No Longer a 'Nature Preserve'

One of the contributions made by Kimmy Caplan's new book is to clarify the common error of defining ultra-Orthodox world as "a society of learners."

"Besod hasiah haharedi" ("Internal Popular Discourse in Israeli Haredi Society") by Kimmy Caplan, Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 346 pages, NIS 90

One of the contributions made by Kimmy Caplan's new book is to clarify the common error of defining ultra-Orthodox world as "a society of learners." This definition was coined by Menachem Friedman, the father of the critical study of ultra-Orthodoxy. It became common coin in his discourse and in that of everyone involved in the field, both journalists and researchers. The simplistic and erroneous understanding of the term suggests a society that has an ostensibly intellectual character, where all the men sit and learn Mishna and rabbinical rulings from morning till night. This is obviously not what Friedman meant; his original argument related to the political and economic arrangements that developed in the State of Israel, and which directly and indirectly dictated the existence of a Haredi society of learners, which exists for the most part until the age of final discharge from the Israel Defense Forces. In many senses Caplan's book helps to understand the complexity of this society in which learned-elitist discourse and "low"-popular discourse are constantly mixed.

Caplan deals with the popular aspects of Haredi society in Israel in the recent generation, that is, since the 1970s. He describes some of the fascinating developments that have occurred in it, not at the representative levels of the rabbinical elite, but rather at what he calls "the secondary level"; not with the discourse that is directed outward, to the state or to secular society beyond the boundaries of the ultra-Orthodox enclave, but rather with the discourse that is directed inward, the exclusive consumers of which are the Haredim themselves. Ostensibly, it is not hard to find this discourse - after all, "For the stone shall cry out of the wall," in many senses: wall posters, audio tapes and impassioned journalism. However, its interpretation is very difficult and requires sensitive and delicate tools that focus not on one-time curiosities, but rather will try to understand formative and long-term processes. It is easy to latch on to the colorful language that characterizes the modes of ultra-Orthodox written and oral discourse, but researching the truth is more difficult, as this is a language of symbols that requires historical, literary and semiotic tools to decipher its sources, its motives and its needs.

Caplan uses the tools of the historian to deal with the Haredi society that has been shaped in the recent generation, which is no mean feat. Academic research and public interest in ultra-Orthodoxy are flourishing, hand-in-hand with the growing power of this society and the influence it wields. These developments are also evident in the classified bibliography included in the book as a seperate appendix.


Many predictions concerning ultra-Orthodox society have been voiced by politicians, journalists, writers and researchers; many have been proven wrong and only a few have been on target. Haredi society has many weaknesses, which are revealed not only to the outside observer, but also in the society's internal discourse, however limited that may be. Haredi society contains reactionary, conservative, extremist and violent elements. Corruption, parasitism and an abundance of other disorders also plague the society. At the same time, however, it also demonstrates processes of renewal and creativity, and above all considerable elements of vitality and inner strength that sometimes surprise even the ultra-Orthodox themselves. Caplan tries not to fall into the trap and avoids, or nearly does, predicting future developments. This is particularly evident in his discussion of what he calls "the Israelization" of the ultra-Orthodox and the irreversible process of Haredi women entering the workforce. It may be stated unreservedly that these processes will leave their marks on the Haredim of the next generation.

In his introduction, Caplan presents a number of theoretical questions: What is Haredi popular religion, which stands alongside the "official" religion, sometimes complementing it and sometimes conflicting with it, and to what extent can ultra-Orthodoxy be viewed as an expression of fundamentalism? Caplan examines these questions both in the Jewish context and in the comparative context. He shares the productive definitions proposed by Emmanuel Sivan, which see Haredi community as an "enclave society" that is best understood through comparison with fundamentalist societies developing in other cultures.

In the first chapter Caplan discusses the fascinating phenomenon of recorded sermons and the overall attitude toward the media. It is superfluous to mention in this context that the Ayatollah Khomeini, immediately upon his return from exile in France, succeeded in gaining control of Iranian society by means of cassettes that were copied and passed from hand to hand. While popular preachers in Israel, the most prominent of whom is Amnon Yitzhak, have not yet reached this level of fame, sermons on tapes and compact discs have nevertheless become an influential social and economic phenomenon in contemporary the Haredi wrold. This may be ending, however: The inevitable penetration of computers into Haredi society, even if slower than expected and subject to obstacles, will eventually entirely replace audio cassettes and CDs.

