Fischer on Inbari, 'Jewish Radical Ultra-Orthodoxy Confronts Modernity, Zionism and Women’s Equality'

Motti Inbari
Hadas Fischer

Motti Inbari. Jewish Radical Ultra-Orthodoxy Confronts Modernity, Zionism and Women’s Equality. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 279 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-08810-8.

Reviewed by Hadas Fischer (Tel Aviv University) Published on H-Judaic (May, 2017) Commissioned by Katja Vehlow

Two cultural worlds occupy the busy streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The epicenter of hipster culture is also Satmar's urban core, where Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the leading force of twentieth-century radical ultra-Orthodoxy, arrived in 1946 to build his Hassidic court from the ashes of the Holocaust. All the forces of gentrification have yet to dismantle this awkward marriage of opposites.

What is the secret of Satmar's (and other radical ultra-Orthodox groups) long-term success and resilience? In his notable new book, Motti Inabri provides a clear and compelling answer: radical ultra-Orthodoxy streams benefited from a formidable leadership capable of expertly balancing two seemingly contradicting elements--unwavering radical religious ideology and covert practicality. The ability of leaders such as Teitelbaum and Rabbi Amram Blau, the founder of the Jerusalem-based radical ultra-Orthodox group Neturei Karta, whose biographies and formative experiences Inbari covers extensively, to launch zealous campaigns--in regards to women's attire, to Shabbat observance, to Zionism and the Jewish state--while sensing the limits of possibility and quietly backtracking if needed, made their movements the image of religious fundamentalism without forcing them to lose important leeway. Both men were stubborn and uncompromising, a trait which reinforced their religious worldview and was reflected in their personal lives, more than anything, perhaps, in the remarkable and strong women they chose to marry. However, Inbari writes, Balu "was no Don Quixote" (p. 170), and Teitelbaum was "wise enough to understand the American life style" (p. 171) and accordingly make necessary changes in Satmar Hungarian customs. Political savvy, in other words, was the key to the flourish of radical ultra-Orthodoxy in the twentieth century, in the face of tremendous existential threats.

Inbari, a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina and a leading scholar of Jewish fundamentalism, steps in this book outside his primary field of expertise, religious Zionism, which he explored in his previous work, including Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount: Who Will Build the Third Temple? (2009) and Messianic Religious Zionism Confront Israeli Territorial Compromises (2012). His foray into the theology, ideology, and politics of radical ultra-Orthodoxy is well informed by his scholarly background, which allows him to convincingly contextualize ultra-Orthodoxy, placing it within the larger frame of past and present Jewish extremism. Thus, although religious Zionism and radical ultra-Orthodoxy are antithetical in their relation to Zionism--the former posits Jewish nationalism at the center of its theology and the latter rejects it adamantly--Inbari shows that the two movements share similar structural features, which can be traced back to biblical narratives of zealotry and historical precedents of messianism. This comparative analysis, which combines synchronic and diachronic axes, is especially valuable since it demonstrates that radical ultra-Orthodoxy's answer to the woes of the modern world is at once new and ancient, born out of the trying times of modernity but also rooted in long-standing Jewish traditions.

Inbari opens his narrative in 1924 Palestine, with the political assassination of Jacob-Israel De Haan, a controversial and unusual anti-Zionist activist who sought to forge an alliance between ultra-Orthodox Jews from the Old Yishuv and Arab leadership in the region. De-Haan's activism and murder occupy chapter 1 of Inbari's book and serve as an introduction to the primary ideological battlefront of the radical ultra-Orthodoxy that views De-Haan as its martyr--the political dominance of Zionism and the modernization of the Jewish world which it represents. This chapter also introduces a major finding of the book--that oftentimes, radical ultra-Orthodoxy's most fierce battles were fought not with the secular world, but rather with the mainstream of ultra-Orthodoxy and its pronounced pragmatic tendencies, especially in regards to cooperation with, and covertly acceptance of, the Zionism movement and the state of Israel. This chapter also touches upon a recurring tension in the history of radical ultra-Orthodoxy: while its goal was to create enclaves of true believers, to separate itself from the outside world, it also demonstrated from its inception an affinity for provocation and confrontation, a sort of negative engagement with the surrounding society that has been a hallmark of radical ultra-Orthodoxy since the days of the combative De-Haan.

