Israel en de Bijbel has a real passion and heart for the Haredim, the ultraorthodox Jewish communities. But who are they, and what do we know about them?
In this seven-part series we will explore their history, their various movements and many aspects of their daily lives.
When I first visited New York, I stayed in an apartment on a street called Flatbush Avenue. This well-known road lies next to a large Jewish neighborhood and functions as kind of border area that separates two very different parts of the city. Enter one of Flatbush’s many side streets, and you will likely find a house or two with a mezuzah on the door. Continue for a few hundred feet and you will cross over from the streets of New York into what seems like an entirely different world. Here you will find mezuzot on every door, innumerable synagogues, houses of study, kosher supermarkets, restaurants and (book)stores.
This is the orthodox Jewish area in the heart of Brooklyn. The deeper you traverse into this area, the more orthodox it will get. When you eventually stumble upon a place called Borough Park, you are entering a neighborhood where currently more than 100.000 Hasidic Jews live.
According to a 2011 survey, 561.00 Jewish people live in Brooklyn (which is about 20 percent of Brooklyn’s total population). Their number is currently estimated at 600.000. Unsurprisingly, this has created somewhat of a housing shortage, which they are trying to solve by buying up property bordering the existing Jewish neighborhoods. Interestingly, these areas sometimes appear to be even more Jewish than in Israel itself. On a Friday evening you will hear alarm sounds announcing the sabbath, and during Sukkoth (the feast of tabernacles) you will see innumerable huts on housing rooftops.
The ultraorthodox are the fastest growing group within Judaism. Although they number about six percent of the American Jewish population, they are expected to double their size every twenty years. This is mainly due to the very high birthrate of ultraorthodox households. While non-orthodox Jewish families on average birth two children, and orthodox Jews average about four, ultraorthodox families have an average of eight children! Additionally, since apostacy is a rare phenomenon in ultraorthodox communities, these people tend to stay together.
The ultraorthodox communities have also grown exponentially in Israel. Currently, they already number about 14 percent of the national population, but are expected to grow to 18 percent in 2025, 23 percent in 2035, and even up to 40 percent in 2065!
When the state of Israel was created in 1948, (ultra)orthodox communities were given many legal privileges, which are collectively known as the Status Quo. The most well-known privilege is the exemption of military service. However, Israel’s first prime minister, Ben Gurion, greatly underestimated the future growth of the ultraorthodox. For example, he expected Jerusalem’s most famous ultraorthodox neighborhood, Mea Shearim, to become an outdoor museum of sorts, a sight for tourists comparable to the Amish lands in the United States.
Today, however, the ultraorthodox are a force to be reckoned with. They have their own political parties, which means political leverage. In Israel, smaller parties can play an important role in forming coalitions, and therefore the ultraorthodox have a relatively large influence of Israeli society. And while the United States governmental system is very different, the ultraorthodox are an important voting block during presidential elections.
We have been using the word ‘ultraorthodox’, but in Israel the term Haredim, or Haredi Judaism is mostly used. The Hebrew word comes from Isaiah 66:5: “Hear the word of the Lord, you who tremble at his word: “Your brothers who hate you and cast you out for my name's sake have said, ‘Let the Lord be glorified, that we may see your joy’; but it is they who shall be put to shame.”
Haredim means ‘those that tremble’ before the Word of God. However, in practice God’s Word also includes the Talmud and the other Rabbinical writings.
Hasidim and Misnagdim
You can divide the Haredim into two main denominations: the Hasidim and the Misnagdim. Both originated in Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century. The founding figure of Hasidic Judaism is Yisroel ben Eliezer, who is better known as the Baal Shem Tov (ca. 1698–1760, it means ‘master of the good name’). He was a miracle worker who was deeply influenced by kabala mysticism, and emphasized joy as the basic human outlook on life. His movement eventually grew into various Hasidic sects, which all have their own spiritual leader, the rebbe. In most Hasidic sects, the position of rebbe goes by hereditary succession from father to son.
The Misnagdim are the followers of the Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, also known as the Vilna Gaon (1720–1797, ‘gaon’ is an honorary title for esteemed Jewish scholars, Vilna is present day Vilnius in Lithuania). The Misnagdim were known to oppose the ideas of the Baal Shem Tov. Their name literary means ‘opponents’. In Yiddish they are also called ‘litvish’ or ‘yeshivish’.
Most people do not realize that the Haredim are a deeply traumatized group. Before World War II, they were mostly situated in Eastern Europe and therefore became the victims of the terrors of the Nazi regime. Some Rabbinical dynasties were entirely destroyed. Those who survived the atrocities mostly fled to the United States. For many Haredim the Holocaust is actually seen as a form of divine punishment to the Jewish people for abandoning the Torah. By creating large families, they hope to regrow the Jewish population that had so tragically dwindled because of the Holocaust.
