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The Great Orthodox Comeback

The resurgence of Orthodoxy may be the most profound, and is certainly the most surprising, transformation of Judaism in the past 60 years.  Even more surprising, the most energetic part of it is not "modern" Orthodoxy but a culturally insular Orthodoxy—made up of Hasidic courts, men educated exclusively in Talmud, and a culture suspicious or even dismissive of secular society.  This is the Haredi world.

Relevant Links
Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz  Benjamin Brown, YIVO Encyclopedia. How, after spending the first 55 years of his life as an unknown rabbi in Lithuania, the Hazon Ish came to be regarded as the successor to the slain religious authorities of Eastern Europe.
Zionism and the Middle Path  Peggy Cidor, Jerusalem Post. Remaining faithful to the Hazon Ish’s “middle path,” many Haredim observe Israel’s Independence Day as a celebration—but not a holiday.
A Sabbath Chicken  Curt Leviant, Jewish Review of Books. Remembered by his student Chaim Grade, the Hazon Ish was as compassionate as he was nearsighted.

The growing importance of the Haredim is especially evident in Israel, where Haredi political clout shapes public policy and antagonizes the less Orthodox.  Even in America, where one form of Judaism cannot dictate to another, the Orthodox upsurge is palpable and has political implications: Orthodox Jews vote Republican even more overwhelmingly than other Jews vote Democratic.

At the end of World War II, no one would have predicted this.  The Nazis had destroyed Eastern Europe's great centers of Orthodox culture.  Moreover, Orthodoxy had been in decline for more than a century.  In central Europe, it fell victim to emancipation, acculturation, and emergent Reform Judaism.  In Russia, beginning in the 19th century, many children of the Orthodox defected to socialism and secular Zionism while others emigrated, often abandoning religion altogether.

So, how to explain the Orthodox comeback?

The Orthodox themselves give a two-fold answer.  They believe that Orthodoxy is the only sustainable Judaism because it is the only "true" Judaism; and, because they believe it, they work to make it true.  Scholars who prefer more impersonal explanations see the Orthodox resurgence as part of the broader erosion of Western liberalism and strengthening of religious fundamentalism: Haredim are, mutatis mutandis, the Jewish equivalents of Islamists and Christian Evangelicals.

Perhaps both explanations are wrong, or at least incomplete. Although "great man" theories of history are out of fashion, Benjamin Brown of the Hebrew University contends that a single man played a strategic, perhaps dispositive role in Orthodoxy's rise.  His case is impressive.

This single man is Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (1878–1953), known as the Hazon Ish (hazon means vision; ish means man and is the Hebrew acronym for the rabbi's first and middle names).  Brown's new book about him, written in Hebrew with a five-page English abstract, is The Hazon Ish: Halakhist, Believer, and Leader of the Haredi Revolution.  Based on Brown's doctoral dissertation, the book is massive, learned, and comprehensive.  Brown is equally at home in the complex halakhic issues that the Hazon Ish addressed and the works of general legal philosophy and jurisprudence that provide context for them.  Admiring his subject without necessarily sharing his views, Brown avoids the hagiography of much of the earlier literature on the Hazon Ish and presents an objective assessment of the man.  It is not too much to say that this biography marks a new era of critical scholarship in the history of 20th-century Orthodoxy.

Karelitz was the home-schooled son of a small-town Lithuanian rabbi.  Withdrawn and single-mindedly devoted to rabbinic scholarship, the young man was married off to an older woman who ran a store while he spent all his waking hours in study.  The marriage was unhappy and childless.  Until he was 55, Karelitz lived in Vilna.  He published four books there but held no rabbinic office and remained out of the public eye.  Much of what we know about his Vilna years comes from the great Yiddish writer Chaim Grade, who studied privately with him for several years and fictionalized him as Rabbi Yeshayahu Kossover in his masterful novel The Yeshiva.  

Karelitz arrived in Israel in 1933 and began attracting attention with his steady stream of publications, including innovative responses to practical questions: Should Jews in East Asia  take into account the International Date Line when observing the Jewish calendar?  May Jews sell their Palestinian land holdings to Gentiles for the sabbatical year, thus exempting them from the biblical injunction that they lie fallow?  How should we calculate the amounts of substances used for ritual purposes, such as wine for kiddush and matzah at the Passover seder?

