The Modern Haredi, As Envisioned by Rabbi David Leibel

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Recently, a new answer to the dilemma of the 'modern Haredi' has been advanced enthusiastically by Rabbi David Leibel, one that maintains religiosity while increasing civic participation in the economy and in defense of Israel.

Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90

For several years now, a steadily expanding group of Haredim—known as “new Haredim” or “modern Haredim”—have sought to integrate to a greater extent into Israeli society. Despite the numerical growth of this group, it did not seem to have developed into a stable and differentiated stream of Haredi Judaism until now.

There are two other groups under which the “modern Haredim” must define themselves: traditional, classical Haredi Judaism on the one hand; and on the other, religious Zionism—most similar, though not identical, to the "modern Orthodox" community outside of Israel.

Classical Haredi Judaism, the group from which modern Haredi Judaism has emerged and to which it remains very closely connected, is ideologically committed to complete segregation from the State of Israel and its values, alongside a practical willingness to cooperate with the state or ignore it where necessary. This approach poses a challenge to the modern Haredim, in that it posits that it is impossible to be Haredi while at the same time playing a significant role in modernity and recognizing its values.

On the other hand, religious Zionism presents a challenge in that it claims that it is impossible to play a significant role in Israeli society without being a meaningful partner in bearing the burden of defense and participation in the public sphere. And if this is what the modern Haredim want to do, then essentially, they wish to become part of the religious Zionist community.

The responses given within the modern Haredi community to this question of identity have largely come from either extreme of the spectrum: Some are attempting to downplay the inclination toward “choosing modernity” and to remain subject to the values system of the classical Haredi world, while on a practical level also becoming more involved in the workforce and so on. This approach would have it that “modern Haredi” is not a new identity per se, but simply means a slightly “lighter” version of being a classical Haredi in certain aspects, with rabbinic approval.

In contrast, there are those who believe that the label “Haredi” can be relinquished entirely, as in their eyes it is nothing more than a sociological construct. The members of this school choose to continue belonging to the Haredi world as a familiar and comfortable environment, but in terms of values and outlook they view themselves largely as modern Orthodox. They share common ground with parts of religious Zionism regarding modernity, while on the question of the religious significance of the State of Israel they are closer to the classical Haredi position—also held by some outlying groups in religious Zionism—that the state is merely the “co-op board” of the Jewish people.

But recently, a new answer to this dilemma has emerged, seemingly with major potential to inject real meaning into the hybrid concept of “modern Haredi.” It has been advanced most enthusiastically by Rabbi David Leibel, a recognized member of the Haredi community’s Lithuanian elite.

Rabbi Leibel was born and raised in France. He immigrated to Israel at a young age and studied at the Ponevezh yeshiva, one of the flagship institutions of the Lithuanian elite. After years of focusing only on Torah study, Rabbi Leibel entered the world of work and became a successful businessman and social entrepreneur. The credo he has energetically promoted over the last decade constitutes a mix of the Haredi lifestyle with practical endeavors. His extensive record of activity in this field includes establishing a high-tech training initiative for yeshiva graduates and a network of kollelim for working Haredim, and at the beginning of the last academic year he opened a yeshiva that combines Torah study with academic studies.

Immediately after the October 7 attack, Rabbi Leibel issued a clarion call to Haredi society to step up and play its part in providing assistance. In his speech, he unequivocally stated that “the society of working Haredim also needs to serve, to give as much as we can: men, women, girls, we need to volunteer en masse. Wherever needed, whatever is needed, in whatever role needed.”

A combination of historical circumstances and conditions, together with a degree of daring and a response to the terrible recent events, have led to several developments of historic importance, and it appears that this may apply to Haredi society. In contrast with mainstream Haredi rabbis, who expressed mourning and pain about the tragedy that befell the Jewish people and emphasized national brotherhood, but ignored (or even rejected) the need for active participation as citizens of Israel, Rabbi Leibel noted that the Haredi public is not just part of the Jewish people, but also part of the State of Israel: “We are under obligation as part of the people—as an integral part of the people of Israel and the State of Israel, and we must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our soldiers. The soldiers are extremely moved and happy when they hear that we are studying and praying for them, and they understand that the home front is behind them, and this gives them much strength.”

Rabbi Leibel made his position clear in a series of letters, in which he argued that the commonly made claim in Haredi circles that studying Torah constitutes sufficient participation in the burden carried by Israel’s citizens is not correct, even from a religious perspective.

In a letter published toward the end of December, he entirely rejected the classical Haredi position that Torah study protects the Jewish people. He explained the words of the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 21b) that “the Torah protects and saves” as referring only to individuals but not to the people as a whole, and thus argued that the Haredi claim that yeshiva students help defend the state by studying Torah has no real basis in Jewish tradition and law. He went even further, and concluded the letter with a dig at the Haredi mainstream, saying that if Torah study protects the Jewish people, then Torah students are culpable for the events of October 7 and for the deaths of soldiers in the war.

Why, then, does the Haredi public not serve in the military? Rabbi Leibel answered this question in a letter published in early November in Hamakom, a periodical for the working Haredi public. His explanation was that this stems from the fear of young Haredim becoming secularized in the army. He concluded the letter with a clear and unequivocal statement that in principle, the obligation to serve in the military also applies to the Haredi community:

“The path to participation in the military draft has not yet been properly laid. At the same time, we must understand that this is not just the military’s problem, but also our problem. We are citizens of this state, and we have chosen to be part of it. As long as we have no practical plans to give up our citizenship or to emigrate from here, the solution to the challenge of bearing the burden is also up to us. The war has raised the issue of Haredi society’s belonging to the State of Israel … We cannot have our cake and eat it. If we are willing to enjoy our rights, we must also play our part in meeting obligations.”

Rabbi Leibel has thus become the first rabbi operating within the Haredi community to publicly reject the Haredi outlook according to which studying Torah exempts one from the duty to serve in the military. On the other hand, despite his recognition that the duty to serve also applies in principle to Haredi society, he also rejects in practice the calls for a mandatory draft of young Haredi men of draft age at the current time, even if they are not committed to full-time Torah study, on the basis that their religious piety is liable to be damaged by being in the IDF.

This complex viewpoint situates Rabbi Leibel in an interesting liminal position. Together with his other statements and rulings over recent years, it would seem that this position may offer a worthy response to the dilemma of “Haredi or modern.”