When religion obstructs growth – the Israeli case

The experience of Israel’s Haredi community shows how an exclusively religious education that rejects secularism is the door to a dangerous radicalism that threatens the whole social system

In the long, complex, and fascinating history of the European continent one of the most important turning points is the period 1650-1720, that marks the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment – a new era of thought that revolutionizes our worldview and our self-consciousness. The old, traditional, religious values– associated to a Middle Age that now belongs to History – begin to appear less solid and incontestable than they used to, and give way to reason and science.

It is in this context that the European philosophical, political and social landscape sees itself at the core of a new contraposition between secularism and religion. And of all the fields interested by this new debate, education – due to its influence on the future development of a society – receives particular attention. After centuries in which it had been prerogative of the Catholic monastic class and had proceeded hand in hand with religious studies, new demands and needs were emerging and an exclusively religious education didn’t seem sufficient anymore.

A new balance – with secularism dominating the public sphere and religion confined to the private one – began to take root in Europe; and education didn’t make an exception.

History, though, likes to repeat itself and the contraposition between religion/tradition on one hand, and secularism/modernity on the other, is now challenging the internal balances of all those countries, societies, and groups where religious identity is still the strongest one and religion a main pillar of collective life. And education is once again at the core of the debate.

For a State like Israel, born out of a specific religious identity and that since foundation has drawn from it its legitimacy, religion has always played a crucial role; but if most Israelis have found a positive balance between secularism and Judaism, this is not true for everyone.

Taking bus n.1 from the Old City of Jerusalem until Mea Shearim, you will find yourself in the heart of one of the oldest Jewish ultra-orthodox quarters, where women quietly walk on the streets dressed in their long skirts and long-sleeved blouses, and men come and go from Yeshivas and Kollels. In these schools – bulwark of the traditional Jewish education – men dedicate themselves to the exclusive study of the Torah and Talmud, in the name of religious observance, attachment to tradition and doctrinal devotion; and the Holy text is considered  not only the revelation of God’s word on the theological level, but the source of that pure Judaic law on which everyday life has to be built. Any form of secular education is on the contrary rejected.

Cut off from what happens outside the Yeshiva’s walls; auto-exiled from the dynamics of the outer society (whose secularism they fear as a deviant influence); cling to the exclusive religious dimension of their ultra-orthodox education, Haredim are inevitably led to a religious radicalism so entrenched in any aspect of their existence that intermediate possibilities do not exist: you are either ultra-orthodox or non-Jewish, and society is either religious or secular.

Such a religious radicalism – that first appeared among Jews in the XVIII century Europe as a reaction to the fear of cultural assimilation – can’t but have consequences that go beyond the Haredi quarter and represent a limit for the whole Israeli society, an obstacle for its growth, a threat to its stability, coherence and cohesion.

Haredim, in fact, due to an educational system that has provided them with religion as exclusive lens through which to interpret reality, give a radical religious lecture of the State and their own role in it.

It follows that they paradoxically don’t recognize the State of Israel in which they live because that would mean legitimizing a non-orthodox entity, and that they consider themselves as still living in exile rather than as part of the Israeli society. They therefore refuse to serve in the army as well as to pay taxes. And such a convenient isolationism can’t but create tensions (as many Israelis feel that different rules apply to different groups) and make the Israeli society a divided one. On the one hand, thus, those moderate Jews who have been building since 1948 a modern state; on the other hand the radical ultra-orthodox who deem legitimate their community only and don’t contribute to the growth of the State.

This last element should also be linked to the fact that the Haredim’s refusal of secular education in all its forms has created a “class of scholars” who generally lack relevant professional skills, and are thus condemned to unemployment and are reliant on state subsidies – a further financial burden on the shoulders of the rest of the Israeli society, and therefore a further source of tensions.

Moreover, blinded by the radical deviations of an exclusive religious mindset, Haredim condemn the diverse – meant as all those who embrace lifestyles irreconcilable with the saying of the Torah. This summer’s killing of a 16-year-old girl at a gay parade in Jerusalem at the hands of a Haredi man, more than just a sporadic act of violence by a disturbed individual, reveals the different speeds at which the Israeli society is moving and how its growth is curbed by the intolerance of part of it.

Equally negative is how the exclusive reference to a text that was edited millennia ago in different social contexts, makes the Haredi community one in which women are subordinate to men (after marriage it is the wife who works and only the husband has the right to proceed with his studies) and marginalized in the community’s public life. For a society like the Israeli one, that has never failed to recognize and defend gender equality, the attacks (both physical and verbal) perpetrated by some Haredim against non-orthodox women who according to them don’t behave properly (for instance praying at the Western Wall with the Torah in their hands or refusing to seat in the back seats of public buses) are dangerous sources of tensions and divisions.

The radicalism produced by the Haredim’s exclusive religious education and closure to secularism creates a situation in which the Israeli society – in order to peacefully survive – can’t but take into account such a reality and its distortions, and sacrifice part of its modernity (for instance not recognizing civil marriages) to prevent the schism between orthodox and non-orthodox from growing wider and more dangerous.

The importance of religious studies is something not even atheists can deny, as they are part of our heritage – source of our deepest values and oldest traditions. But the example of Israel’s Haredim shows that only if associated to (and – I stress – not substituted by) a secular education can they retain all their positive strength and make religion a means through which to fight radicalism, and not a source of it.

In the Jewish world, the importance of a balance between religion and secularism had already emerged in the XVIII century when Moses Mendelssohn created the Haskalà movement to open Jewish religious traditions to Enlightenment; and is now defended by Israel’s moderate orthodox and, even more so, by those institutions recently emerged to offer Haredim both religious and scientific studies.

A broader political and social support to their concrete commitment and an enthusiast promotion of their initiative among Haredi younger generations are the best way to address the problem of Israel’s homegrown religious radicalism, by starting from the fundamental relationship between religion and education.

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