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Spiritual Socialism and Poalei Agudat Yisrael Left: An Orthodox Interpretation to Socialism

Sun, December 16, 10:00 to 11:30am, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Waterfront 3 Ballroom


Jewish life in Eastern Europe in the interwar period spanned a wide spectrum of religious, ideological and political positions. The Holocaust did not only destroy lives but an entire culture, including many original thinkers who developed novel ideas concerning Judaism and modernity. A group whose ideology has not been addressed in scholarship is the Polish branch of Poalei Agudat Yisrael, a group who I think should be defined as Poalei Agudas Yisrael Left. This movement grew out of the economic and spiritual challenges of the religious worker: poor Jews who left the shtetels of Poland in the late 19th century in the interwar period for the urban and industrial centers of Poland. They experienced hardships in their quest for livelihood, being marginalized by anti semitism in factories owned by non-Jews but they were also excluded in factories owned by Orthodox Jews who operated their factories on the Sabbath using halachic leniencies of different kinds but did not want to cause Jews to work on the Sabbath. While this group has been discussed by scholars as far as its activities in pre-state Israel and after the establishment of Israel, its Polish branch and distinct ideological bent were not. In this project I would like to discuss the prolific writings of the leading ideological figures of this movement beginning with it founder Yehudah Leib Orlean and others who joined him, first and foremost his disciple Leib Fram who wrote in both Yiddish and Hebrew in Agudah newspapers and published a monograph outlining this group position on Socialism and Marxist principles.

At the center of this group is one of the forgotten thinkers of the interwar period: Yehuda Leib Orlean. He was a Gerer Hasid and activist in Shlomei Emunei Israel (שלומי אמוני ישראל) which later became Agudas Yisrael in Poland in the 1920s' and in the 1930s' became the leader of the Bais Yaakov movement which he continued to lead during the holocaust. Orlean's writings can be divided into two parts which are connected at the hip. First his attempt to offer an Orthodox interpretation to Socialism and the second his educational philosophy that was targeting some consumer culture.Orlean criticized the Jewish capitalists for ignoring social justice and workers' rights but at the same time criticized the growing consumerism which he saw as a spiritual danger. This issue became central to his writings after he finished serving as the president of Poalei Agudas Yisrael in Poland and became the head of the teacher’s seminary for the Bais Yaakov movement in Warsaw. He wrote extensively on education and the goals of Haredi pedagogy. His corpus of writing has not been given significant scholarly attention; he is usually mentioned in scholarship as an apologist trying to justify Orthodoxy in light of the challenges of modernity not unlike the “hashkafa” discourse in the Haredi world that was created in Israel after the holocaust. A close reading of the primary sources shows a different image. It seems that the Hebrew translations of some of his articles in the 1960s’ portrayed him as a classical Haredi apologist but that is a misnomer. The original Yiddish articles published in the 1920s’ and 1930s’ show a complex original thinker with significant knowledge of socialist literature and pedagogy. His political work suggests well thought analysis of socialism from an Orthodox perspective as well as Orthodox interpretation of socialism. His writings touch on the basic ideas of socialism such as the definition of class, the necessity of a class struggles and on the social justice messages in rabbinic literature. His pedagogical writing are influenced by modern pedagogical norms and suggest the need to reform Orthodox Jewish education for both men and women.

Leib Farm his disciple was even more of a prolific writer than his mentor Orlean. His work is based on the foundation of Orlean and focused on the continued polishing of the Orthodox interpretation of socialist terms Orlean began. He wrote more extensively on the evolution of the class struggle and the need to organize Jewish workers to protect their needs and interests. He was also writing in Hebrew to convince those in the Agudah circle that his approach does not come on the expense of Agudah activities in pre-state Israel nor does that he offers another version of the religious zionist Hapoel Hamizrachi. He also had to fend off attacks from the Agudah that was worried that he and his group were moving to close to the socialist circles and wish to harm capitalists and perhaps are not truly committed to religious doctrine.

Farm published more than Orlean although many of his publication either advance Orlean’s ideas or deal with political struggles in interwar Poland, his work gives another layer to the critical dialogue he and other members of his group had with socialist discourse and the marxist legacy.


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