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Modern Ultra-Orthodoxy

The Emerging Haredi Middle Class in Israel

Are there different shades of ultra-Orthodoxy? What is Israeli ultra-Orthodox society's attitude toward Zionism? Will there ever be a time when the Haredi and the Israeli lifestyles meet?

Modern Ultra-Orthodoxy takes the reader on a fascinating journey to the border between ultra-Orthodoxy and Israeliness, and explores what it means to be devoutly religious while at the same time having a strong connection with the secular world. It presents the deep changes that are taking place within the Haredi community in Israel and that are fracturing the totality of the "society of learners." From the picture it paints, it emerges that changes in Haredi leadership, as well as cultural and economic changes in Israel's Haredi community, have been eroding the Haredi separatist wall, creating a fast developing sub-group within Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy.

Written within the framework of IDI's Religion and State project, headed by Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern, and IDI's Nation State project, headed by Prof. Anita Shapira, this book presents the reader with a broad, up-to-date picture of the different streams within the Haredi community in Israel and explores the emerging Haredi middle class for the first time, focusing on its lifestyle and internal, external, and community-related traits. Through dozens of in-depth interviews, the authors describe an eclectic ultra-Orthodoxy that combines a deep commitment to the Haredi worldview with integration in the Israeli public sphere, in Israeli culture, society, and the working world. The authors also examine the future of modern ultra-Orthodoxy, its long-term viability, and its possible influence on the traditional society of learners and the Israeli public as a whole.

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Characteristics of the Haredi Middle Class

Over the last decade in Israel, cultural and economic developments and changes in leadership have been weakening the "society of learners"—in which ultra-Orthodox Jews devote themselves to full-time study rather than joining the workforce—and strengthening the individual Haredi. At the same time, however, a significant sub-group has begun to emerge: a Haredi middle class. While the practices of this group are essentially similar to the ultra-Orthodoxy practiced in other places in the world, such as in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, they diverge noticeably from the classic model of Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy. The Haredi middle class in Israel comprises men, most of whom studied in ultra-Orthodox yeshivot, and women, who work and earn a good living, as compared to the rest of the Haredi community and often compared to the general population as well. Most members of this group have earned an academic degree or have a vocational education and currently work in the high-tech and financial industries, and other professional fields.

The group is distinguished by their economic status and cultural affiliation:

  1. Economic status: The group is made up of Haredi men and women with either an academic degree or vocational education who earn wages (generally both spouses) that are on par with that of the general population, and are defined in economic surveys as middle class, occasionally even middle-to-high.
  2. Cultural affiliation: This group maintains constant and reciprocal ties with the Israeli public sphere and its Western culture, while still remaining fully within the ultra-Orthodox community. Unlike the classic Haredi sector, this group does not isolate itself from secular culture and does not fear integration into contemporary Israeli society. Some members of the modern Haredi middle class serve in the Israeli Defense Forces in one of the specialized tracks designated for graduates of Haredi yeshivot. Others are able to seek employment after performing national civil service, an arrangement that has been possible in the last few years, following the passage of the Tal Law.

The modern Haredi indeed inhabits two completely different cultural spheres. While identifying with the Haredi community and feeling part of it, the members of this group have distinct Western characteristics: They are regular consumers of Western culture, are exposed to the general—rather than the Haredi—media, and are avid users of the Internet. Women in this community who benefited from academic studies, have thriving careers, and a greater awareness of the need for self-nurturing and leisure time. A decrease in birth rates is also evident. These characteristics are all part of a conceptual revolution among a significant segment of the Haredi population, and are maintained even while the members of the group preserve strict guidelines on modesty and separation between the sexes.

From the unvaried “either-or” ideology that is at the base of classic ultra-Orthodoxy, the Haredi middle class has turned to an eclectic view of “this and that.” This group lives on the seam between two worlds, and partakes of both the Haredi and Israeli lifestyles, but at the same time, its members define themselves as Haredi and view themselves as part and parcel of ultra-Orthodox society. In distinction from the traditional Haredi outlook, rather than being wary of modernity, members of the Haredi middle class are integrated into it. Yet, they believe that integration within the Israeli public sphere does not necessarily obligate them to be separated, physically or ideologically, from the Haredi community. Nevertheless, they do lead a unique existence, which is most clearly expressed by their choice of schooling for their children. Rather than enrolling them in traditional Haredi institutions, members of this group tend to provide their children with a broader education, which consists of core studies and culminates in a state-certified high school diploma, complete with matriculation exams.

