Thursday 11 September 2014

041) The Reforms Of The Ultra-Orthodox - A Short History Of Haredim

A strong impression has been created that Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, are the true custodians of ancient and authentic Judaism. However, when one studies the fascinating historical origins of Haredim, a very different picture emerges. The movement may not be as old as is commonly believed.

Haredim entered the stage of history at about the same time as two other movements were being birthed, namely Reform and Orthodox.

In the non-Jewish world, during the era characterised by the rise of nationalism, Jews began to wonder where they belonged. Although they didn't yet have a homeland, they could still align themselves with their own ideological movements. The age of Enlightenment led to the founding of Reform. This new movement became so popular in Germany that, by the middle of the 1800’s, the more traditional Jews had actually become a minority.

In response to Reform, a counter movement was born. This was spearheaded by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and become known as the Orthodox movement. (Certainly, orthodoxy and traditionalism always existed, but now it was crystallised into a movement). However, while keeping strictly to tradition, it embraced elements of the secular and modern culture in which it was nurtured. Rabbi Hirsch introduced secular studies into his Torah schools, and German was accepted as the language of Torah instruction (much like English is the language of Torah transmission in the Anglo-Saxon Jewish world, today). This was the dawn of centrist and modern Orthodoxy.

Now things get very interesting. In response to Orthodoxy, yet another movement is born, this time in the poorer regions of Hungary, and its adherents become known as Haredim. They positioned themselves to the far right of Orthodoxy. This new movement was created by a trio of fervent devotees, Rabbis Sofer, Lichtenstein (and his son-in-law) Schlesinger. They were fearful that Torah values would be undermined by the recent relocation of Jews from rural areas to the cities, and the new legislation requiring compulsory secular education in all schools (there were 300 Jewish schools in Hungary at that time). 

But strangely, for what was supposed and alleged to be a continuum of an ancient tradition, this new right wing movement began with a signed manifesto. It is known as the 1865 Psak Din (Rabbinical Decree) of Michalowce and targeted the Orthodox rabbis of the time. The document includes the following points:
  • It is forbidden to deliver sermons in the language of the nations of the world.
  • It is forbidden to listen to sermons delivered in the language of the nations of the world.
  • It is forbidden to enter choir synagogues.
  • It is forbidden to place a chuppah in a synagogue.
  • It is forbidden to study Torah from a rabbi who teaches in a foreign language. Appointing such a rabbi is tantamount to idolatry.
Many of these rulings were inspired by the teachings of the Chatam Sofer (no relation to Rabbi Moshe Sofer of the 1865 manifesto), who had passed away a few years earlier. He was so against secular education that he went so far as to condemn the signing of one’s name (in non-Jewish script) even for secular affairs, and threatened to fire a shochet for reading secular literature.

In a similar vein, Rabbi Schlesinger taught that it was forbidden to undergo any form of secular education, even for the purpose of making a living. He taught that the function of the non-Jew is to master science and invent useful technologies, while that of the Jew is only to study Torah (while he is permitted, however, to make use of non-Jewish technology).

According to him, maintaining a Jewish ‘name, language and dress code’ were literally tantamount to the entire Torah. 
He also believed that it was ‘good to elevate a prohibition’. From this, his followers deduced that a rabbinic law could be elevated to the status of a Torah law, and a custom, to a rabbinic law. The authority of aggadic literature (the stories or non-legal aspects of the Talmud) was according to Rabbi Wechsler, to be elevated to that of orally transmitted halacha. This view was vehemently opposed by Rabbi Hirsch.

We now had to fulfil not only the mitzvot of the Torah, but also ‘even the most trifling customs.’ The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Law), according to Schlesinger, ‘is equal to the Ten Commandments.’ In time 71 rabbis signed the Haredi manifesto of Michalowce. They even coined the phrase ‘Yahadut’ or 'Yiddishkeit' (Jewishness) to describe their ‘ancient and authentic’ practices.

With regard to the prohibition of wearing contemporary modern clothing, as opposed to the long frock coats of the Haredim, the alleged biblical infringements mysteriously grew from four (in 1853) to eight (in 1865).

The manifesto also argued that changing any custom was ‘tantamount to eating pork’. The condemnation of any language other than Yiddish, inspired a very creative theory as to its evolution.  The new Hareidim claimed that certainly the earlier rabbis understood German, but had intentionally ‘corrupted’ it, to form a new language, so as not to have to speak a language of the gentiles.

Of course, mainstream Orthodox leadership opposed the radical views espoused by this new group. The Maharam Schick, who became one of the leading halachic authorities of Hungarian Jewry in the 1870’s, argued that to issue such innovative interpretations was against Halacha, and he refused to sign the manifesto. In principle, though, he accepted the general sentiment of the proposals - only as temporary and emergency measures – but not as an escalation of Halacha. He certainly couldn't condemn the synagogues of his day as ‘houses of idolatry’.         
The Kotzker Rebbe, although living in Poland and having passed away six years before the Manifesto of Michalowce, felt the rumblings of this new movement. He referred to its adherents as ‘mindless followers of Frumkeit’(in this sense, fanaticism). He was also clearly outspoken in his opposition to the emphasis on the minutiae of law, and the adoption of dress codes (or as he referred to it, ‘the wearing of white socks and fur hats’).

Notwithstanding (what has been called) ‘the invention of a tradition’, and the subsequent growth of Hasidism, it was only about a hundred years later that it evolved into the movement it has become today. This took place after the Second World War when the movement gained renewed impetus as many saw it as the best way to re-establish the destroyed communities of the Holocaust. All in all, it cannot said that their roots go back to ancient times. Their history is a relatively short one.

Today Haredim are often characterised by their dress, militant stance to religion and uncompromising attitude to even the religious societies in which they live. They number about 15% of modern Israeli population and have one of the highest birth rates in the world, with 25% living below the poverty line.

The Emergence of Ultra-Orthodoxy by Michael K Silber.
The Making of Haredim by Rabbi Natan Slifkin.
The Manifesto of Ultra-Orthodoxy (1865) translated by Dov Weiss.

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