Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Law of the Jungle

There is one thing that Meah Shearim and Kiryas Joel have in common. If there is something they don’t like there is an early resort to violence. Satmar which is the Chasidus of the residents of Kiryas Joel and Toldos Aharon, which I believe is the dominant Chasidus of Meah Shearim always seem to be involved in violent behavior.

I’m trying to understand what the common denominator is. The only think I can see is that they are a very closed society whose lifestyles are a throwback to earlier times. They are both as insular as they can be and as protective of turf as possible. I suppose this goes hand in hand. If one needs to be completely insulated - one chooses a place to live that is ‘far from the maddening crowd’ and sets up barriers to the outside world. They do not want to be influenced by ‘culture creep’.

Once they have claimed their turf they will fight to the finish to preserve their ways and insulate it from society. If something happens that they don’t like, they resort to violence. That’s what happened with the ‘Rebbe wars’ of Satmar when - after the death of the last Satmar Rebbe - factions of his two sons physically battled each other as to who was the legitimate heir to the Satmar throne.

In Meah Shearim where the Toldos Ahraon Rebbe holds court there are similar displays of violence if there is something happening they don’t like.

The claim that one should not blame the masses for the actions of a few ‘hooligans’ does not hold water here. Meah Shearim and Kiryas Joel are separated by a distance of 7000 miles. And they are independent entities – each with their own Rebbe. (Except that Satmar seems to have two competing Rebbes.)

There is an underlying cause. I cannot say for sure but I have to believe that their common insular lifestyles are a contributing if not causal factor.

I don’t think that they consider violence in and of itself a value. But I do believe that they consider it a necessary means of getting their way. They must assume that violence is the Torah true way of achieving their goals.

This is not to say that violence is never tolerated by the Torah. It most certainly is. The Chashmonaim were certainly violent. But conditions for both Satmar and Toldos Aharon are far from the conditions that validated the violent actions of the Maccabees.

The fact is that life has never been better for both of these groups, they have never in history experienced the level of material success as a group that they have now. Nor have they ever experienced the level of freedom to practice Judaism in any way they choose – both in Israel and America.

But let some issue cross their path it might as well be Czarist Russia. That is how Satmar Chasidim see their circumstances. The latest incident was in Kiryas Joel. It involved a long germ internal dispute among these Chasidim. Their solution? Mob violence. This is how they ‘fight the system’ and this is how they settle their internal differences. As Monroe State Police Barracks Commander Capt. Steven Nivens put it:

“It has become socially acceptable in KJ to have a mob mentality whenever they get a decision that doesn’t favor one side or the other, they can get a group of 300 to 700 to 1,000 people and cause disturbances and these disturbances are getting progressively more dangerous”

When violence is used as a first resort for any purpose, it tends to become the entrenched first response to anything they consider unacceptable.

I have to believe that it is their extreme insularity that - at the very least - facilitates this kind of behavior if not cause it outright. I firmly believe that they are missing a societal socialization process of civilized behavior. They are simply too far removed from it.

It seems to me that to the extent any of them participate in the outside world it is done only for Parnasa purposes. They will interact with the secular world and learn some social graces only to the extent that they need it to make a living. But they purposely avoid learning anything from the outside world including civilized behavior. I cannot fathom why that is not a Torah value to them. But obviously it isn’t! And by seeing secular values as completely anathematic to Torah values they are completely ignored.

I’m not saying it is true in every individual case. But I believe it is true for them as a group. Outsiders are considered the enemy - at best to be tolerated and certainly not learned from.

The result is nothing short of primitive behavior. One cannot live on an island and expect to learn civilized behavior. Even an artificial islands like those of Meah Shearim and Kiryas Joel. But by creating these artificial walls and refusing to learn anything about or from their neighbors, they have become a primitive sect whose violent behavior is clearly a Chilul HaShem and is seen as such by the rest of Orthodox Jewry.

The irony here is that is that the word Chasid is used by them because they feel their way of life makes them superior Jews. The word Chasid did not originate with Chasidim. It was the term used by Chazal meant for those Jews who lived their lives by a higher standard – beyond the letter of the law.

Chasidim look at themselves that way and have co-opted the term.

This is why they grow long beards, have long Peyos, and they dress the way they do. They feel it separates them - leading to a holier way of life. But this insularity comes at a price.

The price is a regressive lifestyle that gives them a primitive mindset. Instead of being acculturated to the civilized standards of the modern world they resort to jungle like tactics. In my view the Chasidim of Kiryas Joel and Meah Shearim have abdicated their claim to being true Chasidim. They have instead become the Orthodox - ritually observant version of street gangs.