Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

20 Tammuz 5761 - July 11, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
"Chareidi" -- A Label or a Way of Life?

by Nosson Zeev Grossman

The last few generations have provided us with a whole array of terms and concepts, which attempt to define the extent of religious observance of a member of the Jewish nation. In the past there was an obvious distinction between a Jew and non-Jew, the Jewish and non-Jewish nations, and an observant and nonobservant Jew, but in recent times we have witnessed the birth of a plethora of new definitions.

The confusion started when secular inciters, the Zionist and Haskalah leaders initiated the deceitful concept of the "new Jew." Once their ideas took root amongst the masses, the concept of a "Jew" was no longer synonymous with religious observance and a separation from non-Jewish culture. That was why the need arose for the concept of the "religious Jew," an unfortunate term in view of the fact that every Jewish person is meant to be observant. During the next stage, the concept "religious" gave birth to various sub-categories, such as "national-religious," "Torah nationalists" (Torani leumi), "chareidi," "chareidi leumi" and so on.

Two news items published recently, which are indicative of our generation's way of thinking, made me reflect about the term and concept "chareidi," its history, its connotations nowadays, and what it should mean.

A recent edition of the NRP's mouthpiece Hatsofe contained a report of a spontaneous protest of national- religious youngsters studying in yeshivot hesder. They warned that they would refuse to be drafted to the army because of tznius and other halachic problems involved in army service. Although these circles seem to have successfully "adapted" themselves to the unsuitable atmosphere (to put it mildly) in the army, which is in total opposition to an observant Jew's lifestyle, these youngsters say that matters have currently deteriorated to a point which even they can no longer tolerate.

If they would engage in some appropriate introspection, they might realize that the source of this ongoing problem lies in two distorted concepts, which they have been brandishing for decades: "national-religious" and "hesder yeshiva."

Rav Elchonon Wassermann zt"l Hy"d already wrote about the first concept in his "Ikvesa Demeshicha:" "In the course of time the nationalist movement gave birth to an offshoot movement calling itself `national-religious.' The name proves that the term `religious' is not enough, since it has to be complemented by the description `nationalist.' This term itself constitutes a denial of one of the basic tenets of faith. The posuk says that `Hashem's Torah is perfect,' it is not missing anything and is flawless. We were warned not to `add' and that `whoever adds, derogates.' If the nationalistic [Zionist] idea is avoda zora, then the national-religious philosophy is avodoh zora beshituf (idol worship together with faith)."

Similarly, the whole idea of the hesder yeshiva also distorts the hallowed concept of the yeshiva in Judaism. The yeshiva is a holy place of study where every minute and all one's efforts and aspirations are dedicated solely to growth in Torah and yiras Shomayim and the perfection of character traits. The yeshiva is a workshop of Torah -- and Torah only. Any other external goal poisons the atmosphere of the yeshiva. The number of hours added to the curriculum and the religiosity of the secular teaching staff cannot alter the fundamental fact that any addition nullifies the whole, "whoever adds, derogates."

The national-religious youngsters who chose this path are making a double mistake. First, by agreeing to devote their youth, the most precious years of their life, to military service, in preference to Torah study. In addition, the delusion that they could observe a religious lifestyle in the hostile army environment was shattered in the face of reality.

Any religious Jew who has ever been inside an army camp knows how difficult life is in such a place for an observant Jew. We know that this problem is not a new one. The Israeli army was from the outset meant to be like this. The first Prime Minister declared that the army of the new State would be a "melting pot" for the creation of a uniform Israeli identity detached from the traditions of our ancestors. Anyone drafted was influenced (or pressured) to assimilate into this new secular nation. The army was to play a key role in the establishment of the new homogeneous Israeli.

Our gedolim past and present warned us that the Zionist venture and its various offshoots were designed to uproot religion and create the model of a "new Jew," but all those who deluded themselves into thinking that they could create an original national-religious Jew, that they could break the barrel and still keep the wine, are today faced with unbearable conflicts, even from their perspective.

We have opened with a short description and topical example of the continuous evolution of the concepts "religious" and "national-religious," but we should also look inside our own camp and consider how the terms "chareidi and "the chareidi public" are used nowadays. In the past these terms were defined in a unique and unequivocal way.

Certain circles have recently taken the initiative of negotiating with the Communications Minister regarding the establishment of a "chareidi" television station. These people seem totally unaware of the paradox involved in this initiative. They justify their actions in all seriousness by stating that they would ensure that the "kosher" content of such a station would enable chareidi families to allow this machine into their homes and enjoy it in "a permitted fashion." (We may assume that as with similar cases in the past they will publish specious denials, but this is not the first time that this idea has arisen, the only difference being that this time the Communications Minister decided to publicize the contents of an understanding reached between the parties).

