Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Chasidic Rebels

I recently ahad an e-mail discussion with an atheist who is some what well know in the blog world. The subject of our discussion is nort realvent. But at the end of one of our correspondences he said something I have heard before and quite often from those who called themselves skeptics:

“My friend, you have no idea how many like me there are. I didn't either until I was tapped into the underground. You would be shocked out of your keilim how many people (there are)”

It appears that indeed they are just the tip of the iceberg. And it isn’t only those exposed to the science of academia who have these questions of faith. The phenomenon exists even in Chasidic circles. If there is one segment of who believe that one cannot be sheltered enough form the culture it is Chasidim. But according to this article they are just as conflicted about their faith as are those Orthodox Jews who are not sheltered and have no compunction at all interacting with the culture, through the the study of scientific data that conflict with the fundamental understanding of the Torah.

In an article in the Columbia Current, we read about Hasidim on the Fringe . It is a story about a place called “Chulent”. Apparently it is open only on Thursday nights and as the name suggests, the food dispensed is the famous “24 hour” stew almost every Orthodox Jew eats on Shabbos day. But the food is not the only thing dispensed there. It is apparently a refuge for mostly Chasidim who for one reason or another have been relegated to the fringes of their community. And a lot of those people have serious questions of faith, the very same questions that is the source of so much discussion on the blogworld.

The fame of this place has spread beyond the borders of the Chasidic community and other types can be found there as well. For example:

“Dave, a yeshiva boy currently enrolled at Touro College, came here hunting down a free joint. But if rumors of weed brought him here the first time, what keeps him coming back are the people, the ideas, and the "crazy intellectuals." Chulent, Dave says, is the "unorthodox orthodox," encouraging the individual to reexamine Judaism through a critical lens.”

The owner is a Chasid by the name of Isaac Schonfeld: “Schonfeld 's garb—a long beard, kippah, white shirt, and black pants—point to all things Hasidic. He considers himself "pretty much completely observant . . . in all ways, shapes and forms," but says his "weltanschung [world view] might not be 100% Orthodox."

His primary patrons seem to be Chasidim. The questions of faith expressed by these individuals are done discretely and not publicized to the families and friends or the home bases of those attending. They will go there, “let their hair down” and then go back home and continue to be members in relative good standing amongst their peers:

“One Hasidic man, whom I'll call David, introduces himself and shows me a picture of his family—a wife and four young daughters. David shuffles uncomfortably when I ask whether his wife knows he is here. He says "she should know…”

Obviously his guilt is showing, but that does not stop him from coming and hidng the fact from his wife and children.

There are activities going on there that have little to do with angst over belief. Though the owner will ot allow egregious violations of Halacha, clearly he looks the other way when certain deeply held Minhagim and in some cases Halacha (at least according to Chasidim) are violated:

“(A) husband and wife of Satmar background take to the dance floor—an act which, while certainly not halakhically forbidden, is, like all expressions of intimacy and affection between husband and wife, typically kept behind closed bedroom doors in ultra-Orthodox communities.


“David hugg(ed) a young woman goodbye. There is nothing suggestive in the hug, but Hasidim, like all ultra-Orthodox Jews, refrain from any physical contact with members of the opposite sex…”

But the idea is primarily about freedom to express one’s intellectual thought. I give the owner, a lot of credit. He does not buy into dogma and is a critical thinker. He wants to open up those horizons to fellow Jews. I don’t know that I would have chosen eating Cholent on a Thursday night as my method for doing so, but I certainly applaud his intent. He provides a place where an individual can open up to a variety of individuals about difficult questions.

One might say that by allowing such a place to exist he is in fact doing more harm than good. He is providing an unsupervised venue for serious questions of faith and belief with no structure or guidance from Torah authorities or those equipped to deal with people like this. And he thus facilitates Kefira. A valid point. But I would hasten to respond that for the people who come there... their questions did not come up suddenly. They now have a place to vent. Rabbanim in their community were never contacted for fear about the repercussions of even asking a question. Rabbanim involved in Kiruv might just be seen as a turn off to them.

They may need some space before a Rav who deals in these kinds of issues can approach them. So they vent. And discuss. And eventually they will seek answers. That’s when a Rav knowledgeable in the issues involved can approach them.

Is this a place that I can even ultimately support? I don't know. There is obviously a good side and a bad side. Is this an answer to the phenomenon of the growing number of skeptics? No. But I’m not sure anyone really has an answer to this problem. But at least they now have a place to vent and maybe from there, some good can be accomplished. It's better than keeping it inside.