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The Growth of the Haredi Communities in the Diaspora

One of the most important pairs of concepts in the sociology of religion, developed by Max Weber and his associate Ernst Troeltsch, is that of “church” and “sect.” These terms, which came out of the Christian-Protestant tradition, in fact describe two different types of religious organizations in general. For the purposes of this paper, we can replace these terms with “inclusive” and “exclusive.” A “church,” an inclusive religious organization, brings together all the believers in a given locality – saints, sinners, ordinary people, criminals etc. A “sect,” an exclusive religious organization, is an organization of religious elites. Its members are only those who completely fulfill the religious ideal. As Max Weber put it: “The sect …. aims at being an association of persons with full religious qualification.”3

The historical Jewish kehilla, was an inclusive or “church” like organization. It included all Jews within a given locality, generally by law or decree of the ruler, both the Rabbi and the local ganeff (גנב). One’s degree of piousness or religious observance did not matter. All Jews simply belonged. Haredi society, however, has a tendency to organize itself in more exclusive frameworks. The typical frameworks of Haredi life – the Hasidic courts and extra-territorial yeshivot (that is, yeshivot not bound to a specific kehilla but taking students from everywhere – Volozhin being the first) arose as the kehilla framework weakened in Europe in the late 18th and 19th Centuries. The Hasidic and Yeshivish frameworks were, from the very start, voluntary and generally restricted to those willing to live according to a certain standard and level of religious and Torah accomplishment. Today, too, Haredim consider as part of their community, those who accept the strict Haredi interpretation of Jewish religious law, who accept a Haredi worldview and who accept the authority of the charismatic leaders of the community – the Hasidic Admorim and Roshei Yeshiva who are considered to be Gedolei Yisroel (“The Great of Israel”) and who possess Daas Torah.4 This last concept refers to the Torah insight that allows the Gedolim to give authoritative rulings not only on Halacha but also on general matters pertaining to the community and the individual.

This tendency toward an exclusive, elite5 (or “aristocratic”6) religious framework means that the Haredi sense of community and solidarity tends to be narrow and restricted mainly to the elite Haredi community. According to their understanding, only those who adhere to the Haredi way of life live a “true” and full Jewish life. While Haredim recognize non-Haredi Jews as Jews genealogically, and consequently, in their view, ontologically different from non-Jews, they assert that only Frum Jews, who live the life that God demands of Jews, live full and adequate Jewish lives. It seems to be, at least partly a result of this conception that they maintain parallel social welfare, educational and religious institutions and only minimally support institutions that are Jewish but not Haredi. Observers note that their political lobbying and fundraising activity is also largely directed toward their own needs and institutions. Given the scarcity of resources and the need to prioritize giving, Frum community members feel that “charity ought to begin at home” and ought to be directed at the community’s own institutions, which are often in great need.

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