Haredi (“Ultra-Orthodox” Jewish) society and culture, despite the wealth of important scholarly works devoted to it, still poses a conundrum for many. An important component of Haredi culture and society, which contributes to this society's enigmatic nature, is its dynamic transformative character, comprised of a unique blend of strict traditional tenets on the one hand and manifest modern elements on the other.
Here I wish to propose that Haredi historiography—a distinct literary genre that sets out to record the history of this society—may serve as a fascinating and useful analytical tool for a better understanding of the Haredi conundrum. Furthermore, by examining the origins of Haredi historiography, we may be able to identify some basic components of this unique manifestation of Haredi life and, consequently, isolate essential elements of the Haredi enigma.
The State of Research
The term “Orthodox historiography” (read: “Haredi historiography”) was first coined by Israel Bartal more than twenty years ago. Reviewing the three-volume memoir and history of nineteenth-century non-Hasidic Haredi society, Zikhron Ya’akov, written by the Haredi activist and journalist Jacob Ha-Levi Lipschitz, a disciple and personal secretary to the eminent rabbinical scholar and Haredi leader, R. Isaac Elhanan of Kovno (Kaunas, Lithuania), published posthumously in 1923–1930, Bartal defined this work as “Orthodox historiography”. Bartal's main thesis, in this article and in subsequent studies on Orthodox historiography, is that in their efforts to stanch the infiltration of modernity in Orthodox society, Haredi historians adopted modern methods of historical writing in the hope that by so doing they could beat modernity on its own turf. Bartal also showed that Lipschitz's strategy was not an isolated case, and that Haredi society employs the same approach in regard to other cultural spheres as well. Indeed, at the time Bartal's article appeared other scholars of nineteenth-century East European Jewry also engaged in new and thorough study of the then-neglected area of Orthodox and Haredi societies. The thread that connected these studies is a new understanding of the Jewish Orthodox and Haredi societies and cultures as a modern phenomenon. In contrast to this new understanding, the prevalent image of Haredi society [inherited by scholars and the public alike from the sternly negative attitude of Wissenschaft des Judentums (WDJ) and Zionism toward the Haredim] was of a society that is confined to a “ghetto,” conducts its affairs according to medieval laws and customs, and is, generally speaking, “a relic from the Middle Ages.” Importantly, however, the Haredim themselves have reinforced this image by adhering to a self-image of their society as the last stronghold, a holy “remnant,” of this golden past.
Despite this common image, recent scholarship shows clearly that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Haredi society adopted many institutions and concepts from the modern, more secular, environment. At the same time, and especially when these adoptions were conscious, a common assumption is that this has been a split-level adoption, in which only the “shell”—the “instrumental” or “value-free” aspects of these institutions and concepts—was embraced. The content, i.e., the ideological or philosophical underpinnings of the adopted customs, it is claimed, have been discarded.
Subsequent to Bartal's study of the Lipschitz memoir, other scholars devoted important studies to “Orthodox historiography.” Immanuel Etkes described and analyzed the beginnings of historical writings in the Vilna Gaon's circles, and later on dealt with the attitude of Haredi writers, Hasidic and non-Hasidic, towards the Gaon and his role in the struggle of the Mitnaggedim against Hasidism. Ada Rapoport-Albert studied the rich output of historically oriented writings of one of the most important leaders of the twentieth-century Habad movement, R. Joseph Isaac Schneerson (1880–1950), and concluded that his was more of the mythological type, defining it as “hagiography with footnotes”. David Assaf listed various literary strategies that were employed by the wide range of writers, who retold the story[ies] of the famous nineteenth century Hasidic rebbe, R. Israel of Ruzhin, and labeled their writings as Orthodox historiography. Assaf defined the genre of these...