Commentary Magazine

Piety and Power, by David Landau; Defenders of the Faith, by Samuel Heilman; Hasidic People, byJerome R. Mintz


Piety and Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism.
by David Landau.
Farrar Straus Giroux. 358 pp. $27.50.

Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry.
by Samuel Heilman.
Schocken. 394 Pp. $27.50.

Hasidic People: A Place in the New World.
by Jerome R. Mintz.
Harvard. 434 pp. $45.00.

When Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, decided to exempt his young country’s few ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from military service, the gesture was considered a minor concession to a tiny, fragile group on the brink of extinction, the last relics of the fossilized Judaism of Eastern Europe. But Ben-Gurion turned out to be a poor prophet. Far from disappearing, the ultra-Orthodox Jews, known in Hebrew as “haredim” (literally, “tremblers,” from Isaiah 66:5, “Listen to the Word of God, all ye who tremble at His word”), have thrived and are currently enjoying the fruits of a post-Holocaust baby boom. Today, thanks to the naive generosity of Israel’s founders, tens of thousands of young men and women in Israel take full advantage of the draft exemptions still accorded to religious seminary students, to the consternation and resentment of most Israelis whose sons and daughters do serve in defense of their country.

The remarkable and unexpected resurgence of Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy, both in Israel and North America, is a matter of both fascination and concern to many Jews today and has occasioned a growing literature, including these three books. Before looking at them, it would be useful to note a number of important distinctions.

First of all, despite the impressive increase in their ranks and influence, the haredim remain a small minority-within-a-minority of the Israeli and American Jewish communities. The ultra-Orthodox account for only one-third of all Orthodox Jews, who in turn represent less than 10 percent of world Jewry. Although precise figures are hard to come by, not least because Orthodox Judaism forbids census-taking, it is estimated that, despite their rising profile and high birth rate, Israel’s haredi population just barely exceeds 100,000 souls.

Secondly, the world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism is itself neither monolithic nor uncomplicated. There are, for instance, ultra-Orthodox Israelis, including some members of the highly influential Lubavitch hasidic sect, whose sons are drafted. (Virtually no Orthodox girls are allowed to enter the army.) And among mainstream, non-haredi Orthodox Israelis, a great many are passionate Zionists who join fully and enthusiastically in their country’s defense. The modern Orthodox Zionist movement, known as Mizrachi, has even established a network of unique yeshivas (known in Hebrew as “hesder,” or “special-arrangement,” yeshivas) which offer a joint program of army service and advanced talmudic studies.

Still, the haredim in Israel do constitute a highly visible group, physically on account of their distinctive dress, socially and politically because of their passionately held religious convictions. If, for most visitors to the “holy land,” they may be something of an exotic tourist attraction, for Western Jews they are also something more: a nostalgic source of comfort and an assurance that, despite their own abandonment of the ways of their East European progenitors, the pristine Jewish spiritual past has managed to survive in the lives of these pious few.

In Piety and Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism, David Landau, who spent twenty years covering Israel’s religious scene for the Jerusalem Post, paints a vivid and perceptive—and unsettling—picture of the life of this community in Israel. The Orthodox Jewish world described by Landau has taken a sharp theological right turn, and this trend, along with a dramatic rise in numbers (thanks mostly to the haredi rejection of birth control), has produced a community now experiencing a growing awareness of its own political power. But despite its growth and political advancement, this rising religious minority remains not only fundamentally alienated from but actively hostile to majority values and culture.

The haredim perceive Zionism and the secular Jewish state which it produced as threats to traditional Judaism. As might be expected of a group claiming possession of transcendent and infallible truth, haredi thinking seems little affected by political and social reality. Although ultra-Orthodox Judaism thrives today in Israel like nowhere else, the haredim refuse to give any credit, let alone acknowledge any debt, to the mostly secular Jews who built the state in which they found refuge after the Holocaust, and who continue to defend it.

