The growth of fundamentalism among American Jews
Here are three articles from Jewish Forward, the first by Jay Michaelson on the new phenomenon of Jewish fundamentalism, the second by Shulem Deen and third by Judy Brown on their experience of coercion and pressure to have lots of children.
Moderate Hillels Are Losing to Radical Shammais
By Jay Michaelson, Jewish Forward
May 27, 2013
American Jews are actively supporting a demographic trend that threatens the fabric of American Jewish life: the unchecked growth of Jewish fundamentalism.
Call them what you will — ultra-Orthodox Jews, “fervently Orthodox” Jews, Haredim, black hats. They will soon become the majority of affiliated Jews in the metropolitan New York area, and the religious majority in Israel. The results will be catastrophic.
We’ve read stories recently of Haredim in Israel comparing Israeli politicians to Hitler and throwing stones at women praying at the Kotel; of Haredim in New York fighting to restrict the prosecution of sex abuse claims; of Haredim in Germany threatening the fragile truce on circumcision by defending the practice of adult men sucking blood directly from the penises of infants.
And that is just the tip of the fundamentalist iceberg. In recent months, the Forward has depicted the coercion and ignorance prevalent in American ultra-Orthodox communities: in brilliant essays by Judy Brown and Shulem Deen, in exposés of Hasidic money laundering, and longer ago in its award-winning coverage of the Agriprocessors meat processing plant. And of course, “fervently Orthodox” leaders have defended, justified, covered up and explained away sexual predators in a way that would make a Vatican official blush.
What has emerged from all this is a picture of a subculture that looks more like “The Sopranos” than like “Fiddler on the Roof” — a world in which a small elite maintains power at the expense of thousands of serfs.
What we’ve also learned is that this entire apparatus of fear, manipulation and power mongering has been supported by you and by me.
We’ve learned, for example, that flagship institutions of ultra-Orthodox life are basically on the dole. Seventy-six percent of students at one of the most prominent yeshivas in the country, in Lakewood, New Jersey, are receiving Pell grants*. Indeed, the top three institutional recipients of these grants are ultra-Orthodox yeshivas.
The Chabad-affiliated Michigan Jewish Institute scored $25 million in federal aid meant to go to low-income students, despite an appalling academic record and due largely to chicanery involving an online application mill.
And of course, Haredim in Israel put their American brothers to shame, diverting millions of shekels to schools that don’t provide a basic Western education, rabbinates filled with cronyism and a welfare system that keeps an entire sector of the population dependent on government subsidies.
In other words, the entire edifice of ultra-Orthodox power rests on gaming the system.
Meanwhile, “modesty brigades” and families willing to disown anyone who dares to leave patrol the walls of this contemporary shtetl. Imagine you’re an 18-year-old woman in a Hasidic enclave. You’re married, with two or three kids already, and you’ve been told that “outside” everyone is evil, depraved and miserable. You barely read English. And you know that when your cousin left, she was destitute, disowned and disgraced. There is no one to help you if you leave. You’re on your own. So of course you stay.
We are abandoning thousands of our fellow Jews to this hierarchy of power and abuse. We are doing nothing to help them.
And pretty soon, the hierarchy will overwhelm us. Demographers tell us that 49% of New York’s Jewish children are Haredi (either Hasidic or “yeshivish”). Especially in light of non-Orthodox disaffiliation, New York Jewry, within a generation, will be fundamentalist, poor, uneducated and reactionary. Non-Orthodox Jews will look like the secular Persians of Iran: once the complacent majority, now a minority oppressed by fundamentalists.
The good news is that since we are propping up this system, we have the power to weaken it.
First, mainstream American Jewish organizations must stop pretending to have common cause with Jewish fundamentalists. Just as mainline Christian denominations recognize Christian fundamentalism to be a threat to their religious values, so the mainstream of Jewish denominations — including Modern Orthodoxy — must recognize that this distortion of Judaism is actively destructive to Judaism itself.
Like Christian fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism is extremely new. It arose in response to modernity, and it radically changed Jewish values. Formerly, the Jewish mainstream balanced strictness and leniency: In the battle between the strict Shammai and the lenient Hillel, Hillel always won.
But the Haredi world is a phalanx of Shammais. The strictest is always the best. Moses wore a shtreimel, the fur hat that many married Haredi men wear, at the Red Sea. Scientific knowledge is evil. These are radically new Jewish ideas presented as radically old ones. Those of us who do not share them must recognize them as a threat.
