Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry Paperback – 11 Feb 2000
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"On the evidence of this remarkable portrayal of a world long thought to be an anomaly, there is no reason to underscore the shortcomings of the ultra-Orthodox without recognizing their virtues as well."--Murray Polner, "New York Times Book Review"
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"An indispensable sociological and anthropological account of an important religious group within Israel. . . . Heilman combines his own detailed observations within a cautious and critical sociological framework."Calvin Goldscheider, Brown University"See all Product Description
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The author, Samuel Heilman, while not himself "ultra-orthodox," is a religiously observant Jew trained in anthropology, making him an insider-outsider who is well-qualified to journey into the Jewish sector of Old Jerusalem. His methodology is that of a "participant observer," learning about the culture by doing it with the people. (Only a religious Jew could undertake such a project among the very orthodox. A non-Jewish anthropologist would probably not be admitted to many of the gatherings and ceremonies, and, even if he were admitted, could not fully participate.)
The book is well-balanced, presenting both the positive and negative aspects of the culture in a very readable format. Heilman combines personal experiences among the Haredim with well-written background information about the movement, making the book accessible to readers who might not be familiar with Jewish practices. I especially liked his descriptions of the different types of Hasidic gatherings, and his explanations of the spirit behind them. Unlike so many academics who write about Hasidism, he was able to see beyond the superficial plainness of the schools and synagogue buildings (often rather dilapidated) to the beautifully disciplined spirituality of the worshippers. At the same time, Heilman doesn't idealize the Haredi world. He covers the rebels and dissidents as well as the true believers.
Readers should keep in mind that these groups are the extremes of the extreme within Orthodox Judaism. As Heilman explains in the Prologue, he rejected the American Hasidic communities for his study, because they were not the "genuine article" (his words). He chose the Jerusalem community because he felt it had made the least acommodations to the modern world. Heilman was specifically looking for extremes, and studied them in the same manner that one might study a "lost tribe" in the Amazon. So, the Jerusalem Haredim are really a subculture within a subculture within a minority. One must be careful not to project the contents of this book onto all Jews --- even Orthodox ones. Taken within those narrowly-specified parameters, "Defenders of the Faith" is an excellent read.
The author does a good job at portraying the life of the Haredim in a curious yet understanding way, while still being critical at appropriate times. Heilman does not rain down flattery but also does not shy away from asking difficult questions. While keeping an intellectually honest front, Heilman brings out thought-provoking discussions and presents perspectives that the rest of us outsides may not ever agree with, but can -- at the very least -- understand where the Haredim are coming from.
There are not a great deal of books on the so-called "ultra" Orthodox Jews available, and many that are are horribly biased against the way of life that seems so extreme to many of us. Heilman's text is definitely one I'd recommend because it keeps middle ground, explores deeply but still manages to be respectful to his subjects.
I personally have very mixed feelings about the people described in these pages (except for the Lubavitchers, the most modern Hassidic group). On the one hand, we come to see these people, in all of their various groups (Belzers, Reb Arelach, Satmars, Neturei Karta, Sanzers, Breslovers, Lithuanians, etc.), as almost regular people in spite of the glaring differences, people who live decent upright lives even though they seem like people out of an 18th century shtetl, who are living the only way they know how to live, the only way they can imagine living, who have become so strict in response to what they feel is a corrupting of morals, Judaism, and the world in general, particularly after how their communities were all but decimated in the Shoah. However, as normal and sympathetic as the Hareidim come to seem during the course of this book, it is still unsettling to read the things they say about the modern world, such as how anyone who's not ultra-Orthodox isn't really religious, how a man who rushes to hug and kiss his wife after she's just had their baby is overcome by lust and can't wait to get back into bed with her instead of just being overcome by love and tenderness after such a powerful event, how a woman who doesn't dress the way a Hareidi woman does must be very lax in her morals, even if the clothes she's wearing are still rather modest by secular standards, how if someone comes out of a public university with his or her Judaism unaffected, s/he was never really observant to begin with, and how all goyim are adulterers, thieves, liars, and generally bad silly corrupt people. As lovely as these people are, it's dangerous to see the world in such black and white terms, to not want to venture outside for fear of contamination no matter how strong one's faith is, to group people into "self" and "other." Still, as a modern person, it's easy to judge them and be offended by some of the things they believe. For people who have lived and believed this way their entire lives, it's the most normal thing in the world. And they're so insulted in their communities that it doesn't seem like a problem that they receive no secular education or don't want to go outside of their neighborhoods. That's their world, and if it works for them, then great.
