It is not an excess of ethnocentrism to write that Jews who are less than a miniscule share of the world’s population get disproportionate attention or that the Orthodox who are, except in Israel, about ten percent of all Jews get a disproportionate share of the attention given to Jews or that charedim who are only a part of the Orthodox get a disproportionate share of the attention given to the Orthodox. Some and perhaps much of this disproportionality arises from distinctiveness, with Jews being more distinctive than most other ethnics and the Orthodox and then the charedim being, in turn, even more distinctive. It is also true that, again in the order given, each group craves attention. Living in a fishbowl may be our fate, perhaps as an aspect of our being the Chosen People. Even so, it is not an arrangement that we should wish for.
Unlike most Jews who usually can pass as faces in the crowd, the charedim or fervently Orthodox are because of their dress and appearance, as well as certain practices, invested with an identity that scarcely can be ignored. What registers in our minds and, at times, in our emotions, when we see charedim is that we are looking at people who are different.
If the ten percent figure for the American Orthodox derived from demographic research is accurate – I believe that it is low – in all likelihood, charedim who are now a majority of the Orthodox, amount to about six percent of all American Jews. Curiously, that’s about the same figure arrived at in Israeli population surveys, a statistic that is highly questionable in view of what we know about charedi fertility and enrollment in Israeli schools. Almost certainly, Israeli charedim are significantly undercounted.
Whatever the true numbers, charedim are not a monolithic group. What passes for charedi in many Orthodox homes in the U.S. is not charedi by Israeli standards, as in this country modernity has made significantly greater inroads, whether with respect to secular education or more general cultural and societal indicators. Nor are Israeli charedim all of one cut, even though they may look alike to outsiders. As one example, there is diversity regarding attitudes towards the State of Israel.
For all of its apparently static nature, charedi life is not immune from forces that impel change. Some of this is external, meaning that persons either leave or embrace charedi life, without the core group being much changed as a consequence. In either situation, the change breeds triumphalism, as when secularists gleefully point to ex-charedim in their ranks or when charedim parade their recruits.
Of greater significance are internal changes in charedi life and they are not uni-dimensional. In the U.S. and Israel, there is at once a trend away from traditional charedi practices and greater receptivity toward modernity and concurrently a trend toward greater insularity and rejection of modernity; at times, these seemingly antithetical trends occur in the same family. As an illustration, more intensive fundamentalism is evident at the basic educational levels, while there is greater workplace interaction with secular Jews.
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai recently attacked charedi schools, saying that they jeopardize Israeli life. He demanded that they be required to teach core academic subjects as required by Israeli law. As a companion piece, Amnon Rubinstein and Uriel Reichman, noted intellectuals and civil libertarians, have petitioned the High Court of Justice to compel charedi schools to teach these subjects. They point out that 20% of Jewish highschoolers in Israel attend schools that refuse to include academic subjects in the curriculum, a statistic which with others undermines data showing that charedim are but 6% of all Israelis.
A case can be made that many who are in yeshiva should have a more varied education, although it is not the business of the government or courts to tamper with the yeshiva system. Of note, a generation ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Wisconsin v. Yoder that the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause barred states from compelling Amish children to attend school past the elementary school grades.
Putting legalities aside, the anti-charedi case is predicated on the high incidence of poverty within the group, which critics assert arises from defective basic education that fails to provide students with the skills that they will need later in life. Boys are taught to study Torah and Talmud and little or nothing else and there is a heavy price to pay in terms of the cost to society and the cost to families down the road.
Apart from the transcendent benefit of Torah study to the wellbeing of Israel as a Jewish state, the issue of charedi poverty is more complicated. There is, in fact, significant charedi participation in the job market, albeit with a high incidence of these jobs being in schools and other communal positions that invariably are low paying. We should at least recognize the dedication of these workers.
Unfortunately, even charedim who have better paying jobs are often below the poverty level, high fertility being the explanation. Despite changes in Israeli society that promote job training and education for professions among charedim, the fertility factor alone ensures that an ever-greater number of charedim will be greatly in need.
The more that secular forces attack charedi life and seek to enforce change, the more likely will charedi society put up barriers and strive to keep outside influences away. Our best hope is for accelerated internal change which while maintaining the essence of Torah education and lifestyle seeks to accommodate elements of modernity that inherently are not hostile to religious life. This may not be much to rely on, but it is the optimum approach.