Maybe one day I will get to reading books as they come out – while I was about 60 years too late commenting on Lawrence of Arabia I’m only about ten years behind for the Jews in the Dominican Republic and this one. However, this is not a new topic for me and in many ways, one needs to find an older book to find something more scholarly on the subject of Hasidic Jews who leave the path. Today, what I largely find on the topic are sensationalist “self-accounts” and Facebook rants by angry people that I’ve found by accident . . . but I stuck around for some great intellectual discussions with them.
Anyway, on to Hella Winston’s book. She’s a Jew raised with no religious background who describes her own great ignorance about Judaism. She, in one extreme, set out to understand the other extreme and ended up writing about those who leave or want to leave their Hasidic groups which proved more interesting to her. Almost all of the stories focus around Satmar, one of the largest Hasidic groups and the one known to be most strict and insular. While the author goes to great lengths to simply provide the information without bias, she’s less successful at this at the book goes on but no person can truly write without bias and overall, she does a wonderful job.
One of those biases is the repeated rebuke of the premise that Hasidim who leave will get into drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity. The book mainly tells the tale of “Yossi”, a former Satmar Chasid who gets into drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity. At one point, she quotes him as saying, “I eat anything. I shtup anything.” (The word used wasn’t in yiddish.) Then there’s an interesting insight about how Chasidim often do believe that being a liberal and being on the outside involves just that … doing anything without bounds. Meanwhile, the few Lubovitch stories (a group which has a goal of being connected to the outside world and bringing them in) are far, far less dramatic though still heart-wrenching.
For my own biases, which you can find all throughout this blog, one of the best biographies I have ever read was on the Satmar Rav – you can read that review over here. He was a man of amazing intellect, principal, and the drive to replace a community that was destroyed in a way which was more exacting and more extreme than the one he left and with great success where his predecessors largely failed. He wanted to make it better and in his community, there were no compromises and no exceptions. Meanwhile, no matter who you are, you can’t go through a situation like he did, barely escaping with his life while your world is destroyed, and come out unscathed.
While I certainly admire the man, what I haven’t written about is that after I read the biography, I went and found a book purity based on the writings of the Satmar Rav … I couldn’t get very far. Let’s leave it at that.
The striking part for me is what I’ve heard about, but Winston brings a whole lot more understanding to – it’s all or nothing. The problem is this, and this is straight out of Mesilias Yesharim, the chapter on purity: the higher levels of purity are meant for some, not all. By requiring it of those who are not up to the task, you are suffocating them. What then happens is they become requirements in a community, and worse, many of the requirements have nothing or little to do with Jewish law – e.g. there is no requirement (that I know of) in Jewish law to have long peyos though I can and do appreciate those that say “I want to do more than the minimum” and leaving the corners of your face unshaven, as we leave the corners of our fields for the poor. There is no requirement (that I know of) to have a long beard – it’s a kabbalistic thing of sorts (though I have one because it beats shaving every day). There is no requirement to wear a long black coat. However, these are things that people can see and since there is no leeway for doing anything but the highest levels of “purity”, people end up doing them not out of purity but out of “what will the neighbors say?” It’s kind of like “what will my friends say if I drive a Volvo while they have Benz’s?” only with a Volvo, your kids can still be accepted into the local schools.
The same goes for secular education – Winston aptly brings up the point that the Hasidim of old were involved in trades and secular education, but today it’s largely fallen by the wayside especially as funds have dried up with huge growth and low incomes to support it. If you ever want to see how government assistance can ruin the work ethic of a community, no need to look at the inner city black population (at least not that black population). The funds could be better directed to providing better educational opportunities, but alas, in the United States and more so in New York, again we’re faced with an “all or nothing” situation … funds are provided for public schools devoid of specific religious instruction or you go to a religious institution which struggles to provide secular education (or gives up in others).
I am a Torah observant Jew and I can say I experience some of these issues, while not seeing the others. A world where people’s interiors sometimes are far different than what they keep up on the exterior? Not in my circles. A world devoid of secular education? Not in my circles. A world where we struggle to find the balance between religious and secular? Yes! That’s in my circles.
What is needed is the place where one can find the middle path and where children can grow to find theirs. I have the utmost respect and the utmost support for a Jew who is Chassidish and is totally into it just as I do the Modern Orthodox Jew, so long as they are true to themselves and true to the Torah, and ultimately, what G_d wants. G_d gave us the Torah and mitzvos as a vehicle for joy, meaning, and purpose in life. At the same time, we have to live within the world and we are the only major belief system that says we have to do both.
As someone who went “the other way”, going from secular to religious, I also say that we must be sensitive to where our children are. While we guide them and of course want every Jew to be Torah observant, even Avraham, Yitzchok, and Yaakov were completely different in their approaches to serving G_d but all completely observant of the mitzvos.
I’ll leave it at that.