Thursday, January 31, 2013

Is This the Way of God’s Chosen People?

Faceless head models in a Williamsburg clothing shop. Photo credit - NYT
It almost seems like the stricter the modesty codes, the more likely one will find the Nechemya Webermans of the world. The truth is that I don’t know if the two are related. Nonetheless I suspect that when those rules are as strict as they are in Williamsburg’s Satmar community - the repression by men of even the most remote thought of a woman (no matter how modestly dressed) must have some sort of outlet. I am reminded of the Sydney Biddle Barrows who said in her book The Mayflower Madam that a fair amount of her clients were Chasidim.

True - statistics seem to say that sex abuse is more or less the same everywhere.  If it happens in Christendom - it happens in the Jewish world in similar percentages. Including Chasidic enclaves like Williamsburg. It is ironic is that the extent Chasidic communities go to in order to create the most modest sexual culture possible, does not in any way reduce their percentage of sexual criminals.

So what is gained by being so strict? They will tell you that the elimination of even the slightest temptations from view will prevent men from sinning sexually.

Personally, I question that. Human nature is what it is. The libido cannot be denied. Removing anything remotely erotic from public view will just make less erotic stimuli take its place. So that even a fully clothed woman who dresses by their most modest standards may still be used an obect of sexual fantasy. 

Which is the reason these communities go to such lengths. They realize that in such an insular environment where sexuality is virtually eliminated – that they have to go the extra mile so that lesser stimuli won’t be used in their community the way the rest of the world sees the more erotic forms of it.

In other words the extremes of modesty has created a society where even the view of a fully clothed woman covered ‘head to toe’ in the most modest mode of loose fitting dress is still sexually titillating. So I’m not sure all that much is being accomplished.

One of the outcomes of such thinking is the Modesty Squad - or in their parlance  the Vaad HaTznuis (committee on modesty).

If one paid close attention to the Weberman trial, one might remember a female witness (for the defense – no less) describing what happened to her. From the New York Times:
(A) witness for Mr. Weberman’s defense, Baila Gluck, testified that masked men representing a modesty committee in the Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel, N.Y., 50 miles northwest of New York City, broke into her bedroom about seven years ago and confiscated her cellphone.
As the Times article points out this committee operates in the shadows under nobody’s authority but their own.  Rabbinic leaders claim no connection. They do make clear that they set the rules but they have no authority or any official mechanism for enforcement. 

But as just about anyone there will tell you, and as is plainly evident from this article and many others like it there is indeed an enforcement mechanism in the guise of these masked Chasidim. If there is a rule, they will not stop short of the most heavy handed tactics such as the one described by Baila Gluck and others described in the Times article.

The argument I constantly hear from their defenders is that this ‘gang’ does not represent their mainstream community at all. That they are just misguided vigilantes acting on their own. Or worse just street thugs that look like Chasidim but are the furthest thing from it. And they will cite official disapproval by their Rebbes.

Sorry. I don’t buy it. These people are not looting stores. They are not dropout drug addicts looking to steal money for a ‘fix’. These are members in good standing of the community that have the tacit approval of the ‘powerless’ rabbinic leaders. They are the clandestine heroes of enforcement that keep this community pure.  

As I have said numerous times in the past - If the Satmar Rebbes, both past and present truly disapproved, the ‘squad’ would disappear in a New York Minute! That the rabbinic leadership has no official connection enables them to distance themselves from the Mafia like tactics. It’s called plausible deniability. They can ‘honestly’  say they have nothing to do with these squads; don’t know who they are; and are powerless to do anything about them.

And yet they reap the benefits of their handiwork. They realize that the rule of law without enforcement capability is a losing proposition. So now they can have their cake (deniability) ...and eat it too (enforcement).

The defenders of this community will argue that every society has its criminals and gangs. And unfortunately so too does Williamsburg. But that is disproved by the fact that similar ‘gangs’ exist in other pockets of extremist religious communities that are sympathetic to Satmar’s Tznius values. Communities such as Squaretown, Meah Shearim, Bnei Brak, and Bet Shemesh.

These‘squads’ are no gangs. They are not some criminal element that their peaceful coreligionist friends and neighbors have no choice but to tolerate, just like citizens of any city are forced to tolerate inner city gangs. These people are doing God’s work in their minds. And their rabbinic leaders don’t mind it a bit.

The Tznius Squads know exactly what outcome their Rabbinic leaders want. Edicts and proclamations are plastered all over the place on signs and billboards. Those leaders may not fully approve of all their tactics. But they fully approve of the results.

I don’t know how anyone can live in a community like that. And yet this is the fastest growing demographic in all of Orthodoxy. I realize that this is due to their high birth rate. I also realize that if one is born into that world, that is all they know.

And indeed - membership has its benefits. The insular world of Chasidim is known as one of the warmest and welcoming in all of Judaism. There is a lot of celebration and joy that goes on their - as they go through life-cycle events.  The closeness to each other they feel is like that of one big happy family. All of it no doubt enhanced by their insularity. In fact there is a Yiddish term they use about themselves that best describes the sense of closeness they have: “Unzera” – meaning ours (Our people).

But still, with the kind of intimidation described in the New York Times article by Tznius squads and the like - that their people aren’t running away in droves to a saner way of life is something I will never fully understand.