Gideon Aran: Paradoxes Of Ultra-Orthodox Success

As Haredim testify proudly, the peak of their many achievements has been the construction of a ‘Torah world’: the realization of the ideal of yeshiva study. During the eighties and nineties of the last century, the Haredim were aptly defined as a ‘learning community’, where almost all men are full time students at Torah academies.

Written By Prof. Gideon Aran

Haredim portray this success as the revival of a golden age that disappeared. But just as there is only a partial and distorted historical reasoning that supports the Haredi claim to be the true heirs and authentic representatives of traditional Judaism, so too, there is hardly any reliable historical evidence that affirms their image as restorers of previous standards of Torah scholarship that have declined. The society of learners, in particular, is an unprecedented phenomenon.

For hundreds and thousands of years, the study of the Torah was an ideal, but no society ever came close to completely fulfilling it. While the yeshiva life was the aim of many, and was a source of authority and object of admiration for almost all, in practice, only very few could attain it. Just a small elite group ensconced itself in the world of the yeshiva, which was wholly sacred, exempted from the trials of the profane, while the rest of the traditional community lived their daily lives as laymen (Soloveitchik, 1994a). There was a splitting, or better, stratification, between a near-caste of Torah scholars, on the one hand, and merchants, craftsmen, beggars and other householders, on the other. While the former provided spiritual leadership, inspiration and legitimization to the community, the latter supported themselves and the select group who spent their days in learning, year after year. In this division of labor between the two sectors, the learners fulfilled a primarily symbolic function, intellectual and ritual, while the others took care of the other functions essential for the community, like security, economy, negotiation of relations with the sovereign powers and more.

 “Israelization” of the Haredi public

As expected, the result of the present devotion of the entire group to a life of Torah is an inward-orientation, isolation and extremism. But another, less expected outcome seems to be developing: the rise of a society of learners results in the opening of the Haredi society, its rapprochement with the secular state and its secular citizens, and a certain moderation. Paradoxically, along with the radicalization of Haredi society, which leads to increasingly anti-Israeli positions, there are also signs of a turning towards Israelis and Israel . Current authorities in Haredi society are aware of the “Israelization” of the Haredi public which they perceive as threatening the integrity of the community.

Taken from “Body, Violence and Fundamentalism: The Case of Jewish Ultra-Orthodoxy”, By Gideon Aran.

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