The Creeping Jewish Fundamentalism in Our Midst

Moderate Hillels Are Losing to Radical Shammais

War in the Street: Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators set fires during a protest against Israeli government moves to scrap their exemption from national service.
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War in the Street: Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators set fires during a protest against Israeli government moves to scrap their exemption from national service.

By Jay Michaelson

Published May 27, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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And of course, Haredim in Israel put their American brothers to shame, diverting millions of shekels to schools that don’t provide a basic Western education, rabbinates filled with cronyism and a welfare system that keeps an entire sector of the population dependent on government subsidies.

In other words, the entire edifice of ultra-Orthodox power rests on gaming the system.

Meanwhile, “modesty brigades” and families willing to disown anyone who dares to leave patrol the walls of this contemporary shtetl. Imagine you’re an 18-year-old woman in a Hasidic enclave. You’re married, with two or three kids already, and you’ve been told that “outside” everyone is evil, depraved and miserable. You barely read English. And you know that when your cousin left, she was destitute, disowned and disgraced. There is no one to help you if you leave. You’re on your own. So of course you stay.

We are abandoning thousands of our fellow Jews to this hierarchy of power and abuse. We are doing nothing to help them.

And pretty soon, the hierarchy will overwhelm us. Demographers tell us that 49% of New York’s Jewish children are Haredi (either Hasidic or “yeshivish”). Especially in light of non-Orthodox disaffiliation, New York Jewry, within a generation, will be fundamentalist, poor, uneducated and reactionary. Non-Orthodox Jews will look like the secular Persians of Iran: once the complacent majority, now a minority oppressed by fundamentalists.

The good news is that since we are propping up this system, we have the power to weaken it.

First, mainstream American Jewish organizations must stop pretending to have common cause with Jewish fundamentalists. Just as mainline Christian denominations recognize Christian fundamentalism to be a threat to their religious values, so the mainstream of Jewish denominations — including Modern Orthodoxy — must recognize that this distortion of Judaism is actively destructive to Judaism itself.

Like Christian fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism is extremely new. It arose in response to modernity, and it radically changed Jewish values. Formerly, the Jewish mainstream balanced strictness and leniency: In the battle between the strict Shammai and the lenient Hillel, Hillel always won.


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