Piety and Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism
by David Landau
Hill & Wang/FSG, 334 pages, $27.50
In 1988, when the ultra-Orthodox parties won a telling percentage of the vote in the Israeli election, many secular Jews found themselves forced for the first time to reckon with an Orthodoxy that was both politically aggressive and self-confident—and as alien as the shtetls of Old Europe. This was true not only for Israel but for Jewry in the United States, and tensions rose quickly. The “haredim” (tremblers), as the ultra-Orthodox are known, had over the years, culminating in 1990, consolidated their place not just in the imaginations—or, if you will, the fears—of their fellow Jews around the world, but in the Israeli electoral process as well. The support of the haredim was instrumental in Yitzhak Shamir's victory and earned for them the reputation of being the swing power in Israeli parliamentary politics.
A crisis pitch was reached with the “Who is a Jew” controversy—a struggle over whose authority would determine true Jewish identity. Its ostensible significance was connected to the question of who had the right to emigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, but, of course, its real significance lay deeper. The number of people who would be affected by any changes in the law of return was insignificant, but the issue itself cut to the very heart of what constitutes Jewishness and Jewish authority. In their political challenge, the haredim sent an unmistakable message to the secular world that they were determined to influence the Jewish future.
In Piety and Power, the English-born journalist David Landau proposes, as it were, to describe the mind of haredi Judaism. He examines the “vigorous resurgence of haredi Orthodoxy, in Israel and in the Diaspora,” and finds there a “single-minded militancy” that “believes in its divine right to win souls” and now “[sets] the tone in Orthodoxy.” He soon jettisons this apocalyptic tone, however, and provides a not unsympathetic examination of haredi communities in Israel, America, and Britain, and of how modern economic and demographic realities are having some degree of influence on the world of the ultra-Orthodox.
Understanding the haredi entry into the rough and tumble of Israeli politics depends on a prior understanding of the nature of rabbinic authority—something that Landau tendentiously calls “blind obeisance.” Jewish communities have always depended on legal authorities, who have, moreover, been considered part of an unbroken thread connecting the communities with the revelation on Mount Sinai. Among today's haredim that authority has been extended beyond strictly legal questions and into a variety of other matters. In Jerusalem, for instance, some haredi rabbis dispense not only medical advice to their followers, but prescriptions as well, which certain local pharmacies will happily fill.
But nowhere is the extent of rabbinical authority as intensely on display as in the hasidic “tisch,” a gathering of the rabbi's followers, who come to watch him eat his highly ritualized Sabbath eve meal and listen to his discourses on the Torah. In some hasidic sects, a large part of the experience is scrambling to secure a token share of the food distributed from the rebbe's plate—something rather startling for the uninitiated to watch. The rebbe may be considered the living embodiment of Torah principles, but the passion to eat from his plate seems to suggest that many consider him to be far more than that—a dispenser of holiness.
Such hasidic enthusiasm may be a small part of the haredi world, but it points to the kind of sectarian loyalty that has been transferred into politics. On this basis, the spiritual leaders of the two main haredi parties—Eliezer Shach of the Ashkenazic Degel HaTorah (Flag of the Torah) party and Ovadia Yosef of the Sephardic Shas party—control voting blocs of unparalleled cohesion.
In Landau's view, far from elevating the tone of Israeli political discourse, the rabbis have themselves been dragged down to the level of politics. Landau himself doesn't explicitly discuss the possible contradictions between political figuredom and the demands of rabbinic law, but he does tell anecdotes that illustrate them. Political name-calling, for instance, seems startlingly unrabbinic, not to mention hypocritical—which is how many Israelis see it.
Be that as it may, the political empowerment of the ultra-Orthodox is bringing change both to the haredi and to the secular societies of Israel in very tangible ways. The granting of military exemption for yeshiva students, for example, has at one and the same time generated an enormous resentment on the part of secular society and led to a mushrooming of yeshivas. This in turn has had certain consequences for the haredi economy. For the dean of a yeshiva to reject a student, no matter what his qualifications, means pushing him out of the haredi community and into a world of dangers both physical and spiritual. Hundreds of students are therefore being admitted to yeshivas who, in a market economy, would be entering the labor market.
Furthermore, the assumption that they will be in a yeshiva in most cases eliminates the pressure on young men to enter the work force, even after marriage. (Husbands are often supported by their wives or in-laws.) Multiply that by the highest birth rate in Israel, and it adds up to a recipe for cyclical poverty and the kind of reliance upon community assistance warned against by, among others, the great sage Maimonides.
Landau handles his material like the seasoned journalist that he is, which is to say unevenly and with occasional displays of bias. He is most interesting when digging into the fast-growing and little-talked-about Sephardic haredi communities, their colorful mystics, and mystical charlatans. He is at his worst when struggling to lend journalistic color to traditions better left to speak for themselves. (Gefilte fish he ridiculously labels the “pride of traditional Eastern European cuisine”; potato kugel is the “quintessentially Eastern European culinary delight,” representing the “gastronomic climax of the [tisch].”)
In Landau's portrayal, then, the haredim inhabit a “Fiddler on the Roof” world which, in its rigidity and self-righteousness, has little claim over the Jewish future—which may indeed be responsible for triggering an outright schism. But Jewish law isn't, so to speak, written in stone. It has a flexibility that allows it to evolve, however slowly. Which is perhaps why the haredim are chafing ever more intensely against the secular world: they are coming to speak its language. One need look no further than 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn's Crown Heights to see a Lubavitch hasidic movement with, among other things, worldwide hotlines, telethons, 800-numbers, and audio and video productions, all controlled by an increasingly sophisticated group of press handlers constantly reaching out to major media outlets. But most of all, the haredim are hitting secular Judaism where it lives, in the politics of the Jewish state.
The haredim understand the modern world more than detractors realize, and this will be at the core of their successes to come, both political and spiritual. For the haredim have not only the modern world at their disposal, but the ancient one as well, and that is an advantage the secular world ignores at its peril.
Mark Miller is the Assistant Book Editor of the Washington Times.