Reforms of ultra-Orthodox – a short history of Hareidim
Here’s one for the books from Rabbi Gavin Michal which may surprise many users: “A strong impression has been created that Hareidim, the ultra-Orthodox, are the true custodians of ancient and authentic Judaism. However, when one studies the fascinating historical origins of Hareidm, a very different picture emerges,” writes Michal. “The movement may not be as old as is commonly believed. Hareidim entered the stage of history at about the same time as two other movements were being birthed, namely Reform and Orthodox.” A fascinating read…
RABBI GAVIN MICHAL
In the non-Jewish world, during the era characterised by the rise of nationalism, Jews began to wonder where they belonged. Although they didn’t yet have a homeland, they could still align themselves with their own ideological movements. The age of Enlightenment led to the founding of Reform. This new movement became so popular in Germany that, by the middle of the 1800s, the more traditional Jews had actually become a minority.
In response to Reform, a counter-movement was born. This was spearheaded by Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch and became known as the Orthodox movement. (Certainly orthodoxy and traditionalism always existed, but now it was crystallised into a movement).
CLICK to read Part 2 in which Rabbi Michal gathers contemporary reports, often from the very same sources used by extreme Hareidim, to show why he is so concerned…
However, while keeping strictly to tradition, it embraced elements of the secular and modern culture in which it was nurtured. Rabbi Hirsch introduced secular studies into his Torah schools, and German was accepted as the language of Torah instruction (much like English is the language of Torah transmission in the Anglo-Saxon world, today). This was the dawn of centralist and modern Orthodoxy.
Now things get very interesting
In response to Orthodoxy, yet another movement is born, this time in the poorer regions of Hungary, and its adherents become known as Hareidim. They positioned themselves to the far right of Orthodoxy. This new movement was created by a trio of fervent devotees, Rabbis Sofer, Lichtenstein (and his son-in-law) Schlesinger.
They were fearful that Torah values would be undermined by the recent relocation of Jews from rural areas to the cities, and the new legislation requiring compulsory secular education in all schools (there were 300 Jewish schools in Hungary at that time).
But strangely, for what was supposed and alleged to be a continuum of an ancient tradition, this new right-wing movement began with a signed manifesto.
RIGHT: The author is the Rabbi at the Baal Shem Tov Shul in Orange Grove, Johannesburg
It is known as the 1865 Psak Din (Rabinical Decree) of Michalowce and targeted the Orthodox rabbis of the time. The document includes the following points;
- “It is forbidden to deliver sermons in the language of the nations of the world”;
- “It is forbidden to listen to sermons delivered in the language of the nations of the world”;
- “It is forbidden to enter choir synagogues”;
- “It is forbidden to place a chuppah in a synagogue”; and
- “It is forbidden to study Torah from a rabbi who teaches in a foreign language. Appointing such a rabbi is tantamount to idolatry.”
Many of these rulings were inspired by the teachings of the Chatam Sofer (no relation to Rabbi Moshe Sofer of the 1865 manifesto), who had passed away a few years earlier. He was so against secular education that he went so far as to condemn the signing of one’s name (in non-Jewish script) even for secular affairs, and threatened to fire a shochet for reading secular literature.
In a similar vein, Rabbi Schlesinger taught that it was forbidden to undergo any form of secular education, even for the purpose of making a living. He taught that the function of the non-Jew is to master science and invent useful technologies, while that of the Jew is only to study Torah (while he is permitted, however, to make use of non-Jewish technology). According to him, maintaining a Jewish “name, language and dress code”, were literally tantamount to the entire Torah.
He also believed that it was “good to elevate a prohibition”. From this his followers deduced that a rabbinic law could be elevated to the status of a Torah law, and a custom, to a rabbinic law. The authority of aggadaic literauure (the so-called stories of the Talmud), was according to Rabbi Wechsler, to be elevated to that of orally transmitted halacha. This view was vehemently opposed by Rabbi Hirsch.
We now had to fulfil not only the mitzvoth of the Torah, but also “even the most trifling customs’ The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Law), according to Schlesinger, “is equal to the Ten Commandments”. In time 71 rabbis signed the Hareidi manifesto of Michalowce. They even coined the phrase “Yahadut” or Jewishness to describe their “ancient and authentic” practices.
With regard to the prohibition of wearing contemporary modern clothing, as opposed to the long frockcoats of the Hareidim, the alleged biblical infringements mysteriously grew from four (in 1853) to eight (in 1865).
The manifesto also argued that changing any custom was “tantamount to eating pork”.
