Academic journal article Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality

Haredi Male Bodies in the Public Sphere: Negotiating with the Religious Text and Secular Israeli Men

Academic journal article Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality

Haredi Male Bodies in the Public Sphere: Negotiating with the Religious Text and Secular Israeli Men

Article excerpt

In 1999-2000, the Israeli Haredi community was alarmed at the establishment of a new Haredi Brigade (Hanachal Hacharedi) within the Israeli Defense Forces. Until then, young Haredi men did not serve in the army. (3) The formation of the new unit was received with very vocal protests from all parts of the Haredi community and especially from the more conservative sectors. The common perception of Haredi rabbis of military culture and weapons can be learned from the pamphlet "In the Campaign: Journal of the Torah World", (No. 1 August 1999). This edition is devoted entirely to the "horrors of recruitment" and its terrible implications. The back page of the pamphlet bears a picture of a Haredi child looking admiringly at a Haredi soldier and stretching out his hand to touch the gun he is holding. The picture is captioned: "a pure Haredi child, attending the ceremony at the end of basic military training of the Haredi Nachal unit" [the newly formed unit, Y.H.]. He looks admiringly at the weapons held by the Haredi soldiers. One of the soldiers lowers it and the child strokes the gun longingly, like children who reach out to the Torah scroll when it is removed from the Ark in the synagogue. (4) The faces (of the child and the soldier in the photograph) are blurred for obvious reasons (ostensibly to preserve their anonymity), and thus readers are saved the expression on this pure child's face when first seeing this 'new world', so opposed to the inner atmosphere of the Torah world. What does the child growing up in an atmosphere of holiness think of this encounter?"

This short quote illustrates the difficulties that many religious and fundamentalist groups face in attempting to maintain strict adherence to religious positions on all issues, while living in the midst of big, modern and rapidly changing Western cities, surrounded by non-religious majority communities. The Haredi community perceives itself as an alternative to Western culture. Sociologists have described it as a counter-culture (Friedman, 1991) and as an enclave (Sivan, 1991). As part of its attempt to protect itself from outside influences, the community members' bodies are under close surveillance. These bodies are disciplined and controlled according to what is perceived as unchanging religious principles of belief. Every small change in the body's appearance or behavior is perceived as an indication of other, less explicit transgressions, and as a major threat to the community's survival. Since it is also a textual society that lives 'by the book', one would assume that Haredi bodies will indeed reflect these tendencies. In this article I will question such assumptions by focusing on the Haredi male body. I will observe how the Haredi male body is constructed, stressing the points where it conforms to religious dictates and where it transgresses them. This nuanced examination can teach us much about the religious body in other cases where it is constructed in relation to surrounding non-religious bodies.

Current theoretical literature dealing with bodies assumes that they are not innate or essentialist, but the result of social structuring. It further assumes that they are constantly shaped and changed in the course of the interaction between the discourse and the social institutions in which individuals and their bodies function (Ferree, Lorber & Hess, 1999, p. xvii). The individual and his body adapt themselves to accepted social perceptions, but in parallel they influence them, change them, and are active partners in the process of affirming the identity and the body (Connell, 1995; Frank, 1991).

This literature also indicates that social change at the macro level often leads to change in the body and in male identities at the micro level. One such social change can be the transition of groups of people from one social context to another or the rapid exposure to another competing model of the male body. As I will show, the special social and historical context in which Haredi society finds itself provides such a case. …

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