Yesterday, the men of our class went on a guided tour of Meah Shearim, an ultra-orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. Our guide was an ex-Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) who leads a group of HUC students every year through the neighborhood. I've been in Haredi areas before, but I'd never been into the heart of Meah Shearim. It was intense!
The buildings were close together, and the streets were narrow. The two hundred year old neighborhood is home to a number of different Haredi communities whose differences run deep and heavy, yet to an outsider, all Haredim look the "same." Some are easier to spot than others, but the differences between the groups seem so arbitrary and minor (as they often stem simply from which rabbi the community follows) that lumping all ultra-orthodox Jews into a single group is tempting.
Despite the presence of a multitude of different prayer spaces, one large synagogue sits at the heart of the neighborhood next to the community mikveh (ritual bath). Men (and a few women) were walking around, and none of them gave us a hard time, though all of them visibly noticed our unusual presence. As we passed a heder (school), I heard the call and response teaching of classical texts in Hebrew and Yiddish that I've only seen in a movie before - it was incredible to witness instruction like that actually going on.
Posters in Hebrew were displayed everywhere. One that says "Modest dress required" had been scribbled out, though others declaiming that association with the modern world is forbidden were left untouched.
When we left Meah Shearim and moved into the Yeminite orthodox neighborhood, our guide was visibly relieved. He knew that there wouldn't be any danger of being harrassed in this more moderate neighborhood. We got a chance to see the actual street Meah Shearim (which is not part of the neighborhood), which serves as a kind of main street in this orthodox part of town. Shops carrying stacks of black kipot, portraits of famous rabbis, and tchochkes for tourists sat next to jewlery stores, groceries, and restaurants. This was orthodox life, and I was a visitor.
I composed a journal entry for my Israel seminar class about the experience - that entry is copied below. I've been learning a lot about orthodoxy recently, and I wish I could repeat all the information I've absorbed, but there just isn't room for that on this blog or in my schedule. Suffice it to say that I understand the Jewish spectrum much better now, and I am sure I'll be a better rabbi for it.
To the modern Jew, one’s Jewish identity is formed in the context of the surrounding world. Of course, this process is not new to Judaism, but before competing (i.e., non-religious) models of identity came into being during the Enlightenment, being Jewish was a relatively binary enterprise. In today’s world, Jews take into account history, society, politics, economy, etc. when framing self-identities, and Jewish communities are built with all of these factors in mind. Although contemporary ultra-orthodox (Haredi) communities do not entirely avoid every aspect of modern life, these communities are built on the foundations of non-integration. Thus, stepping into Meah Shearim was like moving into a different world.
At first, I felt that the buildings and people surrounding us were like any other Haredi homes and people in Jerusalem that I pass every day. Yet, our guide, Avraham, assured us that the rules were different here. His edginess betrayed a significant discomfort with leading us through the Haredi neighborhood, and he shared with us that there was a possibility that we would be harassed. If we appeared disrespectful or if we had had women in our group of men, Avraham indicated that the chances of our being disturbed would have been much higher. However, their disturbing us would come as a result of our disturbing them.
This particular notion is what captured my attention more than any other during the tour. Meah Shearim is not a standard example of self-segregation; rather, the neighborhood represents boundaries wherein the very rules of identity are changed. The modern world is an intruder here, and non-Haredi people who live here are by no means part of the community. Differences between individual communities are vast, yet a shared house of assembly, a shared mikveh, shared soup kitchens, etc. reflect a sense of defined community. Though not everyone in a state agrees, they share a capital and all use the same buses; here, too, individuals from different sub-sects of the community share space within their world while maintaining individual differences.
At the heart of this community is a particular and exclusive model of Jewish identity. Within Meah Shearim, there is no such thing as tradition. There is no such thing as orthodoxy. There is no such thing as religious creativity. Judaism is and the residents’ lives are Jewish. Whereas “traditionalists live in a situation of modernity, surrounded by competing alternatives in life,” there are no competing alternatives here. Residents of Meah Shearim refer to themselves as Yidn, Jews - aside from them and people like them, there are no other Jews: “Jews who [live] like the goyim [are] also goyim.” Although Haredi Jews outside of these physical boundaries are obligated “to be set apart from mainstream culture and remain steeped in Jewish texts and ways,” inside the neighborhood, life simply goes on. Men study, many of them work, friendships and competing ideologies play out, and life progresses--as they see it--normally.
In the early months of my living in Israel, I came to notice within myself a striking aversion to those who represented themselves as Haredi. I felt automatically judged, excluded, and belittled. In recent months, I’ve made a concerted effort to try to overcome my prejudices about Haredi people, though I remain a long way from success. However, while walking through Meah Shearim, I was extremely surprised not to find similar feelings of alienation and accused inferiority. Although Avraham’s presence represented an obvious crossover between the worlds, my relationship with this new Haredi “land” was as of visiting a foreign country. These Haredim were not judging me - they were entirely dismissing me.
My reaction to that philosophy is, naturally, complex. On the one hand, I felt less angry about the rifts between our communities than I often feel with regard to Haredi Jews. Yet on the other, I was made to feel that these rifts don’t exist because the communities in no way whatsoever overlap. Martin Buber teaches that to hate someone is to come close to an I-Thou relationship and to be unable to enter it and is therefore better than complete apathy and dismissal, from which there is no proximity whatsoever to an I-Thou relationship. Following from this, it’s better to argue with a Haredi person about Jewish identity than to be entirely dismissed by one. In the latter case, the overall community is entirely shattered, and to pick up the pieces requires a commitment to see one another from both sides. Since the inhabitants of Meah Shearim for the most part refuse to see the outside world, their community will remain entirely separate.
A part of me feels a sadness about this separation, while a part of me recognizes that it is the natural outgrowth of a particular model of understanding Jewish identity. These Jews, unlike others who deliberately spit directly in the face of the modern world, live their lives as anyone else, with different but recognizable problems and successes. Would I bring a tour group to Meah Shearim? Certainly not. Would I include it in a list of Jewish communities? Probably. Would I seek out the opportunity to dialogue with a Haredi person about Jewish identity? Absolutely. Our worlds may appear separated, but in physical reality, the proximity cannot be denied, and I believe that over time, this community will have to work out a way to understand and relate to the rest of the world without having to shut it out entirely. When they do, I hope that other Jewish communities, though perhaps not easily or peacefully, will be prepared to engage Haredim and challenge their notions of Jewish identity so that we can continue the struggle towards building a multifaceted yet unified Jewish community.