Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Taking Umbrage – The Public Misconception of Orthodoxy

There is a fascinating op-ed at VIN by Rachel Freier -a Chasidic woman who is also an attorney. She takes umbrage at the content of a book published by Deborah Feldman - a woman that wrote a sensational book about leaving the Chasidic world of Satmar and abandoning Mitzvah observance. Ms. Feldman completely disparaged not only Satmar but all of Orthdodxy and she did it on national TV as well as in nationally read newspapers.

Mrs. Freier laments that the picture painted of Chasidim by the media because of recent events is an unfair one. Observant Judaism in general and Chasidim in particular are nothing like the negative media portraits – and certainly nothing like what is described by Ms. Feldman..

She goes on to extol the virtues of Judaism and in particular Chasidus:

The vast majority of Chassidim are moral, religious, Torah observant Jews who traditionally and proudly raise children to be Torah observant and defer to altruistic and pious leaders in personal and communal matters. Chassidic children have classically been imbued with love and respect for G-D, their parents, and Rebbe.

While all these negative stories must have been frustrating to her- the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back is Feldman’s book which paints one of the most negative pictures to date about Judaism via her oppressive Chasidic background… and the sympathetic media attention she is getting.

Often the worst descriptions about religious life comes from those who have gone OTD. And many of those who go OTD come from dysfunctional families. Deborah Feldman is no exception. By her own admission her parents were completely dysfunctional:

Feldman relates that she was “abandoned by a mother who left the faith, to become a Lesbian, and a father who was mentally disabled.”

Those who go OTD will because of family dysfunction will often blame the religion itself for it. Getting information from that kind of source about Judaism is hardly reliable.

Mr’s Freier quotes Faranak Margolese who has done a lot of research into why people from observant homes go OTD and wrote a book about it:

Sadly, most formerly observant Jews today seem to have left, not because the outside world pulled them in, but rather because the observant one pushed them out. They experienced Judaism as a source of pain rather than joy… So they were not running to the outside world as much as they were running away from our own…

I think that’s true. It’s probably true in Deborah Feldman’s case too as Mrs. Freier speculates.

That pretty much sums up a rather lengthy op-ed. And I pretty much agree with her up to a point.

First let me say that Judaism practiced right is indeed a sublime way of life. Torah values play second fiddle to no one else’s values. I am not getting into the details here. It would take a book. Suffice it to say that we could not have survived as a people over the millennia as a dysfunctional un-happy people.

Historian Arnold Toynbee once famoulsy declared that that Jews were a dead relic of an ancient past. Dr. Eliezer Berkovits successfully refuted him showing that Jews were far from being an ancient relic. Toynbee conceeded.

And then there is historian Paul Johnson. Quoting from his book, A History of the Jews:

“To [the Jews] we owe the idea of… the sanctity of life…of individual conscience … and so, of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews, it [the world] might have been a much emptier place. Above all, the Jews taught us how to rationalize the unknown. The result was monotheism, and the three great religions which profess it. It is almost beyond our capacity to imagine how the world would have fared if the Jews had never emerged.”

I grant that Chasidim as a community are exactly as Mrs. Freier describes them. A warm and loving community. One that goes out of their way for fellow Jews of any Hashkafa and any denomination. If a Jew is in trouble – and they are aware of it - they are there to help you in any way they can. I fully agree with her that Chasidim have gotten an undeserved bad rap. And by association - so has all of Orthodoxy.

I am happy to see a positive description of Orthodox Jewry and Chasidim. Nevertheless we have our problems. While I agree that Ms. Feldman’s descriptions about Orthodox practices are misleading and distorted - I am glad Mrs. Freier take note of some of the problems as well. And they should not be overlooked - or glossed over. Just to mention a few that I generally deal with:

Why are there record numbers of children going OTD? If dysfunctional families are the real source of the problem why are there so many of them?

Why are there so many negative stories coming out of Orthodox enclaves these days… child abuse, defrauding the government, intolerance, and violence by extremists. Why is there so little in the way of rebuke? The list goes on.

I am happy to see an article like this but I have to take issue with Mrs. Freier’s implications that Chasidim have a decent secular education. She points to the fact that she became a lawyer and attended Touro College. I believe that she is the exception that proves the rule. What percentage of Chasidic women go to college? How many Satmar women are there that are lawyers or doctors? How many men? Is this even a value for them?

My perceptions of the world of Chasidim – especially the largest denomination among them, Satmar, is that is that becoming a professional of any kind is rare! Even though many Chasidic women help to support their families, very few do so by first going to college let alone a professional school. I don’t think we are anywhere near a change in the Chasidic doctrine that is vehemently opposed to college.

I also do not believe that there is a lot of secular book reading in the Chasidic world as she claims. How can there be with all that haranguing about how evil secular culture is… and all the isolationism that this attitude produces. I would be willing to bet that most male Chasidim in Satmar enclaves like Kiryas Joel never heard of authors like Louisa May Alcott and Jane Austin whom she mentions in the context of refuting Ms. Feldman.

I would also be very surprised to find that Williamsburg has any high schools anywhere near comparable to even many non Chasidic Charedi high schools – let alone a good modern orthodox one. To imply that there is just to refute Ms. Feldman is disingenuous.

I do not mean to disparage Mrs. Freir’s main point – with which I agree. There is more good than bad in both Judaism and in the Chasidic world. And I agree that most of the disparaging remarks about observant Judaism and Chasidus by Ms. Feldman are either patently false or distorted. Her op-ed is therefore a welcome change of pace. But let’s get real. There is a lot of work to be done.