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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But the Haredi world is a phalanx of Shammais. The strictest is always the best. Moses wore a shtreimel, the fur hat that many married Haredi men wear, at the Red Sea. Scientific knowledge is evil. These are radically new Jewish ideas presented as radically old ones. Those of us who do not share them must recognize them as a threat.

And then we can begin to act. Fortunately, we don’t have to fight coercion with coercion. We don’t have to compel anyone to change his or her religious beliefs. We just have to stop artificially propping up a system that otherwise would not exist.

For example? We can demand an end to all federal and state subsidies to yeshivas that do not prepare students for contemporary economic and civic life. We can oppose all Jewish-fundamentalist efforts to take advantage of government or Jewish communal largesse. We can support our allies in Israel that are fighting for religious pluralism, for equal conscription of all Israelis, for civil marriage and for the defunding of the rabbinate.

And perhaps most important, we can publicly and financially support those struggling to escape from the oppression of ultra-Orthodoxy. For example, the organization Footsteps does wonderful work to help ex-Haredim transition to the modern world. But it is tiny in comparison with what we need. We need a Giant Footsteps —a major federation initiative to support those who leave and communicate to those trapped outside that there is vibrant Jewish life beyond the ghetto wall.

We fail to act because, I think, deep in the hearts of non-Orthodox Jews there lingers the belief that the Haredim are the real Jews, or the safeguards of our future, or perhaps the sweet, cuddly Tevyes of our imagined Yiddish roots.

But they are not. Of course, there are wonderful Haredi Jews out there. But the Haredi system threatens the demographic and cultural stability of the Jewish community, both in the United States and in Israel. Jewish fundamentalism is not good for the Jews.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.


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