Monthly Archives: December 2020

Orthodox Judaism and the Politics of Religion – Daniel Mahla

In 2020, Haredim and Relgious Zionists seem worlds apart. One side following its Rabbinical leadership and living a life of learning Torah, while the other side accepts its Rabbinical leadership but also finds serving in the army and engaging in building the land as prime relgious directives. They represent two very different visions of Orthodox Judaism. Yet, both sides engage in politics, both sides claim to be the Orthodox voice in Israeli politics, seeking to maximize their role in the government with its financial motivations. One side says they will not join a collision unless there is completely no draft for Haredim and the other side says they wont join unless the Haredim are drafted. The big change now is that in the last decades Religious Zionists were having 3-6 children, while the hareidim are having 8-12 children and will soon be a solid 20% of the Israeli population. How did these two groups come to be from the undifferentiated traditional rabbinic world of Eastern Europe circa 1900?

To answer this question, we now have Daniel Mahla’s Orthodox Judaism and the Politics of Religion: From Prewar Europe to the State of Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2020). Mahla teaches at the Historisches Seminar der LMU- Jüdische Geschichte und Kultur, and the coordinator for the Center for Israeli Studies at Munich University. His PhD is from Columbia University. Before coming to Columbia, Daniel did a master’s degree in History, Political Science, and Jewish Studies at Humboldt and Freie Universities in Berlin. This book needs to be read by anyone interested in the history of Orthodoxy. It is an excellent piece of scholarship. The research into primary sources is remarkable in showing how political issues around Zionism separated the two groups.

The book shows how at the turn of the twentieth century in 1902 there was originally a single entity of Orthodoxy, which by 1953 separated into two distinct groups. Mahla’s method is one that will add to a reader’s knowledge, even if well versed in the topic. Mahla does a diplomatic political history, the way one would be a history of the NAFTA treaty or of US-China relations done through the statements of the embassy personnel and diplomats.  Most of us tell the story of the divide in ideological terms, through theology, ideology, and rabbinic leaders. Instead, Mahla tells the story through functionaries, party officials, conferences, requests from the Zionist Organizations, and political differences. He downplays the role actual rabbinic leaders played and instead showed how party official created two distinct groups.

Mahla shows that neither side started with a clear ideology.  The life in Eastern Europe was breaking down, the shtetl faced extreme poverty, the Russian revolution, WWI, and a breakdown of the institutions. Jewish Education was in shambles. The new Jewish urban centers witnessed breakdown of traditional patterns. The secular parties- Bund, citizen’s rights, communist, Zionist- all full ideological agenda to save Jewish life. According to Mahla, the relgious parties had no clear-cut ideologies to start but they worked it out as they founded schools, rabbinical seminaries, social facilities, youth movements, newspapers, libraries, as well as other associations.

Some rabbinical leaders, the Relgious Zionists, thought a major change was needed, others, the Agudah, thought the older models still worked. Some rabbinical leaders thought that Zionism was the answer and to see Jews as a national people, while others, the Agudah, saw Jews primarily as a religion. But both eventually had to turn to the Zionist organization for visa to move to British mandate Palestine, as well as funding.

The Relgious Zionists saw themselves as the true Zionists. The Haredim according to Mahla were not anti-Zionist but counter-Zionists. Mahla credits the Agudath Yisrael president Jacob Rosenheim with creating a counter-movement to Zionism. Both groups saw the other relgious group as a bigger threat than the secular Zionist. It was a fight over who can speak for Judaism and Orthodoxy. Over time, the multitude of institutions of Europe and then mandate Palestine were supported by one or the other organization, they had separate schools, separate yeshivot and even separate printing of relgious books. People were ideologically one or the other, a card-carrying member of one or the other.

On the practical level, they differed over giving women the right to vote in the new Yishuv. The Agudah was adamantly against giving women the right to vote, while Relgious Zionist went along with the Zionists on women’s suffrage in a modern state, even though Rabbi Kook forbid it. They differed on partition and compromise with the Arab population. The agudah was willing to partition the land and make political compromises, while the Relgious Zionists wanted a greater Israel entirely for the Jews as part of a messianic vision.

The two groups worked together in 1948 as a unity party to ensure that the new state would keep shabbat and the dietary laws. But both sides new it was a temporary pragmatic truce.

Mahla ends his book with a final divide in 1953, when Relgious Zionist men were proud to serve in the army and Agudah obtained a exemption from the army for the few hundred studying in Yeshiva. But the divide was widened over the issue of women in the army. The state wanted to draft all women, the Relgious Zionists accepted a compromise of national service for women in lieu of army service, while the Hazon Ish  adamantly, said no to even national service for women. Mahla ends with a coda jumping seventy years to Naftali Bennet and other Religious Zionist leaders fighting with Haredim.

My favorite part was when he shows how an encyclopedia of relgious Zionist leaders made everyone a follower of Torah combined with secular knowledge, while the Agudah book made every party functionary into a gadol in Torah.

The book has a unique approach, almost dramatic, of framing everything as a public battle of these two groups in which they are the only two protagonists. It is like watching Chaim Grade’s “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner” in which a still Orthodox musarnik argues with a secular friend. Here we have the two protagonists Relgious Zionism in a fifty year debate with the Agudah, going back and forth. The secular Zionists and the immense number of those who built the Yishuv, later becoming the leaders of the early Israeli government become a faceless entity of “the Zionist Organization.” And both protagonists are painted as relatively unified in their approaches, rather than having enormous differences among themselves.

And as mentioned at the start, this book avoids discussion of all ideology or great rabbis. The book avoids the material that most of us focus on: Rabbi Isaac Breuer, Rabbi Fishman-Maimon, Rabbi Herzog, the Hazon Ish, Rabbi Ozer Grodinzki, Rabbi Reines, and Shmuel Hayyim Landau. It is a political-diplomatic history. One that all who work in this area will gain from immensely from his research in primary documents and learn many of subtleties of the coming to be of the two contemporary Orthodox parties.

From my perspective, the divisions were not total in 1953. in the 1980’s and 1990’s Rav Shakh’s made the kollel model universal and more importantly spoke against seeking against any grey areas. As I was reading this book, Peter Lintl of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, just posted a forty-page report dated December 2020 on contemporary Haredim, which is worth reading and downloading the pdf for its wealth of facts and statistics.  “The Haredim as a Challenge for the Jewish State: The Culture War over Israel’s Identity”

  1. Did Mizrachists and Agudists have formulated ideology and new worldviews?

The two movements and their struggles have often been depicted in the light of their theological and ideological differences concerning Zionism.

In this ideological approach, religious Zionists wholeheartedly committed themselves to settling Palestine, most traditionalist authorities rejected these attempts out of hand. The Orthodox establishment’s initial, instinctive opposition to Zionism soon evolved into a full-fledged and prolonged ideological struggle over issues like the meaning of Jewish existence and the role of human agency in the messiah’s coming.

Yet as Orthodox Jews, both movements were reluctant to formulate an ideological platform that seemed novel or revolutionary. This was true even for Mizrahi. More than one and a half decades after its creation, one of its foremost rabbinic leaders, Rabbi Moses Avigdor Amiel lamented in 1919: “There is no unique spirit of Mizrahi that unites us into one entity.” As late as the 1930s major Mizrahi leaders complained about the failure of their movement to formulate a clear religious-Zionist ideology and group identification.

One could hardly speak of “Mizrahism” in the way members of the Jewish workers movement identified with their Bundist family (misphokhe). In Agudah, distrust of new ideologies and group formations ran even deeper.

Thus, instead of focusing on their ideological debates, my book analyses their social and political activities. Both movements created a wide net of institutions and organizations. They founded schools, rabbinical seminaries, social facilities, youth movements, various types of associations, newspapers, libraries, as well as other associations and facilities. The two respective movements forged all-encompassing microcosms that facilitated loyalty and fostered group identification through the shaping of interpretative patterns, moral standards, and emotional ties.

This is at the same time an argument for the significance of the two movements. A large part of the research literature focuses on the rabbinic leadership. Yet while towering figures like the Hazon Ish undoubtedly played an important role in formulating Orthodox responses to Zionism, the two major social movements constituted important frameworks that helped organizing and structuring Orthodox society and eventually dividing it into two well-defined camps.

2. How do both movements react to the breakdown of the Kehillah?

Both movements deplored the breakdown of the Jewish community structures (kehillot) during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the concurrent danger to Jewish traditional communities and religious life. Both advocated for strengthening the kehillot. At the same time, Mizrahists and Agudists developed very different approaches for doing so.

Agudists advocated for keeping traditional institutions and organizations. They claimed to merely rebuild the traditional structures, while at the same time strengthening religious authority at the expense of lay leadership and the gave more authority to the local rabbi. Mizrahists, on the other hand, wanted to modernize the communities and strengthen the influence of bureaucratic elites and the administration.

3. What was the chief difference of Mizrachi and Agudah at the start?

As Zionists, Mizrahists embraced modern Jewish nationalism and hoped that Zionism would help lead to the return of secular activists to religious lifestyles. They promoted the cooperation with secularists in the movement.

Yet at the same time they acknowledged the danger of secularism to religious Jewry and over the years had many conflicts with their secularist partners in the Zionist movement. The most important of these conflicts was the question of the creation of a modern (secular) Hebrew culture. Mizrahists agitated against Zionist support for such a culture. Once the Zionist movement decided to support secular cultural institutions in Palestine, Mizrahists invested in their own cultural and educational institutions which essentially led to the emergence of distinct secular and religious frameworks.

Agudah on the other hand, rejected modern Jewish nationalism and tried to counter it by strengthening and forging traditionalist institutions and frameworks. Part of Agudists’ efforts was to shield traditionalist communities from secular influences by creating strong barriers and borders.

