(A shorter version of this article appears in The Jerusalem Post - and, much to my surprise, at Vos Iz Neias!)
Seven years ago, three of my books were placed in herem by three dozen leading rabbis from the haredi rabbinic establishment in Israel and the US. This was due to my adopting a Maimonidean approach to resolving conflicts between Torah and science—that the account of creation is not to be interpreted literally as referring to a six-day creation, and that the Sages of Talmud were mistaken in some of their statements regarding the natural world. While I sympathized with the concerns of these rabbinic leaders about the effects of such an approach upon those in their community with simple faith, I could not accept that this approach was heretical. It became clear to me that with my line of work, I could not continue to lead my life in the haredi community.
But I was not (at the time) ready to define myself as Modern Orthodox or Religious Zionist. And so when people asked me what I was, I replied with what I thought was an original response: if people who are disillusioned with Zionism are called “post-Zionists,” and people who are disillusioned with Judaism are called “post-religious,” then someone who is disillusioned with Haredism is “post-haredi.”
To my surprise, I eventually discovered that I had not come up with an original idea. The label “post-haredi” (in Hebrew, haredi le’she-avar, abbreviated as hardla”sh) is used by many people. Yet this group is little known or understood.
Post-haredim are not to be confused with the Orthoprax Jews described in a recent Jerusalem Post Magazine article (Sam Sokol, “Haredi Against Their Will,” 10/14/2011). Whereas Orthoprax Jews lack belief in the fundamentals of Judaism, post-haredim do not (necessarily) suffer from any such lack of belief. Instead, they are regular Orthodox Jews who no longer subscribe to Haredi ideology. Some post-haredim remain in the haredi community, either due to inertia or due to their valuing their social ties and community. Others secede from it, changing their manner of dress and moving into a different social and cultural framework. There is not a clear line between the more moderate haredim (such as many Anglo-haredim) and post-haredim; in Betar and Bet Shemesh, the revolutionary Tov political party rejects the haredi system of rabbinic authority, and is supported by a spectrum of people ranging from moderate haredi to post-haredi.
What is it that causes post-haredim to reject the haredi ideology? The answer to this question is best understood by analyzing how the haredi approach to Judaism developed. Contrary to what some may believe, neither Moses nor Maimonides were haredi. Haredi Judaism developed from Orthodox Judaism, which itself differed in small but significant ways from the traditional Judaism that preceded it.
Orthodox Judaism, as the term is used in the academic study of Jewish history (as opposed to the colloquial sense of “observant”), arose in the nineteenth century as a response to the challenges of the Enlightenment and emancipation, and particularly in response to the assault upon traditional Judaism by the Reform movement. In the face of systematic and sweeping deviation from traditional beliefs and practices, traditionalists found it necessary to separate themselves into a distinct sub-community within the Jewish People and to develop a more conservative approach to Judaism in general.
Originally, there were roughly three streams of Orthodoxy in Europe. There was the relatively liberal neo-Orthodoxy of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Dr. Ezriel Hildesheimer, which advocated adopting the best from the modern world while maintain fidelity to Jewish law. There was the extreme ultra-Orthodoxy of the northeast Hungarians, led by Rabbi Hillel Lichtenstein and Rabbi Akiva Yosef Schlesinger, which was formed not only in response to Reform, but more so in response to the more liberal forms of Orthodoxy, and rejected all secular knowledge and any accommodation to modernity. In between these extremes was the Orthodoxy of Rabbi Moses Sofer (“Hatam Sofer”) and Rabbi Moses Schick.
But over time, the extreme form of ultra-Orthodoxy began to overwhelm the other approaches. In the face of the novel phenomenon of Jews organizing themselves politically (such as with the Zionist movement) and the new personal autonomy of the modern period, Orthodox Jews created Agudath Israel and, in order to bring the Hassidic groups on board, dramatically recast the traditional model of rabbinic authority into the modern manifestation known as “Daat Torah.” The process whereby Orthodoxy became ever more withdrawn from the modern world was further assisted after the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust, and the subsequent re-creation of Jewish communities in Israel and the US, when the structure of the Orthodox community changed. Instead of the public synagogue being the locus of religious life, and the community rabbi being the main rabbinic authority, it was the ivory tower of the yeshivah which took center stage, and the heads of the yeshivot who gradually took the reins of rabbinic authority. Furthermore, with the increasing laxity and encroachment of modernity, the conservatism of Orthodoxy was accelerated to an unprecedented degree. As contemporary culture became ever more antithetical to religious values and invaded the home, haredi Judaism responded by building ever higher walls in an attempt to keep it out.
The resultant problems are well-known to all observers of haredi society. The system of mass open-ended kollel, originally created to recover the losses of the Holocaust, has long exceeded its original goals and is ultimately unsustainable. The increasingly extreme conservatism of haredi society results in intellectual and social mores that are often excessive in their restrictions. When rabbinic authority is invested in yeshivah deans who are isolated from wider society, and often “handled” by various assistants, abuses of rabbinic power are inevitable. And a siege mentality developed in which any criticism of haredi society, even coming from the inside, was to be fought or silenced.
As a result, many people in haredi society—including both those born into that society as well as those who joined it in youthful idealism—have grown dissatisfied with it. For some, such as myself, it is dissatisfaction with the narrow boundaries of Haredi thought, which stands in sharp contrast to significant classical schools of thought within Judaism. For others, it is dissatisfaction with various aspects of Haredi society, such as its implementation of rabbinic authority, its relative indifference to wider national issues of the economy and national security, or its heavy social pressures regarding even non-halachic lifestyle aspects.
Ironically, the post-haredi movement is occurring at a time when the haredi world itself is undergoing a process of reversal from its previous excesses. Many more haredim are entering the workforce, and there is even a haredi division in the army. The internet is radically changing the dynamics of discourse and free speech in the haredi world. New weekly magazines such as Mishpachah feature positive profiles of non-haredi figures and delicately air various criticisms of haredi policies, despite the shrill protests of “establishment” publications such as Yated Ne’eman.
But for post-haredim, it’s too little, too late.
Rabbi Natan Slifkin is the author of a variety of works on the relationship between Judaism, zoology and the natural sciences. His website is www.zootorah.com and he also maintains a popular blog, www.rationalistjudaism.com.