Even as they reject Zionist political ideology, however, the haredim have apparently learned much of a practical nature from the Jewish reentry into the world of politics which Zionism pioneered. Particularly in the last two decades, Israel’s small but influential Orthodox political parties have mastered the art of parliamentary politics, often holding the country’s fragile coalition governments hostage to their demands for increased subsidies of yeshivas and greater public enforcement of the Sabbath and Jewish dietary observances.

In a chapter aptly named “Zionist Nightmare,” Landau describes the stranglehold of the haredim on the Knesset, perhaps best symbolized by the political clout wielded by ninety-four-year-old Rabbi Eliezer Menahem Shach, the spiritual leader of the tiny Torah Flag party. The spectacle of an anti-Zionist rabbi controlling the destiny of a country to which he holds no allegiance is yet another source of the deepening resentment of the haredim on the part of secular Israelis and, it needs to be added, on the part of many religiously observant Israelis as well.

The enduring hostility of these haredim to the state which has been their refuge and breeding ground is a deeply troubling phenomenon. On another level, though, it is hard not to admire the tenacious survival of this community, a segment of Jewry which was almost completely annihilated during the Holocaust. Moreover, this is probably the only faction of world Jewry which has not been thrown into a veritable panic by the high rates of assimilation and intermarriage which are today decimating the non-Orthodox Jewish world.



As the sociologist Samuel Heilman notes in Defenders of the Faith—an anthropological foray into Jerusalem’s most extreme and hermetic Orthodox sects—isolation from prewar European culture often earmarked the haredim for even greater destruction than that which befell other Jews:

Had they been willing to integrate linguistically into the societies in which they found themselves instead of continuing to speak only their Yiddish, had they been more robust instead of the pale yeshiva boys who sat over books, had they been willing to change their appearance and style in line with general European culture, they might have been able to hide more easily among the Gentile population and perhaps survive in greater numbers.

But while their physical and linguistic distinctiveness may have rendered the haredim more vulnerable to their Nazi oppressors, their refusal to accommodate the wider culture has also been the cause of their remarkable postwar recovery. A particularly moving example is the community of Belzer Hasidim, a sect which thrived for just over a century in the Galician region of Poland. Even more vociferously than other ultra-Orthodox groups in Poland, the Belzers resisted emancipation and were particularly opposed to Zionism on the ground that a reestablished Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel must await the coming of the Messiah. In fact, the previous Belzer rebbe (or grand rabbi), Aharon Rokeach, absolutely forbade his followers to emigrate—either to America, which he saw as a land of religious anarchy and assimilation, or to Palestine, whose sanctity had become tainted by the Zionist enterprise.

The rebbe‘s consistent advice to his Hasidim in the 1930’s (similar advice was dispensed by dozens of other rebbes) turned out to be a lethal miscalculation. Although he himself did manage at the last minute to escape the Nazis—ironically enough, on a Zionist-sponsored transport of Jews to Palestine—the vast majority of his followers were annihilated, mostly at Auschwitz.

But today, the community has experienced a phenomenal renaissance, captured by Heilman in his account of the bar-mitzvah celebrations of the only son of the current Belzer rebbe. Thousands of Hasidim crowded the sect’s Jerusalem headquarters to witness the coming-of-age of the heir-apparent. As Heilman notes, the festivities marked more than a religious rite of passage: “This was not simply a celebration of survival; it was a triumph over the Holocaust. . . . Above all else, even as they seemed to be honoring the rebbe and his son, the Belzers were celebrating themselves.”

But have the haredim learned anything from their historical experience? David Landau would say no: their survivalism appears often to be purely instinctive, and they certainly do not acknowledge the catastrophic political judgments of their rabbis in prewar Europe. This is perhaps not so surprising: there are, after all, good theological reasons for the refusal to attend to the implications of history. At the very core of the haredi credo is an insistence on the transcendence and immutability of their faith and the impeccable wisdom of their sages. This is particularly true of the Hasidim, whose grand rabbis are believed to be directly guided by an infallible “holy spirit.” Not only can the haredim admit no mistake on the part of their rabbis, they take special pride in their own alleged impermeability to historical change.