Caplan emphasizes the importance of the medium of the sermon, particularly in Sephardic Haredi society, identified with supporters of the Shas party - in itself one of the major innovations in ultra-Orthodoxy in the past generation. It is a pity that the author has not addressed the issue of attitudes toward the new media, especially ("kosher") mobile telephones and the Internet, attitudes that range from total prohibition to "conversion according to rabbinical law."

The second chapter discusses newly observant Jews and the attitude toward them. It is an open secret that the newly religious are not naturally and completely absorbed into Haredi society, which evinces an attitude of "respectful suspicion" toward them. Their very presence in Haredi (rather than, for example, national religious) society is a source of pride and ostensible confirmation of the rightness of their way. The newly religious therefore benefit from targeted material assistance, institutions and instructional literature. On the other hand, their motives and loyalty always remain suspect. While the attitude of Lithuanian and Sephardic Haredim toward them is fundamentally positive, that of Hasidic ultra-Orthodoxy (with the exception of Lubavitchers and Bratslavs) is negative. It is unfortunate that this intra-Hasidic issue has not been fully explored; certain subversive Hasidic voices claim that the serious crisis within Lubavitch Hasidism over the messianic argument, as well as the clownish mien of the "note" circles in Bratslav Hasidism, are mainly the result of the unrestricted absorption of newly religious into these groups.

In the third chapter the author discusses changes in the Haredi attitude to the Holocaust and the lessons to be learned from it, both in the religious-theological and in the educational sense. Ultra-Orthodox society has come a long way since nearly ignoring the Holocaust, leaving study of it to the secular. (The late Haredi author Moshe Prager, who saw the Holocaust as his life's work, was a rare exception.) Now there is increasing openness about and constant concern with the subject. The attitude today ranges from blaming secular Zionism to acknowledging the need for a humble, serious approach that sees in the Holocaust not only the destruction of the centers of Torah and Hasidism, but also a catastrophe for the entire Jewish people. This humility, of necessity, is leading ultra-Orthodoxy cautiously closer to academic research, the museums for commemoration and the official memorial institutions, first and foremost Yad Vashem.

Women's work

The fourth chapter addresses the mass entry of Haredi women into the workforce. The modest and retiring ultra-Orthodox woman, who is supposed to be ensconced within her home and not exposed to "the street," is increasingly taking the place of the man, bent over his Talmud at the beit midrash. This reversal of roles, which incidentally also existed in the Lithuanian and Hasidic society of 19th-century Eastern Europe, has far-reaching significance. Women are not only gaining power within the family unit, but are also attaining a general education and exposure to the modernizing and secularizing influences of Israeli society. Some are even cultivating a "Haredi feminism" that is calling the old order into question. The force of this process is made clear by the prohibition of academic degrees imposed recently by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv's circles on teachers at ultra-Orthodox seminaries. This subject too is not closed. Presumably we are just at the beginning of the road and quite possibly there will be processes of reaction, as well as breakthrough and even greater expansion of current trends.

The final chapter examines the penetration of modern Israeli culture into ultra-Orthodoxy, to the point of the creation of a new and original entity that could be called "Israeli Haredi-ism." It contains manifestations of constant influence (such as the steady retreat of Yiddish before modern Hebrew, including its slang), as well as a counterculture and the return to the Haredi fanaticism of the 1950s and 1960s. Israelis often mistakenly believe that Haredi anti-Zionism also means indifference toward events in Israeli society. This has never been true. Indeed, it is the groups that are most extreme in their opposition to Zionism and the State of Israel that are interested in what is happening among "the enemy." Paradoxically, it is this interest that has the greatest influence on the Israelization of the Haredim. The most salient example of this is the struggle against the gay pride parades in Jerusalem, as a result of which there is not a single Haredi child today who does not know exactly what a homosexual is.

There is no doubt that Haredi society has long since ceased to be the "nature preserve" or museum of the old Judaism that Israel's leaders in the early 1950s believed it to be. It is a vibrant, many-faceted society that in its unique and stubborn way is constantly challenging the majority society in Israel. For those who are interested in it, it provides an endless abundance of news, color and aromas, and it is a fact that every daily newspaper in Israel has a special correspondent for Haredi affairs (whereas the flourishing Haredi press has not a single special correspondent for secular affairs...) But this society has long not been the "other" of Israeli society. It is here to stay, it is a part of us and in many senses, as Caplan's book proves, we are also part of it.

Prof. David Assaf is chair of the department of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University.