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Ultra-Orthodox Judaism

Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, sometimes called Haredi Judaism (especially in Israel), is the most theologically conservative form of Judaism. The Hebrew term "haredi" means "fearful" [of Heaven].

Ultra-Orthodox Jews consider their belief system and religious practices to extend in an unbroken chain back to Moses and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. As a result, they often have a complicated relationship with other Jewish denominations, which they consider to be unjustifiable deviations of Judaism.

Most secular historians claim, however, that the ultra-Orthodox are a relatively modern group, dating back to the Enlightenment and emancipation of Jews in Western and Central Europe. ("Modern" referring to resistance to the influence of these phenomena, and not to religious practice.)

Basic Practices and Beliefs

The most basic belief of the ultra-Orthodox community is that it is the latest link in a chain of Jewish continuity extending back to the giving of the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai. They believe that two guides to laws were given to the Israelites at that time: the first, known as Torah she-bi-khtav, or the "Written Law" is the Jewish Bible[?] as we know it today; the second, known as Torah she-ba'al peh, is the Mishnah and its exposition as relayed by the scholarly and other religious leaders of each generation. The interpretation of the Oral Law is considered as the authoritative reading of the Written Law[?].

Jewish law, known as Halakha, includes codes of behavior applicable to virtually every imaginable circumstance (and many hypothetical ones), which have been pored over and developed throughout the generations in a constantly expanding collection of religious literature based on the Talmud. This corpus of law dictates everything the traditional Jew does from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to sleep. It is first and foremost a legislative body of intricate laws, combined with customs, many of them passed down over the centuries, and an assortment of ingrained behaviors, relayed to successive generations from the moment a child begins to speak. It is also the subject of intense study in religious schools known as yeshivas.

Throughout history, halakha had been a remarkably flexible system, despite its internal rigidity, addressing issues on the basis of circumstance and precedent. Modern critics charge that with the rise of movements that challenge the "Divine" authority of halachah, however, traditional Jews have greater reluctance to change, not only the laws themselves but also other customs and habits. There have been many changes, including: more formal education for women in the early twentieth century and the application of halakha to modern technology. Modern critics charge that as the threat to the traditionalists' continuity increased, the community became more insular and was reluctant to change even such behaviors as dress. The ultra-Orthodox deny that there is any reason to enact such changes.

Today, many members of the ultra-Orthodox community still maintain styles similar to those worn by their ancestors. Their dress includes beards, head coverings, and dark colors for men and skirts and long sleeves for women. During the week men often wear large brimmed black hats, and dark coats. On the Sabbath and holidays Hasidim change into more elegant frock coats (bekeshes) and don wide fur hats (streimels).

Modern inventions have been studied and incorporated into the ever-expanding halakhah[?]. For instance, new rulings guide the observant about the proper use of electricity on the Sabbath and holidays within the parameters of halakhah[?]. Many scholarly tomes have been published and are constantly being reviewed ensuring the maximum co-ordination between electrical appliances and technology with the needs of the religiously observant Jew, with a great range of opinions. Often, as to the applicability of the law in any given situation, the proviso is: "Consult your local Orthdox rabbi or posek, (rabbinical authority)."


For several centuries before the Emancipation of European Jewry, Jews were forced to live in closed communities, where their culture and religious observances persevered, no less because of internal pressure within their own community as because of the failure of the outside world to accept them. In a predominantly Christian society, the only way for Jews to gain social acceptance was to convert, thereby abandoning all ties with one's own family and community. There was very little middle ground, especially in the ghetto, for people to negotiate between the dominant culture and the community.

This began to change with the Enlightenment and calls by European liberals to include the Jewish population in the emerging empires and nation states. For some Jews, it was an opportunity to escape the physical and psychological restraints imposed by the ghetto while benefiting from the enduring sense of community by finding some way of spanning the two worlds. In the words of Enlightenment thinker Moses Mendelssohn, a person could be "a Jew in the house, and a Man in the Street."

