The disturbing recent episode involving the harassment of an 8-year-old Orthodox girl in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh, and the ongoing controversy over separate seating for women on public buses in Jerusalem and elsewhere, has focused new attention on that group of Jews known as Charedim (or ultra-Orthodox). But who are they, and where do they come from?
In their own self-presentation, they are the direct heirs of a long-standing Torah-true Judaism. Indeed, they frequently declare the desire to walk in “the path of the ancient Israel” (derekh Yisrael sava), as if they represent an unbroken chain of tradition. And yet, Charedim are a relatively new phenomenon in Jewish history, a group born in modern times, even though possessed of a decidedly anti-modern worldview. Insofar as they regard the world around them as corrupt and polluted, they believe that it is necessary to engage in a prolonged struggle to assure the purity of their Jewish lives. This leads to a set of impulses that often grate against one another: a martial impulse to join in battle on behalf of the Almighty, paired with a separatist impulse to isolate themselves from the rest of society in order to assure that purity. In both cases, they are motivated by “charada,” a Hebrew word that connotes a trembling fear or anxiety in the face of God’s omnipotence. From this state of vigilant anxiety issues the name “Charedim.”
In studying the Charedim, scholars such as the late Israeli historian Jacob Katz point to the advent of a “new traditionalism” in 19th century Europe. They note the influence of the German-born rabbi, Rabbi Moses Schreiber (1762-1839), known as the Hatam Sofer, who gained renown for his forceful opposition to currents of change in Judaism in his time. This opposition was immortalized in the Hatam Sofer’s famous credo: “Chadash asur min haTorah” — innovation is forbidden as a matter of Torah. He himself left his native Germany for Pressburg in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to establish a yeshiva that would gain renown for its traditionalist curriculum and rigor. There he would join forces with an unlikely partner, the Galician-born Chasidic Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum, to combat the “modernizers” — such as the first Reform Jews, whom they believed were undermining the true faith. (Chasidism was an 18th century populist movement of spiritual revival that took aim at elitist Torah scholarship inaccessible to the masses.)
The unlikely pairing of a non-Chasidic Germany rabbi and a Chasidic rebbe from Galicia reveals one of the characteristic features of Charedi Judaism: its diversity. There are not only non-Chasidic and Chasidic components to the phenomenon, but many variants of Chasidism within the Charedi world. The same Austro-Hungarian Empire where the Hatam Sofer settled proved to be, in the late 19th century, the chief incubator of this new experiment in religious traditionalism. In particular, Hungary was the site of an intense battle among differing Jewish factions including the Neolog (akin to Reform), Status Quo (somewhere between Conservative and Orthodox), Orthodox and Charedi camps. Already in the late 19th century, the Charedim insisted on a new degree of ritual stringency in Jewish communal life. The descendants of Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum were especially energetic in insisting on new standards of kashrut, gender segregation, modest dress for women, and resistance to secular studies. The most famous of those descendants, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1979), also gained renown for his fierce and unrelenting opposition to Zionism, which he regarded as a violation of the rabbinic injunction against “hastening the [messianic] end.”
As a matter of fact, opposition to Zionism was a key feature of the many new forms of traditionalist Judaism that took rise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, it is best to think of these new forms as occupying a spectrum that included more moderate and more radical versions, though the differences would not be readily discernible to the average observer. For example, a new traditionalist movement took rise in 1912, the Agudat Yisrael, composed of Chasidic and non-Chasidic Jews from Poland and Germany, with the express mission of warding off the secularizing influence of the Zionist movement. They were not joined, however, by the leaders of Hungarian Charedi Judaism such as Joel Teitelbaum and the Munkaczer Rebbe, who, in fact, forbade their followers from having any contact with the Aguda. This reminds us that the impulse to engage in battle that has been so central to Charedi Judaism was often directed against one’s putative allies. The Hungarians regarded themselves as purists and branded the Aguda as collaborators, for reasons that will soon become clear.
For all of their opposition to Zionism, Charedim of different stripes — moderates and radicals alike — felt a deep bond with Eretz Yisra’el and sought to settle there. The more radical among them established in 1919 their own “Edah Charedit” (Charedi Community) in the Mea She’arim neighborhood of Jerusalem. This community served as an alternative, anti-Zionist source of religious authority, with its own synagogues, yeshivas and kashrut norms in various Jerusalem neighborhoods, as well as Bnei Brak. Their own curious blend of quietism and activism rested on the belief that while one should not seek to establish Jewish self-government in Palestine in advance of the Messiah, one should not surrender the Holy Land to the Zionists, with whom compromise was impossible.
The Aguda adopted a different tack. In 1933, it entered into an agreement with the Zionist-led Jewish Agency to receive 6.5 percent of the immigration certificates to Palestine that the agency had to distribute. And in 1947, the Aguda was partner to the famous Status Quo agreement that David Ben-Gurion, soon to be Israel’s first prime minister, proposed that guaranteed that the new state would observe the Sabbath, maintain kashrut in government institutions, and cede control over education and personal status matters to religious authorities.
Over time, the Aguda has become more and more integrated into Israeli political life; its representatives serve as deputy ministers and members of Knesset. Some would say that the price to pay for the Status Quo agreement — and the Aguda’s involvement in Israeli public life — is a high one: coercive Orthodox control over religious affairs in Israel. That may well be, but what transpired in Beit Shemesh — and the battle over gender segregation on buses in Israel — result from the more radical Charedi component, whose roots extend back to the Edah Charedit. While adamantly separatist — for example, their leaders do not serve in the Knesset or in government ministries — they are, at the same time, an increasingly aggressive, visible and populous component of the Israeli public square. Their heavy-handed and at times violent tactics are not new. They have their roots in the formative Hungarian setting of Charedi Judaism. The key question is: Will their growing numbers necessitate a greater integration into and accommodation to Israeli society, thereby mitigating their separatist and martial impulses? Or will their increasing prominence and sense of empowerment result in ever-deeper fissures in Israel’s social fabric? To a great extent, the future of Israel hinges on the answer to these questions.
David N. Myers is chair of the UCLA History Department; he is writing a book, along with Nomi Stolzenberg, on the Satmar Chasidic village of Kiryas Joel, N.Y.