And then we can begin to act. Fortunately, we don’t have to fight coercion with coercion. We don’t have to compel anyone to change his or her religious beliefs. We just have to stop artificially propping up a system that otherwise would not exist.
For example? We can demand an end to all federal and state subsidies to yeshivas that do not prepare students for contemporary economic and civic life. We can oppose all Jewish-fundamentalist efforts to take advantage of government or Jewish communal largesse. We can support our allies in Israel that are fighting for religious pluralism, for equal conscription of all Israelis, for civil marriage and for the defunding of the rabbinate.
And perhaps most important, we can publicly and financially support those struggling to escape from the oppression of ultra-Orthodoxy. For example, the organization Footsteps does wonderful work to help ex-Haredim transition to the modern world. But it is tiny in comparison with what we need. We need a Giant Footsteps —a major federation initiative to support those who leave and communicate to those trapped outside that there is vibrant Jewish life beyond the ghetto wall.
We fail to act because, I think, deep in the hearts of non-Orthodox Jews there lingers the belief that the Haredim are the real Jews, or the safeguards of our future, or perhaps the sweet, cuddly Tevyes of our imagined Yiddish roots.
But they are not. Of course, there are wonderful Haredi Jews out there. But the Haredi system threatens the demographic and cultural stability of the Jewish community, both in the United States and in Israel. Jewish fundamentalism is not good for the Jews.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.
No Easy Way for Observant Dads To Limit Family Size
By Shulem Deen, Jewish Forward
March 22, 2013.
As a man, I will never know what it is like to be a mother. I will certainly never know what it’s like to be a Hasidic woman expected to bear children year after year and withstand the challenges and pressures of motherhood — like the ones Judy Brown described so poignantly in her two most recent articles.
But I do know what it is like to be a young Hasidic father overwhelmed by the lack of choice of a different kind.
Judy’s articles sparked heated discussion about motherhood and women’s roles in the Haredi world, with other bloggers and commenters adding passionate views of their own. This is an important and necessary discussion.
But as I was reading it all, I couldn’t help thinking of the flip side of it, a side we rarely hear about: That of the unprepared Hasidic young man. Barely in his 20s, already with one or two kids and perhaps another on the way, he realizes with a jolt that it’s his responsibility to figure out how to feed, clothe, house, pay tuition and wedding expenses for a dozen or so offspring. With zero marketable skills, limited command of English, and Section 8 slots in limited supply, his is not a burden easily carried.
And birth control isn’t an option for him any more than it is for his wife.
I remember what it was like for me. I was 21, married for two-and-a-half years, and a student at the kolel — yeshiva for married men — in our Hasidic village in Rockland County, N.Y. Our second child had just arrived, 16 months after our first. Rent was overdue. We’d maxed out our credit at the supermarket, the fish market and the butcher. A seemingly endless list of expenses was weighing us down.
It all seemed so sudden, and no one had told me that $430 a month — the amount of my monthly kolel stipend — would not suffice for a growing family.
I remember the panic, anxiety and depression that followed for a long time after, as another and yet another bundle of joy arrived. Each child was a blessing, of course. But how was I going to provide for so many blessings?
My wife sympathized, but it wasn’t her job to figure out the finances. She made the babies and cared for them. Paying for it was my job — except I had no idea how it was done.
I remember speaking to my rabbis and mentors about this. They offered thoughtful advice on whether it was time to give up full-time study at the kolel and begin my career as a supermarket cashier, or running deliveries for the fish market.
Some thought there might be openings for schoolteachers at the cheder, and while I was probably too young for a full-time position, I could do substituting jobs for several years and if I stuck around long enough, I could probably have a full time position before the arrival of our sixth child or so.
The one thing that no one mentioned: birth control. I didn’t know the thing even existed.
Once, back when my then-wife and I were expecting our first child, I overheard an acquaintance say that in Boro Park — a comparatively liberal Hasidic community in Brooklyn — people had fewer children than in other places. Eight instead of 12, the person said. I was baffled, but too embarrassed to ask the question burning in my mind: How do they do it?
Eventually I learned about birth control the way I learned about most of life: on the Internet.
Even then, it was still not an option. I quickly learned that yes, birth control existed, but no, it was not permitted. Or permitted only under special circumstances. Or permitted only by certain rabbis, and our rabbi was not one of them.
I was ready to disregard the prohibition, to “cut out the middleman,” as the saying goes, and use contraceptives without rabbinic permission. My wife, however, wouldn’t hear of it.