Many Agudists welcomed Zionist efforts to unite Jewry on an international (or rather national-Jewish) level. Yet they strongly resisted the strong secular outlook of the movement and the idea of a secular political leadership.

However, the growing influence of the Zionist movement and its hegemonic position in the Jewish communities in Palestine increased the willingness among Agudists to cooperate with the Zionists especially during the 1930s and 1940s. Yet this increasing cooperation at the same time stressed the necessity to shield their communities from secular influence. In my book I describe this pragmatic mode of cooperation as “cooperation on the basis of separation.”

In this context it is important to point out that both movements struggled with the definition of Judaism as either “religion” or “nation,” concepts that had developed in a Christian context. Both movements perceived Judaism to be both religion and nation. Yet they weighed the two loyalties differently. For Agudists, religious affiliations carried the most weight. For Mizrahists, on the other hand, nationalist loyalties were of primary importance and they were willing to subordinate religious affiliations (if not at all costs).

4. How was Agudah a counter movement to Zionism?

Historians usually conceptualized  Agudah as anti-Zionist movement that coped with the nationalist challenges by developing an “ideology of seclusion”. While it is true that Agudists tried to protect religious communities by shielding them from secular influences, I argue that we can understand the aims of these leaders better as counter-movement to Zionism.

Orthodox entrepreneurs established their own institutions and frameworks. Agudath Yisrael gathered such activities under its wings. The aim of the movement was to offer an Orthodox alternative to modern nationalist group formations. Agudath Yisrael, as its later president Jacob Rosenheim argued in 1911, was to become “a counter-movement to Zionism.”

Mizrahi, in its role as an Orthodox movement, posed a great challenge to the endeavor of establishing Agudath Yisrael as the sole political representative of Orthodox Judaism and for that reason the two movements became involved in protracted struggles.

5. If they were not explicitly Zionist, then why did they expect things from the Zionist Organization (ZO) such immigration permits? Is that not asking for things from the Zionist Organization and then spitting in the face of the Zionist Organization or pretending that it does not exist?

When the British Mandate was established after World War I, and with increasingly dire economic perspectives and rising antisemitism in Europe, Palestine became an important center of Jewish life and attracted more and more Jewish immigrants.

Agudists reacted to such developments by creating a local branch in the traditionalist, non-Zionist centers of Jewish life, in particular in Jerusalem. With increasing immigration to British Mandate Palestine during the 1920s and 1930s, more and more traditionalists arrived, strengthening these settlements. During the 1920s, Agudists established their movement as the political representative of these traditionalist settlements, including the Old Yishuv.

As such, they tried to challenge what they perceived to be a Zionist monopoly on the representation of Jewish interests in the area. Immigration certificates, for example, were given to the Zionist dominated Jewish Agency, which distributed them through the different political movements. Agudists, who did not participate in the political structures of the New Yishuv, argued that it was wrong to give preference to Zionist immigrants and successfully demanded immigration certificates for their own adherents. In this context, it is also important to point out that many of the new traditionalist immigrants arriving during the 1930s did in fact join the official Jewish community, thereby blurring the boundaries between New Yishuv and traditionalist settlements, and pushing the latter to enhance their cooperation with the former.

6. How did these movements address the issue of education in the crumbling communities?

Religious Zionists attempted to modernize and professionalize the Jewish communities. Moreover, they lobbied for a more expansive bailiwick, including the power to directly tax members. Stressing the need for centralization, Mizrahi officials advocated for all religious services, not least kosher slaughter, and facilities, like synagogues and Talmud halls, to be placed under the community’s ambit.

Non-Zionist Orthodox leaders were deeply suspicious of these sorts of centralization and democratization initiatives. In 1919, Haim Ozer Grodzinski, the leading Eastern European spiritual authority, declared on the pages of the Agudah newspaper Der Yud that it was not the kehillah’s job “to create new [structures], but to put traditional religious affairs in order.” That said, he shared quite a few of Mizrahi’s concerns, for example, he proposed the introduction of communal membership fees. In general, Agudists preferred strengthening traditionalist institutions and by enhancing the influence and power of the local rabbinic authority (mara de-atra).

Both movements sought to strengthen education by building up new schools and institutions under their purview. Mizrahists supported the introduction of secular topics that was to help religious Jews with coping with their environments. In particular, they aimed at modernizing rabbinic ordination and for that purpose established their own rabbinic seminary in Warsaw in 1920. This institution, the Tachkemoni Yeshiva, was designed to produce a new kind of leader, who as its founder Rabbi Isaac Nissenbaum hoped, would not only tend to their congregants’ spiritual needs but represent them before non-Jewish bodies. “Today a rabbi cannot be one-dimensional,” a 1921 article in the Mizrahi press read; “he must be both the religious as well as national leader of his community.”

Agudists mocked Tachkemoni-trained rabbis for having immersed themselves in profane, rather than sacred, works. They dubbed the seminary a “rabbi factory” that manufactured “leaders on assembly lines” for global export, and claimed that traditional yidishkayt (Jewishness) was foreign to the Tachkemoni “boors.” While deeply critical of introducing secular studies into Jewish male education, they created their own seminaries, such as the Hahmei Lublin Yeshiva in Poland, and politically took the innovative Beit Yaakov schools under their wing.

7. How do the two groups differ over the role of the rabbinate in Jewish life?

Mizrahists tried to establish themselves as a new elite of religious politicians. They were proud that many of their leaders were steeped in religious knowledge. But as their own authority rested on their social and political activism, they were deeply suspicious of the clerical elite and many wanted to confine the rabbis’ authority to the ritual realm of the synagogue.

Agudists, on the other hand, saw religious authority challenged by the Zionist movement, both secular and religious. To counter such challenges, they granted their rabbinical elite unprecedented authority over decisions concerning not only ritual matters but also public and national policies. To this end, they established a Council of Torah Sages that was to direct the party politicians, and to take all important policy decisions.

Such ideas of absolute spiritual authority were of course not unique to Orthodox Judaism, but can be found e.g. in the notion of papal infallibility or the Iranian revolution of 1979. The Council of Torah Sages came nowhere near the power of the repressive state apparatus of Ruhollah Khomeini. Yet the council was an important symbol distinguishing Agudah from its secular and religious-Zionist opponents, helping the movement to establish itself among traditionalist Jews.

8. How did each of them portray their member leaders? On some level, why did Mizrachi make everyone educated and Agudah make everyone a gadol?

Mizrahists depicted their movement and leaders as the perfect synthesis of Orthodox Judaism and Zionist activism. In 1909, one activist opined that his movement incorporated “the spiritual-religious foundation of extremist Orthodoxy – which is passive from a national standpoint – with the national-political principles of secular Zionism – which is passive from a Jewish standpoint – into a single bloc of active Judaism.”  This combination of observance of Orthodox Judaism with Zionist activism posed a serious threat to Agudah.

In response, Agudists depicted themselves as strictly following the rabbinic elite’s directives. What is more, Agudist held that religious sages were not compelled to disclose the textual sources of their rulings, in stark contrast to traditional Jewish modes of decision making. That deprived opponents of the opportunity to challenge respective rulings, thereby constituting a particularly valuable defense against critique from within Orthodox circles. Adherence to such absolute rabbinic authority became a significant identity marker of ultra-Orthodox Jews. It effectively divided not only the two political movements but played an essential role in the creation of two distinct socio-cultural milieus.

9. What were the women’s issues that they differed on and which did they agree about?

Agudists wanted to confine the public sphere strictly to men and excluded women from any leadership positions. As Orthodox Jews, Mizrahists were also highly critical towards the idea of female participation in political activism, but at the same time barring women from political enterprise seemed ill-suited for a nationalist movement.

This issue was urgent in Palestine during the late 1910s and early 1920s, where Jews debated the participation of women in the emerging communal structures. Traditionalist Orthodoxy was firmly opposed to female participation in communal elections as either voters or representatives and used the issue to separate their communities from the Zionist frameworks.

Religious Zionist, on the other hand, found themselves between a rock and a hard place because for secular Zionists by this point the right of women to take part in politics was already beyond dispute

Religious Zionists vacillated over this issue for several years, until it decided in favor of female enfranchisement, concurrently disregarding a directive of the most important religious Zionist authority, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who already declared his opposition to such enfranchisement in September 1919. In this vein, the issue of women political participation became a further marker between the two movements and their communities. 

10. How did they differ over equal rights for the local Palestinians? Did they differ on other issues relating to the Arabs?

During the 1920s and parts of the 1930s, Agudists were opposed to the idea of a Jewish nation state and preferred Jews to live as a protected minority in an Arab empire. With the deterioration of Jewish life in Europe during the 1930s, and its utter destruction during the 1940s, Agudists accepted the fact that a Jewish state would eventually be established. However, they strictly separated such an entity from any messianic hopes. This, ironically, made it much easier for them to reach political and territorial compromise. When the British proposed the partition of Palestine in the mid-1930s, Agudists were willing to accept.

A statement of one of the most important Agudah leaders in Palestine, Moses Blau, in his debate with Zionist representatives illuminates this pragmatism. When asked by the Zionist leader Menahem Ussishkin about the eschatological significance of the Zionist movement, he responded: “Do you really believe that the national movement has any connection to our future redemption? The Land of Israel is, to date, an Arab country, and when we have the opportunity to receive political equality – if only the Arabs shall agree – then we have to welcome this [political parity] with open arms.” Any further goals, he argued, should be left to the Messiah.

