Crossing Worlds within Judaism

 

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.

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  1. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    The derision that comes from non-Haredi Jews is an embarrassment to the worldwide Jewish community. Where is the tolerance and acceptance that we are supposed to emulate? Where is the appreciation that those are the Jews who are most helping to keep Judaism alive? I am appalled by those Jews who go out of their way to humiliate and discount the Orthodox community. Do they really believe they are making a contribution to society?

    • #1
  2. Doug Kimball Thatcher
    Doug Kimball
    @DougKimball

    Those same people who decry the sanctity of “diversity” are simply insecure.  They see people living much different lives as not just different, but wrong and invalidating.  Every Jew should enjoy a BLT, right?  What’s this with all the ritual and self-denial?  Modern people are not like that.  

    It takes dedication and effort to live as an Orthadox Jew.  There is much to be said for it, but it also reminds the secular person to ponder uncomfortable truths – G_d, community, tradition, dedication and ancestry, that they have denied themselves.  More than a little guilt is involved.  They are Jewish, but not Jew.

    • #2
  3. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Doug Kimball (View Comment):

    Those same people who decry the sanctity of “diversity” are simply insecure.  They see people living much different lives as not just different, but wrong and invalidating.  Every Jew should enjoy a BLT, right?  What’s this with all the ritual and self-denial?  Modern people are not like that.  

     

    One mustn’t stray from one’s assigned diversity slot, Doug. You know that.

    • #3
  4. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    iWe:

    I bridge several worlds (and do so without insecurity), so I think I can offer useful answers.

    I heartily endorse the above statement, from personal experience.  iWe is a wonderful interlocutor on a wide variety of topics.

    • #4
  5. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    iWe: And I’d also like to make the offer: feel free to ask me any questions you have had about Charedi Jews.

    Thanks, I’ll bite.

    I’m about as philo-semitic an atheist gentile as you’ll ever find, but I’ve always wondered about the Haredi men who spend all of their time studying scriptures. As I understand it, many Haredi families (in Israel, at least) are supported by the wives (who also take care of their many children and run their households) and/or government support. This seems like a literal waste of manpower and brainpower. What is this about? I feel sort of the same way about cloistered Catholic orders, but at least those are financially supported by the Catholic Church and their adherents do not have families to provide for.

    (Please note that my question/concern has nothing at all to do with the legalities of such an arrangement or how it fits into the New York State education requirements. The Haredi should be free to structure their lives as they wish.)

    • #5
  6. SpencerLee Coolidge
    SpencerLee
    @SpencerLee

    IWe, I’ll certainly take you up on your offer.  I’ve lived my entire life in the Deep South (AL) where the Jewish population is exceedingly small so I only have a few Jewish friends (whom I do treasure).  Since I wouldn’t want to ask them a question that could be taken as incredulous toward Jewish people I’ll pose it to you.  Historically, the Democrats have been able to rely on a plurality of the Jewish vote to go their way despite the national Dem platform ranging from ambivalent to hostile toward Israel…the one Jewish State on planet earth.  While all my Christian brothers and sisters I have ever interacted with love Jewish people and Israel.  Is it just a matter of most Jewish people in the US see themselves as cultural Jews but not religious – or see little interest in caring about Israel?  I eagerly await your answer.

    • #6
  7. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Charlotte (View Comment):
    I’m about as philo-semitic an atheist gentile as you’ll ever find, but I’ve always wondered about the Haredi men who spend all of their time studying scriptures. As I understand it, many Haredi families (in Israel, at least) are supported by the wives (who also take care of their many children and run their households) and/or government support. This seems like a literal waste of manpower and brainpower. What is this about?

    It is really a question on priorities: What is deemed important?

    If you believe that economic growth is the sole driver for existence, then you maximize the number of people in the workforce. But if you believe that Learning (Jewish texts, with the Talmud at its core) is the reason we are put on this earth, then you prioritize that, and other things are less important. The women who support their husbands believe they are doing holy work, and there is no falsehood in the deal: I know a great many women who are seeking to marry “learners, not earners.”

    I will note that many more Charedim work than are reported to work; there is a vast underground economy, from which the broader economy benefits (but the government does not glean income taxes).

    I would also note that almost everyone “plays the game” when it comes to government assistance and benefits. Few people walk away from a handout that is offered within the rules. Jews are just better at playing the system than non-Jews are, and so they glean a higher percentage from it than others.

    I consider this unacceptable behavior for myself, and I have had many conversations where I have argued that taking government assistance, even (or especially) for holy work, is still a matter of theft from taxpayers. The response is predictable enough: lots of things are funded by taxes, and many of them are far less defensible than support that ends up supporting learning. So, “until they stop using tax dollars to fund Stupidity X, then there is nothing wrong with using those same dollars to fund my learning.”

    That said, I have convinced a number of Charedi people to not take the offered benefits, in Israel and the US. But it is awfully hard to turn down what appears to be a freebie.

    • #7
  8. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    SpencerLee (View Comment):

    IWe, I’ll certainly take you up on your offer…. While all my Christian brothers and sisters I have ever interacted with love Jewish people and Israel. Is it just a matter of most Jewish people in the US see themselves as cultural Jews but not religious – or see little interest in caring about Israel? I eagerly await your answer.

    A superb question!

    I might suggest that Christians tend to see Israel as important for the same reason religious Jews do: for religious reasons. Non-observant Jews denigrate religion, and so Israel is consequentially not important. But it is much deeper than this.

    First off, most less-observant Jews are self-hating. That is how we got Marx and Freud. It was a converted Jew who advised the Caliph to build the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. Jews (and Presbyterians) were drivers for eugenics – which ended up providing Hitler’s world view.