After World War II, the Hazon Ish came to be acknowledged as the Gadol Hador—the great man of the generation, the pre-eminent authority on halakhah.  The once-retiring Hazon Ish also took upon himself the religio-political leadership of non-Zionist Orthodoxy in Palestine, later Israel.  This status was confirmed by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion himself, who, in an event that became legendary among the Haredim, visited the home of the Hazon Ish in 1952 hoping to formulate a modus vivendi between the traditional Orthodox community and the secular Zionist state.

While no actual modus vivendi emerged from that encounter, the Hazon Ish developed a communal strategy that was adopted by mainstream Haredi Jewry: neither to accede to Zionist nationalism nor, like Neturei Karta, to fight it actively.  The Hazon Ish accepted the legitimacy of the state of Israel and directed his efforts toward what Brown calls "spiritual fortification": building a strictly Orthodox subculture within the state through a network of yeshivas and kollels.  Brown believes that if Haredi Jews had not followed this "middle path," they would not be in the strong position they hold today.

Before his death, the Hazon Ish fought and won critical political battles to exempt yeshiva students from the army and to keep strictly Orthodox girls from any form of national service.  Yet these very successes lead Brown to end his book on a doubtful note.  The Hazon Ish crafted a strategy meant to provide an independent social space for Haredim within Israel, yet today it increasingly entangles them in Israeli secular life.  When he called for army exemptions for the 400 yeshiva students in 1949, did he dream that the number would multiply to 62,500 by 2010, triggering intense resentment among their fellow citizens?  Would he have been satisfied to see that many of the Orthodox women he tried to protect from the secular world have become deeply involved in this world to support their husbands learning Talmud full-time?

Perhaps the Haredi case is one more example of a recurring phenomenon, the revolution so successful that it betrays its architect.

Lawrence Grossman is the director of publications at the American Jewish Committee.

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jack-al on November 1, 2011 at 7:42 am (Reply)
Interesting article, but it fails to recogniozes the many inherent nuances. Take me as a case study: raised haredi, but no longer practically observant--and I am far from alone. It also fails to take into account the role of many other haredi "gedolim," who played very important roles in the Orthodox resurgence--the roles of people like Rabbi Kook (the founder of modern religious Zionism) and the Satmar Rabbi of Brooklyn (one of the founders of modern religious anti-Zionism).
jdl on November 1, 2011 at 8:53 am (Reply)
Nice review, and I agree with Mr. Brown's theories.
David Sher on November 1, 2011 at 9:09 am (Reply)
This article, while interesting, fails to note the real underlying reasons for the great "Orthodox" Haredi comeback: namely, the vast number of children born to Haredi people and, perhaps more important, the economic boom times that enabled those families to come into being. Without those boom times, there is no possibility that the Haredim could have grown as fast as they did. Without them, the Haredim could sink even further into poverty. The fundamental problem is that the Haredim depend for their growth upon economically productive members of society being willing to give up a portion of their livelihood in order subsidize the "torah scholars." In times of economic distress, it may be much harder to support that lifestyle. This situation is made worse by the fact that Haredim are taught to dismiss the things that could make them competitive economically, particularly scientific education. Without that knowledge, Haredim are most likely doomed to become a dangerous permanent underclass. Their success was built on a lie and the lie is now being exposed--the same as the housing bubble.
Ellen on November 1, 2011 at 9:28 am (Reply)
Thanks for this nice piece. The energy and resilience of the haredim and, in particular, of the Chabad Movement are transforming Jewish life from the grass roots, as anyone who lives out here in the real Jewish communal world--such as it exists--would know. The secular Jewish organizations continue to issue press releases from their Manhattan offices even though their organizations are only hollow shells of what they once were. The Reform and Conservative movements and their dying synagogues increasingly look like movements devoted to massive empty buildings signifying an untold waste of money by earlier generations. Meanwhile, within a radius of five miles of the big Paramus, New Jersey shopping mall complex, the Jewish life that is most visible and representative of the affiliated population is that of traditional Judaism, i.e., Orthodox Judaism in its many varieties. No one would ever have guessed that this would be the outcome 50 years ago, when Orthodox Judaism was widely thought to be incompatible with the suburban lifestyle and mindset.