Among Mizrahists, on the other hand, political hawks with uncompromising stances towards Palestinian Arabs, gained the upper hand. While there were moderates, such as the first Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Avigdor Amiel, who preached tolerance towards the non-Jewish local population, these lost influence with the increasingly violent conflict with the Arab population during the late 1920s and 1930s. “Whoever governs the land, it is ours and will be ours,” wrote the movement’s imminent political leaders, Rabbi Yehuda Maimon, in a fiercely nationalist response to Arab riots that broke out in August of 1929 and left hundreds of Jews dead and wounded. When the British attempted to partition the land in 1937, Mizrahists were among the strictest opponents demanding that greater Israel is to be entirely part of a Jewish state. In discussions with the British, Maimon claimed that Jews were divinely forbidden to grant other nations a share in the land.

Asked about the idea of a state with political parity between Jews and Arabs, Maimon pronounced “As a religious Jew, I can by no means agree on giving Arabs political equality.” Turning the question of partition into a religious issue made it extremely difficult for religious Zionist to compromise. Only after the calamities of the Second World War and the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust, did they consent to partition in order to create a Jewish state.

11. How did they compete over yeshiva funding in 1940?

In early 1940s, the two movements founded umbrella organizations for religious academies in Palestine through which funds were distributed to these institutions. Every academy seeking financial support had to align itself with one of the organizations, and thus the split between the two camps became entrenched and institutionalized in the world of higher religious education.

The case of yeshiva funding illustrates the fact that two movements not only acted as political stakeholders, but created many social and educational institutions and frameworks that helped the formation of two distinct socio-cultural milieus. Establishing a wide range of schools, rabbinical seminaries, social facilities, youth movements, cultural associations, newspapers, libraries, and many additional organizations and establishments, they created distinct microcosms that helped to establish loyalties and maintain identification and thus shaped interpretative patterns, moral standards, and emotional ties.

In Europe, Agudists and Mizrahists competed with a wide range of both religious and secular institutions and protagonists. The Nazi genocide brutally destroyed this diversity. In Palestine, on the other hand, both movements respectively established themselves as the exclusive political representatives of religious Jewry, thereby essentially dividing Orthodox Jews into two camps. In the Jewish settlements in Palestine, political parties were key players, for in the absence of a state, resources were allocated via their institutions.

12. Why did they comprise in 1944 and why did they create a united religious front in 1948?

With the British proposal to partition Palestine in 1937, the creation of a Jewish state seemed to be more and more within reach.

Both movements were anxious about religious life in a secular state. In order to safeguard religious lifestyles and institutions in a future state, they came together in the late 1930’s to discuss Orthodox cooperation. While high-ranking party politicians of both sides convened in Paris in 1938 and in London in 1939, they failed to secure cooperation. Yet leaders from both sides continued to meet over the next years and in these discussions agreed on basic Orthodox demands regarding the emerging state structures.

In November 1948, the different Orthodox parties formed the “United Religious Front,” a political alliance to safeguard religious interests in the new state. This front, however, did not signify the political and ideological convergence of Agudah’s positions with basic religious-Zionist tenets, as some scholars argue. It was a “marriage of convenience”, as one activist put it, with the limited aim to safeguard basic religious rights. Once those rights were secured, the two camps  parted ways.

13 Why was the issue over drafting women important and why do you use it as a way to frame the book at the beginning and ending?

During the early years of Israeli statehood, its political representative fiercely debated the issue of a mandatory military service for Jewish women. Due to the fragile political situation, a strong army was vital to the survival of the state. What is more, secular Zionists saw in a mandatory military service an important contribution of both men and women to the welfare of the state and thus an important aspect of gender equality.

On the other hand, for religious leaders of both groups, the idea of young women serving in the army next to their male peers was anathema. A rare unity prevailed among Zionist and non-Zionist rabbinic authorities, who all declared that female military service was prohibited according to Jewish religious law (halakhah).

In the following years, a compromise was reached between secular politicians and their religious-Zionist peers. A specially appointed commission proposed exempting religiously observant women from the draft, if they serve in civil institutions instead.

While religious Zionists embraced this compromise, ultra-Orthodox leaders fumed against a mandatory civil service for religious women, and in the ultra- Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem, angry masses took to the streets to demonstrate. Ultra-Orthodox politicians left the governing coalition of (over?) this issue, never to return. Religious-Zionists on the other hand, stayed in the coalition and supported the passing of this legislation. The issue and the fierce debates surrounding it symbolized the final parting of ways of the two movements.

During the 1950s, Orthodox Jews differed not only in their political affiliations, but these distinctions denoted that the groups differed in their attitudes toward halakhah, as well as in their social norms and behaviors.

The highest ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authority of the period, the Hazon Ish, decreed a “prohibition by halakhah to vote for the law of conscripting girls to a civil service.” The refusal of religious Zionist politicians to accept his ruling brought the fundamental differences of the two communities and their leaders to the fore.

The refusal of ultra-Orthodox leaders to accept any compromise on this issue, on the other hand, helped fostering clear boundaries between their own communities and their Israeli surroundings (ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students had been already exempted from military service by an agreement between Agudat Yisrael and Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion). In contrast, religious Zionists integrated into Israeli society, serving in the army shoulder to shoulder with their secular peers. At the same time, exempting religious girls from military service while having them serve in civil institutions helped Orthodox leaders to preserve their distinct milieu within the Zionist-Israeli society.

A second cornerstone of these new milieus that was forged during these same years was the formation of three distinct Jewish educational streams (in addition to an Arab one): a secular one, a national-religious system and an independent ultra-Orthodox system under the auspice of Agudat Yisrael.     

14. In the end, could a united Orthodox party have been created at any point?

Much of the scholarship on Orthodox Jewish politics perceives the non-cooperation of the two movements during the interwar period as “lost opportunity” and puts the blame on Agudath Yisrael, claiming that its leaders were not able to overcome ideological and political barriers.

Rather than asking about lost opportunities, my book shifts the focus to the political dynamics between the two movements and carefully situates calls for cooperation and actual negotiations in their concrete historical context.

It is true that we can find quite a few calls for cooperation in the religious Zionist press and from individual Mizrahi leaders. Yet many of such press releases served the purpose of mobilizing adherents and convincing the Jewish masses that  Agudah was passive and neglected its duties towards religious Jewry. A typical example is a newspaper article of the Polish Mizrahi leader Joshua Heshel Farbstein from November 1919, in which he bemoaned the schism that was hindering Polish Orthodoxy and advocated for cooperation in its stead. But rather than offering practical steps in that direction, he went on to attack his political opponents for monopolizing the Orthodox political sphere and predicted their demise. His article as well as his conclusion that “the future of religious Jewry in Poland and Lithuania belongs to Mizrahi” hardly make a convincing argument for fruitful cooperation.

To be sure, Agudists employed similar tactics. The point here is not to put the blame on Mizrahi instead. Rather, I argue that we have to pay close attention to differing political interests and strategies, instead of taking such statements at face value. Both sides employed similar tactics.

Part of the challenge for historians is the fact that due to the two movements’ different approaches to social and political activism, Mizrahists produced many more historical sources than  Agudists did and their archives today are more accessible. This creates an archival imbalance that we have to take into accou

15. Did the movement change in their ideologies during the 50 years from 1902-1953 covered in your book? Or was it really a fait accomplice in 1902 that took time to be articulated?

My book argues that this intra-religious competition was an important factor in facilitating observant Jewry’s transition to the age of the nation state. Their competition helped both sides to develop and strengthen their respective organizations and outlooks, and contributed to the formation not only of two distinct political camps, but of two very different socio-cultural milieus.

These developments were far from a forgone conclusion when the religious Zionist movement was founded in 1902. Looking at these dynamics we can detect several important turning points.

The emergence of Agudath Yisrael ten years later was a first important step towards the formation of two political camps, which not only provided non-Zionist Orthodoxy with an organizational framework, but at the same time helped Mizrahists to develop and sharpen their own positions. 

During the next decade, leaders from both sides occasionally reached out to the other side. Interestingly, calls for cooperation and actual negotiations during this period were frequently accompanied by statements that such cooperation would eventually cause the other side to dissolve and to join the own movement. Leaders from both sides of the aisle showed themselves convinced that their own movement was the sole legitimate representative of Orthodox Jewry and would prevail.

A few years after World War One, these attempts stopped. For the next decade and a half, both movements focused on their own consolidation. Political rivalries and mutual attacks in the press helped both sides to hone their platforms and outlooks. When the political leadership met again in 1938-39, not only the social and political context had changed drastically, but the movements themselves and their dynamics greatly differed from the early 1920s. Although they remained fierce opponents, each side was forced to acknowledge that the other would neither join its own ranks nor simply dissolve. The negotiations in Paris & London themselves constituted indirect recognition of the fact that each side represented a distinct part of Orthodox Jews.

Both sides also had gradually reached the understanding that the terms of their political rivalries would change drastically with the founding of a state. Therefore, even after the collapse of the negotiations in 1938-1939, several leaders kept meeting and prepared the way for the cooperation in the framework of the United Religious Front during the first years of the state. The disbandment of this political alliance and the final parting of ways in the context of the debates about a civil service for religious women highlighted not only the deep rifts between these two political camps, but the emergence of two distinct Orthodox societies.