We are therefore deeply moved by this group who are, on a strictly human level, almost impossible to reach with the love of God’s Son. Still, there are many young Haredim today who are stuck within their communities and are searching for answers. Those who do leave their communities are often very averse to any form of religion, and mostly enter into secular lifestyles. Let us pray therefore that they may encounter the unconditional love of the Messiah Jesus. The Hebrew Yiddish Tanakh, New Testament and The Letter to the Hebrews that we distribute are a great means to this end!
In the first part of this series, we already wrote about ‘the men in Black’; the ultraorthodox Jews. The men are recognizable by their long black coats, ringlets, long beards and black hats. The women by their long skirts and (if they are married) wigs and various forms of head covering. Remarkably, the Haredim are growing rapidly, mainly because of their high birth rate. They are expected to double their numbers every 20 years, and in the long term may even become the largest group within Judaism. In this article we will look at their history. When and how did they originate, and how did they become what they are today?
Interestingly, not only are ultraorthodox groups growing in number, they also seem to keep getting more strict in observing the rabbinical prescripts and regulations. I noticed it when visiting Brooklyn a few years ago. To give a few examples: In ultraorthodox bookshops they now have a separate section for music records that include female singing voices. This is because female singing might potentially be too tempting for men to hear, and may lead to inappropriate sinful thoughts. School children are taken to various ultraorthodox learning institutes by bus (boys and girls attend different schools). Today, more and more school busses have tinted windows, so these children will not be corrupted by the sinful outside world. After all, New York is a secular city, with cultures that are very far removed from an orthodox Jewish lifestyle.
In this respect, ultraorthodox Jews have been doing things quite differently from other New Yorkers for a long time. For example, education is based on the Torah and the Talmud, and there are hardly, if any, secular subjects taught in class. They have arranged marriages, which means that parents and rabbis choose their son’s or daughter’s potential spouse. One does not enter military service, and you are expected to stay and live within the community, unless a rabbi decides differently. Obviously in a city like New York it is impossible to avoid all contact with non-Jews, but social interaction with them remains mostly superficial.
Origins of the Ultraorthodox
The term ultraorthodox did not exist in the nineteenth century. Most Jews in Eastern Europe, whether they were Hasidic (followers of the charismatic Baal Shem Tov and his successors) or their opponents (Misnagdim, or Litvaks, followers of the Vilna Gaon), all were counted among orthodox Jewry. Although there were (sometimes large) differences between them, all of them accepted the authority of the Torah and the Talmud, and studied the same rabbinical writings.
One of the most influential orthodox rabbis of the nineteenth century was Moses Schreiber (1762–1839), also known under the name Chatam Sofer (literally: ‘seal of the writer’). He founded a rabbinical school in Bratislava in Slovakia, which was the so-called Yeshiva of Pressburg (Pressburg is the German name of Bratislava). This yeshiva would train more then 500 rabbi’s until World War II. After the war, his grandson founded the Pressburg Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Today, many different yeshivot (plural of yeshiva) in New York, Israel, and London consider themselves heirs of the Chatam Sofer.
The Chatam Sofer was known to oppose the liberal movements that were on the rise in his time. Many Jews (under the influence of Enlightenment thinking) wanted to adapt Judaism to reflect more modern times. For example, reforms were made to Jewish religious rites (hence the name Reform Judaism). They also wanted to change the liturgical language from Hebrew to German. The national call to prayer to restore the nation of Israel stopped as well. Liberal Jews wanted to be Germans first, and Jews second.
The separation between men and women in the synagogue was lifted. Moreover, because they did want to appear too differently from Christian church services, they also added an organ and a sermon to the liturgy. To this day, when you see an organ in a synagogue, for example in the biggest synagogue in Budapest, it will always belong to the Reform Movement. While Reform Judaism was mostly limited to Germany and Hungary in Europe, it grew very large in the United States. Characteristic for this movement is that they consider the authority of the Torah and the Talmud time-bound. Many essential beliefs of Orthodox Judaism are therefore rejected, such as the (future) resurrection of the dead.
In turn, the Chatam Sofer rejected the reform movements, and saw them as contradictory to Judaism. He created a word pun from a famous quote in the Babylonian Talmud: ‘chadash asur min ha’torah’, which he understood as: ‘what is new, the Torah rejects’. On this basis he determined that all changes in Judaism were prohibited. Secular education was forbidden in his yeshiva. In time, most rabbi’s followed suit. This is how the current juxtaposition with what we call ‘modern-orthodox’ came to be.
In practice it means that the ultraorthodox are not allowed to wear clothing from outside the community. They can only wear similar clothing items that their ancestors wore in the nineteenth century or earlier. For example, jeans are strictly forbidden. You can also not change your first - or surname. Integration into secular society and secular education are prohibited, and Yiddish is the only language spoken at home, although English and Hebrew are allowed outside. Virtually all Hasidic Jews have adopted these principles.