A lot of subjects are covered in this book, though they're grouped into three main sections--community life (such as the Belzer rebbe's son's bar mitzvah, the Belzer rebbe's Friday night tisch, the third ritual meal of Shabbos with the extreme sect the Reb Arelach, an offshoot of the Satmars, and a pilgrimage), education (going from gan [kindergarten] to the yeshiva attended by men in their twenties), and personal matters (funerals, weddings, matchmaking, sex). As has been already noted, Mr. Heilman had a special position as a partial insider. He's Modern Orthodox, so he was quite familiar with a lot of the rituals, prayers, and events; a non-Jew or someone of a more liberal denomination probably wouldn't have been allowed such wide-ranging access to all of these events and wouldn't have been allowed to observe schools or talk to couples about their sex lives. Although this stringent way of life isn't for me, I was left wanting more information about these communities, wanted more stories about them, wished there had been another chapter on their regular day-to-day lives as opposed to covering mainly ritual, education, and life passages. I also wished there had been more material on Hareidi women, outside of the chapters on matchmaking and sex. I understand that as a man, he couldn't really have access to women's lives the same way he was able to observe and talk with those of the male sex, but that did mean that a big part of what the Hareidi experience is all about wasn't covered as fully as it might have been. In spite of what the average modern person views as shortcomings or even offensive and highly outdated and inaccurate views and beliefs on the world, this is a fascinating society that has a rich warm vibrancy, and this book is a wonderful introduction to them.
The Christian reader of this work will recognize many of the religious themes featured in it. In fact, all of the following themes recount the teachings of Jesus Christ on the Pharisees: Hasidic teachings warn against prayer that has become rote (p. 222) and obedience to the Law that has become perfunctory or mechanical. (p. 241). Personal wealth and spirituality are, or tend to be, incompatible with each other. (p. 251). Finally, adherence to the Law is no guarantee of true spirituality, and it can instead result in self-righteousness, spiritual pride, and self-seeking social status. (p. 241).
Now consider sexual morality. [It turns out that there is irony to the argument that Christianity, unlike Judaism, has a repressive policy towards human sexuality, and that it has a negative view of the human body.] In haredi schools, the body is considered impure below the belt. (p. 197). There are strict haredi codes for modest dress and behavior. Self-stimulation is forbidden. (p. 319). Sex is primarily considered a means of procreation, and then only within marriage. (p. 317). [Clearly, when viewed through the lenses of modern sexual libertinism, traditional Jewish sexual morality is no less “negative” and “repressive” than traditional Christian sexual morality.].
RESISTANCE TO ASSIMILATION: PAST AND PRESENT
Until recent centuries, Jews lived in self-segregation and in self-imposed apartheid (my term). Heilman recounts that, historically, Jewish resistance to assimilation had primarily been driven by religious strictures against Jews adopting the ways of the goyim. This was based on the Bible (Leviticus 20:26) (p. 18) and the Talmud (Sanhedrin 74b). (p. 373). The haredim continue this approach.
The “us” vs. “them” mentality is obvious. However, can the type of Jewish separatism that is exemplified by the haredim go further--to Jewish elitism and even anti-goyism? Although Heilman does not use either of these terms, he makes it obvious that this has happened. He quotes Shalom Nisan of the Rev Arelach Hasidic movement as follows, (quote) “We know what that world is; it’s goyim and PRITZOS (whores). The people who come from that world are FREMDE (foreigners). The world is black and white. We are white.” (unquote). (p. 147). At a haredi school in Israel, author Heilman observed the following, (quote) The children smiled; a few giggled. Of course, how foolish to offer the Torah to the goyim! It is well known that goyim like to steal. The teacher told them so. Everyone knew it. Only the Yidn were worthy to receive the Torah. (unquote). (p. 193).