A further aspect impacting the development of the two movements was their separate relationship with the Zionist Organization. From early on, Mizrahist had called on their Orthodox brethren to support and joint the Zionist movement. Yet when Agudists and the Zionist Organization started negotiating the terms of cooperation in the mid-1920s and gradually reached an understanding during the 1930s and 1940s, Mizrahists were among the fiercest opponents of such rapprochement. Direct negotiations between Agudah and the Zionist Organization jeopardized Mizrahi’s position as it highlighted an alternative approach of Orthodox-Zionist cooperation. The existence of Mizrahi, on the other hand, helped the general Zionists in their claim to represent the whole Jewish people, and not only its secular parts, and undermined Agudist attempts to establish their movement as the exclusive representative of Orthodox Jewry.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l and Globalization

In the late 1990’s and the early 2000’s, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as Chief Rabbi was invited to world forums on economics, the environment, education, interfaith and globalization. These conferences were meetings of world thought leaders seeking to give direction to political leadership. At the time, Sacks was a master of the form advocating in his speeches for a moral climate to be created because free markets are not moral, and the goal of profits does not lead to responsibility or human dignity. In 2003, he penned an article “Global Covenant: A Jewish Perspective on Globalization,” in John H. Dunning, Making Globalization Good: The Moral Challenges of Global Capitalism (OUP, 2003) which contains a summary of his many speeches from this era, a good article to use as an overview of his general philosophy of this era. 

Before turning to the article, let us start with a few basics on Rabbi Sacks’ thought. At university, Sacks read liberal moral philosophy-Mill, Hobbs, Hume, Locke, Whitehead, and Isaiah Berlin- writing his dissertation on Jewish moral thinking, eventually reworked into parts of his later books such as To Heal a Fractured World. In the 1980’s, he was deeply influenced by the communitarianism of Michael Waltzer, Michael Sandel, Alister Macintyre, and Charles Taylor. These thinkers, seeing the problems of individualism and the lack of clear moral directives for society saw the answer in a return to the structures of the Bible, religion, community, and the social realm. None of them advocated a return to a fundamentalist religion or even necessary to organized religion, rather they held that without a social group and sacred texts, one had no moral force to reign in liberal atrophy and anomie.

In the 1990’s, Sacks himself wrote about the breakdown of family, schools, morals, and society He advocated the need for all us to be a good covenant that would teach us responsibility and caring. Not just the Jewish covenant, but any good covenant. For example, he was the only Jewish advocate for the UK retaining the Anglican church as the official church of the UK because it was a good covenant to breed responsibility and a just society. Sacks himself was the product of a proper Anglican secondary school. Instead, the UK dropped the established church. Sacks was also against multi-culturalism because we need a standard culture in order to assume moral responsibility.       

In the 1998-2002 era, the issues were globalization and capitalism. Samuel Huntington believed in a clash of civilizations, while Sacks followed Thomas Freidman (The Lexus and the Olive Tree) and Benjamin Barber (Jihad vsMcWorld) who believed in the power of the market to temper the clash. On the issue of capitalism, Sacks used the critics of unchecked capitalism such as Naomi Klein (No Logo), George Soros (Open Society), Michael Waltzer (many works) and Zygmunt Bauman (Globalization). In many of his positions, Sacks was close to his contemporary Prime Minister Tony Blair, who converted to Catholicism upon leaving office and set up an organization for solving global problems as part of an interfaith program.

One of Sack’s major contributions to Jewish ethics is the extension of local ethics to the global level. I can talk about the mizvah not to waste things (bal tashit) but personal action alone will not save the world until one directly addresses the structural changes and governmental regulations needed to save the environment. On many issues, he was the first Orthodox rabbi to make a leap to a global imperative.

In the blog post below, I will deal with this one article. I am not giving an overview of his entire thought. I am not covering his early writing as a teacher, his many books, or his thoughts on Jewish identity, or his apologetics for religion, or his recent books on the Torah parasha. They each deserve their own treatment. This article does not convey the full range of Sack’s thought. But it does deal with an aspect shown more at the international forums than in the Jewish community. When I had the privilege to meet with him in his office, I was invited as an international interfaith speaker, not as an educator.

I have selected paragraphs from the article and added brief commentary before the quotes. I lectured on this topic many years ago when the article first appeared. Spelling have been changed to American from British to please my online programs.

Global Covenant: A Jewish Perspective on Globalization

Sacks connects contemporary issues to Biblical stories, which he will describe later in the article, as a means of addressing issues with narrative that dramatizes the contemporary issues. In this case, he uses the Phoenicians to address globalization.

International  commerce, practiced extensively by the Phoenicians, goes back almost to the dawn of civilization.

There  are many positive changes of globalization but there are many negative ones as well, especially the poverty and disruption left in its wake.

But there are changes in degree which become changes in kind. The sheer speed and extent of advances in modern communications technology have altered conditions of existence for many, perhaps most, of the world’s six billion inhabitants. The power of instantaneous global communication, the sheer volume of international monetary  movements, the  internationalization  of processes and products, and the ease with which jobs can be switched from country to country have meant that our interconnectedness has become more immediate, vivid, and consequential than ever before.

But globalization also carries effects that are perceived as deeply threatening, especially to traditional cultures. Jobs become vulnerable. Whole economies are destabilized. Inequalities within and between nations grow larger, not smaller. One- fifth of the world’s population subsists on less than a dollar a day. Throughout Africa and parts of Asia, poverty, disease, and hunger are rife. Developing countries find themselves vulnerable as never before to sudden economic downturns, currency fluctuations, and shifts in production, leaving behind them vast swathes of unemployment.

Religions teaches us to look beyond the tribe and nation toward a universal God of justice, righteousness, peace, and human dignity. Judaism is one of those universal voices.

Francis Fukuyama (1999: 231–45) points out, it was religion that first taught human beings to look beyond the city-state, the tribe, and the nation to humanity as a whole. The world faiths are global phenomena whose reach is broader and in some respects deeper than that of the nation state.

Judaism is one of those voices. The prophets of ancient Israel were the first to think globally, to conceive of a God transcending place and national boundaries and of humanity as a single moral community linked by a covenant of mutual responsibility (the covenant with Noah after the Flood). Equally, they were the first to conceive of society as a place where ‘justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a never ending stream’ and of a future in which war had been abolished and peoples lived together in peace. Those insights remain valid today.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all endow life with human dignity, All three give us freedom, volition and choice to make the world a better place, to dream and hope for a better tomorrow. The religions teach us a moral view so that we use technology and globalization for good and not for bad. (He never directly addresses the parts of religion, especially his Judaism, that do not use religion to increase human dignity).

Our hopes are not mere dreams, nor are our ideals illusions. Something at the core of being responds to us as persons, inviting us to exercise our freedom by shaping families, communities and societies in such a way as to honor the image of God that is mankind, investing each human life with  ultimate  dignity. This view, shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, sees choice, agency, and moral responsibility at the heart of the human project. We are not powerless in the face of fate. Every technological advance can be used for good or evil. There is nothing inevitably benign or malign in our increasing powers. It depends on the use we make of them… Our aim must be to maximize human dignity and hand on to future generations a more gracious, less capricious world.

In an age of globalization, we care more about the creation and patenting of ideas, rather than production. Intellectual skills count more than modes of production, hence education is a fundamental human right in order to compete in the new global economy.

The labor content  of manufactured goods continues to fall. Huge profits go to those who have ideas. To an ever-increasing degree, multinational enterprises (MNEs) are outsourcing production and peripheral services and becoming, instead, owners of concepts: brands, logos, images, and designs (Klein 2001). In such an age, immense advantage accrues to those with intellectual and creative skills. Education, not merely basic but extended, becomes a necessity, even a fundamental  human  right. Investment in education is the most important way in which a society offers its children a future.

God made humans in His image of creativity and as His partner in creation. This is achieved through education. Just as education in Judaism in both the Biblical and rabbinic worlds meant a greater democratization of knowledge, so too the personal computer and internet lead to greater democratization of knowledge. Just as Judaism made education a primary duty, our primary duty in an age of globalization is to ensure an education for all and that everyone on earth have access to information, knowledge, and skills. (Note that he footnotes to Bill Clinton and George Soros)

By making mankind in His image, the creative God endowed humanity with creativity, giving us the mandate to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ and inviting us to become, in the rabbinic phrase, ‘God’s partners in the work of creation’. Specifically—following through the possibilities raised by the invention  of the alphabet—Judaism made education  a primary religious duty.

As with the invention of the alphabet and printing, so with the personal computer  and the Internet: what makes them  so significant an  enhancement  of  human  possibilities is their contribution to the democratization of knowledge, and thus ultimately of dignity and power (Friedman 2000).

Education is still far too unevenly distributed. A hundred million children worldwide do not  go to school. There are twenty-three countries—mostly in Africa, but they include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Haiti—in which half or more of the adult population are illiterate. In thirty-five countries— including Algeria, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Laos, Morocco, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia—half or more women cannot read or write.

The first and most potent global intervention, therefore, is to ensure that every child has access to information, knowledge, and skills. The model here is the Bolsa-Escola scheme in Brazil that provides subsidies to poor families provided that their children attend school regularly. School participation  in Brazil has risen, as a result, to 97 per cent of the child population  (Soros 2002: 37, 84; Clinton 2001).


Modernity valued progress over anything else. But this lead to an impoverished social world of our family community, voluntary organizations, neighborhood groups, and religious congregations. They are the places where we operate based not on profit and utility but on love, loyalty, faithfulness, mutuality, and a sense of shared belonging. These are the places where we learn about responsibility and morals. These are our covenantal relationships. This is his communitarianism. Notice he uses the term covenant to mean communities of responsibility, not revelation or covenant with God. His book Politics of Hope was 1999, where he first presented his communitarian views.

One of the dominant metaphors of modernity has been the idea of competition as the driving force of progress… What we and others have argued is that this is an impoverished view of our social ecology. It omits ‘third sector’ institutions like the family, the community, voluntary organizations, neighborhood groups, and religious congregations which have in common that they are larger than the individual but smaller than the state. Their significance, and it is immense, is that they are where we learn the habits of co-operation, whether we describe it as reciprocal altruism or social capital or trust. Families and communities are not arenas of competition. To use the vocabulary, I developed in The Politics of Hope, they are places where relationships are covenantal, not contractual. They are based not on transactions of power or exchange, but  on love, loyalty, faithfulness, mutuality, and a sense of shared belonging. They are less about the ‘I’ than about the ‘We’ in which my ‘I’ becomes articulate, as a child of this family, that history, this place, that set of ideals.