The origins of Hasidic Judaism
For the origins of Hasidism, the largest movement of Haredi Judaism, we have to go back to an even earlier date. In the eighteenth century we encounter a certain rabbi called Yisroel ben Eliezer, also known as the Baal Shem Tov (1698–1760). He emphasized a more mystical approach to the Jewish religion, and above all the importance of being joyful in every circumstance. He also emphasized the concept of ‘devekut’ (participating in God through ecstatic prayer) and taught his followers how to direct their selves to God. The Baal Shem Tov never left any writings, and much of what we know comes though his followers, who spread many (implausible) miracle stories about him. Other stories were spread by Jews who wanted nothing to do with the Baal Shem Tov and are therefore overtly negative.
His followers, however, especially rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch, succeeded in turning Hasidism into a large grassroots movement. Many different rabbinical dynasties emerged, which attracted many followers. The most famous of them (the names are often derived from their place of origin) are:
-The Satmar Hasidim (originally form Satu Maru in Romania, and the largest Hasidic group in New York);
- the Ger Hasidim (From Poland and the largest group in Israel);
- Bobov (from Galicia, south of Poland);
- and Chabad (from Lyubavichi in Russia).
Views of the Hassidim
The Hasidic movement can be seen as a type of revival movement. Much emphasis is put on joy. One of their key scriptural verses is psalm 100:2: “Serve the Lord with gladness!”. It is a command to be joyful in every occasion, which pleases God. Melancholy and depression are therefore seen a sinful. Joy can sometimes express itself in a form of ecstatic behavior. By joyfully singing and dancing, sometimes abetted by strong drink and smoking, one enters an ecstatic state during religious gatherings. This is seen as a legit means in approaching the divine.
Before the Hasidic movement became popular, studying kabbalah mysticism was mostly reserved for a small number of learned and experienced scholars. The Hasidic movement, however, made kabbalah popular and accessible to every Jewish person.
Different from orthodox Jewry is the person and authority of the rebbe. As the Hasidic movement continued to evolve, his position became more important. As the community’s spiritual leader the rebbe positions himself as a type of mediator between God and men, and becomes a tsaddik, a righteous one. Through his ecstatic prayer he is considered able to bring the people closer to God. They also believe that some rebbes possess supernatural abilities to heal the sick, and to cast out demons.
In the past, Jewish critics have often accused Hasidism of teaching a form of pantheism, meaning the idea that God and the world are one, because He is immanent in everything. This criticism is hardy correct. Although Hasidism teaches that God is immanently present in all that is created, He is still transcendent and remains far above creation. However, you will find many Hasidic teachings that are difficult to reconcile for us with Biblical teaching, such as the belief in reincarnation.
Also central is the concept of ‘ahavat Israel’, the love for the fellow-Jew. This is based on the idea that the souls of Jewish people are all bound together. This is why they try to stimulate other Jewish people to do religious activities.
Christians are often positive to Hasidic groups. Especially some more strict reformed denominations recognize a form of kinship. There is common ground in avoiding worldly influences, rejecting modern forms of media, and (with some, but not all ultraorthodox groups) certain aspects of modern medicine. There are also big differences, for example regarding kabbalah. We also have to keep in mind that many different orthodox Jewish groups have criticized the sectarian tendencies of the Hassidim.
Chabad is an acronym for chochmah, binah and da'at (wisdom, understanding and knowledge). Lubavitch, a small Russian village, was the center of the movement until World War I. It is the largest and most well-known Hassidic group in the world. This is mainly because Chabad differentiates itself from other (ultra)orthodox groups in two very specific ways: the messianism surrounding their spiritual leader, rebbe Schneerson, and their large-scale missionary activities among the Jewish people.
The Kingdom is at Hand
The Chabad movement, currently with its headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, believes that the coming of the messianic kingdom is at hand. It can only come, however, if all Jewish people return to an ultraorthodox way of life. Therefore, there is a need to reach non-Haredi Jews, and for decades Chabad has been sending so-called sjluchim (emissaries) to almost every corner of the world. These emissaries are tasked to return 'the lost sheep of the house of Israel' to the orthodox fold. How do they go about their business?
A shaliach, or emissary, will likely settle in an area where there is a large population of Jewish people, often in a residential zone or close to a university campus. They will buy or rent property which becomes a so-called Chabad house, which is basically a community center. A Chabad house will often have a prayer room, a class room, and a play room for children. There will be various religious activities for Jewish people, such as sabbath celebrations and other festivities. But you can also come in for a cup of coffee and a quick chat. It is often an open and informal place. There is no membership, and no firm or long-term commitment is required to be part of the community. Through these houses, Jewish people from secular and liberal backgrounds are often introduced to orthodox Jewry for the first time in their lives.