The condemnation of any language other than Yiddish, inspired a very creative theory as to its evolution. The new Hareidim claimed that certainly the earlier rabbis understood German, but had intentionally “corrupted” it, to form a new language, so as not to have to speak a language of the gentiles.
Of course mainstream Orthodox leadership opposed the radical views espoused by this new group. The Maharam Schick, who became one of the leading halachic authorities of Hungarian Jewry in the 1870s, argued that to issue such innovative interpretations was against halacha, and he refused to sign the manifesto.
In principle, though, he accepted the general sentiment of the proposals – only as temporary and emergency measures – but not as an escalation of halacha. He certainly couldn’t condemn the synagogues of his day as “houses of idolatry”.
The Kotzker Rebbe, although living in Poland and having passed away six years before the Manifesto of Michalowce, felt the rumblings of this new movement. He referred to its adherents as “mindless followers of Frumkeit” (in this sense, fanaticism). He was also clearly outspoken in his opposition to the emphasis on the minutiae of law, and the adoption of dress codes (or as he referred to it, “the wearing of white socks and fur hats”).
Notwithstanding (what has been called) “the invention of a tradition”, and the subsequent growth of Hareidism, it was only about 100 years later that it evolved into the movement it has become today.
This took place after the Second World War when the movement gained renewed impetus as many saw it as the best way to re-establish the destroyed communities of the Holocaust. All in all, it cannot be said that their roots go back to ancient times. Their history is a relatively short one.
Today Hareidim are often characterised by their dress, militant stance to religion and uncompromising attitude to even the religious societies in which they live. They number about 15 per cent of modern Israeli population and have one of the highest birth rates in the world, with 25 per cent living below the poverty line.
- The Emergence of Ultra-Orthodoxy by Michael K Silber.
- The Making of Haredim by Rabbi Natan Slifkin.
- The Manifesto of Ultra-Orthodoxy (1865) translated by Dov Weiss.
SA warmly welcomes Palestinian foreign minister
Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Dr Naledi Pandor, warmly welcomed the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of the State of Palestine Dr Riad Malki to South Africa last week – hospitality certainly not offered to Israelis.
Malki was in the country from 7 to 9 October, and was hosted by Pandor on 8 October for bilateral talks, according to a media statement made by department of international relations and cooperation spokesperson Clayson Monyela.
In reiterating their commitment to each other’s causes, “both sides agreed to exert joint efforts aimed at reversing the decision to admit Israel as an observer member to the African Union”, according to a joint post-talks communiqué. The ministers also agreed to a planned a state visit in which South Africa would host Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
South Africa is also going to host a conference for Palestinian heads of missions in Africa this year to deliberate Palestine’s policy towards Africa.
“South Africa attaches great importance to its relationship with Palestine, which is underpinned by historic bonds of solidarity, friendship, and co-operation. South Africa’s support for the Palestinian cause conforms with the basic tenets of its foreign policy,” Monyela said.
“The international community has an obligation to find a comprehensive and just resolution to the Palestinian issue,” he said. “South Africa calls for international support and increased efforts for the just cause of the Palestinian people to address their legitimate demand for an independent state alongside a peaceful state of Israel. The visit aims to further strengthen the relationship between South Africa and Palestine.”
In their joint communiqué, the ministers “expressed their satisfaction with the cordial relations that exist between the two countries, which is to be further augmented by Abbas’s visit and the Palestinian leaders’ conference to be held in Cape Town in November this year”.
The South African government committed its support for initiatives that would refocus the international agenda on Palestine and the Middle East peace process. South Africa reiterated its support for a two-state solution and the establishment of a Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The two ministers agreed that “they would continue to work to achieve peace for the Palestinian people”, and “in the absence of sustainable peace in the region, there could be no global peace, stability, and economic prosperity”.
In their communiqué, the ministers insisted that “security and stability in the Middle East is being undermined by continued occupation of Palestinian territories and the aggressive actions of the Israeli regime”. Having said that, they called on the international community to “further strengthen their support for the return of all parties to the negotiation table without pre-conditions”.
They agreed to “exert joint efforts aimed at reversing the decision to admit Israel as an observer member to the African Union”. They also expressed support for “the Durban Declaration and Plan of Action” which they say “remains a clarion call for anti-racism advocacy and action worldwide”.
The Durban Declaration was the document that emerged out of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, also known as the infamous “Durban Conference” held in South Africa in 2001.
According to the Embassy of the State of Palestine in South Africa Facebook page, Malki also met with a group of African National Congress leaders in Pretoria, and Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) groups Africa4Palestine, Palestinian Solidarity Alliance, and the South African BDS Coalition, amongst other meetings.