Sack uses the critiques of society by Schumpter, Putnam, and Walzer showing that social bonds have broken down and we are now in Putnam’s phrase “bowling alone” instead of building community and civil organizations. We no longer feel bound to build democratic union with a large number of others in our fragmented multi-cultural world. Bear in mind that Walzer is a progressive social democrat, not a conservative. Sack answers that Judaism has always valued family, synagogue, and school and not individualism or state-building and political power..

It  was Joseph Schumpeter, in  Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy,  who pointed out that market based-capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction. It ‘creates a critical frame of mind which, after having destroyed the moral authority  of  so many  other  institutions,  in  the  end  turns  against its own’ (Schumpeter 1947: 143). The combined power of the state and the market causes third  sector institutions  to atrophy. Marriage and the family become fragile. Communities disintegrate. Attendance at places of worship declines. Voluntary groups become more fragmented and ephemeral. We prefer, in Robert Putnam’s phrase, to go ‘bowling alone’. The result is that it becomes ‘very difficult for any individual to find any stable communal support, very difficult for any community to count on the responsible participation of its individual members’. This, argues Michael Walzer, ‘works against commitment to the larger democratic union and also against the solidarity of all cultural groups that constitute our multi-culturalism’ (Walzer 1992:11–12).

The Judaic emphasis on third sector institutions hardly needs spelling out. For two millennia, without a home, sovereignty, or power, Jews and Judaism survived and flourished on the basis of three foundations: the family, the synagogue, and the school.

The modern West is too individualistic but some developing countries are too centralized which also works against the building of covenantal associations.

To be sure, the problem does not arise in the same way throughout the world. In some societies, most notably the liberal democracies of the West, individualism may have gone too far. In others—those that have not yet, or only recently, become democratized—it may not have gone far enough. Excessive centralization inhibits the growth of civil associations, just as excessive commercialization erodes them (Soros 2000).


Sacks defines tzedakah as social justice. He thinks the Biblical concept of tzedakah means the removal of barrios to human dignity, which includes the removal of poverty, tyranny, structural economic and social deprivation, lack of public facilities and intolerance. Sacks fined the definition of Amartya Sen valuable to define tzedakah, but Sen is a committed secularist who wants to solve the problems through dedicated government amelioration, while Sacks thinks we need a covenant to be responsibility to make these changes through government.  The entire message to remember that you were slaves in Egypt and not to oppress the widow, orphan and stranger was in order to create a society with poverty, persecution, and enslavement, a society unlike the oppressive slave owning society of Egypt.

What tzedakah signifies, therefore, is what is often called ‘social justice’, meaning that no one should be without the basic requirements of existence, and that those who have more than they need must share some of that surplus with those who have less. The view articulated in the Hebrew Bible has close affinities with Amartya Sen’s concept of ‘development as freedom’ meaning that freedom is not simply the absence of coercion but also the removal of barriers to the exercise of human dignity: ‘poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states’ (Sen 1999: 3)… The society with which the Israelites were charged with creating was one that would stand at the opposite extreme to what they experienced in Egypt: poverty, persecution, and enslavement.

Now to his strong statements about markets and morals, based on several prior essays he had written on the topic. The market is unfair and unequitable and will never fulfill the Torah requirement of tzedakah defined as social justice. The Bible assumes that we need a equitable distribution of wealth, possibility, and economic freedom. Sacks is therefore against the economic policies of Reagan and Thatcher which created greater inequalities removed many of the social safety nets. (Even though Chief Rabbi Jacobovits supported Thatcherism in his From Doom to Hope: A Jewish view of “Faith in the City” ) He is also against the outsourcing of production to developing countries here there are slave wages, child labor, and unsanitary conditions.

A free society cannot be built on mishpat, the rule of law, alone. It requires also tzedakah, a  just  distribution  of  resources. What  is clear—indeed taken  for granted by the Bible—is that an equitable distribution will not emerge naturally from the free working of the market alone.

Tzedakah is a concept for our time. The retreat from a welfare state and the financial deregulation and monetarist policies set in motion  by Reagonomics and Thatcherism have led to increased inequalities in both the United States and Britain.

Meanwhile, third world workers producing  the  goods  the  multinationals  sell do  so  often  under Dickensian conditions  involving child labor, unsanitary  factories, and  less- than-subsistence wages. As George Soros notes, ‘Markets are good at creating wealth but are not designed to take care of other social needs’ (Soros 2002).

Sacks acknowledges the critique by conservatives of the welfare state that it has the potential to lead to dependency, the opposite of human dignity. But he notes that Maimonides already taught that the highest form of tzedakah is to make someone self-sufficient. Despite this hierarchy of types of tzedakah, there are sometimes inequities so great that the only solution is periodic redistribution. 

One of the most profound insights of tzedakah legislation is its emphasis on human dignity and independence. Millennia ago, Jewish law wrestled with the fact that domestic welfare, like foreign aid, can aggravate the very problem it is intended to solve. Welfare creates dependency and thus reinforces, rather than breaks, the cycle of deprivation. Tzedakah therefore, though it includes direct material assistance (food, clothing, shelter, and medical aid), emphasizes the kind of aid that creates independence, as in Moses Maimonides’ famous ruling:

The highest degree, exceeded by none, is that of the person who assists a poor person by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment—in a word by putting him where he can dispense with other people’s aid… (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 10: 7). The supreme form of tzedakah is therefore one that allows the individual to become independent of other people’s aid.

The Bible is acutely aware that the workings of the free market can create, over time, inequalities so great as to amount to dependency and which can only be removed by periodic redistribution.

Sacks categorically concludes on the need for advanced economies to help eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, ensure universal education, combat treatable disease, reduce infant mortality, improve work conditions, and reconstruct failing economies. Sacks does not care if it is justified as compassion, social justice, or human solidarity. One should compare Sacks to a similar conclusion by Michael Walzer, writing as a Jewish thinker, who extends Maimonides’ laws of tzedakah to global tzedakah to eradicate poverty but is exacting to justify it specifically as tzedakah. See Michael Walzer, “On Humanitarianism: Is Helping Others Charity, or Duty, or Both?” (2011)

There can be no doubt that some of the economic surplus of the advanced economies of the world should be invested in developing countries to help eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, ensure universal education, combat treatable disease, reduce infant mortality, improve work conditions, and reconstruct failing economies. As with tzedakah, the aim should be to restore dignity and independence to nations as well as individuals. Whether this is done in the name of compassion, social justice, or human solidarity it has now become a compelling imperative. The globalization of communications, trade, and culture globalizes human responsibility likewise. The freedom of the few must not be purchased at the price of the enslavement of the many to poverty, ignorance, and disease.


On questions of the environment, Sacks criticizes modernity’s faith in open ended progress with limits and responsibilities.  The covenantal approach means that we need to assume stewardship for the environment. He appeals to the relgious literature of all faiths to help us. On the environment, he is reading the works on economics and globalization, not environmental theology.

Legislation governing the conduct of war forbade needless destruction of fruit-bearing trees, a principle expanded in rabbinic law to cover the entire range of wasteful consumption and environmental pollution… The human  covenant therefore signifies that we are, collectively, the guardians of the natural universe for the sake of future generations.

The sense of limits is one of the hardest for a civilization to sustain. Each in turn has been captivated by the idea that it alone was immune to the laws of growth and decline, that it could consume resources indefinitely, pursuing present advantage without thought of future depletion. Few have committed this error more consciously than the age we call ‘modernity’, with its belief that rationality, science, and technology would create open-ended progress toward unlimited abundance. In the words of Christopher Lasch, ‘Progressive optimism rests, at bottom, on a denial of the natural limits on human power and freedom, and it cannot survive for very long in a world in which an awareness of those limits has become inescapable’ (Lasch 1991: 530). Many of the world’s great faiths contain teachings of great wisdom on environmental ethics.


On the religions of the world, he already wrote an entire book called Dignity of Difference. The 1st edition of the book became the gold standard in interfaith and is still used by Muslim, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and others around the globe in Indonesia, Singapore, India, UAE, and across Europe. Quotes from the book are used in statements made at conferences and in interfaith motivational posters. This very morning, I saw a Muslim friend of mine in Singapore posting a quote from Sack’s book.

Sack’s position is that there is one universal God but each religion is it own particular covenant with God. Each religion, as a religion, has its own narratives and moral resources to bring us to God and to moral responsibility.

This essay, written a year after the publication of the book, and after the edition was censored to produce a second edition. The change made below from the first edition was that in the first edition it said that God sends prophets to all people to give them their own religion, and below it says that “Mankind  has spoken to God in many languages, through  many faiths.” He changed it from a divine plan to a natural quality of humanity. Paradoxically, it made his thought more naturalistic and liberal, in that, religions are more human than divine. He retained in this essay the idea that religions are not truth claims but stories of each religion’s self-understanding of their relationship with God.

There are no easy answers to this dilemma but there is an instructive precedent. Judaism is that rarest of phenomena: a particularist monotheism. The God of Abraham, according to the Hebrew Bible, is the God of all humanity, but the faith of Abraham is not the faith of all humanity. So strange is this idea that it was not taken on by the two daughter monotheisms  to which Judaism gave rise, Christianity and Islam. These faiths are both universalist monotheisms, holding that since there is only one God, there is only one true religion, one path to salvation, to which ideally all mankind will be converted. Judaism believes otherwise: that there are many ways to serve God and that one does not have to be Jewish to do so. ‘The righteous of the nations of the world [i.e. non-Jews] have a share in the world to come’ (Tosefta, Sanhedrin 13).