This trend, which has not yet reached its apogee, shows us the utter incompetence of generations of Jewish sociologists who were clueless about this transformation as it was going on. They bought into (or invented themselves) academic theories that predicted the triumph of secularism and the corporate man and the withering away of traditional religious life. Today, they themselves are the group most in danger of withering away, along with their secular Jewish constituency, who traded in their Judaism for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and now find themselves saddled with the catastrophe of Barack Obama's presidency. To each his own; just deserts, I suppose.
Lea on November 1, 2011 at 10:27 am (Reply)
Secular Jews will not gladly swallow the rise of the Orthodox. Hopefully, we will not allow ourselves to pay lip service to what for us is nonsense, or be coerced into paying false respects. God, no doubt, couldn’t care less.
McQueen on November 1, 2011 at 11:22 am (Reply)
No doubt this is a major tragedy for the Jewish people.
Rocky on November 1, 2011 at 11:29 am (Reply)
The future of Israel does not look very good if an increasing percentage of its population refuses to serve in the armed forces and limits its education to talmud. Eventually, many secular Jews will leave the country. I hope the U.S. ultra-Orthodox Jews are satisfied as Republicans force increased cuts in government social services. In Kiryas Joel, New York, an all Orthodox Jewish community, government welfare per capita is among the highest in the country (food stamps, Section 8 housing vouchers, etc).
art.the.nerd on November 1, 2011 at 12:02 pm (Reply)
I would suggest to the author that using the term "Orthodox" when "Haredi" is clearly meant simply confuses the issue. The rise of Modern Orthodoxy in the United States is worthy of comment. The Hassidic and Haredi groups (sects, movements, choose your own term) are also interesting. But to insist that they can be usefully lumped together is simply wrong.
Zalman Alpert on November 1, 2011 at 1:18 pm (Reply)
Saying the Hazon Ish was single-handedly the cause of the Haredi revival is highly simplisitic. Many newcomers to Haredi Judaism had no idea who the man was. There are many reasons for the Haredi revival. Here are a few that are rarely given: Just as kabballah and the Sabbatean movement were late shadows of the Spanish expulsion , the renewed interest in Haredi Judaism is a way--of courrse unconscious--of connecting with the East European Jewry that was destroyed between 1939-1945. But Haredi Judaism has convinced few people of its correctness. Yes, some have become baale teshuva, and a number of Modern Orthodox people have moved right; but the real cause is the Haredi stance against birth control. Having double-digit children in a society where few remain single and all marrying by 18 (Hassidim) will more than double your numbers every 20 years. I dare say that in the United States after World War II, in the period from 1945 to 1952, about 15-20,000 Hassidic Jews (that is a very liberal figure) arrived from Europe; and through the stance against birth control, they number over 200,000 today. The birthing room is the place where the Haredim have won the battle and have revived. It may seem simple, but i'ts true. Other factors--like the creation of a Jewish state, the black revolution of the 1960's, and the Chabad outreach campaign (copied by other Haredim) all helped--but none, including anyhthing the Hazon Ish did or did or did not do, would have caused this trend. Frankly, I doubt that many of the Hassidim in the United States--Satmar, Lubavitch, Popa, Bobov--can tell you much about the Hazon Ish and his work. Perhaps in Israel it's different, but his influence here is limited to the yeshiva world; and while that communtiy has also grown, the real power and growth are in the Hassidic community. A fair proportion of the yeshiva communrty are chasidim, too.
Hershl on November 1, 2011 at 9:54 pm (Reply)
The spectrum of orthodox Judaism is very wide, encompassing a range from the most ultra-orthodox, haredi streams on the right to modern orthodox on the left. However, one thing they have in common is adherence to observance of Biblical commandments as interpreted by their rabbis. Their primary source is the Babylonian Talmud and its commentaries. One of the greatest ironies of all is that, as Maimonides wrote, one can be a perfectly good (orthodox) Jew without even believing in God. What separates them from other religions is their belief that keeping the mitzvot, the commandments, is all that one must do to be a devout Jew. No matter what they may say, that is the basis of this religion. In fact, in the Babylonian Talmud there is an episode in which a bat kol (voice from heaven) is heard to proclaim that the rabbis were wrong. The rabbis, in turn, to the man (there being no room for women in their world except in the bedroom and the kitchen) and yell, "Who the hell needs you when we have the Torah?" In doing so, they are all substituting religion for the worship of God; and this, I believe, is a fundamental tragedy of Jewish life. I was once an adherent of this cult. Thank God, I realized that God is the essence of the Jewish and greater human experience and left Mitsvotism. Besides many years of yeshiva experience, I have advanced secular degrees in Jewish history and thought. And I am very familiar with the Hazon Ish.

