Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Is Strict Orthodoxy Strict?

Much of the confusion about Ultra- Orthodoxy stems from the fact that the category is too thick and should be further subdivided. Even though all we are doing is arm chair pop sociology, there is still some need in trying to get clear on what we are talking about. I prefer a sociology that uses three categories: Charedim, Strict Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy (MO). Strict Orthodoxy is less extreme than Charedim but more extreme than MO. In Israel, they refer to Ultra-Orthodox, as Charedim and the term has carried over to the English-speaking world.

In my mind, Strict Orthodoxy is a fellow traveler of the Charedim, but not a full member of the group. The main distinction is whether someone goes out into the world or not. Charedim, generally, have no serious interface with the secular world. They either sit and learn or are engaged in some Jewish profession, e.g. a teacher at a yeshiva. Even when they have stores or businesses, their relationship with the rest of the Jewish world and the non-Jewish world is very superficial and formal. Not so Strict Orthodox, they go out into the world, they work in the Midtowns and the Uptowns of America, in banks and law firms, and brokerage houses. They interface in a serious way with secular America and they have to find a way to cope. They also have an interest, unlike their charedi co-religionists, in movies, plays and popular culture. They are literally people that dance at two weddings. During the week they live in one world; on Shabbus, in a totally different world. One face at home, a somewhat different face at work. The surprising thing is that it can be done. There are tens of thousands of Jews who learn at the kolel at night and flourish in the world of professions by day. It takes effort, and it certainly has its difficulties and special problems, but it can be done.

Because they feel this deep connection to the charedi world, the Strict Orthodox do many things to differentiate themselves from the Modern Orthodox. For one thing, they support, sometimes with big bucks, charedi institutions that are far removed from their sensibilities. Second, they dress the part. No knitted yarmulkes for these guys. It’s black, black, black, all the way. Third, they frequently daven in (and are members of) the same shuls as Charedim. The pulpit rabbi of these shuls is almost always charedi. It is not uncommon that a rabbinical charedi family and a rich bourgeois Strict Orthodox family find it in their interest to intermarry. The Strict Orthodox all more or less belong to or identify with the Agudah; (the political party Adudath Israel). MO are religious Zionists and never belong to Agudah, a party that has ambivalent attitudes towards Zionism.

The Strict Orthodox have created a subculture and society of their own. They send their children to certain specific yeshivot and bais yakovs (the girl’s yeshivot) both here, in America, and in Israel. It has become customary for middle and upper middle class Strict Orthodox girls to go for a year to Israel before returning to America for college and marriage. Not any old school will do. The list of acceptable ‘finishing schools’ is very circumscribed; the modern ones are strictly verboten. In their minds, and in the minds of all other Orthodox Jews, they are different than the MO. In the end, we are talking three different social sets, Charedim, Strict Orthodox and MO. Just like with country clubs, there could be three clubs all Jewish, but very different…one more formal and German, one more East European and relaxed, and one more trendy and glamorous. If and when you join a country club, it’s important to know who you are. Same for Orthodoxy.

I think when Orthodoxy is attacked in this ongoing competitive cultural conflict, Strict Orthodoxy is frequently conflated with Charedim. In my blogs I have been concerned with defending Strict Orthodoxy. I really am not sufficiently familiar with the inner world of Monsey Vishnitz or the circle around Rabbi Kanievsky in Bnei Brak to cite just two examples. It may be true that in some of these groups, the participants are really 18th century people with no knowledge of the world, living in a dream world all their own. Maybe. I would say however that the bulk of charedi people, certainly in America, have some real knowledge how the world looks and how to function effectively in the modern world.

I think it’s a serious and very common empirical mistake for MO to condescend and characterize Strict Orthodox people as naïve or docile or fanatic or fundamentalist. I believe the same is true for some, maybe not all, charedi people. It has been my personal experience that Strict Orthodox people are as sophisticated and knowledgeable as Modern Orthodox, and in many cases more knowledgeable and more sophisticated. In fact in Strict Orthodox circles one often hears condescending remarks about the naiveté of ‘American’ born MO Jews. ’’Not our crowd’’ is the common refrain. I find the mutual condescension an enjoyable and ironic feature of Orthodox life.

2 Comments:

At 9:34 PM, Anonymous Zev Barzellai said...

How sad that as we grow older we seem to turn to religion as a be all or end all solution to our problems. Who cares that there are one, two, or three divisions in Orthodoxy? Who cares about the isolated settlers of Bnai Brak other than those in Bnai Brak and their families in hutz L'aretz sending money to support their indolence and study of Torah? Are these the people responsible for the continuation of the Jewish People? I think not. I think the ones responsible for our survival are the boys who are walking back from battle in Lebanon. They are our saviors, for they have defended our land and our people, not a bunch of black clad prayer driven men who see outsiders as no different than those of Hamas or Hezbollah. In his infinite wisdom G-d has made us a mixture of people from many lands who have gathered in this small country surrounded by an enemy bent on our destruction. Make no mistake, they all want us dead. We have no friends but ourselves. We must rely on each other for as we learned from 1933 to 1945, nobody will come to help us. Nobody.
So stop worrying about 3 classes of orthodoxy, and the baseball card of Kofax and even Hank Greenberg if you ever get one. Learn to shoot a gun and come to Kibbutz and stand guard the next time another war starts on one of the borders. You can debate your philosophies with your chaver in the trench next to you.
Zev Barzellai.

 
At 2:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

very keen observation

you're right that as a group they view the MO as naive.

 

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