"A chance meeting with a shaliach on the street led me to becoming acquainted with a group of very warm people." This is how many Chabad convert stories begin. The emissaries of Schneerson are passionate, and their life's calling is to help Jewish people (re)connect with Judaism. Their methods are unforceful. They do not emphasize the burden of orthodoxy, but rather the doing of the mitzvot (the commandments), especially those that deal with loving your neighbor. Many non-Haredi discover through Chabad that it is ok to be (ultra)orthodox and to have a Jewish identity.
Recipe for Success
Chabad's methods have proven successful. What started out as a hand full of New York immigrants has become a movement of many thousands of adherents. There are more than 2.000 Chabad houses in eighty different countries worldwide. They have their own elementary schools, summer camps, yeshivot, and organize many different events. There are charity programs, such as Colel Chabad, which supports Israel’s poorest communities with food, interest-free loans, help with Alijah, etc. Everything Chabad does is directed at supporting fellow Jews in their daily lives. This is why they reach millions, and have earned the favor of the people. Goyim are also welcome, although Chabad is not actively looking for converts. They do teach that if a non-Jew keeps the so-called Noachide laws, there is room for them as a 'righteous among the nations' in the olam ha'ba (the world to come). Obviously, the world to come cannot start without the long-awaited Messiah. But who is he, exactly?
The idea exists in Judaism that a potential Messiah is available to every generation, ready to reveal himself to the world. But he will only do so if the world is ready to receive him. This is why Chabad is so active in their outreach. The Messiah is the linchpin of everything Chabad does and teaches. If the Jewish people keep the Torah and do the mitzvot, he will come. The Messiah, however, has to meet certain standards. For example, he has to be of the lineage of king David. He has to be a prudent student of Torah and the commandments. He has to exhort other Jews to keep Torah, and he must be able to fight the Lords battles. If he also manages to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, well than we can be sure: This is him!
Strangely enough, many of Chabad’s followers also believe that the Messiah has already come in the person of Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994). The seventh and presumably final rebbe of Chabad was an ingenious and charismatic personality and the architect of the movement's success.
Moreover, as a descendent of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hassidic movement, he was of the house of David. In the early nineties of the twentieth century he was even publicly heralded as the Messiah. So what happened?
The belief in the coming of the Messiah has always been a central tenet of Judaism. However, after the seventeenth and eighteenth century, in which many false messiahs, such as Shabbetai Zvi and Jacob Frank, caused a lot of turmoil in the Jewish world, there had been much restraint regarding Messianic ideas and claims. The advent of Zionism, the tragedy of the Holocaust, and the founding of the modern state of Israel changed this however. Would it now be time for the Messiah? Schneerson taught it openly. Moreover, the Jewish people have an active part to play in his coming. These factors combined caused a fervent messianic fever among his followers, who started to publicly claim that Schneerson was the Messiah. They were helped by the fact that Schneerson made some pretty accurate predictions about the fall of Communism and the State of Israel’s protection during the first Gulf war.
While in Judaism you are basically free to believe in any Messiah, except of course a certain man from Nazareth, Schneerson has now been dead for almost three decades, and there is still no temple standing in Jerusalem.
During his lifetime, Schneerson never denied being the Messiah. In fact, he encouraged it. His followers also never abandoned the idea after his passing. This puts them at odds with other Haredi groups, because in mainstream orthodox Judaism the Messiah cannot die before he has accomplished his Mission. This why Chabad has introduced some very unorthodox ideas in recent years: They claim that Schneerson did not truly die and now resides in some sort of intermediate state between heaven and earth. His return to inaugurate the kingdom of heaven however is imminent. There are also many miracle stories surrounding his person, which mostly happen around Schneerson's grave site in New York. Followers often pray directly to him, or put prayer notes in one of his books, hoping that the page in which they stick it will point to the answer. Some of Chabad's more extreme followers are even discussing Schneerson's equality to God, or believe that he is part or has become part of His being.
As we have seen, Chabad is a well-liked and popular movement, but some of their Messianic ideas are way too extreme for the majority of the Jewish world. This is why most of Chabad's adherents do not talk openly about their messiah. Well known, however, are the posters of Schneerson that say "long live the King-Messiah" that are on walls everywhere in Jerusalem. Adherents who openly believe in Schneerson's messiahship are called meshikistn, and are often recognizable by their kippa's. You will not find these messianic ideas in any official Chabad publication, but in reality it is the movement's worst-kept secret.
Not many people expected the largest and most influential movement in Judaism in the 21st century to be a Hassidic group. Most Haredim live in closed communities, but Chabad continues to grow, not by turning inward, but by turning outward and being part of the world. The outside world is not necessarily seen as an unclean place that you should avoid, but rather a possibility to hasten the coming of the Messiah. The movement is growing rapidly, and as the Messiah still has not come (back), their mission is long ways from being over.
