Thursday, November 10, 2005

Engaging is essential

Interesting demographic trends among haredim (plural of haredi):
By the year 2020, the haredi population of Israel will double to 1 million and make up 17 percent of the total population, said Hebrew University demographer Professor Sergio Della Pergola Tuesday.
I consider this a positive trend, as Jewish assimilation has become a dramatic problem (see here) for the survival of the Jewish people as a culture:
Demographically, it must be said, the high growth rate of a religiously committed group of Jews should be celebrated. Jewish population trends abroad have been notoriously grim, and even Israel's growth has been modest as secular sabras continue to marry later in life and choose to have fewer children than previous generations.
When it comes to ensuring a Jewish majority in the Jewish homeland, the haredi sector is doing more than its fair share - and it does not deserve to be lampooned or even criticized for doing so, as it currently is by much of the secular and even the modern Orthodox public.
At the same time I do think it is very important for an ethnic minority to positively interact with the surrounding society. Though I consider religious and cultural identity very important, I feel that it is possible to be fully Italian (in my case) - engaged in a positive and constructive way with my surroundings - while at the same time being a committed and observant Jew. However to reach that healthy equilibrium the haredi community will need to change (without compromising their religious commitment):
To truly engage, however, the haredi public would have to stop avoiding military service, as the overwhelming majority currently does. It would mean that far more haredim would have to accept a greater role in the country's economy - not just as consumers but as producers, too.
None of these things is, intrinsically, a sacrifice in the commitment to a haredi lifestyle. There are already numerous examples of haredim who have served in defense of their country while maintaining stringent standards of kashrut and personal conduct. In recent years, haredi involvement in the hi-tech industry (and their much longer involvement in the diamond industry) has shown that it is possible for both haredi men and women to earn a decent living working in a "mixed" environment while remaining faithful to their beliefs and to their disciplined Torah study habits.
I fully agree with this assessment. In the 1950's it made sense to establish an exemption for yeshiva students from military service because of the fragility of Judaism at the time (not just physically but intellectually). However as a result of its growth the haredi community must now begin to face an inherent contradiction: it is a goal among haredim to convince all Jews to return to the faith, while at the same time haredi students are exempt from military service. Considering the ascendancy of haredim, in the future who is going to go into the army? The answer is that the Torah never intended - even under what haredim view as ideal circumstances (i.e. all Jews being observant) - the whole, or even most, of the Jewish people to be exclusively dedicated to scholarship. If haredim, for the sake of fostering high level religious scholarship, want to allow a certain portion of students to avoid military service altogether they will have to come up with a meritocratic, fair and transparent system to do so. Additionally economic and other general policies will also have to be hammered out by the haredi parties: until now they have acted more like narrow interest groups than candidates to seriously and responsibly run all aspects of a Western and democratic government.
I think an increased engagement on the part of haredim will positively impact Israeli society as a whole, but it will also cause desirable developments within the haredi community which needs to (at least partially) come out of a cocoon that is unsustainable and unacceptable in such a large community. I hope we will stand up to the challenge.

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