Strictly Kosher: How Haredi Literature Reflects and Influences Haredi Culture
Reviewed Book: Yoel Finkelman, Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy (Boston, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2011).
Even at Yeshiva University, a Modern Orthodox institution, students are familiar with the haredi, or Yeshivish, community. This community is often defined by its adherence to a more mahmir (stringent) interpretation of Halakhah, dedication to learning indefinitely in kollelim, and vehement opposition to and separation from secular culture.1 Most, if not all, students are also familiar with haredi publishing companies; many have prayed from an Artscroll siddur, or looked up a halakhah in Feldheim’s Shemirat Shabbat ke-Hilkhatah. However, these publishing companies release more than just “sefarim”; they print novels, magazines, and books on topics that extend beyond Torah proper, such as cooking, history, and parenting.2 In his new book, Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy, Yoel Finkelman examines the impact of these books, which he calls “Popular Literature,” on American haredi Judaism. Finkelman contends that haredim use this literature as a tool for self-definition and for demonstrating how their values are different from and superior to those of the American public.
Finkelman effectively portrays the attitude of the haredim in the preface to the book. There he describes a popular children’s book on middot, in which haredim are depicted as having idyllic, meaningful lives while the non-haredim have low moral standards and live in slum-like conditions. The outside world is an evil place with no redeeming value, while the inner haredi world of Torah is perfectly pure and all its inhabitants achieve happiness. There exists no possibility of a middle ground, where those who do not believe in haredi values do achieve lives of happiness and fulfillment or where haredim face many struggles.3 Despite the haredi idealization of a separatist Torah culture which is entirely at odds with American secular society, Finkelman notes throughout the book that haredi literature indicates a significant degree of acculturation, largely mirroring the acculturation found in the Evangelical Christian community.4
Finkelman discusses three different aspects of this acculturation: “coalescence,” whereby secular values are portrayed as Jewish ones; “filtering,” where books include secular values only selectively; and “monopolizing,” by which books attempt to influence readers to read haredi works only.5 Much of the haredi literature on marriage demonstrates these various aspects of acculturation. In these books’ descriptions of the Jewish view on marriage, the Jewish and secular views coalesce into one. These books emphasize the need for partner cooperation and effective communication, and portray the home as a refuge from the dangers of secular surroundings; however, these views drastically differ from traditional Ashkenazi Jewish marriages. Historical marriages were primarily economic arrangements, whereby a father aimed to find a husband who could financially support his daughter. Furthermore, the home was primarily the workplace because goods to be sold were produced there. The current haredi view of marriage, which is focused on developing a supportive, emotional connection between spouses, is much closer to the contemporary, secular one.6 Publications on marriage also exhibit filtering, most obviously by ignoring sex beyond the treatment that is minimally necessary for a discussion of taharat ha-mishpahah. While sex is a significant component of much of secular culture and is relevant to marriage as well, haredi publishers opt to avoid the topic to limit communal exposure to such matters.7 As for monopolization, haredim publish a wide range of literature so that their haredi consumers will not feel the need to read secular works, since similar haredi-versions of the works are available. Since haredi readers will not hear opposing voices, they will be more likely to accept the haredi agenda. While haredim are not forced to read the haredi books, their existence makes reading secular ones less desirable.8
Other than the first and last chapters, which serve as an introduction and conclusion, respectively, each chapter, as delineated in the book’s preface, focuses on a different type of haredi literature and analyzes what it shows about haredi Jews and their worldview. Chapter two examines how haredi self-help books show varying degrees of acculturation, while chapter three analyzes the ways in which haredi authors of both self-help and fiction books either deny this acculturation or explicitly justify the presence of any secular content. In chapter four, Finkelman demonstrates how haredim utilize biographical and historical works to stake their community’s claim as the authentic heir of the European Jewish world, inaccurately depicted as always wholesome and saintly. Chapter five deals with the different presentations of Judaism to haredim and to non-haredi Jews in haredi works of theology, and the messages about haredi separatism that the differing presentations send. Chapter six examines haredi self-criticism in periodicals and how haredim attempt to condemn parts of their system without undermining it.9
Finkelman maps out his arguments very clearly, and continuously summarizes previous points and presents outlines for upcoming claims. Each chapter begins with a recapitulation of the previous chapters followed by a breakdown of the main points in that chapter, and ends with a summary of the chapter’s main points and a preview to the next chapter. While all of this explaining enables the reader to easily follow Finkelman’s argument, it also feels repetitive at times. The repetition is likely a result of the fact that Finkelman had previously published parts of the work in various journals, so much of the explanation is a way of stringing the different pieces together.10
