Tuesday, June 28, 2016

An Avoidable Tragedy

Esti Weinstein (Times of Israel)
I’m the last one to tell anyone how they should live. Especially the Chasidim of Ger (pronounced Gur in some circles).  This Chasidic group has been around a long time and they have lived very successful lives. They are one of the largest Chasidic groups in the world. And their Rebbes are known as world calls Talmidei Chachamim.  One of them was the 19th century genius, Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter. His Sefer (book)  of Chidushim (commentary) on the Gemarah called the Sefas Emes is studied widely in Yeshivos all over the world.

I know some Ger Chasidim. They are truly fine people. One Gerer Chasid I know is a role model of Chesed. He lives his life for other people – Jews of all stripes. He views all Jews with equal favor. Never criticizes anyone. Always willing to lend a helping hand to whoever needs one.

So it is difficult for me to criticize them. I really have no standing to do so. And yet I can’t help but note some of the negative fallout of their philosophy as was reported in a recent story in the Times ofIsrael.

This was not my first encounter with the negative side of Ger. First there was their protection of serial sex abuser Avreimal Mondrowitz who is Gerer Chasid.  And then there was the book, Hush by Judy Brown who was raised in Ger. Although that book does not identify the Chasidus she wrote about, it is likely that what she described was based on her own experiences growing up in Ger. Ms. Brown has left Ger Chasidus and now lives a Modern Orthodox lifestyle. To say that subject of sex was taboo in that world would be an understatement.

It is so taboo - and the lives of Ger children so sheltered - that young people seem to have no clue about how babies are made. They are explained the details in very sterile fashion after they get engaged just before marriage. One can imagine the surprise on the faces of these young people when they find out that what they have heretofore thought of as taboo is now being advocated as part of  marriage. The very method of procreation.

Although they may never say it overtly, they paint sex as a necessary evil that - but for procreation – they would never indulge in. As such they tell their Chasidim to minimize any pleasure they might have in the act. And to minimize the occasion of sex between a husband and wife limiting it to twice a month. This is what Esti Weinstein reports. And it is what she said pushed her to go OTD (there’s that word again).

This is not to say that Ger Chasidus pushes people to go OTD. Their large and exponentially growing numbers give lie to that. But at the same time, it is easy to see why someone would go OTD living under such constraints. From the Times of Israel:
Her marriage, she explained, was deeply influenced by the “Takanot” — a set of strict guidelines that define how Gur married couples should conduct themselves, from the mundane to the intimate.
Before their marriage… (h)er prospective groom raised the subject of the Takanot and his expectation that she abide by the rules…
Once, when she asked her husband to make love to her more than the twice a month permitted in the Takanot, he left their home to call a counselor for advice and only came back two hours later.
“He paused for a moment in the entrance to the living room, didn’t even look at me, and threw into the space of the room the sentence that would hound me for many years afterwards and until today: ‘The rabbi said one shouldn’t add days except what the rebbe [head of the sect] from Gur defined, which is twice a month, and we already did this twice this month!
Therefore, the rabbi said, this month we should not do it again, and added and instructed, that if you accept my pronouncement, that is great! And if not — that I should sleep in the living room, and if that also doesn’t help and you continue to insist, then the rabbi ruled that I should sleep in the [synagogue]! Good night!’
“He finished like a father instructing his children to go straight to bed because it is late. He went to the bedroom and immediately fell asleep, and I spent the night in tears and wailing terribly.”
OK. I have no clue how Ger reconciles this with a husband’s obligation to satisfy his wife whenever she chooses (during those times of the month where intimate relations are permitted.) But leaving that out of the picture, how in heaven’s name do you live like this? Obviously most Gerer Chasidim do. But my questions stands. And it is no surprise to me that someone would go OTD because of it.

Unfortunately Esti’s story doesn’t end there. I have mentioned this before and it is rather well known. Leaving the sheltered community where one was raised (going OTD) is a lonely road. When one is so sheltered from the outside world, one does not know what to expect. And the world is not a welcoming place to people that are so out of the mainstream culture. At the same time those that leave are often shunned by their former community. And even their own family. Including their children. (Ask Shulem Deen.) This can easily and understandably result in depression. Which is a common precursor to suicide. Here is what happened to Esti Weinstein: 
(She) was found dead in her car on Sunday after apparently taking her own life days earlier, had written a short autobiography describing the rigors of living within the Gur Hasidic sect and the pain she felt when her daughters cut ties with her over her choice to give up religion… 
Weinstein reportedly ended the book (a short autobiography she wrote shortly before her death) by writing of her life divided between being the independent woman she chose to be by leaving the sect, and “my life of motherhood, the painful, that is smashed to pieces, sick and wounded. 
In the car with her body police discovered a short note. “In this city I gave birth to my daughters, in this city I die because of my daughters,”  
This is truly gut-wrenching. I’m not saying that Ger or any subset of Orthodox Jewry should change who they are. But I do think that at the very least it would be wise for them not to Shun those that have gone OTD. And to examine why they do. And to see what they can change in order to prevent that. Because leaving things as they are can very well be a prescription for tragedy.

Wouldn’t it be a lot wiser for community and family to openly love them and even welcome them into their lives? This does not mean they need to approve of their newly chosen lifestyles. That would counter their fundamental beliefs. But love does not mean approval. If the community Esti left would have warmly welcomed her instead of shunning her, and allowed her children to have a relationship with her, they would still have a mother.