Local political analyst Steven Gruzd says the visit shows that South Africa’s support for the Palestinians “continues to be vocal and loyal. The hot issue, however, is the granting of Israel’s observer status at the African Union. The two pledged to work together to overturn it. Relations with Israel will remain tense. There has been no change from South Africa towards the [Naftali] Bennett government.”
He says the visit “reinforces ties [with the Palestinians] and puts South Africa squarely in the Palestinian camp. It has shed all pretensions of being an ‘honest broker’ in this conflict, and for a long time, has chosen sides. The key thing to watch is what happens at the African Union. Israel has its fair share of African opponents, but also many African friends. Will they stick their necks out for Israel? We will see. South Africa has been lobbying against the [observer status] decision, and has influenced southern African states to oppose it.”
Gruzd maintains there’s “virtually no chance” of Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid being invited for a similar visit. “Relations remain tense, and South Africa won’t be seen to reward Israel for its policies and practices,” he said.
Wendy Kahn, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), says, “The SAJBD believes that for South Africa to play a meaningful role towards a peaceful outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, it would need to engage with both Israelis and Palestinians. Without speaking to the Israeli leadership, it’s not possible to truly understand the situation and to gain trust in order to bring the parties to the negotiating table.
“The dogged campaign by South Africa to exclude Israel from the African Union is antithetical to our international-relations policies of conflict resolution through negotiation and talking,” she says. “This action only seeks to push peace building and the attainment of a sustainable two-state solution even further away.”
“The South African Zionist Federation [SAZF] has noted the comments of Minister Pandor and Palestinian Minister Malki. It seems the entire focus of the engagement was to undermine Israel’s admission as an observer to the African Union,” says SAZF National Chairperson Rowan Polovin. “We believe this is a foolhardy and hypocritical approach to international relations.
“Israel has had a mutually beneficial relationship with African states for more than 70 years. It has been at the forefront of efforts to help solve some of the most important developmental challenges on our continent, including in the areas of health, agriculture, youth development, water, education, and energy,” Polovin says.
“The admission of Israel as an observer to the AU, alongside more than 70 other countries, is a historic and welcome development. The South African government remains out of step with the rest of the continent who are moving swiftly ahead with relations with Israel,” he says.
“The new Israeli government’s prime minister and foreign minister have been warmly welcomed in the major capitals of Europe, the United States, Africa, and the Arab world. It’s not Israel, but South Africa, that’s the odd one out. We would encourage the South African government to take the opportunity to reach out to Israel to engage for the mutual benefit of both nations and as a means of making a positive, proactive contribution to finding further peace in the region.”
Unterhalter’s bid for Concourt thwarted again
It was a case of action replay for esteemed Judge David Unterhalter this week at the re-run of the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) Constitutional Court judge interviews. The internationally renowned lawyer was yet again grilled about his brief charitable association with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) during the pandemic.
Never mind his years of pro bono work, mentorship, and dedication to academia, as well as his global expertise gleaned from serving on the World Trade Organisation’s Appellate Body, it appeared to many commentators that his gender, race, and possibly even his faith stood firmly in his way of being included on a shortlist for possible appointments to the apex court.
He was again excluded from the latest JSC shortlist for two vacancies.
The JSC was forced to re-run its highly controversial and heavily politicised April 2021 Constitutional Court interview process after the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac) challenged its lawfulness in the High Court.
Casac accused several members of the JSC, including Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, of “political grandstanding”, and argued that “party political considerations and political agendas should play no role in the JSC’s decisions and processes”.
During the first round of interviews, Unterhalter was interrogated about his association with the SAJBD after his candidacy was vehemently opposed by the South African Boycott Divestment Sanctions Coalition and the Black Lawyers Association.
Unterhalter briefly assisted the SAJBD with the upliftment and welfare of the Jewish and broader community during the direst phase of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. He resigned from the SAJBD because he recognised that it sometimes litigates in the Constitutional Court which might cause conflicts.
The issue was raised yet again this week. JSC commissioner Advocate Thandazani Griffiths Madonsela, one of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s candidates on the JSC, rehashed the now stale objections to his candidacy and persistently probed him about his time at the Board.
The Board criticised the JSC interview process describing it as “Groundhog Day for the Jewish community”.
“Once again, a Jewish candidate for the Constitutional Court, Judge Unterhalter, was targeted for his association with the democratically elected representative body of the Jewish community,” it said in a statement, adding “Once again, bias was evident.”
The Board maintained, “In a series of four questions, Commissioner Madonsela’s political agenda was distinctly evident, particularly his comment, ‘It seems to me that the fundamental premise of the objection is the assertion that the SAJBD is a body that is pro-Zionist and that is in fact bullying all their people and organisations who are objecting to the Israeli establishment in the Palestine region’.”