Meanwhile, other Jews argued that the division between Jew and gentile had actually protected the Jews' religious and social culture: abandoning such divisions, they argued, would leave to the eventual abandonment of the Jewish religion through assimilation. This latter group insisted on an even more rigid adherence to traditional Jewish law and custom as a means of preventing the disintegration of the community and ensuring the survival of the Jewish people.

The former group argued that Judaism had to "reform" itself in keeping with the social changes taking place around them. They were the forerunners of the Reform movement in Judaism. The latter group assimilated into its surroundings.

Even as the debate raged, the rate of integration and assimilation grew proportionately to the degree of acceptance of the Jewish population by the host societies. In other countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, acceptance (and integration) was much slower in coming. This was especially true in the Pale of Settlement[?], a region along Russia's western border, including most of modern Poland, to which Jewish settlement in Russia was confined. Although Jews here did not win the same official acceptance as they did in Western and Central Europe, that same spirit of change pervaded the air, albeit in a local variant. Since it was impossible to gain acceptance by the dominant culture, Jews turned to a number of different movements that offered hope for a better future. The predominant movement was socialism; other important alternatives were the cultural autonomists and Zionists.

The traditionalists of Eastern Europe, who fought against the new movements emerging in the Jewish community, were the forebears of the contemporary ultra-Orthodox movement.

The Holocaust and Its Aftermath

During this time, the emerging ultra-Orthodox community was engaged in bitter debates with other developing Jewish communities, most notably those that denied the preeminence of religion in Jewish life. Anecdotes abound: in one case, a reformer sent a leading rabbi a kosher cookie shaped like a pig, knowing that that pork was taboo in the Jewish religion. The rabbi responded by sending back a photograph with this note. "Thank you for your gift. You sent me a picture of you, so I am returning the favor in kind with a picture of me."

Ironically, it was the Holocaust that put a temporary end to the infighting between these different Jewish sectors. Until then, Germany had been the major arena for the Enlightenment policies of acceptance and tolerance. Ultra-Orthodox leaders warned that "if the Jews do not make 'kiddush', the gentiles will make 'havdalah'." 'Kiddush' refers to the beginning ceremonies of the Shabbat, which sanctifies the day through joy and sets it apart from the mundane. 'Havdalah' refers to the ending ceremony, which mourns the departing of the holy as the darkness of the new week commences. Both words connote seperation.

Suppressed anti-Semitism among large sectors of the Christian population exploded with a fury against all Jews, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. For a time, in the face of destruction, Jews were able to overlook the differences between them as they faced a common enemy bent on their destruction.

In the following years, however, the survivors were forced to come to grips with the theological implications of the catastrophe that had all but eradicated their communities. While they struggled to rebuild themselves, particularly in America and in Palestine (later Israel), they also attempted to understand why God had allowed such a disaster to befall them.

This was coupled with the emergence of Jewish nationalist socialism, or Zionism, as a widely accepted, secular Jewish philosophy. Until that time, the Zionists were a small but vocal minority among the Jewish population of Eastern Europe. Suddenly, they experienced a tremendous growth, since they seemed to offer a viable response to the anti-Semitism that was still prevalent in Europe. The ultra-Orthodox traditionalists had long rejected Zionism because it was a predominantly anti-religious movement. Now, suddenly, they were in the process of achieving their goal of a Jewish homeland. Meanwhile, unable to return to their old homes in Europe and with quotas on Jewish immigration in America, that Jewish homeland had necessarily become a viable option for ultra-Orthodox Jews. In effect, they were suddenly at the mercy of their persecutors.

It would have been easy for the ultra-Orthodox community to explain the events of the 1930s-1950s as the direct result of most Jews abandoning their religious beliefs. In fact, some did but the vast majority chose a more comforting approach, claiming that the Holocaust was a Divine act beyond human understanding. This allowed them to focus on rebuilding their communities, rather than to obsess on the past. There was, however, one stipulation to this approach: the Eastern European past was idealized as a golden era of Jewish life.