We are accustomed these days to hearing of Hasidic women facing a lack of choices, reproductive choices being one of the most significant. We have deep reservoirs of cultural sympathy for such women, as well we should. But we hear less about the lack of choice available to Hasidic men, which can be similarly devastating — not just to the men themselves, but to their entire families. And in some cases, it comes with a twist that turns the usual narrative on its head.
After three children, I decided it was the responsible thing to take a break. My wife — pious, strong-willed, and obedient to the rabbis and tradition to a fault — would not consider any form of birth control without rabbinic permission. Since our rabbi wouldn’t permit it, any rabbi who would was, ipso facto, not a good enough rabbi.
After our fourth child I tried again to reason with her, to no avail. She cried that she would feel naked if she wasn’t either pregnant or pushing a baby stroller. “People will look at me funny,” she said. I sympathized. Who wants to be looked at funny?
After our fifth, I used the nuclear option. We wouldn’t have sex unless we settled the matter.
And so my wife agreed for me to ask a rabbi outside of our own community, who, I had heard, granted permission easily.
“What is the problem?” the rabbi wanted to know when I went to see him in the basement study of his Monsey ranch house. Large photos of Lithuanian sages graced the walls, as if to remind both rabbi and supplicant who was the real authority in the room.
The problem, I told the rabbi, was that I didn’t think it sensible to keep having children without a proper financial plan. I was stressed with the burden of providing for five. How was I going to provide for six, 12, or 17?
The rabbi tapped his fingers impatiently on his desk. “Parnose kumt fun himl,” he said in Litvish-accented Yiddish. Sustenance comes from heaven. Such matters were not the concern of mortals.
This was unexpected. I had been told this rabbi was easy. This was easy?
But I wouldn’t leave without a dispensation. And so I lied. I told the rabbi that my wife couldn’t take it any longer, that she was emotionally and physically spent, and that she needed a break. I told him that she was suffering from depression and a variety of other ailments.
None of that was true. But now it was easy.
“If your wife is stressed, that’s a different matter,” the rabbi said, and he shook his head with a gravely sympathetic expression. “That isn’t good for the marriage and it isn’t good for the children. And it isn’t good for you either,” he added with a wink and a twinkle in his eye.
He promptly proceeded to explain what’s what. “Condoms are never permitted. But she can use spermicide gel, contraceptive pills, or an IUD.” He gave me the rundown on how they all worked, as if he were a doctor. Then he added the qualifier: “She can use it for a year or two. Then come back and we’ll discuss it further.”
I left almost gleeful. This was easy. All I’d had to do was put it on her.
The rabbi’s ruling was suspiciously vague, though. Halacha is often concerned with very precise measurements; times (for prayer and start of Shabbat), distances (for things like an eruv techumin), size, weight, and volume (for things like a kiddush cup or an etrog). Rarely does Halacha give the kind of leeway he gave. “A year or two.” As if to say: Wink, wink, this one’s kinda up to you.
And that’s what I told my still-pious wife when the two years were up and she insisted I go back to the rabbi. I wasn’t going back, I said. We’d now been married more than a decade, and I had a decent job as a self-taught software developer for a midtown Manhattan firm. We had a house, and a car and five children who were not only true blessings but were also reasonably well provided for. I wasn’t prepared to change that.
Unlike Judy Brown and other Hasidic women who chafe under the intense pressures of motherhood, my wife wanted more. It was I who didn’t. But I sympathized with her. As Judy writes: “After a lifetime of indoctrination it is nearly impossible for most women to realize that they can be good mothers with the maternal instincts we all share with three children and no more.” The pressure to keep procreating is enormous, and my wife simply wanted to do as she was taught and as all the women around her were doing.
But not all want to do as is expected of them, and, as Judy goes on to say, “they have a right to say, ‘Enough,’ after less then six pregnancies.”
I agree. I would only add that men too have not only that right, but that responsibility. And it is time that, too, became part of the discussion.
Shulem Deen is a former Skverer Hasid and the founding editor of Unpious.com.. His book about losing his faith is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2014.
By Judy Brown (Eishes Chayil), Jewish Forward
March 14, 2013
My story about the crushing pressures ultra-Orthodox women face to raise large families touched a raw nerve. The story went live on the Forward’s web site on Monday, March 11. By that night, I was sorting through an avalanche of emails from people within and out of the community, from those who sympathized, and those who were enraged.
My words seemed to evoke a strong, visceral reaction. By Tuesday morning, there was an online response written by Rachel Freier, a Hasidic mother and practicing lawyer.
