Tuesday, July 11, 2006

On The Haredim: A Defense (from Azure)

There is an initially promising article in the new Azure called The Haredim: A Defense by Aharon Rose, subtitled on the main page 'How scholars have misunderstood the ultra-Orthodox.' I thought it would be something about how academia misunderstands things about haredim, but it isn't, it's a piece about how academia disagrees with haredim. Basically it is an extended Cross Currents post.

It attacks the prevailing concept in academic Jewish studies of haredism that haredism is a relatively new Jewish phenomenon, a position at odds with the haredi self-view of itself as an uninterrupted continuation of timeless Jewish values and ways. The academics view haredism as new because they believe that several of its prominent values are emphasized out of proportion with their traditional, historical roles in the canon of Jewish ways and values. Examples include the notion of daas Torah, a rigid dress code, emphasis on full time yeshiva learning for nearly all men. Academics believe that the record shows that these are not timeless, traditional, historical Jewish values with this degree of emphasis, but a modern incarnation derived partly from the past and partly in response to modernity. (Disclosure: I agree.)

Aharon Rose argues that this is distorted, basically because haredim think it is. While I agree with him that haredim are often wildly misunderstood by academics (in fact, I think all groups are often wildly misunderstood by those who study them) it seems like the thrust of his argument is that haredim view themselves as a timeless link in a chain. And therefore...?

Rose says that what scholars see as evidence for shifts in attitudes and behaviors among Israeli haredim, for example, being sighted in shopping malls, drinking capuccino &c. are no evidence--because these don't represent shifts in the ideals! In other words, Platonic haredism isn't becoming more materialistic or open, even ever so slightly, to new ideas. Platonic haredism is whatever it was ten years ago, or forty years ago--or 3300 years ago, according to many haredim.

I think that's a distinction without a difference because ultimately societies are what they are as much, or even more, than what they desire themselves to be. Besides, ideals do shift as societies shift even when it happens under the radar. It may be the perception of the Israeli haredim that their Platonic ideal is exactly the same as the Platonic ideal of traditional Jews three hundred years ago, but that doesn't make it so. While Rose is right to give weigh to self-perception, it isn't everything.

Rose writes:
Some years ago, I began my journey from the Haredi society in which I grew up-the world of the Belz Yeshiva and a generations-old Hasidic family-to the “outside world.” In the world I had left behind, I was filled with questions; in my new life, I searched for answers. This journey led me, among other places, to the pages of the research to which I have referred above. For the first time, I looked to academic books on the history of Orthodoxy and Hasidism to serve as my guides to the society of which I was once a part. Through them, I was able to look at the Haredi community from a new, critical perspective. I found, however, that along with penetrating insights, these books contained much flawed analysis. Often, these flaws stemmed from sheer intolerance and a not-inconsiderable level of hostility.
He is right, of course, although he doesn't explain who he is talking about. Does he mean Jacob Katz? Lawrence Kaplan? I don't think that's fair. Menachem Friedman? Who does he mean?

He then continues explaining that when academics judge haredim through their own values they are sure to find haredim lacking in the ability to live warm, meaningful lives. He's right. That is an inappropriate way of studying people. I am reminded of something I wrote last year about the book Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls by Stephanie Wellen Levine. At the time I wrote
When she told her PhD advisor at Harvard (this is from memory -- when I get home I will check and make sure that's who it was) her intention to study the girls he basically expressed doubt if girls in such a male-dominated and restrictive society would even have individual personalities. Levine is happy to report that they do; they're happy, they have hopes, dreams, creativity etc. When I read that I knew that even though I was not a Lubavitcher I am an Orthodox insider and really consider the preconception that these girls would be automatons absurd. Because I know better. I know that Orthodox Jews, even haredim, love and laugh and think. But you wouldn't know it if you didn't, well, know it. That's a limitation that some books about things have.
Oh, and I would also add that her advisor was a fool for thinking otherwise.

So Rose is right; haredim often get a bad rap. I've seen it too. But he is wrong that by definition disagreeing with haredism's own view of itself as the timeless, historical expression of traditional Judaism that never changes and never changed (except when it degrades due to yeridot ha-dorot) is unfair or hostile, although frankly I understand why it is perceived as an attack.

In a footnote (18) Rose writes
It is interesting to note that those researchers and intellectuals who are not experts in the history of the Jewish people are more respectful of the Haredi experience of continuity.
It may be interesting, but it is also sort of the reason why academics disagree with the haredi self-concept: evidently a less historical perspective is required to give credence to the less historical self-concept of haredim. Is it interesting that people who aren't experts in history agree are more likely to agree with people who aren't experts in Jewish history? I suppose.

In any event, apparently Aharon Rose, who is "an undergraduate in the department of Israeli history at the Hebrew University," has not gone native though. Good for him.

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