Many readers of this blog will be aware of my participation in a debate carried out in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle concerning the ongoing standoff between Charedi schools and the Department for Education on the topic of compliance with the Equality Act 2010 . I was moved to write my articles above all by the invocation of anonymous anecdotes and stories about homosexuals within the Charedi community that purportedly demonstrate the urgent, indeed life-saving, necessity of introducing LGBTQ+ lessons in Charedi schools and I firmly stand by the claim I made in my two responses that the picture painted of the Charedi world was inaccurate to the point of surreal. However, the process of writing these articles and the response to them I have received has made me reflect on the systemic ambiguity in the way the term ‘Charedi’ is used and the need for a ‘rectification of names’ to make productive debate possible.
In my article I defended two claims. The first is that the Charedi community is united by a communal policy of deliberately keeping children ignorant of any and all aspects of sex and sexuality and that, moreover, this policy is broadly successful. The typical Charedi boy will start to find out about sex around the age of 15-16, but, even then, will remain wildly ignorant by general standards until much later. The second claim was that homophobia is not a feature of Charedi culture. By this I meant that homosexual activity is not singled out for special condemnation among other violations of halacha and that homophobic jokes and bullying are just not something that Charedi people typically engage in.
I maintain that this is true for a specific group of people whom I was describing under the label of Charedi. The biggest section of this group is Chassidim, however, it also includes what is generally known as the litvish or ‘yeshivish’ community, as well as small groups of traditional yekkes and Hungarian Jews. In the UK, it comprises the entire community in Gateshead and almost all of the community in Stamford Hill, as well as a growing minority in Manchester and Northwest London. However, I have to recognise and appreciate that there are a great number of people outside of this group who are either identified as or identify as Charedi for whom what I was saying was not accurate. This includes some schools and a wide range of shuls where the congregation wear black cappels, and often black hats, pronounce Hebrew in an Eastern European fashion, and pledge allegiance to Charedi gedolim. It is obviously the case that in these communities children learn about sex, at least to some degree, at a much younger age and, unfortunately, it is also true that some of the schools they attend have a problem with homophobic bullying. I am still sceptical about the existence of kiddushim where ‘homophobic quips are bandied about as freely as the herring and whisky’, but I accept that the kind of cultural references and motifs surrounding homosexuality are present in these communities in a way that they aren’t in mine.
It was, in fact, precisely this ambiguity in the term Charedi that made the articles in the JC to which I responded so libellous. They purported to expose the problems present in schools that don’t incorporate LGBTQ+ education, but the anecdotes were clearly all based on schools from the ‘modern Charedi’, community which already fully comply with the law. Imagine, if you will, that someone suggested that Hasmonean and Menorah Grammar should be closed down because, as ‘Charedi’ schools, they fail to educate children, drawing examples exclusively from Satmar and Tashbar. In order to avoid this kind of basic conceptual confusion, it is necessary to have an agreed set of terms that can distinguish the ‘Charedi’ community I was describing from the one ‘Ahuva Yaldi’ lives in.
I should make clear that this is not an exercise (as If You Tickle Us alleges) in chopping and changing the definition of Charedi in order to avoid reasonable criticism. I’m more than willing to recognise that Neturei Karta and other extreme anti-zionists are a part of my Charedi community, however much I revile their views and methods, as are those who work to oppose improvements in secular education. There are plenty of people within the Charedi community who exhibit all of the negative characteristics that beset humanity at large and I have no intention of defining them out of existence. There are, moreover, many things about Ahuva Yaldi’s community that are, in fact, superior to mine, not least of which is the quality of education for boys. No purpose, however, (or at least no good one) is served by continuing to muddle them up.
There are a number of possible resolutions to this problem, but all of them come with significant drawbacks. As a starting point to moving forward, I will now list them all, assessing their various pluses and minuses.
Option 1 is to stop using any umbrella term at all and start talking instead about the constituent communities within the Charedi coalition. If I had simply used Chassidish in my articles, then no-one could possibly have raised doubts about the accuracy of what I wrote. Simply using the term Chassidish, however, would leave out institutions like Schlesingers or Beis Midrash Elyon for whom opposition to Chassidus as a religious philosophy is a basic part of their identity. This reality would make it necessary to employ a phrase like ‘Chassidim, litvaks and yekkes’, but this would be both clumsy and bewildering to those who were unfamiliar with the topic. Even worse, doing so would not solve the fundamental ambiguity because the same people in Northwest London who are described as Charedim will also likely identify with the term litvish or yekkish.
Ultimately, the term Charedi exists for a reason: it describes a cultural and social unity that exists between theologically and religiously different groups. We can’t dispense with this concept. What we need instead is to distinguish it from groups that are outside this cultural/social umbrella even if they have theological/religious similarities with parts of it.
Option 2 is to replace the term Charedi with heimish. This term is already used as a self-identifier within the Charedi community (indeed much more frequently so than Charedi) and it completely transcends the Chasidish – Litvish divide. The problem with this solution is that this term is almost unknown outside the community and, instead, is widely used as a culinary descriptor. Using it to describe my community, would be both confusing and infantilizing. There is also an additional problem in that within the Charedi world it carries with it an implication of speaking Yiddish, which would exclude many of those that I would wish to include.
Option 3 is to use the widely-used term ‘ultra-orthodox’. This would achieve two important goals. First of all, it would provide a reasonable basis on which to exclude those who lead more mainstream/modern lifestyles, most of whom would, themselves, reject the term as applied to them. Secondly, it is already widely recognised and can be used without generating further confusion. The obvious problem with this option is that even within our community, the term is generally resented as pejorative (as, indeed, it is generally intended to be). A less obvious problem is that it undermines the crucial distinction I want to make about the Charedi community as a social and cultural entity. The term ‘ultra-orthodox’ necessarily implies that we are ‘more religious’ than, say Rabbis Eliezer Melamed or Hershcel Schachter, which completely misses the point even if it were true (which, in any case, it obviously is not).
Option 4, which I have hitherto been pursuing, is to simply double down on the use of the term Charedi to describe only the collection of communities I have been talking about and insist that other communities use different terms such as ‘Right Wing Modern Orthodox’, ‘Centrist’, ‘Shtark Modern Orthodox’, or whatever else takes their fancy. The problem is that, in practice, this doesn’t seem to work, particularly in Britain, where Modern Orthodoxy remains largely stillborn and the Shomer Shabbos population continues to receive the great bulk of their religious instruction from unambiguously Charedi Rabbis. These communities, who identify with Charedi Judaism on the level of liturgy and hashkafa, cannot be placed in alternative religious categories with which they have no meaningful affiliation.
Option 5 is to recognise this reality and start distinguishing between the ‘traditional Charedi’ and ‘Modern Charedi’ community. A more accurate, but less polite distinction, would be simply between ‘Charedi’ and ‘Charedi lite’. The problem is that, even when using modifiers, the continued use of the shared term Charedi, will almost certainly perpetuate the existing conceptual muddle.
Option 6 is to reject all existing terms as inadequate for the reasons specified above and employ a new term specifically to describe the social and cultural group which I want to describe. I don’t have any specific ideas for this and, if I did, it would be presumptuous (if not delusional) to imagine I could popularise them myself.
I have no idea which of these options, if any, will be adopted. In the meantime, I will mostly be resorting to Option 5. What’s most important, however, is that everyone uses language in a way designed to clarify, not obscure. Since the term Charedi is clearly ambiguous and will likely stay that way for some time, all who use it should do their best to define exactly what group they are talking about and whether the term is being used in a social, cultural, theological, or any other sense.