Examination of the traits of this community shows that the modern Haredi resides in a home that is often situated on the geographical border between Haredi and secular communities. Both husband and wife are career-minded and keen to pursue professional advancement. They enjoy certain aspects of “secular” leisure, such as sports, theater, movies, and fine literature but they also adhere to the traditional Haredi communal lifestyle, attending Haredi synagogues and maintaining the Haredi style of prayer. Their voting patterns point to allegiance to Haredi parties, which places them squarely in the traditional ultra-Orthodox cohort. Indeed, their position on the seam requires a continuous system of checks and balances and a conscious effort to walk the “golden path” between forbidden and permissible.

Despite their Western lifestyle, the modern Haredi group remains closely connected to the internal ideological traits of traditional ultra-Orthodoxy. This is most clearly demonstrated in their desire to maintain an affinity with the community’s revered rabbinic leaders. They consult with these rabbis at significant crossroads in their lives and seek their blessings. They also hold traditional Haredi worldviews on issues of religion and state, specifically on matters of conversion, Sabbath observance in the public sphere, the relationship of the Haredi sector to state institutions, and in their attitude toward Zionism. Though they themselves are not Torah scholars, they recognize the religious and spiritual supremacy of the "society of learners." While they do not try to ingratiate themselves with these learners (as do Haredi laymen, known as "ba'alei battim") and do not seek their company, they nevertheless hold them in esteem and to a certain extent even support them financially. Correspondingly, they encourage their own children to become Torah scholars, on condition that this choice is of their own volition, and not a result of social or cultural coercion.

But Are They Haredi?

The modern lifestyle of this group, which entails greater integration into the Israeli public sphere, is very different from the traditional Haredi lifestyle in Israel, in which members separate themselves from the broader Israeli public, inhabiting separate and clearly defined geographic and cultural spheres. The distinct cultural difference between the Haredi middle class and traditional ultra-Orthodoxy raises a question as to whether the former are indeed Haredi, or whether these individuals are leaving the Haredi camp and therefore should not be included in its numbers. Many claim that members of this group refer to themselves as Haredi for reasons of convenience, mainly due to their lack of courage to change the framework of their lives. Some claim that the modernization of this community is actually a process of "gradual devaluation," as while some Haredi traits can still be identified at present, ultimately, there will be a complete departure from the Haredi framework.

The authors have identified three traits that define this group as Haredi in essence: Firstly, its members define themselves as Haredi. They willingly don Haredi attire in the workplace: men wear black yarmulkes, women wear wigs, which distinguish them from their non-Haredi colleagues, and they pay a considerable social price as a result of the inherent strangeness of their appearance. Secondly, most members of the Haredi middle class have a Haredi worldview on core social issues. They object to the Zionist ideology; they identify with Haredi positions on matters of religion and state, and the vast majority of them vote for Haredi political parties in the Knesset elections. Thirdly, they have ongoing contact with the Haredi community. The Haredi middle class live in the Haredi public sphere. They are interested in the events on the Haredi street and are subordinate—if only partially—to Haredi rabbinic leaders.

These characteristics seem sufficient to establish that this group is not trying to mask its deep affiliation with the traditional Haredi camp and is not taking a "half-way stand" on the way to becoming non-religious. Rather, this is a position held by many members of the Haredi community who choose to remain part of the Haredi world but are not willing to give up their connection to Israeli society.

From Individuals to Group

The rise of a Haredi middle class was not an organized, consolidated phenomenon; rather, it was a slow process, undertaken by individuals, without rabbinic or political guidance, on the periphery of Haredi society. The individuals comprising this group are not at all homogeneous. Noticeable differences can be found between them, for example, in the strictness of their halakhic observance, their connection to Haredi rabbis, the type of education they provide for their children, and their financial situation. These differences are the result of the balance that each individual strikes between the two cultures—Haredi and Israeli—in establishing a platform for his or her life. Yet, the Haredi middle class lacks three major parameters: 1) their own educational institutions for the various stages of the educational track; 2) a charismatic spiritual leadership; and 3) an influential political leadership.