    The best explanation I have for this phenomenon is that Jews love to wallow in victimhood, in the ghetto mentality that is a cultural throwback to the medieval period (and arguably back to slavery in Egypt). So we find ways to be our own worst enemies. It could be referred to as the preservation of ashkenormative wallowing in victimhood.  That, and because we love being smarter than everyone else, and critics tend to be proven right more often than optimists and builders, we tend toward biting criticism.

    So when the religion fades, the victimhood mentality is one of the cultural remnants that stick with Jews. And this means that attacks on Israel are legitimized because those attacks allow the critic to be “holier than those religious nuts in Israel.” And they get to feel righteous about their own rejection of mindless tribalism, even as they do it in a tribe of similar-thinking liberal American Jews.

    So anti-Israel sentiment among liberal American Jews is an extension of their religious insecurity: they want their own intellects to be considered more correct than anything offered by observant Jews. And since so many religious Jews are ardent supporters of Israel, less religious Jews, in a reflexive desire to reject all things related to the Jewish religion, throw Israel in that same bucket.

    “Live and Let Live” is not something Jews do particularly well. “It is not enough that I am right: everyone else must be wrong.” So if the people we despise for being uneducated, medieval throwbacks, support Israel – then we should be critical of Israel at every opportunity.

    • #8
  9. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    iWe (View Comment):

    So anti-Israel sentiment among liberal American Jews is an extension of their religious insecurity: they want their own intellects to be considered more correct than anything offered by observant Jews. And since so many religious Jews are ardent supporters of Israel, less religious Jews, in a reflexive desire to reject all things related to the Jewish religion, throw Israel in that same bucket.

     

    Ah, this makes sense.  Defense of one’s own identity.

    Side note:

    iWe (View Comment):
    ashkenormative

    This produced a brief brain-freeze–and I started to sound it out like a child, then laughed my butt off. (:

    • #9
  10. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):

    iWe (View Comment):
    ashkenormative

    This produced a brief brain-freeze–and I started to sound it out like a child, then laughed my butt off. (:

    Apologies for the inside joke. Jews from Eastern/Western Europe are “Ashkenazic Jews,” and the ancestors of both Charedim and today’s Jewish liberal intelligentsia. 

    Sephardic Jews were born from much more exposure to the Arab world, and are consequently much less capable of self-delusion.

    • #10
  11. SpencerLee Coolidge
    SpencerLee
    @SpencerLee

    iWe (View Comment):

    SpencerLee (View Comment):

    IWe, I’ll certainly take you up on your offer…. While all my Christian brothers and sisters I have ever interacted with love Jewish people and Israel. Is it just a matter of most Jewish people in the US see themselves as cultural Jews but not religious – or see little interest in caring about Israel? I eagerly await your answer.

    A superb question!

    I might suggest that Christians tend to see Israel as important for the same reason religious Jews do: for religious reasons. Non-observant Jews denigrate religion, and so Israel is consequentially not important. But it is much deeper than this.

    First off, most less-observant Jews are self-hating. That is how we got Marx and Freud. It was a converted Jew who advised the Caliph to build the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. Jews (and Presbyterians) were drivers for eugenics – which ended up providing Hitler’s world view.

    The best explanation I have for this phenomenon is that Jews love to wallow in victimhood, in the ghetto mentality that is a cultural throwback to the medieval period (and arguably back to slavery in Egypt). So we find ways to be our own worst enemies. It could be referred to as the preservation of ashkenormative wallowing in victimhood. That, and because we love being smarter than everyone else, and critics tend to be proven right more often than optimists and builders, we tend toward biting criticism.

    So when the religion fades, the victimhood mentality is one of the cultural remnants that stick with Jews. And this means that attacks on Israel are legitimized because those attacks allow the critic to be “holier than those religious nuts in Israel.” And they get to feel righteous about their own rejection of mindless tribalism, even as they do it in a tribe of similar-thinking liberal American Jews.

    So anti-Israel sentiment among liberal American Jews is an extension of their religious insecurity: they want their own intellects to be considered more correct than anything offered by observant Jews. And since so many religious Jews are ardent supporters of Israel, less religious Jews, in a reflexive desire to reject all things related to the Jewish religion, throw Israel in that same bucket.

    “Live and Let Live” is not something Jews do particularly well. “It is not enough that I am right: everyone else must be wrong.” So if the people we despise for being uneducated, medieval throwbacks, support Israel – then we should be critical of Israel at every opportunity.

    @iWe I so appreciate your insightful answer!  Feel like I got a Master’s level lesson in the span of less than 500 words.  :)

    • #11
  12. MichaelSilver Coolidge
    MichaelSilver
    @MichaelSilver

    SpencerLee (View Comment):
    First off, most less-observant Jews are self-hating.

    You are living in notions long since discarded.

    • #12
  13. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    MichaelSilver (View Comment):

    SpencerLee (View Comment):
    First off, most less-observant Jews are self-hating.

    You are living in notions long since discarded.

    Is it so different from white liberals hating themselves, citing “white privilege”?

    • #13
  14. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    iWe (View Comment):

    MichaelSilver (View Comment):

    SpencerLee (View Comment):
    First off, most less-observant Jews are self-hating.

    You are living in notions long since discarded.

    Is it so different from white liberals hating themselves, citing “white privilege”?

    It’s not different in the slightest. Both strategies partake of the “I’m better than the unenlightened” angle. The anti-Israel Jew and the white-privileged liberal sip from the same chalice of virtue.

    Until someone mocks them for it. Then the chalice becomes a dribble cup.

    • #14
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