Finkelman’s endnotes list citations of the various books he references in the main text. Upon examination of these citations, it is interesting to note that most of the works fall into two main categories: haredi literature and scholarly works which analyze the potential to understand a culture from its literature. What seems to be mostly absent is literature from other Jewish communities, such as the Modern Orthodox community. Finkelman rarely addresses how the purpose and style of haredi literature differs from that of Modern Orthodox literature. Although he does affirm that Modern Orthodox works display a higher level of acculturation than do haredi works, he rarely illustrates the truth of this claim with examples.11 While it may be that such an analysis is beyond the scope of Finkelman’s work, a comparison of haredi and Modern Orthodox literature could provide insight into how haredi literature’s attempt to influence its community is unique. Among the few works authored by Modern Orthodox writers cited by Finkelman, most were articles published in scholarly journals, not books published by Modern Orthodox publishers.12 While both haredi and Modern Orthodox publishers likely censor the books which they print, since Finkelman does not quote many books published by the Modern Orthodox, it remains unclear how censorship differs in the two communities. Another fact rarely mentioned is that haredi literature is also often read by the Modern Orthodox. Finkelman extensively portrays how haredi literature attempts to influence haredi culture, but with the exception of chapter five, he does not address how or if that literature attempts to influence non-haredi readers.13
Finkelman’s broad definition of haredi literature includes anything published by a haredi publishing house. However, not all of the authors who have published with haredi publishing houses are haredi. For example, Finkelman cites an article published in The Jewish Observer, Agudath Israel’s magazine, which was written by Dr. David Pelcovitz, who is not haredi.14 While Dr. Pelcovitz’s non-haredi association may have been irrelevant for Finkelman’s specific point about the article, it is unclear if the line between haredi and non-haredi authorship was blurred elsewhere in a more significant way. Finkelman justifies his broad definition by stating that the haredi publishers have such a high level of censorship that all published works meet haredi standards. Therefore, any work published by a haredi publishing house can reasonably be classified as haredi, and be viewed the same way as literature actually written by haredim.15 A possible flaw in this argument is that if certain information is absent in an article written by a Modern Orthodox Jew, it is difficult to ascertain if this absence is due to the publisher’s censorship or to the author’s personal decision (made for whatever reason). Therefore, theorizing about the uniquely haredi messages of such a work based on absent information would not be possible.
While Finkelman may be wide-ranging in his consideration of haredi literature, he is very clear about which community he is talking about when he uses the term haredi, explicitly differentiating between the haredi community and the hassidic one. He emphasizes that unlike hassidic Jews, who are more insular and less acculturated, the haredi community has undergone significant acculturation, which manifests itself in haredi writing.16 Similarly, he distinguishes between the haredi communities in America and those in Israel. According to Finkelman, Israeli haredim tend to be more extreme and separatist than their American counterparts, so their literature is less influenced by secular culture. Although some Israeli haredi authors are quoted, they are generally Americans who had made aliyah, so their works exhibit the acculturation more typical of the American community.17
Finkelman is quite open about the fact that he is not part of the haredi community which he is examining, and is in fact Modern Orthodox. As a result, he “[makes] no claim to strict objectivity” and admits that he is conducting this research “to understand what [he is] not.”18 While he does make judgment calls about haredi literature, Finkelman speaks primarily from an analytical viewpoint. Although he concedes that he shares the opinions of many Modern Orthodox authors who write polemics against haredi literature, Finkelman states that he attempts to avoid being overly polemical so as not to detract from the understanding of haredi works and their effects.19 In this regard, he is successful; while there are many critiques of haredi literature in the book, the tone remains respectful.
My greatest praise for Finkelman’s work is that after reading the book, I was more aware of the underlying sociology when reading haredi literature on my own. While reading the volume on Sefer Devarim from The Midrash Says, a popular series which explains each parashah in the Torah based on midrash, I noticed that a significant percentage of the foreword and footnotes comment on the haredi worldview, both how it sees itself and how it sees the secular world.20 The foreword warns against Jews reading “literature that is not Torah-true,”21 I immediately thought of Finkelman’s analysis of the haredi monopolization. A footnote laments that today’s generation “[does] not achieve the level of Torah knowledge and greatness that was standard in Europe,”22 and I am reminded of Finkelman’s description of idyllic Europe as portrayed by the haredim which is not an accurate description of the historical reality. Several footnotes compare haredi values to secular ones, and as Finkelman predicts, they all emphasize haredi distinctiveness.23
Finkelman’s book is enlightening and offers a coherent and accurate description of haredi literature. His analytical, respectful attitude throughout the book enables him to be critical of the literature without sounding polemical. While several important issues were not completely addressed, the reader comes away with an enhanced understanding of how haredi literature is written in such a way as to influence haredi culture.
Davida Kollmar is a junior at SCW majoring in Physics, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.
1 Yoel Finkelman, Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2011), p. 24.
2 Ibid. 19.
3 Ibid. 11-14.
4 Ibid. 15, 31-33. Evangelical Christianity focuses on outreach and missionizing. Evangelicals are generally conservative both politically and theologically. Like haredim, they have their own literature and media. See Ibid. 31-33.
5 Ibid. 43-44.
6 Ibid. 48-51.
7 Ibid. 54, 58.
8 Ibid. 65-66.
9 Ibid. 16-17.
10 Ibid. 10.
11 Ibid. 23-24.
12 Ibid. 37-38.
13 Ibid 19.
14 Ibid. 180, 231n43.
15 Ibid. 35-36.
16 Ibid. 23-24.
17 Ibid. 25-26.
18 Ibid. 40-41.
19 Ibid. 21.
20 Rabbi Moshe Weissman, The Midrash Says: The Book of Devarim (Brooklyn: Beney Yakov Publications, 1985).
21 Ibid. xii.
22 Ibid. 95.
23 See Ibid. 211, 238.