Sunday, 9 November 2008

Who is charedi?

In an article on Ynet entitled "Who is charedi?" at,7340,L-3619172,00.html, Tali Farkash, a charedi journalist who works for Ynet, responds to this question as posed by her colleagues at the paper specifically in connection to Tzvia Greenfield, the new MK for the Meretz party. In attempting to answer that question, she postulates different yardsticks by which to answer the question. At the root of her problem is actually the very definition of what it means to be charedi, specifically as distinct from any other form of Orthodoxy. Her main challenge against Ms. Greenfield actually seems to be a problem that many within Orthodoxy may have; the question perhaps should have been: how could anyone Orthodox support Meretz? Nevertheless that is not the question and this, perhaps, brings up a greater issue. So often when people attempt to define charedi positions, they develop arguments that simply apply to all Orthodoxy thus resulting in a lack of clarity of what really are the points of distinction between the different factions within Orthodoxy.

Of course, we could ask: do we need this clarity in the first place? The problem is that as long as we use definitions such as charedi, a lack of clarity only furthers the problems we encounter due to a lack of understanding of what we truly believe. Someone could even challenge Ms. Farkash for calling herself charedi while working for the chiloni Ynet. I have seen people argue for an individual to accept the view of a certain faction within Orthodoxy because of some argument that they make only in the name of their faction when, in reality, it is actually a basic principle maintained by all Orthodoxy. I have also seen the opposite whereby one expresses a view that is only maintained by one faction of Orthodoxy in a manner that implies that it is fundamental to all Orthodoxy. I actually think labels are important but specifically as shorthand to understand what a person's philosophical, halachic and hashkafic viewpoints may be. Otherwise they are worse than useless, beading dissent and sinat chinum. As such, the question of who is charedi has some merit but only if we know what it being distinctly expressed by this term.

Returning in conclusion to Ms. Farkish's article, the only measure that she mentions that may be specific to the charedi definition is the acceptance of a certain authority. In this regard, I could see an argument that could maintain that Ms. Greenfield is not really charedi. But you know what's interesting. On the site of article are a picture of Ms. Greenfield and Ms. Farkash. Which one do you think looks more charedi? Of course Ms. Greenfield is actually also Dr. Greenfield with a Ph.D. in philosophy so isn't labelling her charedi problematic in the first place? Ms. Farkash, though, doesn't really mention this. I think in the end what I am really trying to say is: who cares? The term charedi seems to be used by someone as they seem fit, with their own agenda. Thus it is really meaningless. Which may be the greatest problem for it is simply a term used by someone to further their own agenda -- either by getting people to support a position because it is charedi or getting someone to challenge a position because it is charedi. Why not simply think and evaluate matters on its merit rather than its label?

In the end who cares if Dr. Greenfield is charedi or not It only matters if the term charedi itself has meaning and then it only really matters if an answer to that question really affects our understanding and our need to know.

Rabbi Ben Hecht


Garnel Ironheart said...

There are two levels to the definition of being Chareidi in this day and age.

The first is, as Tali Farkash noted (and I pointed out on my blog), that to call oneself a Chareidi means accepting a package of values and beliefs upon oneself. A guy in a shtreiml and bekisher who owns a 38" plasma and saw the movie House Bunny three times last weekend wouldn't qualify.

Unless, of course, no one knew about the House Bunny things, in which case the assumption would be that he was Chareidi because of how he dressed.

The second level is that the Chareidim have defined themselves religiously as the only truly proper form of Jewish observance and the standard against which all other groups claiming to be Orthodox must measure themselves.

Thus who cares? Someone who is less than 110% confident in his own observance and feels a need to be taken seriously by the entire Torah world including the Chareidim. Which is quite a lot of people, actually.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

The first question is: what exactly are those set of values that define one as charedi? What comes out of the article and also seems to be hinted to in your comment is that this very question is in itself somewhat in flux. There are two implications to what I am saying. First is that the exact criteria for identification are in themselves in question. For example, if attendance at a university puts someone outside the pale of being charedi, Tzvia Greenfield is already outside the pale. Second is that the impact of the criteria may depend upon perception and outward appearance rather than one's actual belief structure. I am sure that the question of whether Dr. Greenfield is charedi only arose because of her appearance. The fact is that, at least for some people, that may be enough to maintain the label regardless of anything else.

As to your second point, the reason someone may want to be classified as charedi is to ensure greater acceptance. Yet in the end whether someone accepts you or not will really be a person decision, just in the case of someone who wants to see himself/herself as charedi, he/she will define his/her personal yardstick as the yardstick to define a charedi.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Anonymous said...

Frankly, I'm a bit disappointed by the discussion. It isn't clear whether the term chareidi is a term imposed on more religious people by less religious people (or academics) or if it is an identity that people take on as part of a subsection of the orthodox community or a combination of both. Although labels can promote or lead to prejudice and sinas chinom, they can also be helpful in understanding the world and the people in it, which isn't such a bad thing. In that vein, what would be the definition of chareidi? Is it the same as other terms which are often used such as ultra orthodox or religious right? Does it consist of only the chassidim or does it include so called litvish, black hat and other terms? Is it related to a level of religious practice that is 100% committed to Jewish observance, even if it is a more lenient position i.e. only chalov yisroel is good so if you use chalov stam you're not part of this group? Does it mean a total separation from the secular world or a feeling that it's influences should be minimized. Is it a way of differentiating people to the right of modern orthodox which would also need to be defined? Is it an Israeli term or does it encompass people in North America? Any clarification would be appreciated.

His Lordship, Garnel Ironheart said...

The difference between Orthodoxy and Chareidi is quite simple.

Orthodoxy is a term that was imposed from the outside. After the rise of Reform and Conservatism, non-religious Jews needs a term to refer to those who were still fully Torah observant. So they called us Orthodox. This is evident from observing language use in observant communities. No one there calls himself Orthodox because it's not relevant. Either you're observant or you're not.

Chareidi, however, is a self-imposed term, from the verse "those who tremble (chared) before da Lord". It encompasses the Yeshivah and Chassidish crowds and is a term they will use to refer to themselves.

It's not an exclusively Israeli term but in Israel where being part of a group has political as well as religious implications, the term carries more weight.

Nishma said...

The first point made by Anonymmous above was my point as well. Labels serve an important purpose if they are accurate indications of one's thoughts, ideas or set of behaviour. If they, though, only serve to separate, create friction and allow for improper criticism, they are improper. Much may depend on Anonymous' second point regarding the issue of who has labeled a specific group. If it is a self imposed label reflecting how a group looks at itself or evaluates itself it may serve a better purpose than if the label is imposed by another. Of course, though, who did the labeling may still serve a purpose, whether self imposed or imposed by others, not so much in the truth of the label -- what it really represents -- but more on how the group sees itself (if the label is self-imposed) or how others see the group (if imposed by others).

Rabbi Ben Hecht