The Great Orthodox Comeback

By Lawrence Grossman
Tuesday, November 1, 2011

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.

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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