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The Haredi Future

December 29, 2014

Mosaic‘s December monthly essay confronts one of the key issues for Israel as it envisions its future: the status and role of Israel’s haredi population in Israeli public life. Aharon Ariel Lavi, a 2013-2014 Tikvah Fellow and a co-founder of the Shuva community on the Gaza border and of the National Council of Mission-Driven Communities, authored the initial essay. Lavi, as Peter Berkowitz described him, is “an Israeli devoted simultaneously to the modern interpretation of liberal democracy, to the political interpretation of Zionism, and to the ultra-Orthodox interpretation of Judaism, [who] seeks a judicious new accommodation.”

Lavi argues that the focus on integrating haredim by drafting them into the IDF is misplaced. The IDF increasingly relies on mechanization and light-footprint warfare. It doesn’t need more infantry men. “The bottom line is that, without the haredim, the IDF is unlikely to collapse. But the Israeli economy might.” Lavi sees hope for a change in haredi attitudes toward working in the 200,000-plus strong population of baalei teshuvah, or secularly raised “returnees” to ultra-orthodox religious observance like himself.

[R]ecent years have witnessed a fascinating and hopeful development, turning the problem of the returnees’ partial integration within haredi society into a potential opportunity. For one thing, more and more returnees are remaining physically in the environs, whether urban or rural, in which they grew up, and are seeking to fulfill their new religious needs within those environs. For another and no less momentous thing, many veteran baalei teshuvah are finding their way back into Israeli public life—without giving up their religious commitments and practice…. By now, the teshuvah community has reached a point where it is ready to assume responsibility for itself and its own role in relation both to haredi society and to Israeli society at large.

Lavi’s essay inspired four more.

Peter Berkowitz argued that, contra Lavi, Israel’s government has a role to play in getting the haredim to work: by phasing out its misbegotten system of subsidies and perverse incentives.

David Glasner highlighted the thought of Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner, an ultra-orthodox gadfly who, a century ago, interpreted the halakhic demands upon pious Jews to change upon the return to the land of Israel. With detailed basis in Jewish law, the elder Glasner made the case to his compatriots that “[w]ork in the land of Israel ennobles and refines, because it raises the level of happiness of the people and advances the prosperity of the homeland. It is therefore altruistic, and as obligatory as are prayer and the study of Torah in the Diaspora.”

The young haredi intellectual, Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer used his essay to dispel five-and-a-half myths about the ultra-orthodox, including the myth that they don’t work. They work in the Diaspora, and are beginning to work more in Israel, Pfeffer argued.

Moshe Koppel had the most pessimistic take, criticizing the haredim for a too-codified approach to halakhah, “corrosive cynicism” toward the secular society, interdependence that becomes so strong that loyalty is demanded more than anything else, and rule by power brokers rather than by the best scholars.

Read all five essays, and Lavi’s response to his critics.

More about: Religion and State in Israel