As soon as the traffic lights turn red, a man with a long beard and a small white cap walks between the cars. One driver rolls down the window and buys a tract off him. Probably a recognizable image for anyone who has ever been Israel. But who are these people and what do they believe?
In this article we will look at one of the most distinctive groups in Hasidic Judaism, the Breslov (or Bratslav) Hasidim. They follow rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Virtually all Hasidic groups are led by a rabbi (rebbe), who is succeeded by either his son or a another family member after he passes away. Not so with the Breslov. Their leader Nachman already died in 1810. Because he forbade his followers to appoint a successor, they haven’t had a new rebbe in more than two centuries. This is why they are known as the ‘Hasidim without a Rebbe,’ or the ‘Dead Hasidim’. Nevertheless, it is one of the largest groups in ultraorthodox Judaism, and continues to attract many new followers, including Yemenite and Arab Jews. How is this possible?
Nachman of Breslov
Rabbi Nachman (1772–1810) was the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. He was born in Medzhybizh, a small Polish town (in present-day Ukraine), where half of the population was Jewish. From an early age on Nachman was not interested in or preoccupied with day-to-day life. Instead he focused on God, and engaged in Talmud study and prayer. From age six, he regularly visited his great grandfather’s grave in order to pray and immerse himself in the mikveh, a ritual bath. When he was thirteen he married a rabbi’s daughter (which was not an unusual age back then). Together they had six daughters and two sons. Sadly, half of them died during their infant years.
During 1798–99 Nachman visited Palestine. Afterwards he settled in Bratlav, a small town in the Ukraine in 1802. Five years later his wife died from tuberculosis. Nachman would suffer the same fate a few years later. By request he was buried in Uman (also in the Ukraine) where thousands of Jewish victims that died in a pogrom in 1768 were also buried.
When reading about Nachman’s life, one gets the impression of a very complicated personality, a man haunted during his life by many anxieties coupled with a great awareness of his own sinfulness. Nachman suffered many trials and tribulations. While he initially had very few followers, and faced opposition from other Hasidic rebbes, he still saw himself as the great Hasidic leader of his generation. He increasingly took upon himself the role of a suffering Messianic figure.
Spontaneous prayer and meditation
It is not surprising that the Breslov, with their joyous singing, clapping and dancing, often appear as a hippie-like community. Their various forms of prayer reinforce this impression. Nachman had a great desire to be close to God and to talk to him (in his own words) ‘as one talks to a friend’. This form of prayer is called ‘hitbodedut’ in Hebrew and means ‘self-seclusion. Nachman thought that one should not pray to God solely through liturgical prayer, but also in one’s own vernacular.
In this type of prayer it is allowed to speak openly and freely to God on all subjects, feelings and thoughts, even the most banal ones. At the same time, ‘hitbodedut’ also serves as a reflection on one’s own feelings, thoughts and problems. The goal is to learn from your past mistakes, and to better your life.
Nachman taught his followers different meditation techniques in order to come closer to the divine. One example is the so-called ‘silent scream’. Imagine what it would sound like if you would scream inside your head without making any audible sound. One has to continue this form of silent screaming until it becomes actually audible. Another technique involves emptying yourself of all thoughts and feelings in order to create room for God. Many of these techniques are derived from kabbalah, the collection of Jewish mystical teachings. Nachman was one of the first Hasidic rebbes to teach them to his followers. We tend to associate these kind of meditation techniques with new age practices, but in other Hasidic movements, we also find ideas and practices that are not derived for the Bible, but have pagan origins, such as the recitation of mantra’s and the belief in reincarnation.
Some groups also use the name Nachman as a type of mantra. In 1922, a rabbi by the name of Yisroel Ber Odesser claimed to have received a note from the then-deceased Nachman. It was signed by the words ‘Na Nach Nachma Nachman Meuman’ (based on the Hebrew letters of the name Nachman of Uman). They have been used as a mantra ever since. You see these words everywhere in Israel: on their signature white cap-shaped kippa’s, on wall graffiti, bumper stickers, and even jewelry.
These examples serve to show Breslov’s popularity among secular Jews who are looking for a deeper level of meaning in life. It is much easier to join Breslov than other Hasidic groups. They do not live in separate neighborhoods or have a strict dress code. It is enough to study and live by Nachman’s teachings.
Visiting his Grave
During his lifetime, it was tradition to visit Nachman in his hometown on the Jewish New Year. After his death, his followers continued this practice, and started to gather and pray by his grave site from 1811 onwards.
