Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Why are the Haredim Holding Up? A Response to the “Would Haredim Make Good Terrorists?”
Reuben Seligman sent me a response to my review of Radical Religious and Violent and was kind enough to allow me to post it.
I read your posts regarding the Berman book and I was disappointed. I would have preferred that you focus on the economics of Haredim. Economics is the science that deals with how people make choices and this science has been extended by several economist and sociologists (including Rodney Stark) to religious choices. Berman focuses on the structure of religious societies that make place barriers to exit, including Haredim. What I find interesting is how successful they have been. The best way to bring it out is the contrast with the terrible situation of Orthodox Judaism in prewar Europe which you had posted in the last few days. In contrast, both in the U.S. and in Israel, Haredim have managed to establish themselves in communities that are largely successful in retaining their children and are in fact growing. You may be correct that you have had contact with many people who grew up in the system and would leave if they could, but there are many who had many opportunities and chose to go into the system despite pressure from their parents.
To me, the question is how did we get from where we were fifty years ago to where we are now. You posted correctly that many of the Satmar Chasidim today are descended from what were considered Modern Orthodox Jews. Why is it that they were not successful in perpetuating their way of life; their descendants became Chasidim. The issue is not whether you are happy about it or not, but how people made choices that led to that result.
Another example, you may ask your father, but in my generation of Torah Vodaath, the parents universally wanted their children to go to college and were largely successful. I believe that about 70% of my class went to college of some sort. Yet many of the children of my contemporaries who went to college are not going to college. What were the choices that my contemporaries faced in raising their children and how did their choices lead to that result?
I can best speak about my own choices. I did go to college, but I spent two years in yeshiva after high school before going to college and went to Brooklyn College at night. In doing that, I gave up on my chances of going to a better college, but it was worth it to me because I wanted to study torah. To use a neologism (coined by the economist Herbert Simon) I satisficed (combination of satisfy and sacrifice). My question is why wasn't I able to reproduce myself. I see people studying torah and they have no education; Faigy tells me that there are no people in her generation who replicate me: a decent knowledge of Torah and a good secular education. Why is it that way? Is it that choices that were available to me are no longer available? I don't claim to know the answers.
To recapitulate: I don't believe in the historic inevitability of the collapse of the Haredi world. I believe that there are many problems with the sustainability of Modern Orthodoxy, but it is not collapsing either. But in order to make decent predictions about the future, a study of the religious economy, i.e., how choices were made in the past are essential.
Fair enough that I did not focus on the economics question. I am not an economist. My field of interest leans more to political theory and the mechanics of creating movements. My doctoral thesis deals with the worldly political issues that go into creating apocalyptic movements. This was what interested me about Berman's work and formed the bulk of my review
You ask two questions. What has allowed the Haredi community to be successful in the United States and in Israel in ways that they were never able to in Europe? The second question is essentially about the failure of the "Modern Orthodox" option; why are we unable to create people who are masters of both Jewish and secular subjects?
I would argue that ironically enough, the Haredi situation has been made possible by the rise of modern multiculturalism. (I think Samuel G. Freedman was fundamentally correct in regard to this, in Jew vs. Jew, when he argued that the big Jewish winner in this shift in American culture over the past few decades has been the Haredim and the big loser has been the secular Yiddishists.) Modern liberalism is far more willing to tolerate men with long beards and funny hats than early twentieth century America. While modern liberalism may give more tolerance to its favored groups, they are still trapped into at least making a show of tolerance. You cannot deny someone a job because of a beard and peyos and because they want to leave early on Friday. Modern liberalism has also helped in that it created the welfare state. This is one of the reasons why I oppose modern liberalism. What most people do not see is that this does not serve to create a more liberal society, but to bring out all the worst superstitions of the Old World. (The willingness of hard leftists to jump into bed with Islamic radicals is a more extreme and dangerous form of this same problem.)
What has benefited Haredim has to a large extent hurt Modern Orthodoxy. Modern multiculturalism devalued the "Great Books" and classical culture. If Modern Orthodoxy was the commitment to a dialogue with the best of the surrounding culture then modern multiculturalism robbed Modern Orthodoxy of its partner in dialogue. If, in sophisticated gentile society, it is no longer absolutely necessary to be able to know something about Shakespeare why should boys learning in Yeshiva have to? The difference between Modern Orthodox society and Haredi society is that Modern Orthodoxy society is premised on the working man (preferably a doctor or a lawyer), even if it acknowledges the necessity of having individuals sitting and learning. The Haredi world is built around a society of learners. Obviously, it requires people to hold down jobs. The jobs that pay the sort of salaries needed to support a Haredi lifestyle and hold up this community of learners require an advanced secular education. Even the more conservative members of the Haredi world can accept that there may be a value in having individuals with knowledge about the humanities. This Haredi society could only function in Eastern Europe as a rabbinic elite, one of the reasons why Eastern European religious life was so dysfunctional. Before the 1960s, in essence, almost everyone had to be Modern Orthodox so Modern Orthodoxy did not have a serious competitor. Comes modern liberalism and the modern welfare state and now there is another option.
The situation in Israel is slightly different. There the main issues are government welfare, in a more extreme version, and the army. I think Berman is right on in his discussion of how government subsidies only serve to encourage men to sit and learn and not work. As Libertarians know, government welfare is really simply government funding poverty and when you fund something you get more of it.
As to why we do not see more people who can do both, I do not have any good answers. It is hard enough for someone to be able to do one let alone do both so I suspect that, in any age, such figures are going to be few and far between. To what extent was your generation better at this than ours? I suspect this is largely a matter of the eye of the beholder. Obviously, the Haredi world is not going to be producing switch hitters. Your generation's Haredim were still in many respects "Modern Orthodox." They were raised as part of American society and they still operated on a worker model. That was a world that could produce you. Can the Modern Orthodox produce switch hitters? I would argue that they can even if not many. I admit that the Modern Orthodox suffer from a major limitation that it lacks a culture and model of intense Torah study. This will limit the amount of serious Torah scholars to come out of this society.