Legitimizing Academic Knowledge in Religious Bounded Communities: Jewish Ultra-Orthodox Students in Israeli Higher Education


Source: International Journal of Educational Research Volume 102 


In the past decade, there has been a rapid rise in the educational engagement of religious, fundamentalist, and bounded communities with modern society. An encounter most salient in higher education that constitutes a contentious framework for religious learners, in which their beliefs are challenged by the secular-rational tenets of scientific thought (Delaney, 2020).

To explore this conflictual interaction between the yearning of modern states for the social integration of a unified set of citizens, on one hand, and the desire of religious groups to maintain clear communal boundaries, on the other, the authors examine the steep rise in Jewish ultra-Orthodox participation in academic settings in Israel. In the past few years, there has been (Davidman, 1991; Friedman, 1991) a steady increase in the number of young adults from this group attending special academic programs that are tailored to their communal demands, yet also furnish them with academic teachings that diverge from their religious studies’ background (Malach, Cahaner, & Regev, 2016; Novis Deutsch & Rubin, 2019). Against this backdrop, they grapple with the following question: How do students from bounded religious communities legitimize their participation in academic learning?


The study comprised 27 in-depth semi-structured interviews with male students in Haredi academic programs. Given the resistance and suspicion of Haredim toward modernity, academia, and secular observers in general (see Stadler, 2009; Davidman, 1991), once academic programs designated for the Haredi public were identified, initial contacts were made with academic and administrative staff. These connections led to engagements with key informants from the student population, and subsequently, snowballing techniques were employed to establish contact and conduct in-depth interviews with Haredi subjects.


The study revealed four facets by which Haredi students legitimize their participation in academia:

  1. Existential legitimation. In this mode, students view academic learning as a pathway to professional advancement and a better standard of living. 
  2. Community-based legitimation. This facet mode highlights a tolerant, even supportive, perspective of academic learning adopted by other community members. This form of legitimation draws on the direct support of students’ family members and primary groups and on rabbinical endorsement or acquiescence. Moreover, it expresses an alternative Haredi communal spirit that contrasts with the previously dominant discourse which opposed any participation in academic education. 
  3. Tailored legitimation. This refers to efforts made by institutions to adapt the pedagogic environment to students’ needs. Examples of this include enforcing gender segregation and modifying curricula. Students appreciate these adaptive efforts yet express some discontent when comparing their programs to the higher demands of conventional studies. 
  4. Epistemic legitimation. In this facet, students utilize two strategies for reconciling scientific and religious knowledge: (a) they downplay inherent contradictions, and view both forms of knowledge as separate and non-competitive; and (b) they adopt a perspective in which academic knowledge is assimilated into a wider religious worldview.


To conclude, the case of Haredi students in academia shows how change is enabled through a collective effort from within the heart of a cultural enclave, rather than through the oppositional social action of dissidents. Against the backdrop of numerous macroscopic challenges that have confronted the Haredi population and its leaders (including massive population growth, the demise of key leaders, and cuts to welfare benefits), the academic pathway to the labor market is increasingly seen as a viable option. Hence, the aforementioned social construction of legitimation to academic learning seems ultimately prescribed.

In terms of future research, it would be worthwhile to investigate differences in the forms of legitimation used by various Haredi sub-groups and denominations, and also to examine feminist perspectives, which could offer other modalities both within and beyond those identified in this study. Nevertheless, the authors contend that the current study can be seen as a pioneering attempt to unveil the emergent forms of tolerance and inclusion between modern and enclaved societies, particularly given the antagonistic and conflictual nature of much of the current public discourse on relations and power struggles between them.


Davidman, L. (1991). Tradition in a rootless world: Women turn to Orthodox Judaism.. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Delaney, D. (2020). The lived experiences of Muslims in Europe: Recognition, power and intersubjective dilemmas. London: Routledge.

Friedman, M. (1991). The Haredi (ultra-orthodox) society: Sources, trends and processes. Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

Malach, G., Cahaner, L., & Regev, E. (2016). The five-year plan of the council for higher education for the Haredi population for 2012–2016. Council for Higher Education (Hebrew).

Novis Deutsch, N., & Rubin, O. (2019). Ultra-orthodox women pursuing higher education: Motivations and challenges. Studies in Higher Education, 44(9), 1519–1538.

Stadler, N. (2009). Yeshiva fundamentalism: Piety, gender, and resistance in the ultra-Orthodox world. New York: NYU Press.


Updated: Jul. 13, 2020


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