Why do haredim live longer?
Most of the ultra-orthodox (haredi) Jews in Israel live below the poverty line. Their large families and limited economic circumstances – usually only wives are breadwinners while husbands study Torah in one of their institutions – make it almost impossible to have a comfortable standard of living.
In theory, this should adversely affect well-being and life expectancy, because it’s generally accepted that the well-to-do live both better and longer than the poor. Like with other people who eat what they have, not what’s good for them, the diet of haredim is said to be less than wholesome. And they don’t seem to do much physical exercise. Many are obese.
Yet according to the State of the Nation Report 2015 by the Taub Center, a leading research institute in Israel, life expectancy among haredi men is said to be three years higher than in the rest of the male population. And haredi women live 18 months longer than other women.
Researchers Dov Chernichovsky and Chen Sharoni report that “the relatively good health of haredim is related to the fact that these communities have high levels of social capital.” This implies “social trust, norms, and networks and includes aspects of life common to the haredim: a high number of social relationships, high levels of satisfaction with family relationships, strong social support systems, and high levels of volunteering.” We’re also told that “a relatively low percentage of haredim report feelings of loneliness.”
The argument is noteworthy, but seemingly insufficient. After all, there are many groups, Jewish and otherwise, religious and secular, that practise what the researchers ascribe to haredi social capital, yet they don’t seem to result in comparable levels of well-being.
Therefore, perhaps at least as important as social capital that the haredi world offers its adherents is relative freedom from making personal decisions. Haredim don’t seem to have to decide about such vital issues as lifestyle, career and other matters that burden those of us who live in open societies and are exposed to many, often contradictory, options. Not that haredi lives have fewer pressures and problems, but the system to which they subject themselves imposes solutions that greatly reduce, even eliminate, the dilemmas of individual decision-making.
That may also be why many young Jews from middle-class homes, beneficiaries of a solid western education and usually encouraged to make up their own minds about careers, spouses and where to live, have been “born again” into haredi sects, where, often to the amazement of parents and relatives, they find much more happiness than before. Haredi life may be less affluent, but it seems to be also less stressful because answers to pressing problems are provided from on high.
Thus the attraction of the haredi lifestyle may be at least as much a manifestation of disdain of the way most of us live in the ostensibly enlightened, open and democratic West.
Committed though I am to Judaism and the Jewish way of life, I’m among those who cannot in good conscience embrace haredi Judaism, even though I’m not unfamiliar with its teachings and norms. Yet I find much of its implied or explicit critique of the western way of life compelling. Therefore, I’m not surprised that some children and grandchildren of middle-class Jewish families seek shelter there.
It also helps me to understand why others, particularly young Muslims reared in the enlightened West, find their way to fundamentalist groups, some of them propagating extremism. They may not offer longevity, but they promise eternal bliss as an alternative to bourgeois anomie.
It also explains why many haredi institutions are financially supported by non-orthodox, at times totally non-observant, Jews. It may serve as an insurance policy against the burdens of modern living. They seem to find it easier to pay for others to live what they perceive to be virtuously and modestly than to try to modify their own way of life.