  1. The absence of suitable educational institutions. Haredi middle class families must choose between Haredi schools (if their children are even accepted to them)—which require them to introduce considerable changes to their life style and to compromise on the quality of the general studies education—and between state-sponsored public schools from the national-religious stream—which impart religious values that are not consistent with the values of a modern Haredi home. The lack of suitable educational institutions that fulfill their need for a thorough religious education and for a comprehensive general studies curriculum prevents the creation of a viable, ideological framework among the younger generation that will enable them to perpetuate their modern ultra-Orthodox worldview.
  2. The absence of rabbinic leadership. Another prominent factor is the absence of a charismatic modern Haredi rabbinate, capable of shouldering the burden of halakhic leadership for the group's members, which for them, is a vital need. First, the particular need for rabbinic leadership derives from the complex set of balances faced by the Haredi middle class; there is need for an authority for lenient rulings that will provide the evolving group with spiritual legitimization while at the same time setting halakhic limitations. Second, it seems that the group is in need of an influential and charismatic rabbinic leadership in order to withstand attack by traditional ultra-Orthodoxy further down the line.
  3. The absence of political leadership. At present, the Haredi political parties, guided by the spiritual leadership of the community, do not recognize the Haredi middle class as a relevant sector that requires special attention or has need for its own community institutions beyond the established Haredi ones. In the absence of political organization and power, whether within the existing Haredi parties or in a separate political framework, this group will find it hard to unite for purposes such as obtaining funds for social issues and land allocations for building their own institutions. While national institutions are lacking, an attempt has been made to establish local frameworks. Nevertheless, a political leadership that can facilitate the establishment of institutions is important for communal functioning and is vital for the forging of this group, as it would provide a social platform around which the group members could unite and consolidate their group identity. The absence of political, spiritual, and educational frameworks may render the members of the Haredi middle class as unidentified individuals, who are not considered part of any separate group.

The Socioeconomic Impact of a Haredi Middle Class

The Haredi middle class creates an alternative to the traditional ultra-Orthodox model, but one that does not call for rejection of the “other” in the broader Israeli society. The expansion of this group will bring about a more tolerant and open Haredi society, which will be engaged in ongoing contact with Israeli society as a whole. Strengthening the Haredi middle class could lead to a significant, positive change for both Haredi society and Israeli society:

  1. The impact of the Haredi middle class on the Haredi community. Acceptance of the modern Haredi framework will encourage Haredi society, predominantly the Lithuanian community, to accept individuals who have dropped out of the "society of learners," so that those individuals no longer feel rejected or distanced from the larger community. The flourishing of academic and vocational institutions designated for the Haredi public is already allowing thousands of Haredi men and women to acquire a practical profession that will enable them to earn a living outside the society of learners. Rejection and lack of recognition of these thousands would push them out of the Haredi camp altogether. The development of the Haredi middle class within the Haredi community may even serve as a financial anchor for the "society of learners." The modern Haredi middle class could contribute to the continuity of this traditional elite group, as is the case in ultra-Orthodox communities in the United States and England, in which the ultra-Orthodox who work support Torah scholars because they share the ideology that "Torah study is equal in importance to all other commandments." Supporting Torah studies will not only benefit the economic welfare of the Torah scholars, but it will contribute equally to the members of the Haredi middle class by providing them with justification for their existence and giving their material success a spiritual purpose. The sense of failure felt by a Haredi man who abandons yeshiva and "Kollel" studies could be relieved by becoming a "Torah supporter," who supports Torah study to the best of his financial abilities.
  2. The impact of the Haredi middle class on Israeli society. The Haredi middle class, as part of the larger Haredi public, could facilitate a connection between the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel and Israeli society by displaying a balanced, non-aggressive approach toward the broader public. Through its daily contact with broader Israeli society in the workplace, this group has the potential to decrease the polarization between Israel's secular and Haredi communities, by serving as a model of a Haredi who is involved in and contributes to Israeli civil society. A Haredi middle class that is integrated into the Israeli work force in a variety of areas and professions would form a significant tax base that contributes to the municipal coffers that would benefit residents of the municipality, not only the ultra-Orthodox. The Haredi middle class thus has the potential to spearhead integration of the larger Haredi population into Israeli society and the Israeli economy. The rate of its development and its ability to accumulate power at present, however, renders discussion of the above scenario somewhat premature.

Conclusion

Time will tell whether the traditional Haredi society, which is founded upon a society of learners and Torah scholars, will accept the existence of the Haredi middle class. It is possible that this growing class will also undergo changes and may shift from one stream and community to another. This may result in the Haredi middle class being pushed to the outskirts of the camp or even beyond it. Conversely, the growing economic, social, and political clout of the Haredi middle class may, in time, change its status within the Haredi community for the better.

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Attorney Haim Zicherman is a researcher at The Israel Democracy Institute, where he conducts research as part of the Religion and State project.

Dr. Lee Cahaner is a researcher at The Israel Democracy Institute, where she is involved in research as part of the Nation State project. She is also a lecturer in the department of geography and environmental studies at the Oranim Academic College for Education.

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