Charedi Judaism came into being as an ideological movement, a union of Chassidim and Misnagdim who agreed to put aside their differences and unite around their shared beliefs. The ideological commitments that underpinned this movement were, for the most part, negative: opposition to Haskalah, opposition to Zionism, opposition to religious reform, and opposition to assimilation. The differences between a follower of the Gra and a traditionalist Yekke, or between a Gerer Chassid and a devotee of the Chasam Sofer in both halacha and hashkafah are vast and manifold, but these were subsumed in an ideology of rejecting the changes coming from the Jewish and non-Jewish world. Preserving and growing this separatist community in the face of economic hardship, ridicule, temptation, persecution and even mass murder required fierce commitment to the core principles of the Charedi manifesto.
But that was a long time ago. Today the Charedi community is large, growing, and, at least outside Israel, is for the most part economically sustainable. Charedi Judaism has become much more than an ideological movement; it has grown into a full-fledged culture with the full spectrum of personality types and temperaments you would find in any other tribe. Of the more than a million Charedi Jews around the globe, only a tiny minority has made a conscious decision to embrace Charedi ideology. Many would struggle, even if pushed, to give a coherent account of what Charedi ideology even is.
If, then, it isn’t ideology that makes the typical Charedi Jew remain within the fold, what is it? Well, actually, there is no shortage of reasons to choose to live within the Charedi community. The strong sense of community, the strength of the nuclear and extended family, chessed, and the way children are protected from the corrosive effects of social media are particularly important. The fundamental reason, however is much more basic than that. It is the simple fact that Charedi culture is our culture, our way of life, our home. If a Frenchman is asked what is so great about France, he may respond by citing the tradition of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, he may reference his nation’s heritage of art, architecture, literature, or cuisine. His elemental Frenchness, however, requires no explanation, and nor does our identity as Charedim.
Some people are born searchers who can move from one way of life to another until their soul finds rest, but most of us are not like that. We will never feel comfortable, we will never feel at home without the millions of cultural reference points that exist only in the way of life into which we were born and then raised. I have no doubt that it is possible to be an oved Hashem both outside and inside the Charedi community, but I also know that I will never feel the same spiritual connection and sense of belonging that I get from Chassidishe Judaism. Our community and way of life has much to recommend it, both, generally, as a way of fulfilling universal human needs and aspirations and, specifically, as an expression of the unique Jewish religion. However, even if it didn’t, it would still be the foundation of who we are.
At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that there are dangerous trends within the Charedi community that, if not addressed, threaten our entire way of life. Some are the result of developments, particularly technological change, that comes from the outside. Others are the results of our community growing and confronting challenges that the founders of tiny Charedi communities did not have to face. Finally, there is an internal fundamentalist dynamic that threatens to turn us into the caricature drawn by our fiercest opponents.
Currently, the Charedi blogosphere is small and dominated by two groups. On the one hand, there are the official defenders of Charedi Judaism from the slurs and attacks of the outside world. I do not deny the need for these voices given the outlandish claims often made about our community. On the other side, there are people who live on the margins of the Charedi community, or outside of it, whose goal is to expose and condemn all that is flawed and sordid in our way of life. It is not my job to attack them back: many, perhaps all, of them have suffered terrible wrongs. However, while their voice should be part of the conversation, they should not be allowed to dominate it. The flaws in our culture are real, but they do not define it and I want to analyse our flaws in order to look for a solution, not to tear down the system.
This blog, then, is an attempt to carve out a space on the internet for a different kind of discussion about the Charedi world. I’m a proud Charedi Jew, raising Charedi children and working for Charedi organisations. I want to find solutions to the problems in the Charedi world because I fully intend on spending the rest of my life as part of that world. To do this, I do not need to believe that Charedi Judaism is the only way to be a good Jew, or the world’s most perfect social system. I need only recognise that it’s mine.
Disclaimer: Much of what I will write on this blog applies specifically to the Chassidishe community, but other parts will be relevant to the Litivish world and the other smaller Charedi streams. The general term within the Charedi world for the type of people I’m talking about is heimish. In general, what I am saying applies to Charedim outside of Israel, though some themes will also be relevant to the community in Israel.