Sunday, March 04, 2012

The New Centrism – Israeli Version

For some time now I have been of the belief that there is a new reality among Orthodox Jewery in The United States and Canada that I term the new Centrism. It is phenomenon first noted by Rabbi Berel Wein.

Briefly what it means is that the world of right wing Modern Orthodoxy and moderate Charedim are increasingly melding socially into a single group that will eventually (if it doesn’t already) constitute the mainstream of Orthodox Jewry in the West. These two groups have almost identical lifestyles and similar values. Each has adopted some of the modalities of the other. Their Hashkafos may be different but that does not and will not impact on their integration as a group.

I believe this to be a very positive trend which moves us toward Achdus. Not that all Jews will all become one people with no real divisions. Unfortunately we are still a long way off from achieving that even within Orthodoxy in its extremes on both the left and the right. Let alone if one were to include heterodox and unaffiliated secular Jews. But the differences that divided the center are disappearing – at least socially. And it is a growing center.

But America is only half of the equation. Israel is an entirely different story and a far bigger nut to crack. I have not up until now seen this kind of new centrism taking off there. Israelis are far more strident in their Hashkafic opinions which seems to preclude any meaningful integration. The Charedi is almost as divided from the Dati (the Israeli version of Modern Orthodox Jew) as he is from the Chiloni (the secular Jew).

Yes Charedim and Datim are both observant. But with little exception they lead completely separate lives. Their children are educated differently. They have two separate and entirely different educational systems. Datim support the State and serve in the army. Charedim do not support the State and do not serve in the army. Factoring out religious observance the Dati has more in common with the Chiloni than he does with the Charedi.

So strident is the Charedi opposition to those things I cannot see any way that what is happening in America could happen in Israel.

True - there has been some movement in the Charedi world towards moderating their strident position on these issues as in Nachal Charedi and the development of training programs for Charedim who leave Kollel. But at the same time there are much stronger forces - with the Charedi world working overtime to prevent it from going too far. An example of this is the recent proclamation by some of their rabbinic leaders about conscription of their young men into the Israeli Defense Forces – calling it a Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor – that one must give up their lives rather than subject themselves to a military draft.

Hopeless? Not exactly. Ynet calls them “modern haredim”. There is an increasing phenomenon among Charedim that seems to be paralleling what is happening in America. Here is the opening paragraph of an article dealing with the issue:

They are scholars, have careers, mix in society and even serve in the army, but in the polls they will always vote according to rabbi's instructions. Meet the modern haredim – a growing sub-sector that poses new challenges for ultra-Orthodox society

There has actually been some research done on this phenomenon by Adv. Haim Zicherman from the Israeli Institute for Democracy and Dr. Lee Cahaner from Oranim College that suggests that this is more than an anomaly. (The focus in on non Chasidic Charedim of the Lithuanian mold who are the ones most committed to full time Torah study for all male adults for as long as possible.)

The study seems to reveal that this is a growing trend. And that it is caused by their dire economic circumstances. They are beginning to do what moderate Charedim in Amercia are doing. They are attending universities and joining with their fellow Datim and Chilonim in the workforce.

True - they still maintain Charedi Hashkafos. But will they become more socially integrated into the mainstream - as this story indicates?

I don’t think there is any real social integration yet. The Hashkafic differences are very real and have a greater impact on how Charedim and Datim view each other. But as they become more involved in the workplace, it is inevitable that some of those differences will fade away. But will it be enough to create a new mainstream?

There are obstacles in Israel that do not exist in America. As it stands the Charedi educational infrastructure precludes any kind of big paradigm shift. Although there are a few exceptions at the Yeshiva high school level – like Marava - they are not approved by the Charedi rabbinic leadership. They discourage their flock from sending their children to schools like this. By and large these kinds of schools do not exist for the vast majority of Charedim. There is no Charedi educational system that includes secular studies as part of the curriculum. And there is no attempt to create any. The opposite is true.

Charedim who enter the mainstream are still the exception. But I am happy to see it is happening even at this level. It seems to be large enough to be noted and studied. And it seems to be on the increase.

The question remains as to whether there will be any kind of paradigm shift that will allow Charedim in Israel to segue into a new mainstream - as is the case in America where most Charedi high schools still have a secular studies program. They also need to ease up on their opposition to military or national service – a prerequisite for working in many jobs. Perhaps more importantly it is a prerequisite for ending the inherent animosity between those who serve and those who don’t.

If there is ever going to be the kind on new Centrist mainstream that seems to be taking hold in America - a mainstream that will not only better the Charedi economic situation but benefit the economy of the entire country - it is imperative for Israeli rabbinic leaders to stop their strident opposition to these things. Unfortunately they currently still seem to be doing the opposite.