I say “alleged” because, naturally enough, their encounter with modernity has transformed many aspects of their lives. In the course of his “expeditions,” Heilman found that in a community where photographs were once considered graven images, and hence a violation of the second of the Ten Commandments, cameras and video recorders are now de rigueur at all public occasions (except, of course, on the Sabbath). Regarding the surprising inroads of modernity into a sect which prides itself on its immunity to the modern world, he observes:

. . . wherever ideology was silent, Belz had found a way to fill the ideological vacuum with the up-to-date: the newest cars, the most modern video recorders on which to photograph the proceedings, the highest-quality recording tape, the newest hightech microphones, up-to-date halogen lamps, and (as I would later discover in Belz homes) personal computers, modern furniture and decor, and all else that was current to support their tribal activity in the most up-to-date way.



If modernity has left its mark on the haredi camp in Israel, it has made even deeper inroads into the ultra-Orthodox community in America. In Jerome Mintz’s Hasidic People: A Place in the New World, we encounter Hasidim who have had to adapt to the frenetic and profane life of the world’s most cosmopolitan—and hence most spiritually subversive—city. While the Hasidim of Israel may have relaxed the laws prohibiting “graven images” by purchasing cameras and video recorders, the Hasidim of New York have built fortunes by selling them: the most famous example being 47th Street Photo, the hasidic-owned electronics giant.

Politically, too, the ultra-Orthodox have made their accommodations to the “new world.” Their oppressed ancestors in Eastern Europe may have maintained a deliberate quietism amid horrible persecutions, but American Hasidim are anything but passive. Even among those still professing to be anti-Zionist, the ethos of Jewish self-defense is apparently alive and well, reflected in vigilante patrols of dangerous neighborhoods and in immediate and sharp reactions to any perceived threat.

Mintz, a professor of anthropology and Jewish studies at Indiana University, describes the social and political adaptations which the hasidic community has made to American reality, and also delves into some of the more private, and subtle, changes it has undergone. There is, for example, a fascinating chapter here on the gradual if grudging acceptance of modern psychology and social work, which has dramatically improved the way the community now deals with its mentally impaired.



Most of the data in Hasidic People take the form of extended quotations from an impressive array of “informants” whom Mintz interviewed in the course of his research. This is undoubtedly the book’s greatest strength, and it is one shared by Heilman’s book as well. One cannot but be impressed by the success of these scholars in gaining the confidence of people generally so wary of outsiders.

But there is also a problem here. Mintz’s informants, no matter how candid, instinctively protect the image of their community; and so, despite his own attempt at objectivity, Mintz’s account of hasidic life is inevitably a censored one. Further confounding matters is the fact that Mintz’s other sources are mainly journalistic and for the most part limited to the English-language press. It is hard to credit a study of a group whose lingua franca is Yiddish which refers hardly at all to the many books, pamphlets, and weekly newspapers produced in that language by New York’s hasidic community.

Heilman’s Defenders of the Faith suffers from similar limitations. He cites Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques as an inspiration and model, but there is a crucial difference between the haredim and the Brazilian savages studied by Lévi-Strauss: namely, literacy. A vast sacred literature stands at the very cornerstone of hasidic life (as of all traditional Jewish life), and any primarily “anthropological” approach to that life is therefore handicapped by definition. Until Western scholars who have mastered the primary sources of Orthodox Judaism turn their attention to the haredim of today (as some Israeli scholars have begun to do), the English reader’s understanding of “hasidic people” and other ultra-Orthodox groups will remain seriously limited.

About the Author

Allan Nadler is professor of religion and director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University. He is currently completing a book about the reception of Spinoza in modern Yiddish thought and literature.

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