The tragic ultra-Orthodox sub-culture

Judaism is not, never has been monolithic, but misconception within haredi community of rich variety of options may keep some members locked in way of life that does not speak to them

While in Israel a couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet with a group of yeshiva students from both hassidic and non-hassidic backgrounds. In the course of the conversation one of the students described what has become known as the haredi sub-culture. This is the phenomenon of haredi men and women who go through the motions of Orthodox life but privately do not believe in its tenets.


The practical application of this is that they dress with the haredi garb, send their kids to Orthodox schools and attend synagogue regularly. But simultaneously they privately live a hedonistic life where they may not eat kosher food; they visit night clubs and partake in a secular lifestyle. "There are even websites dedicated to this type of lifestyle," one of the students told me as he described websites replete with videos, pictures and blogs.


The first word that came to mind after hearing this was: hypocrites. But upon reflection I recognized that these are not hypocrites at all. These are just individuals who have found the way religion has been presented to them to lack meaning for their lives. However, leaving the culture they were brought up in entirely is not something they have the desire or strength to follow through on.


The problem is that many yeshivot only teach their particular interpretation of Judaism and do not expose students to other ways of thinking and acting. Judaism is thus presented as monolithic. Any other interpretation is seen as inferior at best and invalid at worst. This approach often leaves the individual confused and unfulfilled. Ultimately one approach never fits all people. Some are more spiritual and others more cerebral.


Social pressure and community tradition

From Saadia Gaon in the 800s to Maimonides in the 1100s to Hasidism in the modern age Jewish sages have tried to create an all encompassing system that explains and gives meaning to all of the rituals and practices. Even contemporary religious leaders such as Joseph B. Soloveitchik have tried to give contemporary relevance to a fully observant life. Thanks to all of this effort there is a rich variety of explanations for why one should keep the tradition in its entirety both on the inside and on the outside. Thus, Judaism is not and has never been monolithic. There are many different schools of thought and explanations in almost every area from philosophy, to theology to reasons for observance and how to practice.


Having ultra-Orthodox communities that contain many members who act in accordance with the tradition on the outside but privately find it meaningless is not sustainable in the long term. Social pressure and community tradition can only keep the lid on things for so long. The internet is a major outlet that allows frustrated individuals within the haredi community to escape anonymously. And the sheer amount of venting in English and in Hebrew is staggering.


It is possible that this problem has existed for a long time but the internet has just made it much more public. There is something that can be done: make the diversity within Jewish thought and literature more available to more people. In the first generation of the Hassidic movement people would travel form one Hasidic Master to another to find the teacher that best fit their spiritual personality. Today, however, a person is born into a sect of Orthodoxy and is expected to stay within it for their entire life, whether it fits or not is deemed irrelevant.


Judaism is full of immense meaning and intellectual insights and wisdom. As such there are different approaches that fit different characters and personalities. The sooner the haredi community acknowledges this to their own members the quicker it will be able to do away with its tragic sub-culture.


Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts


פרסום ראשון: 12.24.09, 07:27
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