Published in The Jerusalem Post on July 11, 1999
Buried deep in the convoluted coalition-making and platform-drafting, a social revolution has been wrought. Ehud Barak’s government has negotiated a transformation in haredi lifestyle and haredi-secular relations. There need not be a culture war after all.
According to the groundbreaking coalition agreement signed with United Torah Judaism and backed by Shas, haredi men with families will soon be able to get complete draft exemptions at the age of 24 or 25, down from age 40, and enter the workforce. More than 17,000 of the 31,000 haredi men holding draft deferments in 1998 are over 24 years old, so that the new draft exemption arrangement could lead to thousands of haredi men entering the workforce each year.
Published statistics show that at present close to 60 percent of hareidi men are not part of the legal workforce, although they may be earning a few under-the-table shekels at part-time jobs. The ideal has been to stay in yeshiva and study only Torah, for as long as possible. Inevitably, this means that many Haredi families are dependent on charity and the government dole. Half of the 64,000 children in Haredi Bnei Brak live under the poverty line.
The rabbis of the Ultra-Orthodox world had no choice. They’ve finally given in to reality and said: it is okay to work rather than study full-time.
But the social and ideological implications of this concession to reality run much, much deeper. It means, I think, a normalization of haredi society, and the beginning of a new relationship between the haredi world and larger Israeli society.
The economic tides which have forced haredi leaders to accept this epochal change in their community code inevitably will force haredim also to amend their attitudes towards secular education, towards modernity, towards rabbinic authority, towards other parts of Israeli society. And all this, I think, without losing their distinctive identity.
It has started already. *The Jerusalem Post* recently wrote about the burgeoning haredi student body registering for a professional education at the Haredi Center for Technical Studies in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. And last week, the Israel correspondent of *The New York Times* blew the cover off an even more revolutionary and until now, hush-hush program: the first group of haredim ever to study for an academic degree at an Israeli university.
With top rabbinical sanction and under close spiritual supervision, twenty mid-age haredi men are studying for a BA in social work at Bar-Ilan University – becoming exposed to Freud, Jung, field work, term papers, rigorous exams and all. The impressive group of haredi students told *The New York Times* that the studies are changing the way they think about the relationship between Torah and secular knowledge; the way they think about themselves and their families; the way in which they speak to their wives; and the way in which they relate to their own community — its merits, blemishes, and all.
The men in the program are an inspiring crew: some have been running leading haredi educational institutions on an amateur basis for years. They have wanted to enter the modern world of learning and professional enlightenment, but didn’t dare.
The demonization of haredim rampant in this country made their leaders lock down and bar the doors, keeping them in. In fact, funding for the unique social work program had to come from a philanthropist in America, Leon Jolson of New York. No-one over here was prepared to invest funds in assisting the haredim out of their ghetto and thus help repair Israeli society.
Now, the possibility for real change in the haredi world exists, to their benefit and ours.
Haredi leaders, I’m sure, realize the risks involved. For one, the stepping out from the yeshiva world will likely reduce the influence of yeshiva deans on their students. Certainly, it will require a new sophistication and moderation among haredi rabbis.
It is no coincidence that throughout Jewish history, the halachic decisors who were communal leaders (such as Rabbi Yechiel Epstein, the Aruch Hashulchan) were more lenient and halachically moderate. *Poskim* who remained within the yeshiva orbit or who did not hold a communal position (such as the Chazon Ish) tended to be much stricter.
Secondly, more haredim voluntarily will submit to army service, I am sure, as they prepare to move out and become more fully part of the Israeli societal fabric.
All things considered, a certain diminution in haredi identity is indeed at risk. Nonetheless, I doubt the degree of jeopardy here. Just like haredim in the US, the Ultra-Orthodox should be able to do it all at once: preserve and deepen their particular, authentic identity; swim in the halls of business, law, science, academia, even the army; and learn to live in accommodation and peace with Jewish neighbors that are radically different from them.
It is strange: what Yaakov Neeman, the Orthodox former Minister of Finance, wanted to do and couldn’t – help the haredim out of poverty and into modernity — Ehud Barak has come close to achieving. G-d works in mysterious ways.