Unterhalter denied this, saying, “Members of the Jewish community in this country, as in many other countries, hold a very wide variety of views about Zionism and the state of Israel. That’s why people who are Zionists subscribe to organisations that bear that name and seek to pursue that particular political agenda.
“The Jewish Board of Deputies is a body that existed long before the state of Israel was ever created, and has its roots in the 19th century in this country, where it’s simply founded to look after the interests of a particular community, in this instance the Jewish community, and largely to take care of its welfare as many community organisations representing many different parts of our society do,” said the esteemed judge.
Unterhalter said that it was on this premise that during the COVID-19 pandemic, when there were “peculiarly large demands” placed on the welfare not just of the Jewish community but also in respect of its charitable work with other communities, he accepted a position on the Board thinking that it could be of some service to the community and the work it did.
The SAJBD said the depiction of the Board as a “bullying” organisation was “a baseless and highly offensive smear against an organisation whose mandate is to protect South African Jews’ civil rights”.
“If anyone should be accused of bullying, it’s Commissioner Madonsela, whose factually inaccurate, prejudicial, and irresponsible assertions have no place in an interview to assess judicial competence. The SAJBD objects strenuously to this vile characterisation of our organisation.”
It said it found it “indefensible” that a person’s association with a body that protects Jews’ human rights in South Africa could preclude them from public office.
Advocate Mark Oppenheimer said the question from Madonsela about Unterhalter’s affiliation with the SAJBD “showed an extreme prejudice against the Jewish community”.
“It tries to insinuate strongly that Zionism is an unconstitutional project, and that it’s a sinister belief system and anything even adjacent to it taints one so thoroughly, that one cannot sit as a judge on the Constitutional Court. I think that borders on a blood libel, and the question should have been interrupted by the chair.
“It’s clear that that series of questions which were there during the first series of interviews were inappropriate, and it’s also clear from the Judicial Services Act that judges have every right to participate in charitable work which Judge Unterhalter was doing when he was at the SAJBD.”
Oppenheimer said many of the other questions faced by Unterhalter were pertinent, addressing his career.
“Anyone watching the interviews would be awed at the breadth of the work that he has done,” he said.
Casac’s Lawson Naidoo told News24 that it was crucial that the JSC explained its reasons for excluding Unterhalter and Advocate Alan Dodson.
There are currently no white judges on the Bench.
Their exclusion from the shortlist has raised eyebrows in the legal fraternity over whether the JSC is taking seriously its responsibilities in terms of Section 174(2) of the Constitution, which says that the judiciary must broadly reflect the demographics of South Africa in terms of race and gender.
Said Oppenheimer, “There’s an impression that has been created by the JSC that your race, gender, and possibly your faith can be factors which can permanently exclude you from the Court. It would be a pity to exclude eligible Jews from the apex court, given the fact that they have played such an important role, which should not be forgotten.”
Unterhalter and Dodson, both internationally renowned legal minds, were pressed about their race and gender.
After a full day of interviews and deliberations, the JSC reaffirmed its April 2021 shortlist, producing exactly the same list as it had done before.
The list of candidates on the shortlist include Constitutional Court Justice Rammaka Mathopo, former Free State Judge President Mahube Molemela, and High Court Judges Jody Kollapen, Fayeeza Kathree-Setiloane, and Bashier Vally. Their names will be forwarded to President Ramaphosa to select two to fill vacancies.
Going to Rage like ‘playing Russian Roulette’
Expert in mass gathering medicine, Professor Efraim Kramer, told the SA Jewish Report this week that “Rage is nothing short of teenage Russian Roulette that may take the lives of its participants and cause large national collateral damage in disease and death, as it did last year.”
Kramer said this following a letter written by the Gauteng General Practitioners Collaboration (GGPC) was sent to local principals, begging them to tell students not to go to end-of-year Rage festivals because of the pandemic.
Matric Rage is a group of festivals held at South African coastal towns like Plettenberg Bay and Ballito to celebrate the end of school. Matric Rage 2020 is widely considered to be the super-spreader event that fuelled South Africa’s deadly second wave of COVID-19.
This year’s Matric Rage organisers say they have put safety measures and protocols in place, including that no one can attend without being fully vaccinated. But in their letter, the general practitioners (GPs) say, “However good their intentions, we don’t believe that the COVID-19 safety measures suggested by the organisers can prevent the spread of the virus. A large gathering like this, run over a few days, and consisting of excited teens is the ideal environment for a super-spreader event – as last year’s event demonstrated. Even a ‘vax passport’ [now that 18 year olds are eligible] and daily rapid antigen tests are unlikely to be able to contain an inevitable presence and spread of COVID-19 amongst the revellers and beyond them to more vulnerable people.