Still in Palestine/Israel, chapters 2 and 3 of the book follow the history of Neturei Karta and its various campaigns, carried under the leadership of Rabbi Blau. Inbari covers in them the ideology and politics of Balu and his followers, from the innovative but failed Haredi agricultural settlement initiative through the galvanizing of anti-Zionist principles and actions in opposition to the state of Israel and up to Neturei Karta's efforts to implement their religious ideas in their society and beyond, via aggressive campaigns and demonstrations concerning Shabbat observance in the public sphere, Haredi education, and "modesty," or control of women's bodies. Like many religious fundamentalist groups, radical ultra-Orthodoxy has been closed and secretive, but Inbari--and this is one of the book's prominent strengths--is able to give the readers an inside peek into the inner workings of Neturei Karta's politics thanks to a unique resource: Blau's personal archive, recently acquired by Boston University. Blau's archive, which Inbari discloses was the initial catalyst for the research, is a powerful source not only because it gives insights into the character of the man, for example in relation to Blau's scandalous marriage to the infamous covert Ruth Ban David, an affair that threated Blau's position within his community and gives evidence to his stubbornness. The archive is also highly valuable since it opens a window to the making of Neturei Karta's politics. Stories of lesser-known failures, as well as initiatives rooted in earthly interests cloaked in ideology, successfully reveal the complex reality behind the seemingly one-dimensional religious zealot.

The argument that quiet political calculating is key to successful zealotry is positively confirmed by the example of R Teitelbaum and his Satmar court, to which chapter 5 is dedicated, and negatively confirmed by the largely forgotten story of the interwar Munkacser Rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira and his messianic activism, which occupies chapter 4. Both radical antimodernist Hassidic rabbis, Teitelbaum built an empire from scratch, complete with a strong power-base in Brooklyn and a suburban offshoot, the "American shtetle" of Kiryas Joel, whereas Shapira got lost in mystic messianic yearnings and finished his life his trapped in a failed prophecy of redemption. Although the rabbis held similar views, Shapira's activism was spiritual while Teitelbaum's was practical. Teitelbaum's practicality is exemplified no better than in his actions during the Holocaust, via de facto cooperation with moderate ultra-Orthodox and Zionist leadership. It is not that Teitelebaum let go of messianic ideas--on the contrary, Inbari suggests that Teitelbaum emigrated to Jerusalem and later left it due at least in part to his spiritual convictions. But as Inbari writes, "even the greatest of zealots found that compromise was sometimes unavoidable" (p. 131). Indeed, this is a worthy lesson to everyone who wishes to understand religious extremism, Jewish or otherwise. 

The last two chapters of the book widen the scope of the discussion beyond the specific case studies which are the backbone of the text. Chapter 6 introduces various antimodern ultra-Orthodox thinkers, starting from mid-nineteenth-century Hungary, which Inbari pinpoints as the birthplace of the stream. Chapter 7 then moves to the comparative cross-historical zealotry analysis mentioned above. Combining biographical, theological, ideological, and political lenses, these chapters situate Inbari's in-depth case studies in a larger analytical framework, illuminating their contexts. They serve to show that despite undeniable unique characteristics, contemporary radical ultra-Orthodoxy is well entrenched within modern and ancient Jewish history.  

The book concludes with an epilogue that charts current and near-future challenges to radical ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel and the United States. Noting demographic trends and economic statistics as well as ongoing existential threats from within (inheritance battles, women's potential autonomy) and without (the possibility of drafting Israeli Haredi men to the IDF), Inbari highlights the sociological aspect of his research. The broad sociological realities of ultra-Orthodox life are absorbing in their own right, and it is regrettable to find them discussed only when the book nears its end. Inbari focuses throughout the book on the movement's leaders and their ideology. Their followers' group portrait, arguably no less important for the analysis of radical ultra-Orthodoxy's rise, remains largely unexplored. Nevertheless, Inbari's book stands as an major contribution to the literature on ultra-Orthodoxy and Jewish fundamentalism, an excellent introduction to and overview of a fascinating corner of the Jewish world. 

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Citation: Hadas Fischer. Review of Inbari, Motti, Jewish Radical Ultra-Orthodoxy Confronts Modernity, Zionism and Women’s Equality. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. May, 2017. URL:

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