Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The Charedi Dominance of Orthodoxy

How did it happen? How did Charedi Judaism become the dominant form of Orthodoxy in the 21st century? I don’t know that there is any one answer. But I have been watching this phenomenon take place over my lifetime with both wonder and amazement and yet I completely understand it.

Some may argue that it is not the dominant form even if it has the most adherents. They will point to large segments of Jewry that are modern Orthodox. Others may question how Charedism is defined and separate various segments of ultra- Orthodox Jewry out of Charedism. Chasidim like Satmar and Lubavitch may say that they do not share values with the Yeshiva world – each having their own set of values.

Perhaps one can make those distinctions legitimately. I define Charedi Judaism as including all of the above. But for purposes of this essay my focus will be on the Yeshivishe world which in large part was - and still is - responsible for educating the masses of Orthodox Jewry.

Charedi Judaism can be classified as a form of Orthodoxy that adheres to the strictest interpretation of Halacha (as each group understands it). They follow a path where they are generally Choshesh for the Daas HaMachmir. This means that even when there are legitimate lenient interpretations of a given Halacha, they will likely not take ‘the easy way out’ and be Mekil. They will be Machmir so as to comply with as many interpretations of the Halacha as possible for fear that the most Machmir position is the correct one. Most often they will seek a Posek along those lines.

This does not mean that they are never Mekil. They are in some cases - based on the Posek they follow. But as a rule they will more often be stricter than not.

Charedi Hashkafos generally espouse the ‘Torah Only’ view which looks down at all other forms of learning other than Torah learning. Other disciplines of study are seen as utilitarian and B’Dieved at best.

The growth in America of this segment of Orthodoxy defies all probability. Until the advent of the day school movement, American Orthodoxy was going in the opposite direction. Modern Orthodoxy was seen as the wave of the future. Understandably so.

The draw of being successful in America was not only beckoning our call, America made it relatively easy for us achieve. America is the land of opportunity where prejudice and anti-Semitism do not for the most part stand in the way of success.

Prior to the post Holocaust influx of European Jewry this was the direction Orthodoxy was going. It was nearly impossible to find anyone who would for example join a Yeshiva post high school instead of going to college. That’s why Dr. Bernard Revel created Yeshiva College (eventually to become Yeshiva University). He realized the only way he could convince even Orthodox students to learn post high school was if he could provide them with a decent college program.

This all changed post Holocaust as religious survivors immigrated and brought their European religious (mostly Chasidic) values with them. Great rabbinic figures like Rav Aharon Kotler were also now coming to our shores and offering Shiurim to students at a level unavailable (for the most part) up to that time. That changed the dynamic.

Rav Aharon Kotler set the pace. And Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz provided the schools that would accommodate these new students – the sons of survivors - along these lines. And thus was born Charedism in America. It has since flourished beyond all predictions and American Orthodoxy is now firmly in Charedi hands via their now enormous numbers and day schools across North America.

Is that the whole story? Of course not. There are many other factors influencing the direction we have gone. But I had always seen the development of Orthodox Judaism in America along these lines. I have not however sufficently considered the influence of one man, Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz - The Chazon Ish. An article by Lawrence Grossman in Jewish Ideas Daily reviews a new book by Benjamin Brown about this important figure. The point made is that he almost singularly responsible for this trend.

I of course realize how important a figure he was. He was a Gadol – perhaps even the Gadol HaDor to most Charedim during his lifetime. It is his attitudes about Judaism and the State of Israel that have been adopted by virtually every Charedi Jew – certainly in Israel but probably even here in America.

Posthumously he is now most the most revered individual since the Chafetz Chaim. He is the role model for attitude and Torah scholarship. He is constantly being quoted - both in Halacha and Hashkafa. His Shitos are followed on just about everything, from the Heter Mechira during Shmitah (invalid); to the attitude toward the State of Israel (Illegitimate but willing to work with the fait accompli); to the minimum size of Kiddush cup for Shabbos and Pesach (largest size).

This phenomenon is hard to deny. Most Yeshiva students even in America want to comply with his Halachic views. Except where he is Mekil. Interestingly enough his views on the requirements for city-wide Eruvin are among the most lenient and are not relied upon by most Poskim.

Based on the review of the book I believe that the author attributes Charedi Judaism across the entire world to this one man. Thinking about it - I would tend to agree - certainly in Israel. He was the leader to which all subsequent Charedi leaders such as Rav Shach looked to as their Hashkafic role model. It is his mindset that dominates the typical Charedi mind in Israel.

In America his influence is a bit less strong because of the other Charedi pioneers that I mentioned - as well as others that I didn’t mention. But his influence here is still strong enough to impact on Charedi thinking on many things.

Is Charedism the wave of the future? Are we going down a path where the values of learning full time and adopting ever more Chumros are all that matter? It would certainly seem like it. The current trend of ‘Moving to the Right’ certainly encourages this mindset. And there is no question about their growing numbers via a very high birth rate. Modern Orthodox numbers may be growing too, but at a much slower rate and Charedi Jews will no doubt continue to increasingly surpass Modern Orthodox numbers.

I have addressed these questions before. Many times. I do in fact believe that Charedism is the wave of the future. But in a modified way that ultimately adopts many of the modalities – if not the values - of Modern Orthodoxy. I refer to them as Moderate Charedim. And that is the real wave of the future. They will be joined by what I call Right Wing Modern Orthodox and become one social – if not Hashkafic – unit. I call them the ‘New Centrists’. Why I believe this is the case is beyond the scope of this essay. Been there and done that. But it certainly is fascinating to see how we got here.