayed when R. Ovadia Yosef acted independently by joining the 1992 Rabin government against R. Shach’s wishes. This chapter also addresses Sephardi men studying in Ashkenazi yeshivot and different attitudes to practical Kabbala among the Sephardi rabbinate.

After a chapter about extremist groups such as Neturei Karta, the sixth and longest chapter focuses on attitudes to Zionism and the Jewish State. Starting with the nineteenth century, Brown notes how different the zeitgeist was when the liberal R. S.R. Hirsch did not support Aliya while the radically conservative school of Hatam Sofer did. He finds three ideological strands opposing Zionism. R. Hayyim Soloveitchik and others opposed its secular character, Hungarian rabbis saw a theological problem in trying to hasten the redemption, and R. Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik thought the movement endangered Jewish lives. In an intriguing parallel, Brown says that the pro-Zionist rabbinate also divides between those who talked in messianic redemptive terms (R. Kook) and those who did not (R. Yitzchak Yaakov Reines).

[Read the Hebrew preface to the volume and a sample chapter here.]

Benjamin Brown

In yet another categorization, Brown divides between the mainstream Haredi position, extremists, and moderate Haredim. In the early years of the State, the moderates were represented by Poalei Agudat Yisrael; in more recent years, followers of Shas and Habad exhibit greater identification with broader Israel. In terms of the extremists, we discover that R. Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, the Griz,  shared some of their positions. Unlike most Haredi yeshivot, Brisk refuses to take money from the secular Israeli government. When Ben-Gurion had his famous meeting with Hazon Ish in 1952, he also asked to meet with R. Yitzchak Zev, who declined.

During the 1960s, after the passing of both Hazon Ish and R. Yitzchak Zev, there was a dearth of strong Haredi leadership until R. Shach grew vocal in the 1970s. Brown makes the interesting suggestion that R. Shach did not publicly promote his more hard-line stance until R. Yosef Shlomo Kahanamen, the moderate Rosh Yeshiva of Ponovizh, passed away in 1969.

This chapter also deals with the growing Israelization of the Haredi public—a topic of seemingly endless discussion during these days of the war— and tells a fascinating story in this regard. Haredim associate the Tenuvah company and its dairy products with the Zionist movement. At one point, Badatz (Haredi) rabbis were providing the hashgaha on some Tenuvah products but the containers were labeled “Rabbanut Mehadrin” (i.e., the State rabbinical kashrut) and not Badatz. The Haredi public knew the reality and bought the products, but the public symbol of estrangement remained. Today, Badatz Kashrut symbols appear on the cottage cheese containers.

Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

Leave a Reply