During the era of Communism, gathering in Uman was prohibited and mostly done in secret. But after the fall of Communism, it again became a popular pilgrimage site which now attracts thousands of visitors each year. Nachman had promised his followers that if they would gather at his gravesite, it would gain them many advantages. He would plea for them before the Lord, and this would in turn refrain Him from judging them on Yom Kippur, which follows shortly after the Jewish new year. His followers claim that Nachman’s gravesite is the place where one can commune with the rabbi himself. In 2015, some 30.000 people gathered there. In the last couple of years, unfortunately, more and more stories have appeared of excessive alcohol and drug abuse during this event.
I was surprised to hear about this gravesite practice. After all, the Bible strictly prohibits seeking out the dead. Breslov has a different view on this prohibition. It made me conscious to the fact Christians are not following a dead Messiah, but the Christ who was raised from the dead and lives today. It may also encourage us to pray for this very distinctive Hasidic group.
When most people think about the ultraorthodox Jews, they tend to think about various Hassidic groups. Hasidim are recognizable by their distinct clothing, fur hats, and ringlets on the sides of their heads. Moreover, many studies have been done on this seemingly exotic group in the last few years. What most of us do not realize, however, is that a very large group of ultraorthodox do not belong to the Hasidim.
Some claim that they number about half of Haredi (or ultraorthodox) Judaism. Among them are various Sephardic Jews (originally from the Middle East and North Africa), but the largest group are the so-called Misnagdim. They are known by different names. But because the word Misnagdim (Hebrew for ‘opponent’) has a negative connotation, they mostly choose to call themselves Litvaks (lit. Lithuanian Jews) or Yeshivish Jews.
The men in this group are not necessarily recognizable by their attire. Although they wear black suits and white shirts, they do not have special coats, fur hats, or ringlets.
But they are certainly ultraorthodox. They follow the principle of the Chatam Sofer (an important rabbi from the nineteenth century) that every change is prohibited. For example, boys in the yeshivot (Talmud schools) are not taught secular subjects. Marriages are arranged by parents or rabbi’s. At home Yiddish is the spoken language, and only outside their homes will they speak English or modern Hebrew. They live in seclusion from the non-Jewish outside world. This is why you predominately find them in large cities or areas which have a large population of Jewish people, such as Israel, New York (Brooklyn), and other large cities in America, England (London) and South Africa. At the start of the twentieth century, many Jews migrated from Lithuaniato South Africa.
Characteristic is that they – more than the Hasidim – stress the importance of studying the Talmud and other rabbinical writings. Although on principle they do not oppose studying kabbalah mysticism, it is less important to them than to the Hassidim. They do oppose the dissemination of kabbalah to the general public. A more rational approach to the Talmud is central to the Litvaks, and they have no affection for Hassidic mysticism and their emphasis on emotions. After all, it distracts from Torah and Talmud study.
The Vilna Gaon
In the eighteenth century the city of Vilna (present-day Vilnius, capital of Lithuania) was one of the most important Jewish centers in Eastern Europe. It was known as 'Jerusalem of Lithuania'. Vilna’s fame came mostly from one of its most famous spiritual leaders, Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, who was also known as the Vilna Gaon (1720–1797). Not only was the he a highly intelligent man, he also was a strong political leader who ruled with an iron will, and succeeded to attract and influence many followers.
At age six, it is said that he already preached in a synagogue, while effortlessly answering the rabbis’ objections and hard questions. He only needed two hours of sleep every night and the story goes that during winter he would study Talmud in an unheated room while having his feet in a tub of cold water, which would prevent him from falling asleep.
At age forty, after exclusively studying, the Vilna Gaon also started to teach. Not only did he attract many followers, but under his guidance Vilna became an important center of opposition to the Hassidic movement. He issued a ban against the Hassidim, and sent emissaries everywhere to warn the Jewish people of this – in his view – heretic movement. There were even public book burnings at which Hassidic writings were burnt.
Zalman’s method of study influenced many followers. He started from the principle that the Torah is eternal, and that it alone contains the fullness of truth and knowledge, past, present and future. Any form of Torah criticism is therefore out of the question. Studying Torah and the oral traditions, as committed to writing in the Talmud was the most fundamental form of education. He was not opposed to studying kabbalah or secular sciences, as long as they are secondary to Torah and Talmud study. He also allowed women to study the Tanakh, but predominately the book of Proverbs, so that they could gain practical wisdom.
His student Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821, Volozhin is a city in Belorussia), founded the first yeshiva where the teaching methods of the Vilna Gaon were put into practice. For the first time in history students would live internally, had their meals at the yeshiva, and were able to study in solitude. Before, men would study at home or in the synagogue. From this time on, the practice began that boys would leave their parent’s home after their bar mitzvah to study at the yeshiva before they got married. The Volozhin Yeshiva is therefore the mother of all (ultra)orthodox Yeshivot in existence today.
One only needs to look at their daily schedule to see that a Litvak yeshiva is quite different from a Christian theological seminary. From Sunday to Thursday students study from 7 a.m. to very late in the evening (there is breakfast at 9:00, lunch at 13:30, dinner at 19:00, and various set prayer moments). On Thursday, they study even longer, mostly up to 1 a.m. and sometimes even until the following morning. Friday and part of the shabbat is also used for study. All lessons are in Yiddish.
