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Scholar opens window into haredi world
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Scholar opens window into haredi world

Prof: Ultra-Orthodox should be understood on their own terms

Gender studies expert Yakir Englander, showing a picture of the hasidic master the Baal Shem Tov, studies the fervently Orthodox Jewish community he left behind.
Gender studies expert Yakir Englander, showing a picture of the hasidic master the Baal Shem Tov, studies the fervently Orthodox Jewish community he left behind.

Anative of B’nei Brak, Yakir Englander left his fervently Orthodox hasidic community at age 22 and was immediately drafted into the Israel Defense Forces. 

To emphasize just how little he knew of secular Israeli society, he recalled his first visit to the army office. When told he was going to be drafted on July 1, he said, “What is July?” 

Until then he knew the names of only the Hebrew months.

Speaking on April 27 at Princeton University, Englander suggested that to understand Israel’s fervently Orthodox, liberal Jews need to get beyond their anger at the haredim for their exemptions from military service in Israel’s army and for their harassment of women who seek parity at the Western Wall.

Instead, they need to open their hearts and try to understand the haredim from within. 

Now a visiting lecturer in women’s studies and Judaism at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., Englander spoke at McCosh Hall in a program sponsored by the university’s Center for Jewish Life/Hillel and Program in Jewish Studies.

Englander said his army experience opened him up to a wider world, including, ultimately, gender issues, his academic specialty. Offended by the pornography on display in his unit, he asked to be transferred to a women’s unit. His doctoral thesis at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem was on perceptions of the male body in ultra-Orthodox society.

However, he remains fascinated by the community he left. 

Being a member of that community, he said, “is one of the only alternatives for people who want to live in Western society and not be Westerners.” He described B’nei Brak as “20 minutes from Tel Aviv and 2,000 years from Tel Aviv culture.”

To maintain separateness within the larger society, however, is sometimes a balancing act. A hasidic singer, for example, has adopted the melody and the instrumentation of a Lady Gaga song but with his own Yiddish words. 

Separated from secular society, haredim also develop unexpected norms. In a video clip of a Sukkot celebration among the Vizhnitzer hasidim, Englander pointed out all the touching that happens when the men dance together. He noted that in his yeshiva, it was totally acceptable for men to hug or walk hand in hand. “Because the ultra-Orthodox world does not really know what is homosexuality, they have ways for men to touch that in Western society you don’t see,” he said.

(Similarly, when he explained to his mother that a lesbian friend “wants to live her life with a woman,” his mother responded, “But this is what we do.”) 

And while separation often creates conflicts with the secular world, it also offers intriguing comparisons. Haredi women, for example, appreciate the separation of the sexes on public buses, while secular Jews are uncomfortable with the idea. At the same time, secular Israeli women have also complained about sexual harassment on the buses. “If the police cannot find a way to stop it, we have an option,” wrote feminist activists on a Facebook site dedicated to stopping such harassment. “We’re going to demand separate buses like the ultra-Orthodox world.”

Englander nudged his audience, saying, “When we don’t agree with the ultra-Orthodox world, we want to ask ourselves a question: Do we offer a better solution?”

Similarly, he noted Western discomfort with haredi dating rituals, in which men and women can only speak but not touch before the wedding. “I know the suffering, the horrible situation” this may cause, he said, but then asked, “What do we offer better? Why should they listen to us?”

Englander concluded by describing how haredim are trying to deal with access to the Internet. Rabbis debate whether they should allow it with limitations or totally circumscribe it and ask whether building a high wall runs the risk of rebellion in the ranks.

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