- Haredim Yisraelim: Hishtalvut BeLo Temi’ah? [Israeli Haredim: Integration without Assimilation?]
While most modern Jews were eagerly integrating themselves into Western culture, a small group, referred to as Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox Jews), was not. Fearful that openness to modern culture would pull Jews away from strict observance of halakhah—a fear with more than a little justification—Haredim worked hard to maintain allegiance exclusively to the traditions of the past. "Hadash asur min haTorah" [Novelty is prohibited by the Torah] became their rallying cry, and they worked hard to isolate themselves socially and intellectually from others. On the surface, Haredi Jewry seems like a throwback to the past, the Judaism of the Middle Ages transplanted into modernity. Yet a closer look reveals that complete isolation from modern culture and total rejection of change are difficult, indeed impossible, tasks. The history of Haredi Jewry involves the constant tensions between isolation and integration, between the past and the present, between tradition and modernity.
The academic study of Haredim has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. Particularly in the Israeli context, where Haredi Jewry has become increasingly visible and influential, non-Haredim are eager to understand the reality behind the black hats and long dresses. Kimmy Caplan, an expert in Haredi popular culture, and Emmanuel Sivan, who writes extensively on comparative fundamentalism, have edited a collection of nine Hebrew articles that focus on contemporary Israeli Haredim. Making up the first book-length collection dedicated exclusively to Haredi Jewry, the articles discuss a range of topics, from the evolution of R. Ovadiah Yosef's Sephardic Haredi halakhic decisions to the Haredi mentally ill, from yeshiva students' financial struggles to Haredim who live secret lives as non-Haredim. Challenging the stereotype of Haredim as homogeneous and single-minded in their opposition to modernity, these essays stress the tensions, ambivalence, and dynamics that characterize the Haredi interaction with contemporary Israeli culture.
As the editors emphasize in their introduction, this collection is particularly concerned with the way Haredi Jews draw boundaries, both between themselves and the outside culture and among subgroups of [End Page 296] Haredi Jewry. Distinctive dress, separate neighborhoods, and independent educational systems help isolate Haredim from the potential dangers of contact with people and values that they reject. Further, boundaries help Haredi Jewry define the "significant others" against which it defines itself. The social and ideological boundaries between themselves and others help Haredim clarify what it means to be an improper Jew and, by implication, what it means to be a proper one. These essays also address boundaries between different subgroups of Haredim. Haredim are not sewn of one cloth. Though an outsider may have trouble distinguishing among subgroups of Haredi Jews, these distinctions mean a great deal to those within various Haredi communities. Moving beyond the commonplace distinctions between hassidim and mitnagdim (a distinction probably less important today than ever), this book addresses boundaries between Ashkenazim and Sephardim; men and women; the psychologically healthy and the mentally ill; those born Haredi, ba'alei teshuvah (newly Orthodox), and those in the process of exiting Haredi Jewry; and so forth. Each subgroup has a somewhat different ideology and social structure, and each subgroup maintains different relationships to the hegemonic centers of Haredi life and to non-Haredi culture.
Yet, with all the deliberately constructed social and geographic boundaries that exist between Haredim and non-Haredi Jews, Haredim participate in many elements of contemporary Israeli culture and are deeply influenced by the encounter with modernity in general and with the Israeli experience in particular. A glance at Haredim on Israeli television talk shows, in the Keneset, or simply wandering through Israeli malls and public parks (as Tamar Elor and Eran Neriah note in their essay) indicates clearly that isolationism is only part of the picture. Contemporary Israeli Haredi culture struggles to find effective ways of balancing the attractiveness of non-Haredi Israeli culture and the resources that it has to offer with the fear of that culture. The...