Prepare for an Earthquake in the Jewish World

Religious Jews, of every stripe and flavor, are now doing it for themselves, and the rabbis have never been less relevant.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Ultra-Orthodox Jews looking at a fire.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews looking at a fire.Credit: Omer Messinger / NurPhoto / Corb
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

If you do anything this weekend, take time to read Tamar Rotem’s fascinating feature in this newspaper on entire young families leaving the ultra-Orthodox community. It’s 5,300 words long and well worth every one of them. Once you’ve done that, search online for Chaim Levinson’s analysis last month on the Jewish terror group whose members are accused of burning the Dawabsheh family in Duma and other “price-tag” attacks and how they defy any rabbinical discipline. Then go a bit further back and read Yair Ettinger’s series on the coming schism in the national religious or modern Orthodox community. I’m not flagging up these pieces just to recommend the fine work of my Haaretz colleagues, though they certainly deserve it — I’m doing it because there is a deeper tectonic shift happening beneath our feet, in Israel and in large Diaspora communities, that is about to cause an upheaval in Jewish life and fundamentally change the landscape.

It isn’t showing up yet in the data, there is no scientific or objective way of measuring these trends at this point. The change will be detected by the Central Bureau of Statistics years, probably decades from now and sociologists and then historians will begin researching and writing papers. But it’s happening. Haredi couples are breaking with their families, to ensure that at least their own children have the chance of an education that doesn’t include only ancient rabbinical texts. Bands of young fundamentalist settlers are defying rabbinical edicts in their quest for a mythical Jewish kingdom. Entire observant Jewish communities are breaking with the religious establishment to appoint women as cantors and rabbis.

A wide range of personal, ideological and professional motives are at play and the manifestations of the ferment are evident in many areas and often contradicting directions, but they all have one thing in common: Religious Jews, of every stripe and flavor, are doing it now for themselves and the rabbis have never been less relevant. Some are losing their faith and embracing Jewish atheism and agnosticism, many more are redefining what it means to be a believer and a practicing Jew, without anyone else deciding for them.

An entire generation of rabbis has lost touch with a generation of men and women 50 years younger than them. Technology has done two things — it has produced modern medicine that allows us to live well into our 90s, even to 100-plus, thereby creating a thin layer of ancient rabbis, still revered by their followers but more acquainted with the mores and norms of pre-Holocaust Poland and Lithuania then 21st-century Israel. Whether or not these venerable sages are compos mentis is one thing, but their very longevity has prevented the emergence of new leaders who could perhaps get a better grasp on contemporary affairs. Meanwhile technology has created the Internet and all its mobile platforms, which, unlike the cumbersome boxes and antennae of television that the rabbis succeeded in the last century to ban, have made inroads into their communities.

We hear a lot nowadays about the power of the Internet and social media in the service of religious groups and cults, of Pope Francis’ 26 million faithful followers on his nine Twitter accounts and how innocent young Muslims in the West are radicalized from afar by Daesh’s slick execution videos. What you hear a lot less about is how access to the Internet has effected young men and women living in closed religious communities. Seventeen years ago, Professor David Assaf, one of the most perceptive historians and observers of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, predicted to me that the Internet, then still in its infancy, would cause havoc within the Haredi community, and he was right.

A Jewish worshipper prays at the gravesite of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, a Moroccan-born sage and Kabbalist also known as the Baba Sali, during an annual pilgrimage held on the anniversary of his deatCredit: Reuters

The rabbis tried to stop Haredim from owning computers, then they backed down and ruled instead that they could have computers but must remain offline. When smartphones came along, they forced the mobile phone vendors to sell “kosher” devices blocking unclean and heretical websites (including, shamefully, those offering support to the victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence), but they couldn’t stop young Haredim buying one kosher phone for appearance’s sake and a second, regular smartphone allowing them a window on the world.

So much of the focus on developments within the Orthodox communities has been through the prism of demography. In Israel we are inundated with statistics on how their children are rapidly becoming a majority in elementary schools, outnumbering secular students, and the numbers living in religious West Bank settlements. In the United States and Britain the growth in the number of Jewish populations is attributed exclusively to their high birthrates. But these numbers only tell half the story because the definitions of what it means to be an Orthodox Jew are rapidly crumbling.

Enlightenment, auto-emancipation, communism, socialism, Zionism — all the waves of social changes and ideologies that throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries began allowing Jews to assimilate into general society, or assume new identities, pushed the rabbis to build spiritual ghetto walls and close their followers off from the world. Haredim like to call themselves “authentic” Jews but the strict and austere version of Judaism they have created is a reactionary creed, as distinct from the pre-emancipation Jewish way of life as the Reform and Conservative streams of “progressive” Judaism. It was based on unswerving adherence to the rulings of rabbis, in every aspect of their daily and communal lives. The national religious stream which tried to marry religious observance with watered-down modernity and a spiritual version of Zionism also relied on charismatic rabbis to lead the way, especially in recent decades when much of this community became the ideological backbone of the settlers movement. A heady mixture of mass communications and wider Torah literacy, especially for young women, has created a groundswell of independent thinking and an irreversible erosion of the rabbis’ authority.

The newfound independence is resulting in thousands of young Haredi men and women seeking academic and vocational education and striking out in new “secular” professions; the moment they leave the confines of their cloistered existence, they and their families’ lives are changed forever. As they seek new forms of Jewish life, some may embrace Israeli secularism, but for many of them the fresh alternatives being created by communities that are still in need of a good label — “modern” or “neo-Orthodox” or “egalitarian” are all woefully inadequate to encompass the full range — will be attractive destinations. But they could go anywhere or create their own communities.

Whatever the outcome, the upheaval is underway and promises to be fascinating. And explosive, as we are seeing in the religious settler community, where the breakdown of the rabbis’ discipline has resulted in the terrible murders of Duma and a belated, half-hearted reckoning by extreme figures like Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, who, in a series of interesting columns in his Besheva settlers’ weekly, is finally coming to terms with the fact that he and his colleagues have lost control of their murderous wild boys. Meanwhile, there are other young people who grew up on the settlements and are reaching different conclusions, which will be just as worrisome to their rabbis.

A hundred years ago millions of young Jews broke with their families, their rabbis and the old religious order and joined the communist revolutions, assimilated in Western societies or went off to rebuild the ancient homeland. We are about to behold another such earthquake within Judaism.



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