Monday, February 13, 2012

Chasidic Life - and their Attitude about Sex

If one would read only the articles about expatriate Chasidim that have appeared recently in the secular Jewish media (and even non Jewish media is some cases) you would have to conclude that the worst possible life experience that anyone could ever have is to be a Chasid.

This was once again the subject of an article in Ha’aretz. Chasidic woman who have left the fold tell of their horrific experiences as a members of the Chasidim of Ger.

I am sorry but I don’t buy it. I am not saying that her personal experience isn’t as described to some extent. But to read this article one would conclude that for a woman - living as a Ger Chasid is like living in a dungeon. That there is no love and virtually no sex between a husband and wife. And that life as a Chasid has no joy in it.

I have my issues with Chasidus. But in no way would I ever paint them as a joyless group of people who trudge through life in a sort of miserable state of existence. Just about all the Chasidim I know are exactly the opposite of the picture painted in the Ha’artez article.

They are full of joy all the time. Joy practically defines the lifestyle of all Chasidim. Was it not Rav Nachman of Breslov, one of the earliest Chasidic master who coined the phrase: “Mitzvah Gedolah Lihiyos B’Simcha Tamid”? Loosely translated that means it is a great Mitzvah to always be in a joyous state of mind. I think most Chasidim live that principle.

The warmth of Chasidus is not lost even upon non Chasidic Lithuanian Yeshiva types many of whom send their children to the Veitziner Cheder – a Chasidic elementary day school here in Chicago. They are known for the warmth and closeness of their Rebbeim. On a personal level - the Chasidim I know exude kindness, warmth and friendship… always willing to go out of their way for you.

But don’t just take my word for it. The author of the book Hush which was a terrible indictment of the way the Chasidic world of the author’s youth handles sex abuse - nevertheless painted a glowing tribute to the way she was raised. Aside from the obvious difficulties she raised, it made me almost jealous of the innocent, carefree, and happy life she lived as a child. I have been told that the author’s Chasidic roots are in Ger.

For the most part the overall picture painted by the Ha’artez article is grossly misleading. I have always seen Ger in the most positive of lights because of my friendship with some Ger Chasidim. And I still do.

That said, I do not discount the basic truths of the examples the article gave indicating the attitude they have with respect to the relationship between the sexes and attitude toward sexual realtions. To me they seem beyond extreme although I’m sure they see it as normal.

But is it normal? And do these attitudes impact negatively in how they interact with the rest of society?

Here is what I know from personal observation. Chasidm in general and Ger in particular go to great lengths to avoid any contact between men and women- even visual contact. They have erected numerous barriers so as to avoid it in every possible way. For example Ger Chasidic couples never walk together in public even if they are married. A husband will always be several steps in front of his wife.

In my view this attitude fuels the current strife in Israel between Charedim on the one hand - and secular and Dati Jews on the other. The current drive in this area is instigated by Chasidic attitudes. This has spawned modesty squads, modesty signs all over the place in their communities, separate seating on buses, clothing degined to hide the form of a woman and constant new edicts about Tznius… And more significantly of late the Edah HaCharedis defense of the motives of their extremists who call little 8 year old girls whores! I realize that there other agendas in many of these instances. But the stated complaints were almost always about Tznius issues.

I therefore tend to basically believe some of the details mentioned in the article about how Ger Chasidim treat the subject of sex. And frankly I do not see this in any way as healthy. For purposes of illustration, here are some excerpts:

They describe a society in which the men, who until their wedding night hardly ever have looked directly at a woman, keep their distance and alienate themselves from their wives as well…

A description of the Yichud portion of a wedding:

"When we were in yihud [where the couple is left alone immediately after the wedding ceremony], he kept making sure that the fabric of my dress wouldn't touch him. My feeling was that he found me disgusting."

One of the more troubling things the article apprised me of about Ger is the idea of something they call a ‘commandant’. This is an individual designated to guide young grooms in virtually every single aspect of their sexual relationship. A description of one individuals experience from the article:

"Early on in my marriage, it sometimes happened that at 1:30 A.M. on the night of my immersion [in the mikveh, or ritual bath, to render her pure for marital relations], he would phone to consult. The commandant told my husband to set a clock for 3 A.M. because only until dawn is it possible to observe the mitzvah. We fell asleep and suddenly the alarm clock rang. It was pitch dark - because in marital relations you cover even the light of the clock. I didn't wake up. The whole evening I had cleansed myself in order to be immersed in the purification pool at the mikveh. I had worked that day. I was tired. And nevertheless he performed the mitzvah…"

The attitude seems to put any kind of sex at all in a most negative light. Even when sex is Halachicly permissible it is to be done as an almost ‘out of body’ experience. From the article:

On her wedding night, her brand-new husband called her into the living room, where a large picture of the Admor of Gur - the rabbinic leader of that Hasidic sect - hung on the wall. He told her she had to imagine the rebbe's face when she observed the mitzvah of ishut (conjugal relations ), so that she would have "righteous" children.

There are many more description like this in the article. I suppose the fact that many if not all those interviewed have left the faith – they may have done so with a chip on their shoulder and embellished their narratives. And yet if one looks at what is going on in Israel in the name of Tznius, it isn’t all that impossible to believe.

Lest anyone think I am being excessively critical, I am not alone. From the article:

Among the critics was Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (1899-1985 ), known as the Steipler…

The Steipler wrote that one should not necessarily act according to the sect's strict regulations, which he said mainly cause suffering to women. To this day his views are studied in instruction sessions for bridegrooms in the Lithuanian (non-Hasidic ) ultra-Orthodox community, who are encouraged not to refrain from sexual relations. Among other things, the Steipler wrote: "It is known that a woman's main hope in her world is to have a husband who loves her ... but heaven forfend that he observe the measure of prishut, whereby he hurts his wife."

My take from this article is that a lot of the descriptions about sexual attitudes are probably true - if a bit exaggerated. However I still believe that contrary to the dismal picture painted - the quality of life in the Chasidic world is probably very high – much like the descriptions in the book Hush sans the sex abuse issues. But after reading some of the details of how Chasidim view sex – it explains a lot about what is going on in Israel right now in the name of Tznius.