The author notes that, in the past, religious Jews prayed for their gentile rulers in order to remain in their graces. (p. 218). However, the haredim in modern Israel feel no need to pray for their secular Jewish rulers, whom they see as sinful Jews.
GENTILE LEARNING SPURNED
Heilman notes that the haredim are opposed to their members receiving a secular education (e. g, p. 171), notably at the university level, because it is a cesspool of immorality, and it is likely to lure Jews away from the Torah. (pp. 268-269). More fundamentally, non-Jewish knowledge is “alien wisdom” (CHOCHMOS CHITZONIOS). (p. 171). However, Heilman does not inform the reader that, until recent centuries, this attitude was almost universal among Jews. They avoided Gentile learning as pernicious and of no value to them.
AVOIDANCE OF MILITARY SERVICE
Author Samuel Heilman explains why the haredim refuse to serve in the Israeli Army, (quote) How haredi can one be when one must take orders from an officer who is not only not a sage but is probably a sinner and who demands that one act and look like a Gentile? So Israeli haredim continue to encourage their men to stay away from army service as long as possible, no matter what the cost. (unquote). (p. 37).
[The foregoing has broader implications. It was one of the reasons that Poland’s Jews commonly avoided service in the Polish Army of the resurrected Polish state. It also illuminates Polish concerns that the Minorities Treaty, if fully enacted, would give Poland’s Jews a means to avoid military service to Poland.]
This book might work well read in conjunction with another book: Real Jews: Secular Versus Ultra-Orthodox: The Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel by Noah Efron.
1. At the very least, "Defenders of the Faith" recapitulates concepts such as Haskallah (The Jewish Enlightenment), "maskillim" (Enlightened Jews), "misnagdim" (Orthodox Jews with an emphasis on scholarship), "hasidim" (Orthodox Jews with an emphasis on spirituality) that were covered in the aforementioned book. But somehow this treatment was easier to follow.
2. The book was fabulously easy to read, and Heilman has a good gift for storytelling that elevates this book past the status of a dry documentary that just chronicled events.
3. Heilman seems to suggest here that Orthodox Judaism "hardened" sometime between the Holocaust and Haskallah. This is a good counter to another argument that I've heard that Judaism's move toward rigid Orthodoxy was after the publication of the Shulchan Aruch.
4. Another topic that the author addressed was the poverty of the Eastern European Jews compared to the German speaking Jews-- poverty that continued even when those respective sets of Jews migrated to the United States. (Mentioned briefly in Greenspan's The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New Worldand Sowell's Migrations And Cultures: A World View.) It seems that Haskallah did not reach as far into Eastern Europe as it did to Western Europe, and so those Eastern European Jews didn't have the benefit of modernity.
5. The book has a great index for all of the new terms that it defines. It also has a good number of references (I count 18 pages, with a good chunk of them being primary).
There are some things that I felt were lacking:
1. This book only dealt with Haredim in Israel, but there are also a large number of them in New York. Are Haredim in Israel representative of all of them everywhere? Or not?
2. This author does not treat the Hasidim that he observes as a cult (even though their fixation on their Rebbes seems a bit......excessive). What makes them different from a cult? Or are they (I have not found a place where Heilman explicitly denies that they are.)
Overall, this was much worth the second-hand purchase price.
What did I learn?
1. There is just SO MUCH bitterness, division and anger even within the Jews. Sephardim vs. Ashkenazim. Misnagdim vs Hasidim. Secular vs. Haredi. Hasidim of Sect X competing for adherents for Sect Y.
2. We got a revisit of many of the holidays and examples of what people did on them. (The Purim Festival, for example, was a chance for Haredim to demonstrate what they would NEVER be, by dressing as that. Analagous to Halloween in Western countries.)