I gave a talk to a Jewish women’s group recently, on the subject of Jews and the presidential vote. In the question-and-answer period, one woman asked, “What am I supposed to say when my [presumably non-Jewish] neighbors ask me about the ultra-Orthodox on welfare in Lakewood?”
A few days later, I spoke at a Reform synagogue on the same topic. Another q-and-a, similar questions: “Do you think we’re headed to a civil war with the ultra-Orthodox?” asked one man. “What do you think about the arrest of the rabbis in the New Jersey corruption scandal?” asked another.
Probably at no other time in Jewish history have non-Orthodox Jews and the haredim — fervently Orthodox — had less to do with one another. In Eastern Europe before the Shoa, secular Yiddishists and pious yeshiva bochers rubbed shoulders in communities that were “roiling and diverse” (in Alana Newhouse’s apt phrase). Today, the haredim have created a world unto themselves, living, learning, and working in ways meant to insulate them from outside influences, both Jewish and non-Jewish. The rest of us mostly live and work in ways indistinguishable from our non-Jewish neighbors.
Yet never have the haredim weighed so heavily on the thoughts of other Jews, here and in Israel. A series of scandals — from financial malfeasance to sex abuse to violent infighting among hasidic sects — has placed the fervently Orthodox on the front pages of American newspapers, and in the worst possible light. In Israel, an increasingly assertive haredi community is challenging Zionist assumptions when it comes to the military, civil rights, gender, and education. Secular and Modern Orthodox Israelis alike will insist that the haredi “threat” is nearly as dire as the saber-rattling from Iran.
Even this weekend’s big haredi blowout at the Mets’ Citi Field — an overflow crowd of men for a rally on the dangers of the Internet — did little to endear haredim to non-haredi Jews. At best, the organizers and participants looked quaint; at worst, they looked like inquisitors, shunning outside sources of knowledge lest they challenge the authorities of the rabbis.
But none of this questionable press fully explains the Jewish majority’s fixation on haredim and their sometimes questionable behavior. The truth is that to be a Jew is to identify with other Jews, no matter how their choices or lifestyles differ from your own. We cultivate this sense of peoplehood. And when we don’t, the outside world invariably makes sure we don’t forget it. When Jews misbehave, we tend to feel implicated. While American society has shown little inclination to ascribe collective guilt, we all brace for the backlash when a Madoff or Boesky is dragged before the bench.
The haredim compound this sense of collective responsibility — and guilt — by looking as they do. The haredi uniform of black hat, black coat, and beard shouts “JEW” in capital letters. Arrest a haredi rabbi and you’re not just indicting a Jew — you’re indicting an archetypical Jew.
But it’s not just misbehavior that fuels our fixation on the fervently Orthodox. For good and bad, the haredim represent a version of Judaism we thought we left behind with the Enlightenment. Jewish success has been associated with Enlightenment values: higher education, scientific inquiry, cultural achievement, freedom of conscience. Jump ahead a century or two and you can add feminism and acceptance of gays and lesbians. That haredim cling to their Old World values seems confounding.
Haredim push buttons among the most and least engaged Jews. Observant Jews who aren’t haredi cannot forgive the “black hats” for suggesting that Torah values and modernity are in conflict. Many observant Jews will say that Torah comes alive only when it encounters the real world and all its shmutz. To drag Jews and their Torah behind a self-made ghetto wall is a hillul Hashem, a desecration of Torah and its real intentions.
On the flip side, there is a certain kind of Jew whose whole Jewish identity is tied up in condemning the failings and hypocrisy of the Orthodox. Their indictment usually starts with the phrase, “They call themselves religious, and yet…,” before reciting the latest scandal. This sort of obsession can be self-justifying and a little Freudian — by pointing out the failings of religion, they can better justify their decision to leave it behind.
But whatever the source, these kinds of feelings are bred in insularity, for which the haredim must assume responsibility. Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, recently argued that “seeking to live among members of one’s own religious community and trying to avoid the effluence of a coarse popular culture” is not the same as medieval Christian asceticism. But the examples he gives of haredi engagement with non-haredi Jews are insignificant compared to the general trend.
No, I don’t think there is going to be warfare between haredi Jews and the rest of us — not outside of Israel, anyway. What we have instead are two communities that relate to one another in two distinct and distinctly unhealthy ways. On one hand, we ignore each other, and regard the other as if he or she clings to a different covenant. Or we scrutinize each other, seeing the other as a representative of the values we most revile. Either way, it’s a recipe for discord.