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Thus far, I have largely stayed out of the debate over the New York Times attack on strictly-observant Jews (we’ll use the phrase “Charedi“). It seemed sufficient, as others have done, to point out that if those schools educated at the same level as the New York State public schools, then they would be demonstrably worse than they are today.
I very much enjoyed the new analysis from Commentary on this topic, because it made some key points. These points resonate with me, because I, and my family members, have belonged to (and pray on a daily basis with) Satmar and Bobov Charedim, with a fair amount of interaction with Gerrer, Vishnitz and Belz as well. That said, I now live in heavily Yeshivish Baltimore, and have daily interactions with observant Jews across what we call the “Velt” (the Jewish World). I have more than a passing understanding of how different Jewish groups tend to see the world. And, since I am classically educated and well exposed to standard “Upper West Side/NYT” thinking, I have also seen more than a little religious insecurity from more “modern” Jews, clothed in either ostensible pity or outright abuse for Jews who have made different choices than they have.
Jews think differently than non-Jews do. It is a fact. Normal Jewish educations anchored in the arguments in our texts help to lead Jews to ask different questions and thus reach different conclusions than other people do. The result is that most Charedi Jews cannot understand how the rest of the world makes decisions that are so often seen as senseless. And the rest of the world, worried about such a large and growing group of insular Jews, increasingly demonizes the “Other,” with the cover and support of less-observant Jews who often are embarrassed by the Charedim. The New York Times article was written by two such Jews.
All in all, I think the Commentary piece is right: very, very few people try to understand Charedim as anthropologists would: by getting inside their heads and explaining how they see the world the way that they do, and translating it for a foreign audience. Which is a shame, because Charedi Judaism is full of purpose-driven, community-invested, and, by and large, happy people.
To outsiders, Charedim certainly seem to live in their own world. But ask yourself the question: given how happy they are on the whole, are you so certain that their world is so much worse than your own that it deserves rejection and contempt?
And I’d also like to make the offer: feel free to ask me any questions you have had about Charedi Jews. I bridge several worlds (and do so without insecurity), so I think I can offer useful answers.Published in