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.

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11 Responses to Polar Reversal of Ultra-orthodoxy in America Well Under Way

  1. Moshe says:

    its Penn “street” not avenue.

    its “Carlebach” not karlebach.

    Those minor corrections i should send to this email in the “contact us” page, but u don’t respond so i don’t know if u receive ’em. please delete this comment once you fix this errors. Thanks

  2. Menachem Goldberger says:

    I disagree with your optimism re change. I don’t think there wasn’t cooled off zombies from religean all the time, they just didn’t have internet to communicate, but you fail to write that the internet also strengthens frumness and fanaticism. for instance those hydepark satamr forums do a great service to shame and shut up those otd rebels as well.

  3. A. Nuran says:

    If freedom and access to information are toxic to an ideology the ideology is suspect.

  4. As an academic scholar studying Hasidic texts and stories I’d be delighted to hear from anyone in the situation described in this article — I would like to draw on your inside knowledge of Hasidic thinking and living, and can offer intellectual conversation in return. Justin underscore Lewis at umanitoba dot ca.

    ~~ NB, thirty years ago I heard of a survey conducted in Israel which found that some astonishingly high proportion of Haredim didn’t believe in God, but stayed within the community for social reasons. So I agree with Menachem Goldberger that the phenomenon itself doesn’t seem entirely new. Still there are exciting signs of a new cultural movement emerging…

  5. Miriam says:

    An individual’s choice of observance level is so deeply personal, that trying to spot a trend feels as offensive as a poll of declining popularity in blue color in men’s underwear.

    • Yankele Teitelbaum says:

      Miriam, as a fellow Hasid, I can assure you don’t have to be offended by this article, because it speaks to Williamsburg Boro Park kind of Hasidim, not Bal Tshuves of crown Higths. In those Hasidic enclaves there is no life by choice… Never was and never will be… Or will be as the is the case the author in this article precisely wants to make: That until recently all those heretic thoughts were indeed ‘deeply personal’ because it went against the conforming nature of their religious society, but the Internet has served as a conduit for those Hasidim to talk openly their deepest convictions that their is no god and their whole life is a lie. And the fact that this Carlebach Shtibel exists openly without fear speaks clearer than any poll, where the people are in regards to their frumness! definitely not as their fathers generation, this was never tolerated indeed. And no i would not dare to say that they wear colored panties yet not that far…

  6. ARTH says:

    Because the people involved in this discussion are all from the “inside” and, of course, view the incongruity between religious practice and actual faith as hypocrisy, I will offer another perspective.

    In the American secular world, there are often discussions of if people “believe in God” or not. Most of these discussions are superficial and superfluous but they do engage certain ambigous American feelings about if there is something transcendent or not.

    It is my belief that the engagement in the TaRYa’G frees a human being, a Jew, from having to contemplate issues of religious faith and faith in God because by leading this very demanding and complex religious lifestyle in a community with “enforcers” questions of faith and belief-in-God are transformed from a philosophical issue to an issue of acts. God wants one to keep Shabbas, God wants one to eat Kosher, God wants one to wear Tefilin in the morning. In each of these instances, and many others, doing what God wants, so to speak, substitutes for faith in God and endless speculations about what that faith might be and what God’s nature might be.

  7. Elliot Pasik says:

    I believe the “shot heard ’round the world” (reminiscent of Bunker Hill, which began the American Revolution) was David Framowitz’s September 2005 blog post on UOJ describing his abuse at Yeshiva Torah Temimah, followed by the May 2006 NY Magazine article.

    This is an excellent article, and I agree. Traditional Hareidi Judaism is going the way of Conservative Judaism.

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