The Unmaking of Israel: How government policies have caused the surge in ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Israel.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Nov. 8 2011 7:12 AM

Israel’s Old-Time Religion

How government policies have caused the surge in ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Israel—and why it’s an economic disaster.

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This is a story full of ironies. Here's the first: The critical, unnoticed catalyst of the transformation of ultra-Orthodox society in Israel was the 1949 law instituting free, compulsory education.  In the first stage, the state funded existing school systems, which were tied to political movements. In British-ruled Palestine, ultra-Orthodox schools had been few, scattered, and short on cash. After independence, most joined a school system under the roof of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party. In Knesset Education Committee discussions of the compulsory education law, the fact that it would provide budgets to the ultra-Orthodox schools hardly merited mention. After all, ultra-Orthodoxy was vanishing.

Instead, the opposite happened. State funding made it possible to open new ultra-Orthodox schools and pay steady salaries. Young haredi women could finish teacher training at Agudat Yisrael's seminaries by age 18 or 19 and get elementary-school jobs. Meanwhile, some of the Jews pouring into Israel from the Islamic world chose haredi schools for their children, creating more teaching positions.

In 1953, when the Knesset voted to eliminate party-run schools and create a national educational system, it left loopholes in the State Education Law that allowed the Agudat Yisrael schools to keep operating and receive funding from the state. As the Israeli economy modernized, high school education became the norm. The state helped fund ultra-Orthodox secondary schools along with others, but the high schools for haredi boys were devoted entirely to religious studies. Most were boarding schools, where students lived in a day-and-night realm of Torah study, with rabbis substituting for parents. From there, young men—not only the few brilliant scholars, as in European Europe before the Holocaust, but the mass—proceeded to advanced yeshivot.

The leading haredi religious figure in Israel, Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karlitz, used these changes to promote a transformation in the name of extreme conservatism: Haredi men and women would marry young. Men would keep studying Torah in kollel after marriage, supported by their teacher-wives. Their working parents would help out. Funds to help give kollel students small salaries came from Jews in Western countries. The donors were not necessarily Orthodox. Rather, they regarded their contributions as honoring the destroyed Jewish world of Eastern Europe, seen through the distorting lens of loss and nostalgia.

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Ironically, the army's centrality in Israeli life promoted the change, precisely because haredi society wanted young men to avoid what it saw as the IDF's secular press-gang. Remaining a full-time Torah student allowed a man to stay out of uniform. The deferment helped lock young men into the kollel lifestyle. So did the education gap: Though ultra-Orthodox men spent years engaged in study, their schooling did nothing to prepare them for jobs in a modern economy. From their teens on, their curriculum was devoid of mathematics, sciences, foreign languages and other general studies.

Thus "the society of scholars"—as sociologist Friedman named it—took shape. Older haredi men, who'd come of age before the change, worked for a living. A growing number of young men stayed in kollel after marriage, often for a decade or more. The father was a carpenter, shopkeeper or tailor; the son was a full-time student. In a universe of arranged marriages, Torah scholars were the most sought-after grooms.

Between 1952 and 1981, the average marriage age of ultra-Orthodox men in Israel fell from 27.5 to 21.5. At the beginning of that period, the typical haredi groom was slightly older than the average for Israeli Jewish society. By 1981, he was four years younger than the Israeli Jewish average. Among haredi women, marriage before age 20 became the standard. Ultra-Orthodox couples started having children early and continued to have them often. This, too, made leaving haredi society much more difficult, for women as well as men.

In the 1940s, it had seemed to ultra-Orthodox educators and parents that nothing could stop young people from giving up religion. Now the exodus stopped. The gulf between the society of scholars and the secular world grew too wide to cross. Rabbis wrote with satisfaction that children were outdoing their parents at piety. Their words portray a revolution in a society that believed itself to be changeless.

Young haredi Israelis saw the previous generation as insufficiently religious—a paradox in a community for which religion and tradition were synonyms. To show they made no compromise with modernity, young haredim sought to follow Jewish law in the strictest fashion. They thereby created a new interpretation of Jewish practice, a strict constructionism that was itself a product of modernity.

In this, the closed community of the ultra-Orthodox was part of the global phenomenon of fundamentalist movements—they are creations of the present claiming to be old-time religion.

Tomorrow: How Israel can resolve its tragic crisis with the Palestinians.

Gershom Gorenberg is an Israeli historian and journalist. His latest book is The Unmaking of Israel.