We already have "chareidi high schools" which the gedolim warned us against, about a year ago someone touted the idea of a "chareidi university" and "colleges in a chareidi environment" as well as other ideas in the same direction.

This new initiative of a "chareidi television channel" is the latest in a long line of ideas in the entertainment and "leisure" field with which we have been inundated such as "chassidic music" concerts at which "Chassidic pop" idols appear to the delight of their adoring fans.

Any chareidi Jew who still has a feeling for the concept must ask himself about its real meaning. If this process will continue, we will be left to wonder what actually defines a person as "chareidi." Is it sufficient just to wear the external garb?

We can imagine the following scenario, which is likely to take place within a few years if the tendencies of the "new chareidism" continue to gather pace.

Picture the average chareidi family getting together to celebrate the end of the academic year. The married son, an avreich proudly displays his academic degree obtained through a "chareidi college" program. The oldest daughter has an academic degree from a "chareidi university" (there is a total separation between men and women). The younger son has graduated from the chareidi high school (pictures of gedolim adorn the corridor walls).

The whole family wants to go out to celebrate together. The younger children moan that they will miss their favorite program on that evening's chareidi TV station. The television is in the middle of the living room next to the seforim cabinet. "Don't worry," their older brothers reassure them, "Tonight it's bein hazmanim and we have plenty of choices. The chareidi magazines tell us that thanks to the initiative of some chareidi MKs and ministers, a new cultural center has opened up in the center of town and tonight there are three different performances in each of the halls. We can choose between a chassidic pop concert, a chareidi theatrical performance and chareidi cinema. Everything having been censored in advance and received the approval of the rabbonim!"

And so the whole family goes out to celebrate, the men dressed in black suits and hats, of course. On the way, the youngest boy notices another boy his age wearing a knitted yarmulke with a pretty butterfly design. The boy screams that he also wants such a yarmulke instead of his dull black one. His parents tell him off: "How could you even think of such a thing, do you think that we are Mizrochnikim?"

This would be very amusing were it not so sad. The term "chareidi" in the fringes of our camp is rapidly becoming a mere label, an external nonbinding concept. At the end of this process the chareidi public may end up being perceived as just another group within the religious sector, whose Orthodoxy consists of a distinctive uniform.

We must not forget that the term "chareidi" started off as a definition of a unique type of Jew, who sought to distinguish between the truly observant and those whose mitzva observance was less than complete. This became necessary when it was realized that the term "religious public" also included large population sectors who "make do" with mitzva observance on just a basic level and just in order to get by, to fulfill their duties. These people subscribe to values imported from the outside, and do not want to be deprived of anything.

The editor of a "chareidi" magazine talked about this last year in an interview with a media and advertising periodical. He explained that there was a fundamental difference between the conventional chareidi press, such as Yated Ne'eman, and his publication: "They prohibit everything. As far as we are concerned, whatever is not forbidden explicitly is permitted!"

The chareidi Jew lives in a totally different atmosphere, in a different world. This finds expression not only in his scrupulous observance of mitzvos and halachic hiddurim, but also in the formation of a noble inner world where all one's aspirations are concentrated and centered on a desire for Torah and avodas Hashem. Of course not everybody reaches perfection and many are far removed from it in their personal spiritual lives, but even if everybody is on a different level, the goal to be reached is clear. There is a consensus about a person's ideal internal character which does not allow for the intrusion of foreign ideas from the outside.

The chareidi Jew goes out of his way to observe mitzvos at the highest possible standard. He does not consider them to be a yoke around his neck and he will certainly not try to exempt himself from them by relying on dubious heteirim.

The chareidi Jew puts up a clear barrier between himself and the secular street. He will scorn the worship of academic degrees. The chareidi Jew sees the dedication of life to Torah as a supreme ideal to which he aspires and in the light of which he educates his children. If he must work he will consider this an unavoidable necessity, but he will realize that the avreich learning in kollel is on a higher level than he.

The chareidi community does not encourage a "leisure culture," a concept stemming from the secular world where people "kill" time, and it will not adopt secular forms of entertainment with a "hechsher."

