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Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry Paperback – December 2, 1999

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

For several months, the author, an American sociology professor and a modern Orthodox Jew, mingled with and studied the "Haredim" or Tremblers, the ultra-Orthodox fundamentalist Jews of the Mea Shearim Quarter in Jerusalem. This is his perceptive, penetrating account of these ultra-religious people, mainly of Eastern European provenance, who regard themselves as the only authentic practitioners of "true" Judaism. Haredi theology, religiosity and prayer, lifestyle, social and sexual mores, and their antipathies to anything that smacks of the "outside" secular world are fascinatingly explored through Heilman's intimate contacts with several groups and sects. Heilman, albeit an outsider, presents a moving, sympathetic account of this closed community which exerts considerable subtle and not-so-subtle influences on secular Israeli society. Free of sociological jargon and accessibly written, this book is highly recommended for all Judaica collections.
- Robert A. Silver, Shaker Heights P.L., Ohio
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

An ethnographer's safari into the black-and-white world of Ultra-Orthodox Jews. To the subjects of this rare study, Heilman, an adherent of Modern-Orthodox Judaism, was both an insider and an outsider, and the resulting combination of partial access yet professional distance gives the author's voice a dynamism lacking in many sociological studies of comparable subcultures. Heilman (Sociology/CUNY) takes us inside the ritual baths, study halls, synagogues, kitchens, and bedrooms of these half-a-million singular denizens of Jerusalem and Brooklyn. While it is tempting to think of these pious black-hatted or scarved Jews as being somewhat medieval, Heilman explains how they are very much a modern and post-Holocaust reactionary phenomenon. The community is said to be reacting to the collapse of family values in general and to strong Jewish identification in particular. Traditionalism is so entrenched within members of this group that they perceive their own sages and community leaders to be inferior to those of previous generations. Nonetheless, to Ultra-Orthodox Jews a man's lifetime of devotion to sacred texts is considered to be an act of ``defense'' no less vital than any soldier's, and a rare divorce suit might allege that a husband was lax in his God-fearing or study habits. Heilman adds enough local color to allow us to differentiate between the dozens of varieties of ``haredim'' (God-fearers), but his study reinforces the perception that his subjects live in a simply perceived world of theological givens. -- Copyright ©1992, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 421 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; First Edition, With a New Afterword edition (December 2, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520221125
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520221123
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #926,143 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Samuel C. Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York. His book, The Gate Behind the Wall was honored with the Present Tense Magazine Literary Award for the best book of 1984 in the "Religious Thought" category. A Walker in Jerusalem received the National Jewish Book Award for 1987 and Defenders of the Faith was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award for 1992. Portrait of American Jewry: The Last Half of the 20th Century was honored with the 1996 [first] Gratz College Tuttleman Library Centennial Award. When a Jew Dies won both the Koret Award in 2003 and the National Jewish Book Award in 2004. Heilman is also recipient of fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, and the Mellon Foundation. He received a Distinguished Faculty Award from the City University of New York in 1985 and 1987. He is listed in Who's Who in the East, Contemporary Authors and Who's Who in World Jewry.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

40 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Rabbi Yonassan Gershom VINE VOICE on November 16, 2000
Format: Paperback
I opened this book with a great deal of suspicion, since I regard "ultra-orthodox" as a negative media buzzword that none of these Jews would ever use to describe themselves. Happily, the book turned out to be better than its cover, and is one I recommend.

The author, Samuel Heilman, while not himself "ultra-orthodox," is a religiously observant Jew trained in anthropology, making him an insider-outsider who is well-qualified to journey into the Jewish sector of Old Jerusalem. His methodology is that of a "participant observer," learning about the culture by doing it with the people. (Only a religious Jew could undertake such a project among the very orthodox. A non-Jewish anthropologist would probably not be admitted to many of the gatherings and ceremonies, and, even if he were admitted, could not fully participate.)

