Polar Reversal of Ultra-orthodoxy in America Well Under Way
The signs are ominous. Decadence is omnipresent. The jadedness irreversible. Ultra-orthodoxy has seen better days.
Like the economy, it’s hard to detect its heyday before it’s already over the top and perhaps on a precipitous decline into the abyss. I don’t think that Ultra-orthodoxy in America will plummet as sharply as our economy but we can now see clear signs of a reversal of the post-WWII decades-long trend toward greater piety and observance in America culminating in the late 90′s.
The culprit? You guessed it, the Internet!
In approximately 2005 the blogosphere rose to the stratosphere. And the Ultra-orthodox and Hasidic sectors were not about to miss out on the party. The Internet ban self-imposed by the Hasids never really took hold, and with the proliferation of secular –even heretical– information on the Internet, some elements in the community started asking questions. When and how was the world created? Who is the author of the bible? Did Hasidic Rebbes really perform miracles? What’s wrong with watching TV? The questions go on. And the answers are far from being as simplistic as the fundamentalists would have wanted them to be. Avantgarde Internet readers wouldn’t take “but Rabbi Aaron Kotler was most assuredly smarter than Christopher Hitchens” as a satisfactory answer. They kept digging.
Ultimately the dirt they dug out of the hole was sprinkled wholesale in the blogosphere. It was initially an exercise in cathartic expression –a simple release valve for the pressure of heretical ideas percolating in their minds that could not, under any circumstances, be let out amid their brick and mortar communities. Blogs such as Hasidic Rebel, Baal Habos, Daas Hedyot and A Hasid and A Heretic proliferated, and like wildfire caught the attention of those in the community who were plugged in.
A vigorous conversation ensued thanks to the newly employed ability to easily comment on Internet content, which provided instant psychological reinforcement to the bloggers. Haredi-critical Bloggers became celebrities virtually overnight and their ideas were the talk of town even if dismissed by some of those reading them.
Most of the readers, however, seem to have awoken out of a slumber by their exposure to those blogs. They suddenly realized that the questions that had lain dormant in their psyche for so long, violently bottled up by dint of their being “evidently” flawed since the Torah and the gedole hador (giants of the generation) say otherwise, are legitimate and that they are not alone in posing those “ridiculous” questions. “Hey if I’m gonna be crazy, it’s comforting to know there are other locos locked up beside me in this lunatic asylum”, they reasoned.
Many of the early heretical bloggers have since come out of the closet. The most prominent example perhaps is Shulem Deen, author of the Hasidic Rebel blog, who has now morphed that blog into the popular and well-organized Unpious.com website in which other like-minded individuals are invited to chime in on the debate by posting original content of their own.
But the biggest threat by far to the long-term viability of Harede-ism in America is not the folks who have made the transition, however difficult, from the cult-like Hasidic social structure to the liberal world of secular education, pluralism and sports –among other shocking new disciplines that must be mastered by inductees to the American mainstream. The biggest threat, rather, is those who decide –for various reasons– to remain within the community and live a double life.
The phenomenon of “marranos”, has returned to the Jewish diaspora, but this time under persecution from the fundamentally religious within the Jewish community itself. There’s just too much to lose for somone who was born and raised in the community who is weighing the option of leaving. Often, not only will they lose their job, their friends and their basic moral compass, but –if married with children– they will lose them as well. It is essentially the equivalent of the Jew in 15th century Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella being sent packing from their home and country for failure to convert to Christianity. Ironically, in both cases the two options are equally detestable: lose your conscience or lose your security. See Ynetews for an in-depth report of life as a Hasidic Marrano in Israel.
For numerous reasons the heretic who chooses to leave pays an exorbitant price. If leaving before marriage, one has to deal with enormous financial pressures in a society where with no education and no social connections there is little chance of landing a promising, fulfilling job. For individuals married with children who leave, the latter will usually remain in the custody of the spouse who remains within the community, for stability purposes. Even if one does secure an education and a job and custody, the questions linger: Where does he live? What school does he send his kids to? What community or congregation does he choose to affiliate with, if any? What about a rudimentary network of friends and acquaintances? Those need to be acquired all over again! It’s truly like an immigrant in a new country.
And so it happens that many heretics remain in the community to slug it out. Maybe they are hoping that one day THEIR messiah will come and redeem them from the true hellhole they are steeped in. More likely, they are making do with what they got; they are playing out the hand dealt them. Leaving the community doesn’t seem to be a viable option to them –but neither is the community eager to see them go. After all, each and every person who leaves, further begs and reinforces the question: is our lifestyle really superior to all else? do we really have a monopoly on God, truth and wisdom? It’s more convenient to co-opt the heretic into the system, as long as they’re not outspoken about it. As a further benefit this allows the children to be securely raised within the community and not be exposed to the malignancies of a joint custody arrangement with a wayward parent.
This cooptative policy is not implemented gratuitously. Those marranos who remain in the community while harboring doubts and resentment toward the system are invariably indifferent about religiosity, to put it mildly. They refuse to reinforce and defend religious teachings imported home from cheder and Yeshiva by their children. They couldn’t care less if people do or don’t carry with an eruv in the city on shabbat. Subway sandwhiches feel just as esculent as a piece of challah and gefilte fish. If the wife insists that the husband go to shul on a Friday night, he may indeed leave the house but that doesn’t mean he’ll wind up in shul.
Do their friends pick up on these telltale signs of lackadaisical adherence and moral bankruptcy? Of course they do! But you know what? They themselves are not as willing to take up the cross as was the previous baby-boomer generation. There’s often a tacit don’t-ask-don’t-tell detente between the parties. Even school administrators who “know” that a certain parent has questionable worldviews is encouraged to overlook it for the sake of the children’s stability within the community and the school.
In the meantime, apathy and cynicism fester and eventually rub off on keen associates. Rebellious cliques are formed –people who no longer see themselves bound by the edicts of the Rabbis and by rigidly traditional forms of observance. On Penn Street in Williamsburg a recently established shtiebel tucked discreetly in a 19th-century rowhouse basement is flowering. They call themselves the “Carlebach” shul, but analysts say that it’s really a euphemism for simply being cool –chilled out. Their real objective is to turn the religious shul institution into a social club. There’s dancing after prayers, spontaneous singing breaks out sporadically without any prescribed rules, and strangers who do not don the conventional shreimel and bekisheh are slowly trickling in and being enthusiastically embraced by members. When members are asked who runs the show they smile raffishly and point at someone as random.
Communal and congregational fragmentation further adds fuel to the fire. In the Satmar Succession Feud, it has now become de reiguer for one faction to routinely oppose the other camp on any major controversial socio-religious position they take, if not on principled grounds then on political ones. If Zalman says you can’t carry on Shabbat, Aaron says you can; if Zalman advocates a particular housing development, Aaron balks. If Aaron calls for a conference on banning the Internet, Zalman abstains; if Zalman insists on anti-zionist zealotry, Aaron is eager to affirm the power of peace and reconciliation. In a post-monopolistic Williamsburg, one can always find some faction, some shul or some rav that will accept them as they are, especially if the price is right.
Doctrine is no longer the driving engine animating the community. Hasidic communities have now largely shifted into the a fashion-oriented exhibition of their traditions. Hand-matzah is eaten on Pesach because it tastes better than machine matzah and the white socks and silk overcoat regalia are worn because they confer the sensation of glory and transcendence onto its wearers.
In an environment as such, it is only a matter of time until the empty shell of Ultra-orthodox observance implodes and shatters to pieces.