Guest post by Hadassah Levy
Hadassah Levy is a principal at i-Point Media Group, where she specializes in social media, content writing and SEO.
The very title of William Kolbrener’s Open Minded Torah expresses a paradox that demands examination. As the name implies, the book supports an open-minded approach to Judaism, in which a variety of opinions (although not all) are considered legitimate. This represents the polar opposite of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) ideology.
Indeed, Kolbrener appears to be directly critiquing Haredi society. He rails against its narrow-mindedness, exclusivity, feelings of superiority, superficiality and intolerance. He criticizes simplistic readings of Judaism, reliance on segulahs, kabbalah and the belief that the faithful are rewarded in this world. There is also implicit criticism of those who choose to learn in kollel instead of interacting with the world.
On the other hand, the author tells us that he commemorates Israel Memorial Day and celebrates Israel Independence Day. He is a poster boy for advanced secular education, stringing together Talmudic sources with literature, philosophy and Christianity. His only real complaint about the Dati Leumi (national religious, or Israeli Modern Orthodox) society, is its exaggerated messianism.
Interestingly, it appears that Kolbrener is a member of the society which he treats harshly in the book. He mentions sending his children to heder, a clear sign that he is (or was, at least, at the time of writing) raising his family in the Haredi lifestyle.
One wonders, without knowing anything about Kolbrener’s life beyond what he reveals in the book, why someone like him has chosen this lifestyle? There are of course other people who seem to support national religious ideology, while living a Haredi lifestyle – at least outwardly. They send their children to schools where advanced secular education is discouraged and the skills necessary to achieve it are not taught. These schools also discourage full participation as citizens of the State of Israel. Why are people choosing this lifestyle?
One conclusion is that there are attractions in the Haredi world that overshadow issues of education and statehood. Haredi society is perceived by many to contain more spirituality and more religious sincerity than the national religious camp. Values such as hesed appear to be stronger in this society, making the community more attractive. Additionally, there is something “easy” about being Haredi. Not as many decisions are required from an individual and even these can be avoided by deferring to the authority of a rabbi.
Another possibility is that people find themselves in Haredi society by accident. Many baalei teshuvah were encouraged to join the ultra-Orthodox camp by the rabbis and teachers who taught them about religion and belong themselves to the Haredi world. In fact, until recently, other streams of Orthodoxy did not engage in kiruv in Israel at all, leaving the field wide open for the Haredim. Baalei teshuvah may easily misunderstand what Haredi society stands for and join it without serious research.
Anglo-Saxons are particularly vulnerable to misunderstanding this society, because the Israeli Haredi society is so different from ultra-Orthodoxy in their country of origin. In the United States, most Haredim participate in the workforce and are much more open-minded than their Israeli counterparts.
It is also possible that because Haredi society has become more extreme in some ways in recent years, people who joined it a few decades ago may now find that it no longer fits their ideology. This extremism has forced some of its members to become disenchanted and express their disillusion through defection or quiet disobedience. Entire factions of Israeli Haredim are looking to serve in the army and join the workforce, leaving yeshiva behind. Haredi women, called upon to support their husbands, are increasingly broadening their career options beyond teaching school. Recent pictures of the Memorial Day ceremony at the Kotel showed many men in black hats as active participants.
In fact, it may very well be that these people, with one foot in ultra-Orthodoxy and the other in plain old Orthodoxy, will serve as a bridge between the societies, allowing each one to broaden its perception of Judaism. They combine spirituality, seriousness and kindness with an appreciation for the values of Israeli citizenship, broader education and the ability to learn from those who are different. Less extremism and more tolerance can only bring value to the State of Israel.