Mankind  has spoken to God in many languages, through  many faiths. No language need threaten the others; none should supersede the other. Religious truth is not solely ontological (a matter of what is) but covenantal (a relationship between a specific group and God). Ontologies conflict, covenants do not.


Sacks is aware that many see religion as part of the problem. But he is adamant that religion as a moral covenant can give us a sense of responsibility. Civilizations must care for the poor, weak, and powerless. They must increase human dignity. This moral responsibility can be done by secular humanists and religious zealots who have denied it. But Sacks argues that for most of us, religion gives us our moorings. In none of his books does he directly address the large part of Orthodoxy that would not agree with his rejection of fundamentalism or his definition of Jewish moral responsibility.

The wisdom of the world’s religions may seem at best irrelevant, at worst dangerous, to a world driven by economic forces. In the West, especially Western Europe, society has become secularized. In the Middle East and parts of Asia it has witnessed a growth of fundamentalism that threatens economic development and political freedom alike. Whatever therefore the prospects for the future, religion seems part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Our  own view is that  civilizations survive not  by strength but  by how they respond to the weak; not by wealth but by the care they show for the poor; not by power but by their concern for the powerless. The ironic yet utterly humane lesson of history is that what renders a culture invulnerable is the compassion it shows to the vulnerable. The ultimate value we should be concerned to maximize is human dignity—the dignity of all human beings, equally, as children of the creative, redeeming God.

Is this a ‘religious’ insight? Yes and no. There have been secular humanists who have affirmed it; there have been religious zealots who have denied it.

Sacks concludes his essay with his definition of religion as giving us meaning. Sacks has always been deeply influenced by Victor Frankl and the importance of meaning in our lives. Religions form communities and tell narratives and perform rituals that dramatize the narrative. These give us as humans continuity with the past and a future oriented sense of meaning. Notice the absence of God, revelation, holiness, experience, or mysticism in his definition. (This definition is important also for his view of Judaism, which I may show in a follow up post.) 

We are also, uniquely, the meaning-seeking animal. We seek to understand our place in the universe. We want to know where we have come from, where we are going to, and of what narrative we are a part. We form families, communities, and societies. We tell stories, some of which have the status of sacred texts. We perform rituals that dramatize the structure of reality. We have languages, cultures, moralities, and faiths. These things are essential to our sense of continuity with the past and responsibility to the future.

Finally, Sacks advocates creating a global covenant to work for human rights, human dignity, and the common good.  He does not want a political entity such as the United Nations, but a covenantal agreement. But if you read the original documents around the forming of the UN such as those which supported The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Rene Cassin, Jacques Maritain, and Elanor Roosevelt, one finds a similar vision.  

What we need now is not a contract bringing into being a global political structure, but rather a covenant framing our shared vision for the future of humanity.

That is at least a starting point for a global covenant in which the nations of the world collectively express their commitment not only to human rights but also to human responsibilities, and not merely a political, but also an economic, environmental, moral, and cultural conception of the common good, constructed on the twin foundations of shared humanity and respect for diversity.

Coda- This week Chief Rabbi Mirvis issued a statement that we cannot sit idly at persecution, we are “compelled to speak out” on the plight of China’s Uighur. Mirivis wants Jews to actively take up the cause and be involved. In contrast, Chief Rabbi Sacks did not pick up any political causes to get personally involved with.  He never exhorted his followers to put his ideas into practice through speaking out and protest. And this American election season, he advocated to not get involved in a partisan political opinion.

Zalman Newfield Interview – Degrees of Separation

In 1867, Isaac Joel Linetsky published his best selling Yiddish novel The Polish Lad. The book is a semi-autobiographic account of Linetsky’s rejection of his Hasidic upbringing and community. Linetsky’s protagonist left because he was disgusted by the Hasidic community’s closed ways, lack of morals, misogyny,  pettiness, and ignorance. However, the lad lacks the skills needed to survive in the outside world. He did not have language skills, secular education, or even the ability to dress, eat, or make conversation. The latter half of the book narrates his inability to make a living or find his way until a kind-hearted Reform rabbi has pity on him and helps him. This depiction of the lad is, in many ways, a typical description of what is now colloquially called the off derech-OTD (derech means path or way of life). This lad typifies how a hasid who grew up in a sheltered sectarian community and leaves it to enter the wider world despite lacking the requisite skills and education has to struggle to form a new identify.

Linetsky was not alone. At the end of the 19th century the majority of Polish-Russian village youth left the path and became secular believers in the many new movements- socialism, communism, Bund, civil rights party, Zionism- that were going to change Polish Jewish life. They moved to the cities such as Lublin, Lodz, Bialystok, or Odessa to seek their new lives. Some showed up at the Warsaw address of the famed Yiddish author I. L Peretz still wearing their long Hasidic garb but grasping a manuscript in hand telling him they wanted to be an author so they could tell their story.

In the last twenty years, there has been a bevy of similar cases of those leaving contemporary Hasidic communities and wanting to write about their stories. A significant group of those who left became authors writing at first hesitant blog posts, followed by memoirs and books. But do these novels contain an accurate sociological depiction of those who leave? To find out, Schneur Zalman Newfield, who is himself an Ex-Lubavitcher, one who left the path of Chabad, wrote his dissertation on the topic.    

Dr. Schneur Zalman Newfield is an assistant professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Newfield received his MA & PhD in Sociology from New York University and a BA from Brooklyn College, CUNY. Prior to attaining his academic position, he taught sociology courses for two years in six New Jersey state prisons through Rutgers University-Newark’s New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) program. He has a reflection of his prison teaching experience- here. Newfield’s wrote a book on those who leave the Hasidic path today Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism (Temple University Press, April 2020).

Leaving religion is not new. Secular ages and periods of religious recession have always been with us going back to the Roman Empire and ancient India. Most of Eastern European Jewry left the path in the early 20th century. The United States has been having religious recessions and inflations approximately every 35 years. In the 21st century, many American Evangelical Christians and Mormons are leaving their paths, which the American anthropologist James Bielo called deconverting. This follows a period of rapid religious revival in the 1990’s. This back and forth of pendulum of religious revival and recession is not new.

However, when an Evangelical forgoes the closed Christian culture, he or she speaks English as a native tongue and usually has received enough education to function in today’s world. Exceptions tend to be the segregated old-world Amish and those whose parents kept them away from education like the family depicted in the 2018 bestseller Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. When an early 20th century Hasid left to become a socialist, they usually still existed an all Yiddish world. But the contemporary ex-Hasid does not have the language skills or education that makes the transition easy. This is what Newfield studied, the transition from Hasid to ex-Hasid and the process of forming a new identity. They are like the Polish lad in Linetsky novel, having to completely change their identity.

(Modern Orthodox who graduate from a day school and then give up their religion in college already have full language and cultural skills, have full TV and pop-culture values, and do not have to be taught the basics of secular society or obtain a GED. Therefore, they should not be compared to the OTD who need to entirely form a new identity.)

Unlike the contemporary literary memoirs of ex-hasidim that generally present a complete break with their past, portraying those who leave as not going back and certainly not going back and forth or being indecisive or creating a new hybrid identity. The thesis of Newfield’s book, based on extensive interviews and collecting a statistically meaningful number of cases, is that many do create hybrid identities and do go back and forth. They want to maintain ties with family, friends, and accustomed aspects of their lives. People Newfield interviewed exhibited a range of degrees to which they have successfully moved beyond their religious upbringing and managed to create a new lifestyle and mode of being in the world.

Newfield divides his interviewees into three categories: trapped, hybrid, and disconnected, those who cannot form a new identity, those who combine aspects of both their new and their former lives, and those who completely sever connection with the past. But Newfield shows that even the latter category still struggle with their attraction to the old ways. These people may experience intense and unhealthy preoccupation with their upbringing.  Newfield’s data places most people in the middle category.  Newfield credits successful adjustment to being able to move beyond black and white thinking.

The most interesting parts of the book are those on the descriptions by ex-Hasidim of the fear of leaving, how leaving is treated as a pathology, and how one of the biggest shifts of thinking required is to stop denigrating non-Jews, goyim, and secular society as worthless, immoral, and valueless. He also discusses the various habits and traits that Ex-Hasidim retain after the formation of a new identity, such as right-wing values, anti-feminism, or shukling. He also deals with their anti-intellectualism and their need to acquire the basics of secular studies.  

The book is a very quick read and a solid sociology monograph to earn an academic position. Newfield should be commended for a fine first monograph, but it does not push far enough or hard enough. Essentials in the process of forming a new identity which I would want to know about include discussion of the changes in sartorial choices, eating, and leisure habits, finding a job, and how they became educated. The book points out how they had to become less demonizing of gentiles. But does that apply to only white gentiles? How about black and Hispanic gentiles? How about Christians who self-identify as Evangelical?  

Personally, I would have also wanted a frame analysis of an event with ex-Hasidim showing the hybridity of their choices. I would have also liked a greater sensitivity to socio-economic concerns in the viable options in forming a new identity. From where I sit in the township of Modern Orthodoxy, they cannot easily transition to Modern Orthodoxy or most Liberal Jewish communities because of the need for an upper middle-class income as well as having the worldview and class distinctions that maintain it. The book also does not directly address the issues of pain and psychic rupture from the transition.

The biggest question that the book consciously avoids is: why now? What are the social and historic factors that are leading to the current defection? For that, we need another book. The data would not be personal narratives but a social history of the last seventy years of how Hasidism was rebuilt in Brooklyn after WWII. That generation of immigrants adjusted to the new country by learning to be highly adaptive and pragmatic. How did they produce grandchildren without those skills that felt compelled to leave? How many of those who leave had parents and grandparents whose decisions played a role?