Within a generation, two vibrant new centers of ultra-Orthodox life emerged: one in America, and the other in Israel, with smaller, somewhat less influential communities in England, Canada, France, Belgium, and Australia. As these communities became viable, independent entities, some of the old animosities between them and members of other Jewish groups began to resurface. This time, however, they were sharpened by the sense that those groups' actions often lead to assimilation, thereby threatening the very idea of Jewish continuity. In the post-Holocaust era, that threat is perceived as being more real than ever.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in America Today

While there has been an ultra-Orthodox presence in America since the start of the twentieth century, the various groups began to emerge as distinctive communities only in the 1950s, with the influx of refugees from the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, who quickly filled leadership positions. Before then, the distinctions that are now commonly made between ultra-Orthodox Jews and Modern Orthodoxy were moot at best, dividing lines between the two camps can now be drawn, though it is important to recognize that there is a large area of gray between the two communities to this day. This is largely the result of the unique problems posed to Jewish life by America as a society that advocates religious freedom.

As the tides of Jewish immigrants to the United States in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries became more settled and affluent, they looked to Europe to provide rabbis and other spiritual leaders and teachers for their emerging communities. While some rabbis accepted the challenge, a number of them returned to Europe soon after, frustrated by what they found in the United States. Unlike Eastern Europe, where Jews constituted a distinct minority group, America offered Jews an opportunity to blend into the dominant culture. Many of the new immigrants dropped their traditional customs and laws, both out of choice (America offered them a chance to escape the constraints of religious identity) or not (basic survival dictated that they violate traditional laws like working on the Sabbath just so that their families could eat).

Furthermore, while there was a severe dearth of Jewish educational facilities, the law required that children receive an education, and parents also insisted on an education as a means of getting ahead in life. This frustrated many religious leaders, who were unaccustomed to the freedoms America offered, which often came at the cost of their own authority. Some left; others managed to find a balance between the religious and secular needs of their communities through the Conservative Judaism and later, Modern Orthodoxy. A few began to lay the foundations of the Jewish revival movement known as the Teshuvah Movement[?].

The groups that arrived en masse after the Holocaust found a religious and social infrastructure already in place. While they also feared that their communities might assimilate into the mainstream of American society, they were also able to create more insular communities, devoid of all but the most necessary contacts with the surrounding society. As the communities became more affluent, they were able to assume more and more roles of the city and state for themselves. Today, there exist many autonomous communities in places such as Boro Park, Williamsburg and Crown Heights in Brooklyn, with their own economies, educational systems (yeshivos) welfare institutions and gemachs (free loan societies for everything from money to household items to tools to furniture), medical services (such as the Hatzolo ambulance corps), and security (the Shomrim neighborhood patrol). Some smaller, more isolationist groups actually founded their own small towns, such as New Square, New York and Kryas Joel, New York[?] patterned after the communities they left in Europe. There are still other, smaller communities in Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, etc., which did not have all the established institutions of the dominant community in New York, but even they managed to put many of these institutions in place, thereby preserving their insularity.

With these in place, the communities were able to grow and flourish, both because of an extremely high birthrate (eight or more children is considered normal), and due to outreach programs geared toward other Jews. While some of the most insular communities regarded this as dangerous, since it could introduce unwanted ideas into the community, others, notably the Chabad Lubavich Hasidic movement embraced outreach with a passion, conducting nationwide campaigns to introduce their brand of Judaism to unaffiliated Jews, as well as to Jews of other affiliations. This ignited the Teshuvah Movement[?] that now claims tens of thousands of new adherents to ultra-Orthodox Judaism yearly.

