Opinion |

The Myth of ultra-Orthodox Jews as the Last Survivors of 'Original' Judaism

Israel's haredi politicians defend their draft exemption by referencing millennia of Jewish men who studied in yeshiva night and day. That never happened

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Ultra-Orthodox protestors against the draft try to block a road intersection in Jerusalem. Police respond with water cannon. September 2, 2017
Ultra-Orthodox protestors against the draft try to block a road intersection in Jerusalem. Police respond with water cannon. September 2, 2017Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

No one would seriously accuse Israeli interviewers of lacking in aggressiveness. Especially when confronted with an ultra-Orthodox politician explaining why the young men of his community have to be exempted from compulsory national service.

But Haredi MKs do have one advantage in these situations – ignorance. Not their own, of course.

I’ve lost count in the last few weeks how many times representatives of Shas and United Torah Judaism have said in an interview, "The yeshiva students give everything to study Torah. Just like their grandfathers did. And your grandfather too," answered in a moment of respectful silence from the interviewer, in memory of our devout and studious forefathers.

Only they weren’t. The myth that somehow a century or so ago, all Jewish men were God-fearing Orthodox Jews spending their days and nights in the study-halls of yeshivas has no basis whatsoever in history.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men studying in the Sha'arei Hesed neighborhood in Jerusalem. Sunday, Aug. 1, 2010Credit: Bloomberg

True, going back a couple of centuries, to the days before emancipation and the emergence of large numbers of Jews who were secular or members of non-Orthodox communities, the overwhelming majority could indeed be loosely defined as Orthodox, or at least somehow affiliated with the stream of Judaism that evolved from prushim – the Pharisees of the late Second Temple period, who emphasized worship through synagogue, prayer and an adherence to the Oral Law encapsulated in the Talmud and its tributaries. But even then, only a tiny handful of young men actually spent their days in study.

Nostalgic pictures of boys in side-curls and elderly caftaned men carrying volumes of Talmud down snowy streets in some shtetl aside, most Jews during any period of history weren’t particularly devout or pious. Most were simply too busy trying to survive, making a living in agriculture or trade.

There were yeshivas, usually small local affairs and in a few periods, also a handful of large famous ones to which students came from afar, but those studying there were always a tiny elite of privileged young men: sons of rabbis, particularly gifted iluyim with some form of stipend or scions of wealthy families.

There has never been in Jewish history a period where the male populations of entire Jewish communities devoted their lives to Torah. They would have starved to death.

And besides the majority weren’t interested, and the rabbis and community leaders never thought they needed more than a small group of students who be the next generation of rabbis and keep Jewish literacy alive. It’s true that most Jews could read and write, though the absence of illiteracy among Jews is another myth. But most had some kind of cheder-style primary education, and could at least pray in Hebrew.

Ultra-orthodox Jewish man headed for synagogue in Jerusalem. Credit: © Shai Ginott/CORBIS

Limmud Torah, the study of Jewish religious texts, is a commandment which had no clear definition and can be fulfilled by reciting a few words once a day. Anything beyond that was aspirational.

The hallowed universal principle of everyone being obliged to study Torah day and night for as long as possible is a modern concept, which only truly came in to being four decades ago when Agudath Yisrael, the forerunner of today’s United Torah Judaism, joined the first Begin government as coalition partners and sufficient government funds to subsidize tens, and by now hundreds of thousands of Torah students, became an integral part of Israel’s state budget. Which is also when the number of yeshiva students receiving the exemption from military service began to grow exponentially.

The original exemption, granted by David Ben-Gurion in 1948 for a few hundred students had been at the request of the Haredi rabbis to "rebuild" the yeshivas of Eastern Europe, decimated in the Holocaust. That has been achieved long ago tenfold – there are more men (and women of course) studying Torah today than at any point in history.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. We live in a period where in the western world, many young people do not have to rush off and make a living until well in to their twenties and have the time and leisure to study. But there is nothing similar between the way Israeli politics and economy have allowed so many yeshiva students to study their Talmud for years and some mythical Jewish past. And there is nothing in Jewish law which would exempt them from compulsory military service – actually, there are religious commandments declaring the exact opposite.

Instead of admitting how fortunate they are to live in the modern State of Israel, the only place in the world and in history to subsidise wholesale Torah-study, the Haredi leadership insists they are merely recreating what our grandfathers had and should therefore be theirs by rights.

They cannot admit that because the invention of "our grandfathers who all studied Talmud all day" is part of an even greater myth – that the Haredi way of life of increasingly shutting off entire communities from the outside world and enforcing ever-more stringent ritual strictures, is original Judaism.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks past the entrance to a recruiting office in Jerusalem. July 4, 2012Credit: Baz Ratner/REUTERS

Of course it isn’t. No one lives according to original Judaism. All Jews evolved, and in the Haredi case they are relatively recent evolution of the last two centuries in reaction to enlightenment, emancipation and secular Zionism. The Haredim need this myth because if they are not the original brand of Judaism, then why should anyone choose theirs over so many other ways of being Jewish, which are open about how they have adapted to the changes and challenges of time.

The government, the Knesset and the Supreme Court will never be able to force the rabbis to agree to allow their students to enlist in the army, because it would mean admitting that not all of them have to study Torah all the time. It would mean confirming that there are other ways of being Jewish, and that the mass exemption and subsidizing of hundreds of thousands of students is not the natural state of the Jews but an unprecedented and unsustainable situation.

But there is no need for them to agree either.

Like all other hollow and unsustainable myths, the myth of Haredi authenticity is also destined to collapse in on itself. More and more young Haredim are beginning to figure out for themselves that the real way of following in their forefathers' footsteps is to do what humans have always done: To evolve.