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Ultra Orthodox communities use egalitarianism as a defense

torahIt’s a bit ironic: even though many religious traditions preach egalitarianism and equality, most people think of fundamentalist religious groups as being anything but. From the Branch Dravidians to the Catholic Church, highly authoritarian and hierarchical social structures are de rigueur throughout the world’s religions. Or at least that’s how it seems from the outside. Recently, though, a British researcher has found evidence that highly conservative religious groups in Israel actually stress equality among their members, and that they may have very practical sociological reasons for doing so.

In Israel, Ultra Orthodox, or Haredi, communities offer their inhabitants a unique lifestyle. Conforming to the definition of what one researcher calls “enclave” communities, Haredi groups remain relatively secluded from mainstream Israeli culture. By sending their young men to Yeshiva academies – where students study the Torah intensively for many years – and restricting young people’s access to the outside world, Haredi communities ensure that the values and religious sensibilities that define their groups are passed down to future generations uncontaminated by secular influences.

Writing recently in the Journal of Contemporary Religion, Dr. Yohai Hakak found that, defying stereotypes about conservative religious communities, Haredi culture actually proclaims a love of egalitarianism and equality – at least within its borders. Specifically, students in Yeshivas are strongly encouraged not to compete with each other for high status, parents are told not to boss their children around too much, and women who escape abusive marriages are given community support and considered equals with their long-married sisters.

The net result is that Haredi society downplays competition and provides an environment in which envy, resentment, and the struggle for dominance have difficulty taking root. This less-competitive environment helps keep people, particularly young people, from turning their backs on Haredi life and escaping to the highly competitive, individualistic world of secular Israeli cities, since an egalitarian life is much less stressful than a deeply competitive one. In other words, egalitarianism in Haredi society literally helps the culture survive in the face of modern culture and its temptations.

But, naturally, there’s a catch. While Haredi writings and academies encourage feelings of equality between members of Ultra Orthodox Jewish society, those feelings are contrasted sharply by sentiments of condescension, derision, and outright superiority when it comes to people living in the outside world. In fact, a non-governmental organization known as Yad L’achim (“A Hand to Our Brothers”) specifically works to prevent Haredi women from falling in love with and marrying Arab men, using websites and literature to portray Arabs as untrustworthy criminals who enslave women to do their bidding.

This negative portrayal of Arabic family life mirrors a general conception of how society works beyond the safe boundaries of Haredi communities: while Haredi society is depicted as egalitarian, outside cultures are thought of as deeply hierarchical, even oppressive. Even non-Arab cultures like secular Tel Aviv are painted as inherently unequal, because in the secular world the point of life is thought to be to compete for rewards, like money and material goods, that are fundamentally limited. Since there isn’t an infinite amount of money, gold, or iPads on planet Earth, a social system geared toward competing for those resources will automatically be an unequal one, as some people secure access to the goods and other people lose out. Haredi society, on the other hand, is depicted by its leaders as being oriented toward spiritual, not material, goods. According to this logic, spiritual goods are infinite, and so there’s no need to compete – and thus no need for hierarchies, winners, or losers. In a spiritual society, Haredi leaders assert, everybody wins.

In recent decades attrition levels in Haredi society and in Yeshivas have increased, as secular society and its temptations ensnare more and more Haredi youth. Dr. Hakak writes that, in the face of this challenge, leaders of Ultra Orthodox communities have stepped up the emphasis on egalitarianism, encouraging parents to treat their children more as equals and less as inferiors, and stressing that study in Yeshivas is rewarded by God not according to how well students do, but how deeply they invest themselves in the study. Thus, a student who makes high marks may not be as richly rewarded spiritually as one who struggles in school but who strives to make the most of his studies.

This research dovetails with psychological studies that show that competitive, hierarchical environments are stressful for human beings and can lead to depression and a whole host of other mental health problems. If those studies are correct, it should be no surprise that an enclave society in danger of losing its young people to the secular world should stress equality and downplay internal competition. Engendering a welcoming, non-hierarchical culture might indeed help keep young people from fleeing to the big cities. Many observers would agree, however, that doing so in part by depicting outside cultures as being fundamentally depraved is, at best, a problematic strategy. It’s another iteration of the ancient quandary in religion: religious and spiritual worldviews both help create meaning and help divide groups from one another, turning alien tribes into immoral, sometimes even inhuman enemies. An egalitarian world, rather than an egalitarian society or tribe, still seems to be a pretty tall order.

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0 #1 Victorian Novel 2011-07-16 13:11
Most people die in bed. Ergo. Stay away from beds.
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