Growth will bring shift on issues for Charedim, says expert

Is change going to come in the most religious of communities?


The Charedi population of Israel is rapidly increasing - meaning the religious group will be more likely to change its position on some issues, according to the professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Speaking as part of a panel on “Charedim and the Jewish Future” at the Limmud festival, Professor Benjamin Brown said that as the Strictly Orthodox community grows larger in Israel, “they will get more self-confidence facing modernity and the outer culture – and such a society can’t live in the same way as it lived when it was a small community… in other circumstances.”

Another panellist, Menachem Bombach, a key figure in the small but growing movement to provide integrated secular studies to Charedi youth, described how “by 2028, 40 percent of Jewish schoolchildren in Israel will be Charedi”, a figure from a 2015 study from the Jerusalem Institute. 

Professor Brown and Rabbi Bombach, together with Tali Farkash, an Israeli Strictly Orthodox female journalist, discussed a number of aspects of Charedi life in Israel.

There was some disagreement over the current situation within the “Lithuanian” sector of Israeli Charedim. Rabbi Aaron Leib Steinman, the de facto leader of this portion of Israeli religious society, died two weeks ago

According to Professor Brown, the front-runner to succeed Rabbi Steinman in the position is Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the head of the Ponovezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Meanwhile, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, seen as the leading rabbi of his generation, will likely act as an unofficial kingmaker, unwilling to take on the position himself. 

However, according to Ms Farkash, rival factions backing Rabbi Edelstein and Rabbi Kanievsky (the latter possibly via an ambitious grandson) have been vying for control, a struggle which began before Rabbi Steinman’s death.

According to her, even something like public notices asking people to pray for Rabbi Steinman could be political, with some saying that Rabbi Kanievsky had officially asked people to pray, while others carried the request in the name of Rabbi Edelstein. 

Even within the Charedi world, there is nuance, however. A group of hardline strictly orthodox Jews known as “the Jerusalem faction” make up a small percentage of Israeli Charedim, but are extremely vocal, responsible for recent protests in Jerusalem which have brought the city to a halt on a number of occasions.

Professor Brown described this faction as embarrassing most Charedim, describing the majority of the Charedi community as “moderate”. 

Regarding the changes the Charedim may make as they grow into an even larger force within Israeli society, Professor Brown added that people ought not to look to those at the top to initiate this process. “Charedi leaders never make changes, never lead changes. At most, they accept changes,” he said. 

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