When you visit the New York neighborhood Williamsburg, it is as if you enter an entirely different world. This isolated area is home to the Satmar movement, an extreme Hassidic group. The Satmars shun virtually all contact with the outside world and have some very explicit views on the state of Israel. What do we know about them, what do they believe, and how do they live?
For me personally, visiting Williamsburg for the first time was a very memorable experience. It was like walking onto a movie set. The women were pushing prams, and wore wigs and long skirts. Behind them followed large groups of children. The men were wearing black frock coats, fedora hats, streimls (fur heads), and had ringlets and impressive beards. There was so much to take in.
But to them I was obviously an outsider. This was very uncomfortable at first, as if you were an intruder in their world, and to them it probably felt that way. The Satmars do not want any contact with the 'sinful' outside world and therefore isolate themselves as much as possible. They have their own kosher stores, and since 1973 even their own bus operator that transports people between Williamsburg, and Borough Park, the other large (ultra)orthodox neighborhood. Men and women have separate seats on the bus, just like in the synagogue.
The Satmars hail from Satu Mare, a city in Romania. They were originally known as ‘Sighet’. Their founder, rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (1887–1979), barely escaped the holocaust. He was one of the 1700 Jews who were saved by the Zionist leader Rudolph Kastner. After the Holocaust, Teitelbaum would first travel to Jerusalem in 1947. Afterwards he took a number of holocaust survivors to New York. They have grown significantly since then. There are about 120.000 Satmars worldwide. A third of them live in New York, but they also have their own village, Kiryas Joel, in Orange County, NY, with a population of 13.000. We also find them in Antwerp, London, Buenos Aires, and even in Jerusalem.
It is quite remarkable that the Satmars also live in Jerusalem, because they are mostly known for their staunch antizionist views. Although Teitelbaum owed his life to a Zionist, he became an uncompromising opponent to the Zionist movement. He even wrote a book on the subject: Vayoel Moshe. Central to Teitelbaum’s views is a passage from the Talmud (Kesubos 111a), where it is said that the Lord put three oaths on Israel and the Nations: 1) Israel is prohibited to retake the Holy Land by violence; 2) Israel cannot rise up in arms against other nations; 3) Israel cannot be subjugated by the other nations. Teitelbaum therefore deemed the nation of Israel a misstep and an act of impatience.
According to Teitelbaum, the people have to repent first and then return to the Holy Land under the leadership of the Messiah. They also consider the Holocaust and the subsequent wars in Israel direct punishments from God. The current bloodshed in the Holy Land can only delay the coming of the Messiah. If they do not repent, he argues, God can exile them from the Land again.
The Satmars are therefore not allowed to support the modern state of Israel. Obviously this puts them at odds with other Jewish groups. Some followers take it up a notch and would even welcome a Palestinian state. They also attend many anti-Israel demonstrations. However they are not as extreme as, for example, the Neturei Karta movement, who even traveled to Iran in 2007 to give their support to then-president Ahmedinejad.
Satmars in Israel refrain from speaking modern Hebrew. This is partly because of their political views, and partly because they consider Hebrew a holy language that should not be uttered in daily life. Their language is Yiddish. Even well-known boardgames, such as monopoly, and Parcheesi are available in Yiddish. They have also developed their own boardgames to teach young children Jewish values. The game Handl Ehrlikh (act with honesty), for example, teaches Satmar girls to walk the straight and narrow path.
After Joel Teitelbaum passed away in 1979, his nephew Moshe Teitelbaum became the new leader. His death in 2006, however, created a big rift in the movement, when both of Moshe’s sons became entangled in a battle of succession. Currently, Moshe’s son Aharon leads the Satmar in Kiryas Joel, while his brother Zalman leads them in New York. Over the last few years there have been countless legal battles between them, mostly about issues that secular courts would rather not touch.
The birthrate of the Satmars is one of the highest in the United States. A Satmar family averages about ten children. Coupled with a relatively low employment rate this creates a lot of poverty. About two thirds of the Satmars live below the poverty line, and 40 percent are on food stamps.
Because the Satmar movement has such a strong level of social control. It is very difficult to reach them with Gospel. It is therefore important to pray for them, because they also have people that are searching for the truth. Recently I participated in a seminar about Haredi youths that had left their community. I struck up a conversation with Levi, who told me that he first started reflecting on his orthodox way of life, only after having left his community for some time. Unfortunately, his experiences made him hostile towards any form of religion, and he fully embraced a secular lifestyle. But Levi is not the only one. Quit a few of the current younger generation of Satmars leave their communities. They are subsequently exiled and lose everything and everyone. Let us therefore continue in prayer that they might find peace with their Messiah, Jesus. Let us, also, like Him, "be moved with compassion for them, because they were distressed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:35–36).
