The way of the pious

Jay Michaelson at RNS reports on a Hasidic enclave in upstate New York.

Hasidism — literally, the way of the pious — began in 18th-century Europe as a movement of Jewish spiritual revival. Although shunned by the religious authorities of the time, it became enormously popular, sweeping throughout Eastern Europe. Centered on personal spiritual experience,  devout prayer (think Pentecostals in Jewish garb) and charismatic leaders (known as rebbes), Hasidism revolutionized Jewish life, especially among less-educated, less-urban populations.

But it quickly changed its character. With the threats of emancipation and assimilation looming, Hasidism turned sharply conservative in the 19th century. Practices ossified, authority was centralized, innovations were prohibited, and any accommodation to modern life was rejected. Today, Hasidim dress like 18th-century Poles.

Unlike far-right Christian or Muslim fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists are often depicted as cuddly, harmless and quaint. “Fiddler on the Roof,” which in its original serialized novel form was a sharp satire of religious life, is a good example.

Wait a second! Unlike far-right Christians? Oh really? Never seen 19 and counting then? Or Witness? And then there’s Little Mosque on the Prairie – which presented some pretty conservative Muslims as totes mainstream.

Anyway, back to the Skver Hasidim.

The shocking details emerge almost as asides: a rabbi teaching 18-year-olds* to “be vigilant” lest their wives lead them into hell (and telling them not to call their wives by their names, but only say “Um” or “You hear”); witch hunts for people suspected of smuggling a radio or portable television into the Skver community; and widespread corporal punishment, both when Deen was a student and, later, as a teacher in yeshiva.

I have to say, the fear and loathing of women is a lot more serious than the banning of radios and tvs.

And the contempt for non-Jews. “The kindness of the goyim (non-Jews) is for sin,” Deen quotes the Skverer rebbe as teaching. Even when a non-Jew does a good deed, his real purpose is evil.

Or her. But anyway – it’s the kuffar all over again. It’s odious and dangerous. It’s one of the foulest things about religious zealotry.

Then there’s the poverty.  Most Hasidic men (and nearly all women) are uneducated; they speak Yiddish and disparage the teaching of English. They don’t know math or history; they have no employment skills.

Deen falls behind on rent, has trouble feeding his children, can’t hold a job. Indeed, holding a job is beneath the dignity of a Hasidic man, who, if he is fortunate, should be able to study all his life — while collecting unemployment, food stamps and welfare benefits.

The FLDS do the same thing.

Deen finally finds work as a teacher, where his duties involve fraudulently completing progress reports for New York state while not teaching any of the subjects he is reporting on, and collecting government subsidies.

Where’s Rush Limbaugh?! Where’s Fox News? Where’s everyone who yips and bellows about welfare queens?

Deen starts reading books, and ends up leaving, at the price of losing his children and everything else he’s known. Zealous puritanical religion will chew you up and spit you out. Don’t go there.

*Not “18-year-olds” but 18-year-old boys.


  1. RJW says

    They won’t join the IDF either. Of course they expect Israel, the state they don’t recognise as legitimate, to support their lifestyle.

  2. doublereed says

    Most Hasidic men (and nearly all women) are uneducated; they speak Yiddish and disparage the teaching of English. They don’t know math or history; they have no employment skills.

    It should be pointed out that this makes it extremely difficult for men and women to leave the communities. They often need serious help adjusting to modern life with english classes and trade schools. Not to mention help with working with the opposite sex or dating.

  3. doublereed says

    I’m not sure how Jay Michaelson gets to say this:

    Despite numerous sex scandals; exposes in The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Jewish Daily Forward; widespread power abuses; and nauseating episodes such as the herpes epidemic spread by Hasidic mohels (ritual circumcisers) who insist on sucking the blood directly off of circumcision wounds, the mainstream Jewish establishment is silent. Partly this is out of fear, and partly out of the peculiarly American Jewish notion that Jewish fundamentalists are better Jews than the rest of us.

    Ridiculous. I have no idea what he’s talking about. I’ve literally never met an American Jew (nor an Israeli Jew) with this attitude. They all balk at the crazy of the Hasidic sects. And what exactly is the “mainstream Jewish establishment”? American Jews – especially more secular Jews – don’t exactly have a pope. You can easily find Jews condemning the nuttiness of the Haredi if you just bother to look.

  4. A Masked Avenger says

    You can easily find Jews condemning the nuttiness of the Haredi if you just bother to look.

    Note that while Hasidim look very religious to Americans, because as noted above they look like 18th Century Poles, and American Jews seem to use “Hasidim” as a synonym for “Ultra-Orthodox,” but in fact they’re not. Hasidim are only one branch of Haredim, and not at all the most extreme. By 18th Century standards they were radical and liberal, and Haredim judge themselves by standards even older than the 18th Century; by Orthodox standards, Hasidim are much less devoted to Talmud study than their “more religious” peers.

    Without diving into the details too much, which are confusing anyway, it’s misleading (and slightly annoying) when people casually equate Hasidim and Haredim. They’re a subset, and arguably the least Hared subset, of Haredim.

    * Also note that “Orthodox” and “Ultra Orthodox” are designations that are much more popular in the US than elsewhere. In world Judaism the continuum is between more- and less-observant. In Israel, a very observant person is called “religious” (dati) if they’re Zionist, and Haredi (which literally means “‘terrified”) if they’re not Zionist. Hasidim don’t stand out particularly among the Haredim, because there are plenty of other Haredim, and many of them are more extreme.

  5. doublereed says

    @5 A Masked Avenger

    Sure, but my main point was that Jews don’t have some “peculiar American Jewish notion that Jewish fundamentalists are better Jews than the rest of us.” What a bizarre thing to say.

    Most Orthodox are treated as crazies among the more liberal sects (conservative/reform/reconstructionist) of Judaism in America for various reasons, and many, many Secular Jews both in Israel and America actively disassociate themselves from them.

  6. nrdo says

    @ doublereed

    Actually, at a certain point in life, I did buy into the notion that the orthodox had a sort of authenticity that was somehow valuable. Even when I stopped believing I thought that they had some value as “curators” of Jewish culture against the threat of assimilation.

    Now, of course, I think that the harm they collectively cause (to Israel in particular) far outweighs whatever benefits they provide, but I think I can see where Michaelson is coming from. It is important, though, to realize that they are not monolithic and that it’s the ideology, and not the individual people, that is problematic.

  7. Katydid says

    Terry Pratchett captured the spirit of who’s a more or less observant Jew in his Discworld series, particularly in “Thud!”–the story of a murder of a very-religious dwarf that highlights the levels of religious in dwarf society.

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