The coming destruction of Israel will not take place through outside enemies like Arabs or Iranians. It will be due to the prolific Haredi population. Their birthrate is so enormous in comparison to that of all other groups--including the Arabs, whose birthrate has been steadily declining--that soon they will control every single coalition government in Israel. Nothing will take place without their cooperation. And that, sadly, will be the end of the Jewish state as we know it today.
Yoav on November 2, 2011 at 4:06 am (Reply)
Zalman, to what extent is this sustainable? How long can a minority group remain totally uninfluenced by the fertility patterns of the rest of society, especially when fertility levels are trending downwards across the world? Will typical ultra-orthodox individuals continue putting themselves under severe financial pressure to do this? Are the youngsters, who are more exposed to the outside world via the internet, less likely to cooperate? Inasmuch as this trend has been facilitated by the post-war welfare state, will the continued retrenchment in public finances have an impact? What will haredi leaders do if they realise that there just isn't the money for their policies? How far are they prepared to go in demanding sacrifices from their followers before they give in a bit?
Rokhel on November 6, 2011 at 6:21 am (Reply)
All Haredi people do not fit the assumptions that are made in the comments here. There are levels within Haredi consciousness and personal styles of dealing with "others;" there are some that are "militant" and some that are just religious and happy families--lots of those actually. In every sector of society there are gradations. Yes, there are extremist Haredi people--and there are also gentle, loving, happy, non-threatening Haredi people. You will find this in any section of society--Arab, Jewish, gay, black, etc. Any time one focuses on a "segment" of society, it is important to remember that there are also "segments" within those groups and to try to be a little open-minded before using a broad stroke of dissatisfaction towards an entire group of people, any group of people.
Ellen on November 7, 2011 at 9:37 am (Reply)
Nice point, Rokhel. As a person who does data analysis of human behavior for a profession, I can tell you that your point is almost always ignored by shallow journalists who reduce every group to a monolithic stereotype that suits their convenience for their particular essays. For decades and decades, the Jewish population of America was described by social scientists and Jewish communal leaders as being uniformly liberal and secular. This was not even true 40-50 years ago, when that generalization was most accurate. The largest chunk of the Jewish population at that time was centrist--moderate in their political views, Democratic Party supporters but not radical, and with a respect for Jewish tradition that was largely theoretical and not practiced in daily life. Yet it was the most liberal and most secular Jews who claimed to speak for the "Jewish community" as if it were a monolithic entity. The Orthodox minority (5%) was universally overlooked and omitted from any serious discussion of the Jewish future because it was seen as a largely immigrant population with a dying culture brought from Eastern Europe. Today, the trends have exactly reversed themselves in the United States and the United Kingdom, where the secular, liberal Jews are the ones who are dying out and the religiously traditional minority is growing and greatly overrepresented in the younger age cohorts. In other words, the small minority that was overlooked in the gross generalizations of 40 years ago is now becoming the most important subgroup. This is how the real world works, and most journalists are too lazy and ill-informed to probe beneath the convenient and useful stereotypes that make OpEd essay writing less strenuous for them but lead them to conclusions that become outdated fairly quickly.

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