In this series we have highlighted many different aspects of Ultraorthodox Judaism. We have looked at the history of the Hassidic and Misnagdim movements, their various groups and their similarities and differences. After the atrocities of the Holocaust in which most of them were destroyed by the Nazis, the Haredim have made a remarkable comeback, especially in the United States and Israel.
At the moment they are the fastest growing stream in Judaism. Not only because of their high birth rate, but also because non-Orthodox Jews and even proselytes are added to their number. In this article I will look at the future of the Haredim. How will they develop themselves, and which challenges and threats do they face?
The Hardei movement has all the hallmarks of a success story. When I first visited Israel in 1973, you hardly saw ultraorthodox Jews, expect in neighborhoods such as Mea Shearim. Today, however, there are 1.1 million Haredim in Israel, which is about 12 percent of the total population. More than half of them are below the age of 19.
In 2030, it is estimated that 16 percent of Israeli will be Haredi, and over time this will grow to 40 percent of the nation’s population Many Jewish Israelis are presently more concerned about the growth of the Haredim, than the Arab population. Until recently, Haredi men were exempted form military service. Many of them are financially supported by religious organizations, so they can study the Talmud. They hardly contribute to Israel’s economy.
There is a similar growth development in the United Kingdom. After years of decline, the Jewish population is growing again. This is mostly due to the Haredim, who average about seven children per household. It is estimated that the majority of British Jews will be ultraorthodox by 2031.
Equally spectacular is their growth in the United states. More than a third of the 1.5 million Jews in New York are ultraorthodox. Most of them live in Brooklyn. This is why the number of synagogues, yeshiva’s and other Haredi institutions has grown significantly. It is understandable that they have cause for celebration. At this rate they will become the majority of the Jewish people.
However, if you look at the history of the Jewish people you will sadly find a pattern in which periodic growth and cultural flourishing are followed by periods of prosecution and even murder. The golden age of Jewish culture in Spain ended with forced conversions to Christianity, the inquisition, and ultimately exile from the country in 1492. No group was as enamored with the German language and culture, and contributed as much to it as the German Jews. Well, we all know what happened during World War II.
For a long time, however, it seemed that antisemitism was a thing of the past. Unfortunately, today it has started to raise its ugly head again. Take England. The Labour Party was led by Jeremy Corbin from 2015–2020. He is openly antisemitic, and had a real shot of becoming Britain’s next prime minister. This is very alarming! It is also difficult to predict how things will evolve in the United States.
Another serious threat is the 'kulturkampf' in Israel between (ultra)orthodox and secular Israelis. For many of the seculars it is unacceptable that the (ultra)orthodox exert so much influence on their daily lives (e.g., almost all stores are closed on shabbat), and that their tax money is spend on supporting them. Today at least, a small percentage of Haredi men has to do military service, because Israel is still a nation under threat. But this also introduces many new (logistical) difficulties. They have much stricter dietary laws, and contact with female soldiers is prohibited.
Perhaps the internal threats are even bigger at the moment. The number of Jews that break with their Haredi community is relatively small, and lower than that of orthodox Christians and Muslims. But they certainly do exist. It is not easy to leave the a Haredi community. They hardly have had contact with or knowledge of the outside world. Because the emphasis on religious education is so strong, they also have no experience with secular education. Moreover, some Haredi groups have all the hallmarks of a cult. Imagine leaving such a place!
Complex and painful process
A substantial number of books written by ex-Haredim have appeared in the last few years. They often do not paint positive pictures of the Haredi communities. Motives to leave differ between men and women. Men often start to doubt to existence of God and subsequently begin to ask questions about their way of life.
Shulem Deen, for example, writes that he was part of a group of male friends that had all stopped believing in God, but nevertheless remained part of their community. After all, the consequences of leaving are dire. You lose all forms of contact with your wife, children and family. This is why many of them choose to lead double lives.
Women often leave because of sexual or physical abuse. An example is Deborah Feldman, who wrote the book ‘Unorthodox’, which was recently made into a Netflix television show.
In America, there is an organization called Footsteps, which supports ultraorthodox Jews who have left their communities. Since 2013, they have helped more than 1300 people coping with the often painful and complex process of integrating into modern society. Most of them become atheist, or find solace in alternative and often occult teachings. What we see, therefore, is a process of internal secularization. Because internet has also become ubiquitous in our modern world, it has become very difficult for the Haredim to block out its influence. This is why we see a Haredi community member in the documentary 'One of Us', tasked with checking the neighborhood for illegal WIFI-hotspots. Unfortunately, only very few of them find rest and peace with the Messiah of Israel. Let us therefore pray for these truth-seekers, that they may find rest for their souls in Him.