Finally, there is the rise of the Modern Hasidic, Hasidim who are in commerce, real estate, or have even gotten psychology degrees. Many of them stay in the community but are now more exposed to broader ideas, western culture, and their liberal Jewish co-workers. Are those who leave part of a broader phenomena of modernizing Hasidim or are they something completely separate? I hope that Newfield or another scholar devotes themselves to this topic

  1. How is this book autobiographical?

I was raised in the Lubavitch Hasidic community and exited it in my early twenties, so in a sense my research on people leaving their Hasidic upbringing is autobiographical. At the same time, I’ve worked very hard to separate my own personal experiences and emotions from those of the people I interviewed for my study.

For a long time, I’ve wondered who is best suited to study religious communities, those who were raised in them or those who come to it from the outside. Eventually I realized that there is no such thing as a completely “objective” scholar and that everyone brings their own biases, experiences, and concerns to their research. The most any scholar can do is to be honest about their background and orientation and to try to approach their work with an open mind. I have tried to live up to this standard. Studying others who left Hasidic communities has certainly opened my eyes to the many different kinds of exiters and to the realization that there are many particular circumstances that can shape people’s exit process and their feelings about it after the fact. I’m still figuring out the details of my next research project, but it will certainly explore some facet of ultra-Orthodox communities.           

2. Why is this topic an important topic?

There are several reasons why the study of ultra-Orthodox exiters is of interest. For one thing, according to some studies there are currently as many as ten thousand exiters from Orthodox Judaism throughout the world, with a majority living in the US but substantial minorities living in Israel and parts of Europe. That is not an insignificant number. In addition, there is some reason to believe that the rate of exit has increased in the past decade and it may continue to go up even higher in the foreseeable future, potentially brining into question the entire ultra-Orthodox way of life. 

Certainly, there are many examples—from public pronouncements by ultra-Orthodox leaders and articles in ultra-Orthodox publications—that these communities themselves view this issue as a major problem.  For example, Reb Aaron Teitelbaum, one of the spiritual leaders of the Satmar Hasidic community, in a tearful Yom Kippur speech in 2013 lamented the “lost neshumas,” the lost souls, who are leaving his community.  Similarly, thirty-three prominent Lubavitch rabbis from around the world issued a public statement proposing that community members get married earlier to ensure that members stay faithful to the community.  These statements illustrate that both communities are well aware of the fact that members are exiting and are trying to respond to this situation as they see fit.

From a sociological perspective, in addition to the inherent interest in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish case, there are broader insights this case illuminates that helps us understand all kinds of experiences of “exit” or radical personal transformation. This study is about the process of resocialization from a total institution and there are many other kinds of exiting from other total institutions.  For example, the experiences of immigrants, divorcees, and people leaving prison.  In all these cases people need to learn the new rules of their new society or circumstances, need to develop a new set of norms and behaviors, and they need to determine what parts of their previous selves they want to hold onto and what parts they want to let go.   

I should mention that there are many similarities among the experiences of those exiting ultra-Orthodox Judaism and those exiting other strict religions. One possible significant difference has to do with how the former religion is perceived by mainstream society. So, for example, if someone exits fundamentalist Islam, given the widespread Islamophobia in America, they may face greater scrutiny and suspicion than someone exiting ultra-Orthodox Judaism.  This suspicion may make it more difficult for them to speak openly about their upbringing and make it more difficult for them to develop new social contacts and fully integrate into the broader society.    

3. What does it mean to exit the Ultra-Orthodox world?

Scholars have used various terms to describe people leaving a religion. Some of these terms are value-laden such as “apostasy” or “heresy,” which tend to have negative connotations. Others terms also have other shortcomings. For example, the term “deconversion” implies that leaving a religion is the reverse of joining one, but that misses the mark since leaving a lifestyle one was born into and lived for decades tends to be much more gradual and less linear than the process of conversion.  One of the most popular phrases within the American Orthodox Jewish community to describe people leaving is “to go off the derech,” off the path, often referred to by community members as going OTD (off the derech).  This expression is certainly not neutral, since it assumes that there is a single “path” and that those who deviate from it are off that path, and negatively judges those who do so.

Among some Hasidim (notably Lubavitchers) they often describe exit-ers as “going frai;” the word “frai” is a Yiddish word derived from German, meaning “free.”  This phrase may sound less judgmental, or possibly even value-neutral, until the true meaning of the word “free” in this context is understood.  “Free” is not associated with a “free spirit” or “free as a bird,” but rather someone who is free from “the yoke of the sovereignty of Heaven” (ol malchus shamayim).  The person exiting is viewed as devoid of the constraining force of Jewish law and tradition and is as depraved as an animal wholly at the mercy of its natural passions.  I try not to use these phrases in my scholarship. Instead I use the term “exiting” because it is value neutral, and it leaves open the question of when they exited and whether they exited completely.

4. Is there any typology that can be made of those who leave?

The people I interviewed exhibited a range of degrees to which they have successfully moved beyond their religious upbringing and managed to create a new lifestyle and mode of being in the world. I divide the interviewees into three categories: trapped, hybrid, and disconnected.

Exiters who are “trapped” feel they are stuck, living in a no-man’s-land, as it were, uncomfortable and constantly struggling with the norms that they find in the outside world.

Exiters who are “hybrids” adopt new norms from the outside world while simultaneously incorporating a limited amount of their former community’s norms into their new lives.

Exiters who are “disconnected” appear on the surface to have replaced all of the norms of their former community with new ones, without any carry overs. Upon closer analysis, however, they still struggle with their attraction to the old ways. These people may experience intense and unhealthy preoccupation with their upbringing.  I would say that the majority of exiters would fall into the hybrid category, with only a small, but tragic, number of exiters comprising the trapped and disconnected categories. 

It is difficult to say exactly why some exiters thrive post exit while others falter. It does seem that an ability to transcend the rigid mindset of ultra-Orthodoxy that sees everything in black and white terms (for example, either God wrote the Torah and every word must be followed punctiliously or it was written by humans and is of no lasting import) is key to being able to adapt to mainstream secular society.    

5. How do Hasidim denigrate Goyim? How do they imagine Goyim live?

In Hasidic communities there is a tendency to view non-Jews, as “goyim,” as lower than and less than Jews.  The Hasidim tend to view non-Jews as less intellectual, less spiritual, and less moral than Jews.  Hasidim also tend to view non-Jews as more enslaved to their animal instincts and less capable than Jews of using their free will to make moral decisions.  As one of my Hasidic male interviewees told me, “I was taught that non-Jews have no choice, they have no free will.  My teachers went so far as to say that non-Jews were robots.” Along similar lines, a Hasidic woman told me, “I was taught that non-Jews are unclean….[Non-Jews] weren’t portrayed as caring, loving, family-minded people like us.  We live for our families, for our kids, we love our kids.  They don’t love their kids, they hurt their kids all the time.  There is so much abuse going on” in the goyish world.

One of the reasons why it is possible for the Hasidic community to promote such negative stereotypes of non-Jews is because there is very little genuine familiarity between the Hasidim and non-Jews. Hasidim tend to shop in Jewish own stores, go to Jewish (although largely non-Hasidic) doctors and dentists, patronize Jewish-own car services, and when they do interact with non-Jews such interactions tend to be brief and superficial.  What is more, when they do occasionally see non-Jewish strangers in their neighborhoods or in the news acting immorally, they use this as evidence that the Hasidic negative preconceptions of non-Jews are correct.  It is a kind of confirmation bias.  Overcoming this negative attitude towards non-Jews is certainly one of the major hurdles exiters must overcome.     

6. How is exiting prevented? What is the role of fear?

For people contemplating exiting their community, fear plays a huge role. Hasidim tend to know very little about the outside secular world; therefore they are understandably terrified about surviving on their own on the outside without the supports they can often expect to receive from their community were they to remain inside. Because of this fear, most people who think about exiting tend to decide not to go through with it. 

For those who decide to exit anyway, their Hasidic communities have various ways to try to prevent it.  Among the Lubavitch and Satmar communities I studied, I found that these communities tended to denigrate those who exited and claim that there were no “legitimate” reasons for exit. All those who exited were viewed as doing so in order to satiate their lusts.

Among the Satmar community, but not the Lubavitch one, it was common for the religious schools to expel children whose parents deviated religiously. This was a major weapon against those starting to deviate religiously since all the neighborhood Hasidic schools were in alliance, and if a child were expelled from one school another school in the area would not accept that child. This meant that if the parents still wanted their children to attend a religious school, they would need to move to a new neighborhood with a different school system. So, expelling a child from a school was a way to force a religiously deviating family to move.

Of course, for those parents who were farther along in their process of exiting and no longer wanted their children to attend a religious school, the Satmar community had another weapon at its disposal. It would forcefully inset itself in the child custody hearings to ensure that the parent who remained in the community retained full custody of the children.  The community would arrange to have former friends and neighbors of the exiter come to court and testify that the exiter was not a fit parent.  The community also raised money to cover legal costs and other expenses to assist the parent remaining in the community.  The threat of an exiter potentially losing all contact with his or her children is very real and is a major disincentive for would-be exiters to exit.      

7. How and why does the community pathologize exiting?

Hasidic communities pathologize exiting by arguing that those who exit are mentally ill (meshuga).  They maintain this position for several reasons. For one thing such a position attempts to remove from public discourse any legitimacy from the motives or actions of exiters.  That is, it implies that there is no legitimate reason for exiting, these exiters are simply out of their mind.  It also acts as a deterrence to others who might be thinking about exiting.  How many people are going to decide to exit when they know that their own family and friends will go around saying that they suffered from a mental illness. 

