Why do haredim live longer?

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - Comment - Rabbi Dow Mar­mur

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.

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