We could cite further examples to illustrate this basic point: the chareidi Jew lives in a totally different internal world, not only far removed from that of our straying secular brethren, but also far from the norms of those who define themselves as "just religious" (as opposed to chareidi or "ultra- Orthodox"), one of the central points of difference being our absolute isolation from foreign values and the aspirations of society at large.

How upsetting it has been over the past few years to witness the development of a new "charedism" whose sole connection at the end of the day with the original product is the black yarmulke.

It is possible that this phenomenon occurred partly because among those who are aroused to return to their roots are some who have only taken the preliminary steps towards full mitzvah observance, but maintain strong ties to the secular world.

Some have joined the Torah world with their whole inner being, and not just with external features, dip their whole selves, their minds and hearts, into the mikveh of the yeshivas, and absorb and internalize the values and aspirations of a ben Torah.

However, there are many who have not reached this level and are still at the early stages. As a first step, they don the external garb. They may have a black yarmulke on their heads, but inside the head itself various feelings and aspirations are still to be found, which are far removed from the Torah world. The newly observant, who have only recently been liberated from the fetters of secularism, are not capable of distinguishing between different shades of religiosity. They cannot be blamed for this, and we cannot expect a person to change his inner concepts and aspirations suddenly and drastically over a short period of time.

These naive Jews see nothing wrong in secular ideas in a chareidi wrapping. They will ask you to cite the exact section in the Shulchan Oruch which forbids their ideas, and will wonder aloud what is so terrible about coming up with "permissible solutions" to prevent their families from straying to foreign pastures.

For a real chareidi Jew these questions do not arise in the first place, but for them the answers are not convincing.

This may be the background and explanation for all these problematic phenomena which have been imported into the fringes of chareidi society. Alternatively, they may be the result of the difficult and incessant temptations which the contemporary chareidi Jew faces in dealing with an arrogant secularism. Anyone who has not internalized from his youth the attitude of, "And his heart was lifted up in the ways of Hashem," is likely to feel a sense of inferiority ("And we were in their eyes as grasshoppers") upon being confronted with the glittering world outside. As a result, this person will want to introduce elements from the outside world into the chareidi setting albeit with a "hechsher."

Whatever the reasons for them, we cannot ignore these trends and, unfortunately, secular circles have already noticed what is happening, deriving much pride and satisfaction from this. Articles, investigations and books are filled with descriptions of the "new chareidim" who represent a new type of ultra-Orthodoxy whose views do not derive exclusively from the Torah world with its "extreme" absolute guidelines. This movement, they report, is developing at the fringes of chareidi society, to the dismay of the gedolim.

Incidentally, we need not be amazed about surveys published from time to time by public opinion institutes with a high percentage of "chareidi interviewees," which contain strange answers about hashkofoh, lifestyle matters and so on. If the interviewer defines anyone with a black yarmulke as "chareidi" we need not be surprised by the far- reaching conclusions reached in some of these reports.

Perhaps we have reached the stage where a further linguistic segregation is called for. When secularists sought to distort the concept of a Jew, the observant started to define themselves as the "religious public." When the nationalist religious and compromising circles misused the term "religious," the term "chareidi" started to be used.

Now that we have "new chareidim," which new definition can we escape to? Perhaps we should stick to "chareidi" without any supplements such as "new." Then again, maybe it would be better if we defined ourselves as the "old-fashioned" chareidim or even the "obsolete" chareidim!

Chazal say that when Ruth wanted to convert and Naomi started to explain the main aspects of Torah and mitzvah observance to her, the first thing she said was, "Jewish girls are not used to frequenting theaters and circuses" (to which Ruth replied, "I shall go wherever you go").

Why did Naomi choose to warn her about this point specifically, which is not even a deOraisa prohibition on the face of it?

Rav Yosef Lipovitch zt"l explains in Nachalas Yosef that Naomi is coming to teach us that Judaism is not just a collection of laws, customs and prohibitions. Our whole outlook, all our basic concepts are fundamentally different from the thought processes of the non-Jewish world. That was why Naomi chose to stress this point, which demonstrates the profound difference between the Jewish weltanschauung and that of the non-Jewish world, as it finds expression in everyday life.

That was how the difference between the Jew's and the non- Jew's internal worlds used to be perceived in previous generations. In time, this analysis was restricted to comparing the inner worlds of the secular and the religious Jew. At a later stage still, when sections of the religious public sought to draw closer to outside influences, it was felt necessary to distinguish between "religious" and "chareidi."

Now that the word "chareidi" has also become a mere "label" and nonbinding concept, and has lost its uniqueness, even serving as a decoration for peculiar ideas, where do we go from here?

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