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Beneath the Black Hats

An anthropologist gains the trust of the ultra-Orthodox

Yeshiva Fundamentalism: Piety, Gender, and Resistance in the Ultra-Orthodox World by Nurit Stadler (NYU Press, $39) is a journey into an exclusive and isolated world of male yeshiva students, where the author, a social anthropologist, spent nearly ten years doing fieldwork. Stadler, who already had a few contacts with ultra-Orthodox families, convinced several yeshiva students to talk to her (naturally, outside of yeshiva premises). By dressing modestly and studying Torah with her informants, she was able to gain insight into their internal world. In parallel, she collected popular educational materials circulated in the haredi outlets and asked her “teachers” to comment on them. Defying her own expectations, many young ultra-Orthodox men were eager to share their lives and struggles with a learned secular woman.

Stadler explored several aspects of the evolution of male piety in Israel’s fundamentalist enclave: the so-called “evil inclination” (i.e. sexuality and control of sexual urges); renunciation of “profane work” and withdrawal from the Israeli labor market; exemption from military conscription; and the attitudes towards family life, gender roles and participation in civil society. Her interviews with young haredi men revealed that many feel frustrated by the limitations placed on their education, economic self-actualization, and participation in Israeli civil society by the confines of yeshiva life.

Throughout her analysis, Stadler shows that ultra-Orthodox fundamentalism evolves not only because of adaptations to modernity (e.g. by growing use of computers and other information technologies), but also because of criticism from within by new generations of devotees. She writes, “I met students who expressed disapproval of and dissatisfaction with their worlds, families, and contemporary rabbinical authorities.” Some haredi young men openly voiced their frustration with the need to concentrate on the scholastic scriptural study that has no pragmatic value in the secular world. They complained that they were able neither to achieve excellence in Talmud (as only a brilliant few can do) nor to make a living for their families in the real world. Others expressed their admiration and envy of the military Israeli icons and their wish to join the army if it would be possible without severing ties with their families and community. Yet others were looking for a greater hands-on and emotional involvement with their wives and children, challenging the existing gender roles.

The haredi family is not fully isolated from the feminist messages and lifestyle changes in the Israeli mainstream. If in the past rabbis instructed young men to concentrate on their studies and let their wives take care of all domestic affairs, current rabbinical opinion (and popular family life guides) explain women’s needs and struggles and call on husbands to show more concern for their wives. The new discourse on marital happiness promotes companionship and unity between the sexes. The process of “domestication” of haredi men also redefines the ideal of fatherhood and engagement in emotionally involved relationship with the children. Men are even encouraged to share hands-on domestic tasks with their wives, especially those who are working outside of the home and thus carry a double burden. The book does not refer directly to the haredi women’s response to these incipient changes, but one has little doubt they are most welcome.

By and large, Stadler’s research testifies to an ongoing subversion and turmoil that may undermine and eventually destroy the strict separation between the world of haredi scholarship and the rest of Israeli Jewish society: “The achievement of piety and the burden of domestic and existential tasks clash, producing frustration and tension. One of the likely consequences will be a change in the fundamentalist structure of gender, especially the role of women and conceptions of womanhood in haredi public and private display.” One can only hope.

Larissa Remennick is professor of sociology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Her research interests include gender, family, and health matters in Israel.