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In this article I present the results of my fieldwork with ultra-Orthodox men, who are forbidden to interact with women. Specifically, I focused upon the world of young Torah scholars in the Jewish ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community in Israel. This essay demonstrates the strategies I developed in order to enter this group and interview members: using a yeshiva student as a key informant, studying ancient texts with yeshiva students and simulating yeshiva practices. These methods enabled me to gain trust and privileges in a world forbidden to females. I thereby achieved a better understanding of how yeshiva students interpret their experiences in terms of the sacred and the profane, and how they evaluate and critique these experiences.
The art of ethnography involves a process of interactions between a nonmember researcher and members of a particular community, with the goal of producing insights that may not be obvious to the insiders and can be interpreted for outsiders. Reflections upon the hardships and challenges of "entering the field" appear often in ethnographic works. A notable portion of this genre has been written by scholars studying religious movements, including fundamentalist or other revivalist groups--among them the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi (1)) Jewish community, to which this paper will be devoted. In most analyses of fundamentalist groups, ethnographers have been afforded access to same-sex members and gotten close to them in order to gain a better understanding of their worldviews and frame of reference. Thus, feminist ethnographers have observed, among other things, the ways in which fundamentalist women (re)construct gender identity and their position in the hierarchy, while fundamentalist men's piety and masculinity have been the province of male ethnographers.
To name just a few examples, Brenda Brasher spent six months observing the lives of Bible-believing women in the U.S. (2) She argued that fundamentalist women are powerful agents of transformation in these groups, despite the explicit guidelines instructing them to be submissive. (3) Lynn Davidman did fieldwork on women with limited Jewish background who choose the Orthodox way of life; one of her findings is that they seek legitimacy through the antiquity and authority of tradition. (4) Tamar El-Or gained access to the Gur hasidic world, where she observed women's approach to literacy and construction of religiosity. (5) Lisa Kaul-Seidman tells about her ways of gaining access to the world of the extreme ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta sect in Jerusalem. Being an outsider anthropologist, a woman of Catholic and Indian origin, she decided to present herself as a researcher and student interested in Yiddish studies in order to make direct contact with members of the community, mostly women. (6) The male point of view was observed in John Bartkowski's work on the "Promise Keepers," a Christian all-male group. (7) His interviews and participant observation in this group revealed that devotees sought to replace conservative notions of "Godly masculinity," based on strength, rationality and achievement-mindedness, with a masculinity that involved greater involvement in family life, an emphasis upon expression of feelings, and gender egalitarianism.8 Samuel Heilman (9) and William Helmreich (10) have conducted participant observations in the all-male yeshiva world, mostly in the U.S., exploring the students' experience and study practices while studying and interviewing them. In their work, they explain the experience of learning and the role of the talmudic institutions in strengthening the Jewish ultra-Orthodox fundamentalist lifestyle.
In contrast to these ethnographies, I wish to elucidate my research experience as a secular woman exploring the Israeli ultra-Orthodox yeshiva world, a community that establishes very strict boundaries between men's and women's realms. (11) In that world, men study the Talmud and are forbidden to mingle with women, who are seen as likely to distract them from their religious obligations. In the case of a woman ethnographer, the foundation of the anthropological method--the intimate encounter between researcher and informant--poses a potential threat to the community's basic definitions of masculinity and femininity and its sacred order. Consequently, anthropological research on the core of Haredi yeshiva religiosity has been dominated by male scholars. (12) To gain access to this community, I invented cautious and particular methods that enabled me to undertake an in-depth exploration of yeshiva students, meet them, ask questions and learn about their everyday experiences.
My fieldwork developed in two stages. First, I located a key informant (13)--Rashi (not his real name), a yeshiva student, who was able to help me meet and interview yeshiva students. Second, with Rashi, I simulated the dynamics and paired study relationship (hevruta (14)) characteristic of the yeshiva. These simulations enabled me to interview students and perform some yeshiva activities outside of the yeshiva context, from which I was excluded. They reinforced the informal aspects of the dialogue, affording the yeshiva students opportunities for self-reflection and providing a space for young these men to criticize the current Haredi authorities and lifestyle. By simulating the textual and dyadic methods of the yeshiva with these students, I gained insights into the interviewees' current interpretations of sacred and profane experiences and their processes of self-reflection, and I was privy to expressions of skepticism and discontent with yeshiva life in Israel. Thus, by producing knowledge outside the yeshiva, in contrast to male researchers who have observed students in their "natural" yeshiva environment, I was afforded a glimpse into their challenges to the authorities, to their family structures, and to their own models of piety and masculinity.
In order to illustrate and elaborate on how my research developed, I shall first present a short introduction to the Haredi community in Israel, focusing on fundamentalism and gender exclusion.
Today, Israel's growing Haredi community, characterized by sociologists as segregated and fundamentalist, comprises between six and ten percent of the Israeli population. (15) Menachem Friedman first defined the centrality of the "society of learners" (hevrat halomedim) within Haredi society and explained its various effects on religiosity and structure. (16) Haredi men are obliged to engage with Judaism's canonical texts. The yeshivas and kolels (talmudic academies for married men) where these studies take place are the centers of the Haredi masculine pious life, (17) a life regulated by the rhythm of lessons (shi'urim) and paired study (hevruta). The yeshiva hall, just like the Islamic madrasa, is a key element in the fundamentalist operation; According to Heilman, (18) yeshiva halls serve to maintain a cadre of experts--members of the elite and authority figures in their worlds. The shi'ur (lesson) is the basic unit of the Haredi community's text-based knowledge transmission. (19) Its centrality as a learning technique is rooted in Jewish tradition and is the primary form of men's acquisition of knowledge from childhood on. (20) The hevruta, a special kind of peer-group relationship that is constructed to improve study techniques, memory, competence and debate, (21) enables lively dialogue between devotees in a yeshiva, through which ancient religious knowledge is cited and recreated.
Yeshiva socialization is central to Haredi men's life, and its practices are considered the hallmark of the Haredi scholar struggling for moral purity and against sin and the corruptions of modern life. (22) A yeshiva scholar interprets how sacred codes are to be applied to everyday behaviors. Thus, men's interpretations of the texts (23) regulate the important spheres of life, (24) such as economy, education, dietary laws, disciplining of the body and the use of technology. (25) The ideology of the yeshiva, in which Torah studies are the primary objective of benei Torah, (26) permits men to withdraw from the material realm. (27) Accordingly, participation in civil duties, such as national service, or in economic activity is considered a violation of their obligation to Torah study and of community taboos. (28) Most ultra-Orthodox males stay at the yeshiva until the age of 40, during which time they abstain from the military service required of other Israeli males, do not participate in the labor force and maintain a modest lifestyle with high dependence on state support. (29)
Haredi marriage is endogamous and usually arranged. Men's contact with women in general is restricted, and sexual contact with their own wives is bounded by ritual limitations. In Israel, the rabbis have reinforced gender limitations and created a comprehensive system of taboos to fend off the growing danger of secularization and the ills of the modern Zionist state. Just as many other fundamentalist groups have rigid gender barriers, in Haredi culture women are seen as dangerous on many levels: They are associated with prohibitions, temptation, immodest dress and sexuality. Women are expected to spend their lives within a predominantly female sphere, (30) taking care of their children and families while remaining largely ignorant of the sacred textual wisdom of Judaism. (31) The consolidation of patriarchy within Haredi life is defended by using the scriptures as proof of the …