“Given the low vaccination rate in South Africa, a festival event of this size poses a considerable risk of a significant and unnecessary contribution to a fourth spike [wave],” they said.
Kramer, head of the Division of Emergency Medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand, and professor of Sports Medicine at Pretoria University, said, “No parent has the right to put their children, other children, and society at health risk because of irresponsible personal excuses that the youngsters need to chill out. These mass gathering, high-risk events can cause death – it’s no different to drinking and driving. Or will the same parents agree to drinking and driving because their kids had a difficult year?” he asked rhetorically.
“I agree that the young generation have sustained COVID-19 collateral damage psychologically, emotionally, and even mentally, all requiring adequate and appropriate countermeasures and social counselling activities,” said Kramer. “However, it’s what’s done, how it’s done, when and where it’s done, and the attention to health-precaution detail that’s primary and paramount.
“Regarding vaccination, these close-contact, mass gathering, crowded events remain a super-spreader, and have resulted in the unvaccinated and partially vaccinated occupying the majority of hospital ICU [intensive-care unit] beds, mechanical ventilators, and sadly, coffins,” he said.
“If Rage continues unabated against sound medical advice, no participant should be allowed back home without full COVID-19 testing. In addition, no participant should be allowed into any communal event including shuls or related activities without evidence of full COVID-19 testing. Finally, no participant should be allowed back to school or education institutions without evidence of full COVID-19 testing.
“Let us not redress COVID-19 collateral damage by bring out the worst in us,” he pleaded. “Let it rather bring out the best, the most innovative, the most exciting, energetic, low risk, safety-assured events that allow us all – young and old – to socialise with each other again. It can be done with discipline, attention to detail, direction, and supervision with effective command and control. All for one, and one for all.”
But one Cape Town parent, Mike Abel, said he will allow his son to go to Rage. “The fine balancing act as a parent is always to consider your children’s physical health and their mental health. These two don’t always go hand in hand when your kids run onto a rugby or hockey pitch with gum guards, head guards, knee guards, and silent words to the gods,” he said.
“Lockdown and COVID-19 restrictions have played havoc with mental and physical health. As social creatures, our children have become more sedentary and disconnected. Rage is an opportunity for excitement, fun, and reconnection.
“Our son is 18 and vaccinated. Is Rage ideal? No. Is it 100% safe? No. Do we think it’s the right decision for him to go? Yes. It will be better for him than not going. He’ll have fun. He’ll let off steam. He’ll connect, laugh, play, swim, and enjoy his new-found freedom and transition from school to this new chapter and adventure. Will we sleep easy while he’s there? No. But we hope his maturity, sense of responsibility, and values will guide him well-ish. Our kids need a degree of risk and freedom for both their physical and mental well-being.”
The GGPC letter was drafted by a group of GPs including three local Jewish doctors. One of them, Dr Sheri Fanaroff, said, “Even with COVID-19 protocols in place, in reality they don’t happen. It’s the same as saying there should be no drugs allowed, but we know there are. I have a matric child, and I’m happy for her to go away and have fun, but not to a massive organised event. Yes, they’ve had a lousy two years, but there are safer ways to have fun. Parents don’t want to make their child be the only one that’s excluded, and we would rather the events be cancelled altogether than force parents and children to make a choice.
“The other issue is that many kids born later in the year won’t be fully vaccinated and two weeks post vaccination by the time Rage comes. Many don’t want to get vaccinated during exams,” she said. “And while young people don’t always get extremely ill from COVID-19, we are seeing a fair amount of long-term consequences. A good percent of this age group are battling six months later with chronic fatigue, arthritis, joint pain, brain fog, and the emotional consequences of all of that.”
Another GP involved in the drafting of the letter, Dr Daniel Israel, said, “One has to differentiate between normal social events and super-spreader events. I’m pretty pro people getting out socially at the moment with safe protocols, but super-spreader events are a no-go. These are teenagers who have just finished matric, and everything about their partying has to do with consumption of alcohol, physical closeness, and small spaces, which all lends itself to COVID-19 spreading. So, by the nature of the people who come to it, you can’t have a safe event.
“A question could be, ‘well these are young, healthy kids – what’s the difference?’ But we know even from last year that when they get home, they don’t isolate properly, they go home on planes, and they do spread it,” he said. “So, the same way that we haven’t been able to do certain things in a pandemic – like Broadway is closed – we think Rage should be closed too. We may be able to have holidays, but not Rage. We’re hoping that next year, we’ll be in a different place.”
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