It is also possible that these communities maintain that exiters have a mental illness out of a genuine bafflement at the choices exiters make.  That is, these communities cannot fathom how someone in their right mind who knows so much about the Hasidic way of life could choose to live in violation of its norms—it must be that person is crazy!     

8. How does your research show that ex-Hasidim do not cut off ties with the past including family and ways of life?

My research found that the majority of exiters continue to maintain at least some connection with their families post exit. There was range in terms of how connected exiters were to their families post exit. Some exiters only called their families before major Jewish holidays and endured awkward conversations, some visited a few times a year and suffered through stilted conversations, and others continued to enjoy regular loving—although still complicated—meaningful family contact.   This finding is significant because there is a general perception among some scholars and the public that once people exit from the Hasidic community they are completed cut off from their families.  Some outsiders even believe that Hasidic families sit shiva for the exit-er, as if the person had actually died.  Of the seventy-four exiters I interviewed, I only confirmed one case where parents sat shiva, and that case had two distinct characteristics: The exiter not only stopped being Orthodox but also married a non-Jewish women (which was uncommon among the majority of exiters) and the leader of the exiter’s community had a personal antagonism against the exiters.  This antagonism grew out of the fact that the exiter had publicized sexual abuse inside his community of origin. 

I should mention that the image that emerges from memoirs written by those who exit the ultra-Orthodox community may conflict with my findings. These memoirists may give the impression of being completely cut off post exit. Assuming the veracity of their claims, there is a simple explanation for the discrepancies. Specifically, these personal memoirs may represent the narratives of a marginal group who are indeed so disconnected from their family and community that they feel free to write about it and tell the whole world their personal story.  However, for the majority of ultra-Orthodox exiters who still connections with their family or community have they are loath to publicly discuss their disagreements with the community for fear of causing offense and jeopardizing those relationships. 

9. How do they retain and give up many habits after exiting?

My research also found that exiters continue to hold on to aspects of their upbringing as well, what scholars call “role residuals.”  Examples of this include the way that some exiters continue to maintain the socially conservative attitudes from their upbringing regarding race and gender.

Other exiters continue to hold onto some of the bodily behaviors that were instilled in them growing up such as swaying (shuckling) while reading a book, even though now the book they are reading is not a “sacred” text.  It must be stressed that these role residuals are not simply things that exiters choose to hold on to because they enjoy or appreciate them. Instead, these are more like habits that they are either unaware of or unable to jettison even if they want to.  The presence of these role residuals is significant because it highlights how much of an effect the  upbringing has them, even if (or especially when!) we are unaware of it.      

One pattern to emerge in terms of which habits exiters maintained from their upbringing and which they discarded, was that habits that were not supported by the outside world (such as the denigration of non-Jews) were much less likely to be maintained.

On the other hand, habits that found support from at least some segment of the broader public (such as conservative attitudes towards race and gender) were more likely to be maintained. That is, it is possible for exiters to tune into conservative talk radio and hear people promoting reactionary views on race and gender. Therefore, it is possible for exiters to feel like these views are not simply “Hasidic” and should be maintained. But it is extremely unlikely for exiters to find non-Orthodox Jews (let alone non-Jews) who would agree that none-Jews are less than full human beings. Therefore, it is very unlikely that exiters will maintain the kind of anti-goy attitudes from their upbringing. 

10. How is Hasidism anti-intellectual?  Do Ex-Hasidim often substitute Dawkins and Hitchens for Torah, trading a religious fundamentalism for an atheist fundamentalism?

Hasidic communities tend to be anti-intellectual in several ways. For one thing, they tend to disparage secular knowledge as “foreign knowledge” (chochmas chitzonim) and limit or entirely prevent members from learning in school even such basic subjects as English reading and writing and rudimentary mathematics.  This not only limits members knowledge of these specific secular subjects but also limits the imagination and exploration regarding the physical universe and the outside world in general.  This general pattern exists within both the Lubavitch and Satmar communities.      

Hasidic communities also tend to place strict ideological boundaries around the religious subjects that they teach in their schools.  So, for example, students in yeshiva will be discouraged from asking the “wrong” kind of questions when studying the Bible or the Talmud, such as questions that challenge God’s omniscience or the wisdom of particular legal rulings of the sages.

When people leave their Hasidic upbringing, they often reject its theological foundations. Approximately 16 percent of the exiters I interviewed become atheists, the rest were agnostics or maintained some form of belief in god. Many of these atheist exiters are attracted to the “four horsemen” of New Atheism (Hitchins, Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett) and embrace these authors simplistic critique of religion as based primarily on theological beliefs which they reject as superstitious. Atheist exiters sometimes also embrace the Islamophobia rampant among the New Atheists.

11. What do the gender attitudes remain after exiting?

About a third of the exiters I interviewed expressed conservative gender attitudes. That is, they said that men and women were fundamentally different and that there were certain types of jobs, specifically being a rabbi, which were better suited to men than women.  Interestingly, these were the same views as those of people inside the Hasidic community.  I think one reason these views of gender remain with exiters is that they are supported by socially conservative voices in the broader society. This support reinforces these views among exiters and allows them to feel like this is not one of the things that are unique to the Hasidic community and therefore should be rejected. It is also possible that since views about gender are related in their minds to embodied differences, this embodied aspect may naturalize these views and make them less susceptible to change.    

12. What is your method? How do you differ from others?

My main research method is to use in depth interviews. This is a significant methodological difference between my study and most other studies on ultra-Orthodox Jews, which tend to use ethnographies and participant observations.    

I wanted a method that would allow me to have extended conversations with exiters in order to find out exactly what they were thinking and how they made sense of their own experiences and transformations.  I’m not aware of any other contemporary study of ultra-Orthodoxy based primarily on in-depth interviews.

My interviews tended to last about two and a half hours and I tried as much as possible to let the interviewees describe their own experiences in a way that made sense to them without superimposing my own sociological issues and concerns on their narratives. Once I finished conducting interviews, I pored over their transcripts and searched for emergent patterns. 

I’ve learned so much from the many insightful ethnographic works on Orthodoxy.  One book in particular that inspired me was Ayala Fader’s Mitzvah Girls. Although our methods differ, I greatly appreciated how serious Fader took her subject and how she wasn’t afraid to describe honestly what she observed, even if it made for occasionally uncomfortable reading, such as when she described the anti-goy messages rampant in the Hasidic girls schools she observed.   

13. What did they become religiously after exiting?

Out of the seventy-four people I interviewed, only eight could be classified now as Modern Orthodox and only five actively embraced some form of liberal Judaism.  The rest tended to create their own amalgam of Jewish rituals and practices as they saw fit.  As one exiter I interviewed put it, “For some weird reason when it comes to Hanukah and the menorah, there was one year I was like “Ok let’s just do this,” but this year I didn’t light it once.  I mean I wouldn’t not light it. I’ve come to the point that I could enjoy those things. But I don’t of my own volition do anything religious.” 

As a sociologist nothing would please me more than being able to identify a clear pattern to explain why particular exiters ended up in particular places religiously, but I could not find such a pattern.  For people raised ultra-Orthodox and socialized to believe that conforming to Orthodox religious standards is the highest ideal and that Judaism is an all or nothing proposition, it is extremely difficult for exiters to develop their own sense of Jewishness and to feel confident to embrace some aspects of Judaism while disengaging from others.  Being able to improvise in this way is an expression of religious open-mindedness and creatively not typically associated with ultra-Orthodoxy.  

14. You seem to trust the narratives, as a sociologist should not you question them more?

Although my research is based on interviews with exiters, and although I take what exiters tell me seriously, I do not accept it uncritically as fact.  That is, throughout my work I make it clear that I do not view what exiters tell me as the causal reason for their exit as a straightforward fact. Rather I analyze what exiters tell me in order to understand how they make sense of their experiences.  So, when exiters tell me that they left their community for intellectual or social reasons, rather than assuming that these explanations are the causal reasons for their behavior, I look at these explanations as narratives that invite scholarly interpretation.  And it is as “narratives” that I present them in my scholarship.  Analyzing exiter narratives in this way allowed me to discover not only that there were differences among exiters in terms of how they explained their motivations for exiting—some giving primacy to intellectual critiques of religious texts and their communities and others giving primacy to feelings of alienation and disconnect with their upbringing—I also discovered that there was intense competition between these two groups and mutual recriminations against each other. 

Those who gave intellectual narratives argued that if one does not leave for intellectual reasons, they are not real exiters.  They claimed that if the exiters do not have “real” problems with their community, as soon as they realize how hard it is to start over in mainstream society, they will come running back to the community to be readmitted.  Conversely, those who consider their reasons for leaving to be emotional or social, often ridicule the “intellectuals” for their self-deception.  They say things like: “These people think that they are so smart and so much better than the rest of us. Really, they left for the same reasons that we left but they don’t want to admit it, so they protect themselves by claiming intellectual reasons.”

15. I encounter Hasidim who are in commerce, real estate, or even gotten psychology degrees. Many of them stay in the community but are now more exposed to broader ideas, western culture, and their liberal Jewish co-workers. How do you see them changing? Is it in continuity with the OTD? Many of the things you noted also apply to these “Modern Hasidic”?

This might get me into trouble with my fellow sociologists, but in general I try to avoid grand schemas or systems of classification as much as possible.  My study explores the lives of those raised in the Hasidic community who decide to exit it. There are certainly many other members of ultra-Orthodoxy who are exposed to the secular world to some degree or other and who change some aspects of their thinking or behavior while remaining in their community of origin.  These people are sometimes referred to as “Modern Hasidic.”  These people are certainly interesting and should be studied, but this would be a very different kind of study.