On the other hand, despite all their efforts at insularity, the ultra-Orthodox leadership could not ignore the appeal of American life to their own youth. While certain few concessions to American society were made (for example, some groups allowed some of their children to pursue some higher education under certain circumstances), for the most part the response was to adopt an even more extreme approach to insularity. In effect, anything that might be perceived as threatening the cultural homogeneity of the community was disparaged, including newspapers, radio, and television. Instead, a regimen of total immersion in study was imposed on the younger generation.

Another, even greater threat, was seen in those Jewish groups that attempted to bridge the gap between the religious and secular worlds, since this was also perceived as potentially alluring to the youths of the community, including those who could not perceive of a total break from their Jewish upbringing. Reform, Conservative, and even Modern Orthodox Judaism were seen as potentially threatening to the very continuity of the community.

In the case of Reform, this animosity could be traced to the early nineteenth century in Germany, where Reform and Traditional groups were in open conflict over control of the communities. At that time, both groups attacked each other incessantly in the struggle for hegemony over the Jewish community. Until most recently, the Reform movement felt secure and was not leveling the same attacks on the Orthodox. In many instances, they sought ways to cooperate on common issues, hoping to consume the smaller community. To the ultra-Orthodox, however, they were seen as a steppingstone to assimilation, to be disparaged and discouraged within their own communities. The old rhetorical attacks of two centuries earlier were revived and extended to the Conservative community as well. Their practices, which were not in keeping with Orthodox traditions, were similarly reviled.

For many ultra-Orthodox groups, this created an interesting paradox. On the one hand, Conservative and Reform Jews are classic targets of extensive outreach programs, conducted out of a "deep love and concern" for the "spiritual well-being" of other Jews; on the other hand, their religious practices and often their leaders are denigrated and condemned. It is this paradox that defines the ultra-Orthodox community's relationship to the larger Jewish community to this day.

The problem is even more complicated, when considering their position vis vis the Modern Orthodox community. There is a mutual dependency between the two communities: the Modern Orthodox generally respect and adhere to the religious rulings of the ultra-Orthodox leadership, while the ultra-Orthodox often depend on university trained Modern Orthodox professionals to provide for needs that members of their own community cannot. For example, since there are so few ultra-Orthodox doctors, the community will prefer to go to a Modern Orthodox doctor, since he or she will have a better understanding of the implications of the treatment in Jewish law (halachah). Furthermore, ultra-Orthodox rabbis will consult with Modern Orthodox doctors before issuing rulings on medical procedures (an example of this is on issues relating to the precise moment of death). Nevertheless, the leadership is unwilling to accept the liberalism of their Modern Orthodox colleagues. In some cases, Modern Orthodoxy is perceived as balancing precariously on a very narrow wire between the Jewish and secular worlds: a tenable but, to the ultra-Orthodox, unnecessary position. In other cases, Modern Orthodox leaders are considered to have passed the bounds of religious propriety and condemned for this in especially harsh, biblical terms, since those leaders, unlike Reform and Conservative rabbis, are believed to have the requisite learning and should have known better.

None of these fights, however, no matter how sharp the discourse, has the same intensity as earlier arguments that led to or threatened real schisms among the Jewish people. For instance, with the rise of Hassidism, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna[?] declared that his followers must not marry Jews adhering to the hassidic movement (the ruling was never put into practice). While, as tensions mount between ultra-Orthodox and other Jews, the possibility of such a schism exists, the leadership of all the factions involved have taken care to prevent a complete break, while respecting the desire of the ultra-Orthodox for autonomy and separatism. And there is common ground too, especially in the field of learning. It is not uncommon for ultra-Orthodox scholars to take advantage of the vast library holdings, including rare manuscripts, in the libraries of Yeshiva University (Modern Orthodox), the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), and Hebrew Union College (Reform).

The Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Today

In Israel, home to the most powerful ultra-Orthodox population, the situation is different. There, as in America, the community has adopted a policy of isolationism, but at the same time, it has also struggled for inclusion in dominant society, perceiving itself as the true protector of the country's Jewish nature.