The book is well-balanced, presenting both the positive and negative aspects of the culture in a very readable format. Heilman combines personal experiences among the Haredim with well-written background information about the movement, making the book accessible to readers who might not be familiar with Jewish practices. I especially liked his descriptions of the different types of Hasidic gatherings, and his explanations of the spirit behind them. Unlike so many academics who write about Hasidism, he was able to see beyond the superficial plainness of the schools and synagogue buildings (often rather dilapidated) to the beautifully disciplined spirituality of the worshippers. At the same time, Heilman doesn't idealize the Haredi world. He covers the rebels and dissidents as well as the true believers.

Readers should keep in mind that these groups are the extremes of the extreme within Orthodox Judaism.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Heather on October 23, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book presented a suprisingly well-balanced view into the world of Israel's Haredim. Written from an outsider perspective, you'd expect the text to be overly critical and harsh. However, I was pleased to find that it wasn't.
The author does a good job at portraying the life of the Haredim in a curious yet understanding way, while still being critical at appropriate times. Heilman does not rain down flattery but also does not shy away from asking difficult questions. While keeping an intellectually honest front, Heilman brings out thought-provoking discussions and presents perspectives that the rest of us outsides may not ever agree with, but can -- at the very least -- understand where the Haredim are coming from.
There are not a great deal of books on the so-called "ultra" Orthodox Jews available, and many that are are horribly biased against the way of life that seems so extreme to many of us. Heilman's text is definitely one I'd recommend because it keeps middle ground, explores deeply but still manages to be respectful to his subjects.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Anyechka on July 24, 2006
Format: Paperback
This book provides a very informative and insightful look into the world of the Hareidim, both from a personal perspective and from Mr. Heilman's trained perspective as a social anthropologist. He explains that he chose to study Israeli Hareidim as opposed to American Hareidim because, even though Hareidi communities in America do walk the walk and talk the talk, they're just too much a part of the modern world, such as in how they ride public transportation, work, and do business with people who aren't a part of their communities. In Israel, the Hareidim have much less contact with the modern secular world, and, on the surface at least, shun almost everything that has to do with it. However, as we come to discover, in spite of how they have clearly defined us vs. them boundaries and believe that there's no turning back if one, for example, goes to a university, with no happy middle existing between completely ultra-Orthodox and completely ultra-secular, they do benefit from the modern world. They rely on doctors to treat them, doctors who were trained in modern secular universities, sometimes have computers in their homes, even if it's just for the purposes of writing a religious newsletter, use specially-approved public buses to go on pilgrimages, the women sometimes wear modern clothes (within the dictates of modesty, of course), and they use modern smaller tefillin instead of the larger outdated impractical ones used by their forebears, feeling that the modern tefillin are superior and that anyone who would want the old kind made would have to be a fool, even in spite of how in many other matters they feel that the ways of previous generations are superior to anything the modern world has to offer.Read more ›
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Jan Peczkis on September 15, 2014
Format: Paperback
The author, a descendant of Polish Jews, became interested in what the Jews of Poland must once have been like. However, he realizes that the modern haredim are not simply “living fossils” of old Jewish ways. They, too, have been modernized in subtle ways. In addition, author Heilman realizes that Poland’s Jews began to depart from traditional Jewish ways well before the Nazi German-made Holocaust destroyed these communities.


The Christian reader of this work will recognize many of the religious themes featured in it. In fact, all of the following themes recount the teachings of Jesus Christ on the Pharisees: Hasidic teachings warn against prayer that has become rote (p. 222) and obedience to the Law that has become perfunctory or mechanical. (p. 241). Personal wealth and spirituality are, or tend to be, incompatible with each other. (p. 251). Finally, adherence to the Law is no guarantee of true spirituality, and it can instead result in self-righteousness, spiritual pride, and self-seeking social status. (p. 241).

Now consider sexual morality. [It turns out that there is irony to the argument that Christianity, unlike Judaism, has a repressive policy towards human sexuality, and that it has a negative view of the human body.] In haredi schools, the body is considered impure below the belt. (p. 197). There are strict haredi codes for modest dress and behavior. Self-stimulation is forbidden. (p. 319). Sex is primarily considered a means of procreation, and then only within marriage. (p. 317). [Clearly, when viewed through the lenses of modern sexual libertinism, traditional Jewish sexual morality is no less “negative” and “repressive” than traditional Christian sexual morality.].
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