You've seen the black hats and long dresses--but who are the people underneath?
Haredim are perhaps the most visibly identifiable subset of Jews today.
They are easy to spot--haredi men in black suits and wide-brimmed black hats, haredi women in long skirts, thick stockings, and headcoverings--but much harder to understand.
Indeed, the history, beliefs, and practices of these devout Jews remain a mystery to many who live outside their cloistered communities. The word "haredi" is a catchall term, either an adjective or a noun, which covers a broad array of theologically, politically, and socially conservative Orthodox Jews, sometimes referred to as "ultra-Orthodox." What unites haredim is their absolute reverence for Torah, including both the Written and Oral Law, as the central and determining factor in all aspects of life. Consequently, respect and status are often accorded in proportion to the greatness of one's Torah scholarship, and leadership is linked to learnedness.
In order to prevent outside influence and contamination of values and practices, haredim strive to limit their contact with the outside world, avoiding, as much as possible, both non-haredi Jews and non-Jews. Interaction with outsiders is generally confined to basic economic contact and unavoidable public interactions, such as going to the post office. However, certain groups of haredim, notably, but not exclusively, members of Chabad Lubavitch, do make contact with non-haredi Jews for the purpose of kiruv--encouraging others to adopt more stringent religious observance.
The First Haredim
The haredi phenomenon is relatively recent, though its precise origins can be difficult to trace.
In the 19th century, with the spread of industrialization and urbanization, the barriers that once kept Jews out of European society were loosened. The consequent emergence of a new, more worldly kind of Jew prompted a defensive backlash which led to the birth of an extremely conservative, anti-secular, isolationist expression of Judaism. Major haredi leaders of this era included prominent Eastern European rabbinic figures such as Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821) and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, also known as the Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933).
The founding in Poland in 1912 of the Agudas Yisroel, a group representing the social and cultural interests of fervently religious Jews, was a major moment in the emergence of the haredi movement. Created in response to escalating assimilation and secularization within worldwide Jewry, Agudas Yisroel aimed to preserve and maintain Torah-bound Judaism, both on the individual and collective level. The organization was also significant because it was created by a coalition of Hasidim and Mitnagdim--the two major camps of haredi Jews that had previously been rivals.
Hasidism, a movement that emerged in Eastern Europe in the mid-18th century, validated the simple piety of those who could not master the intricacies of advanced talmudic scholarship. The established rabbis, who decried Hasidism as false and corrupted, were referred to as "opposers"--or, in Hebrew, Mitnagdim. But as the Hasidic movement evolved, formal yeshiva scholarship became increasingly important in this community as well. This led to a lessening of the differences between Hasidim and Mitnagdim, and some rapprochement, making the 1912 Agudas Yisroel coalition possible.