The issues date to the late nineteenth-early twentieth century, with the rise of Zionism. Until the Holocaust, the vast majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews rejected Zionism for a number of reasons. Chief among these was the claim that Jewish political independence could only be obtained through Divine intervention, with the coming of the Messiah. Any attempt to force history was seen as an open rebellion against Judaism (see Neturei Karta for a more complete exposition of this ideology). Ironically, in this the ultra-Orthodox mirrored the Reform community, which, with few exceptions, rejected Zionism, since it called into question the loyalty that Jews should feel toward their native countries.

More importantly, however, was the animosity that the political and cultural Zionism of the time felt toward any manifestation of religion. Spurred on by socialism, they taunted religion as an outdated relic, which should disappear (or, according to some extreme views, even be eradicated) in the face of Jewish nationalism. The ultra-Orthodox point out that even such liberals as Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, at one time contemplated the mass conversion of the Jews to Christianity as a means of eliminating anti-Semitism. As with the nineteenth century Reform Judaism movement in Germany, the result was mutual recriminations, rejection, and harsh verbal attacks. To Zionists, ultra-Orthodox Jews were either "primitives" or "parasites"; to ultra-Orthodox Jews, Zionists were heretics. This kulturkampf still plagues Israeli society today, where animosity between the two groups has even pervaded both their educational systems.

Nevertheless, despite the animosity, it was necessary for the two groups to work out some modus vivendi in the face of a more dangerous enemy, first the Nazis, and then the neighboring Arab states. This was achieved by a division of powers and authority, based on the division that existed during the British Mandate in the country. Known as the "status quo," it granted political authority (such as control over public institutions, the army, etc.) to the Zionists and religious authority (such as control over marriage, divorce, conversions, etc.) to the Orthodox. A compromise worked out by Labor Zionist leader Berl Katznelson even before statehood ensured that public institutions accommodate the Orthodox by observing the Sabbath and providing kosher food.

Another compromise, worked out between prime minister David Ben Gurion and ultra-Orthodox leader Rabbi Abraham Yishayahu Karelitz[?] (known as the Chazon Ish), promised that the government would absolve a group of religious scholars (at that time, 400) from compulsory military service so that they could pursue their studies. In fact, this "status quo" affected virtually all aspects of life, sometimes with bizarre results. For example, there are no buses on the Sabbath in Tel Aviv, though there are in Haifa, since Haifa had a large Arab population at the time of the British Mandate. Finally, the Agudat Israel party representing the ultra-Orthodox population was invited to participate in the governing coalition. It agreed, but did not appoint any ministers since that would have implied full acceptance of the legitimacy of non-religious actions taken by the government. In 2000, the "status quo" was still in place, despite marked changes to the society since independence. In fact, it is one of the major factors that has prevented modern Israel from enacting a written constitution.

Signs of the first challenge to the status quo came in 1977, with the fall of the Labor government that had ruled Israel since independence and the formation of a rightwing coalition under Menachem Begin. Rightwing Revisionist Zionism had always been more acceptable to the ultra-Orthodox, since it did not share the same history of antireligious rhetoric that marked socialist Zionism. Furthermore, Begin really needed the ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset (Israel's unicameral parliament) to form his coalition and offered more power and benefits to their community than what they were accustomed to receiving. They proved to be able politicians, using their new powers to increase their power base, thereby increasing their role even more. From a small group of just four members in the 1977 Knesset, they gradually increased the number of seats they control to 22 (out of 120) in the late 1990s. In effect, they controlled the balance of power between the country's two major parties.

On the other hand, secular Israelis (Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism which have always had a negligible presence in Israel), began questioning whether a "status quo" based on the conditions of the 1940s and 1950 was still relevant in the 1980s and 1990s. They challenged Orthodox control of personal affairs such as marriage and divorce, resented the lack of entertainment and transportation options on the Sabbath (then the country's only day of rest), and questioned whether the burden of military service was being shared equally, since the 400 scholars, who originally benefited from the exemption, had grown to 32,000. Finally, the Progressive (Reform) and Masorti (Conservative) communities, though still minuscule, began to exert themselves as a reasonable alternative to the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on religious power for secular Jews.

No one was happy with the "status quo," but while the Orthodox used their new-found political force to attempt to extend religious control, the non-Orthodox sought to reduce or even eliminate it.

This situation was exacerbated still further by the rise of a strong Sephardic (Jews of North African and Middle Eastern descent) population with political aspirations of its own. Traditionally, the political elite in Israel consisted of European Jews, who founded the state. They were joined in the 1950 by entire communities of North African and Middle Eastern Jews (especially from Morocco, Iraq, Tunisia, Yemen, etc.), who were kept marginalized and encouraged (in some cases, even forced) to forego their traditional cultures for the dominant European one. There were protests, including a small but vocal "Black Panther" movement among unemployed Sephardic youth in the early 1970s, but the most effective voice for empowerment came from a small ultra-Orthodox party named Shas[?], which split off from Agudat Yisrael in the early 1980s. Waving Sephardic disenfranchisement as its banner, it gained 17 of the 22 ultra-Orthodox seats in the Knesset. Taking the attitude that restoring Sephardic pride entails restoring Sephardic religious observance, Shas has created devoted cadres of newly religious and semi-religious men and women with the zeal of neophytes and an animosity toward the country's European political establishment and occasionally, by extension, to all things Western. Furthermore, the movement has gained unflinching obedience in its supporters to the teachings of it spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef[?]. At the same time, the movement has also earned the wrath of many secular Israelis, who compare it to a local, Jewish manifestation of Khomeinism[?].

Some observers of Israeli society have speculated that without the persistent threat from outside, the country would be torn apart by a civil war of its own. While this is debatable, the fact remains that both sides, ultra-Orthodox and non-Orthodox are attempting to change the existing "status quo" and that this is perceived as an infringement by one group on the rights of the other. What further complicates the situation is that both political blocks—right and left—are willing and even eager to make concessions to the ultra-Orthodox parties in order to advance their own agendas regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thus empowered, the ultra-Orthodox leadership will vehemently oppose any steps that threaten the control that they already have.

The chief antagonist of the ultra-Orthodox has been the Supreme Court, which, in ruling after ruling, limited the power of ultra-Orthodox community by granting equal powers to competing bodies. The Chief Justice has gone so far as describing the ultra-Orthodox as cockroaches. The most notable case of this is the "Who Is a Jew?" case, in which the Supreme Court Ruled that the Ministry of the Interior (then controlled by Shas) must recognize Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism. More recently, even the Orthodox Zionist establishment has come under attack by them, since it often allies itself with the ultra-Orthodox in matters of control of municipal and national religious councils. In many instances, the ultra-Orthodox have responded to these and other threats angrily, verbally assaulting those who challenge their hegemony. At the same time, they recognize the animosity many secular Israelis feel toward them and have embarked on various public relations campaigns to improve their image among the general public. At the same time, they are firmly entrenched in their seats of power, with both blocks doing everything they can to gain their support.

To be continued.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups include:

  • Agudath HaRabonim - The Union of Orthodox Rabbis Of The United States and Canada, 235 East Broadway, New York, NY 10002

Prof. Eli Segal's "Varieties of Orthodox Judaism" website describes the many forms of Orthodoxy. Varieties of Orthodox Judaism (http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/363_Transp/08_Orthodoxy)

See also: Judaism -- Orthodox Judaism -- Jews -- Religious pluralism -- Ultra-Orthodox Judaism/hatespeech towards other Jews --Agudath Israel of America -- Chabad Lubavitch --Hasidic Judaism

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