The article was a sincere but formulaic repeat of the worldview I’d grown up in, the very one that led to the nightmare I found myself in as a young, Orthodox mother. Rachel explains that orthodox women feel that it is the greatest blessing to have many children; it is our joy, our purpose, our legacy. She said Orthodox women celebrate this decision, and do not want the kind of life led by secular women, one invested only in her career and profession, something that does not bring true happiness.
I agree. I never wanted a career. I never desired a profession, nor thought it would bring me happiness.
I am not a lawyer. I am a stay-at-home mother of three children. I write my articles starting 9 pm, after my children are fast asleep. But I still do not want a large family.
Within the regimented mindset of the ultra-Orthodox world, there is a neat and tidy summation of the outside world, one that is repeated like a mantra. That wholly inaccurate mantra is that all secular women pursue full time careers, eschew children like the plague, and in the end live lonely, empty lives regretting the happiness they could have had.
All the while, they stare in envy at ultra-Orthodox women and their 57 grandchildren.
There is one problem with this often heard refrain: the vast majority of secular women have children. They just usually have a few instead of a lot. The subject of motherhood vs. career and how to balance the two is a perpetual and lively conversation in the secular world, because secular women love their offspring too. They love them dearly so, but like many, they need to work, be it in consuming careers or simple jobs, so they grapple with the issue of how to manage what is more important in their lives with what is less.
The thing that is lacking in the ultra-Orthodox world, and so pervasive in Rachel Freier’s response is introspection; the ability to look inside yourself and see things as they are, and not the way you decided they must be. There is a disturbing level of denial within the religious Jewish community that further reinforces the lack of balance, moderation, any sort of reasoning, and with it the ability to have an honest conversation about motherhood.
It is impossible to explore any subject matter when the dogma so deeply embedded in our minds are the only truth we know. And the ‘truth’ we were taught, absorbed as fact, from the day we were born is a black and white version of the world that does not exist; that any normal woman wants as many children as God gives her, or she doesn’t want children at all; that any sane woman has the warm, maternal instincts crucial to motherhood and the desire for as many children, or she does not have maternal instincts at all. And the women who lack these natural instincts that make one a mother, and therefore a human being, are deeply damaged.
My hell began not when I said I don’t want to have more children; but when I said, begged, pleaded, cried to be allowed to have fewer children; when I asked to be allowed to take a break, not for a year, but five, because I knew that I could nto function as a mother to three little ones, when I had to give birth to at least three more.
My hell began when I said I want to be a mother, not a baby machine.
You write of your vivid memory of your classmates in law school who, in an argument over a woman’s right to abort, told you that, of course, you don’t resent your pregnancies; you come from a warm, loving Hasidic family where children are yearned for and valued, and therefore are incapable of relating to those less fortunate and those who opt not to have children. And then you added, “…I regret if I appear insensitive to others when expressing my pride in being a yiddishe momme to my children.”
Because you forgot to tell your fellow classmates in law school of the many families of eight and 10 whose homes are not warm, nor loving.
Some are dysfunctional and nightmarish. In some the mothers, without the resources, support, physical or emotional ability to raise large families, have long stopped functioning as mothers. And in some, the fathers, unable to deal with the financial and daily pressures, are mostly absent, or abusive.
You forgot to tell them that for many of us, the depression, dread and anxiety of what you describe as “those periods” don’t pass like a bad cold or a teenage phase. They drag on because the problem that bought on the dread to begin with is still there, and with every additional child, aggravated.
The problem is too many children. And that after a lifetime of indoctrination it is nearly impossible for most women to realize that they can be good mothers with the maternal instincts we all share with three children and no more.
They have a right to say, “Enough,” after less then six pregnancies. And that this does not make them a damaged person.
In the Torah it says, pru urvu, be fruitful and multiply. It does not say, be fruitful and have at least a half dozen, but preferably a dozen, children. That rule was set down by rabbis and a community that developed cultural norms so deep, they are more binding on women than any actual Jewish law.
Motherhood is beautiful: it makes up the deepest part of ourselves.
But motherhood is also complicated; it requires that the right factors and resources, physical, emotional, and mental, be in place to function and thrive.
When you ignore so many of those factors and the devastating impact it has on women and mothers, you take what is our greatest blessing, and turn it into a curse.
When you deny a reality that lives on in your own world, you are not discarding my opinion, that of Judy Brown. You are discarding hundreds of women walking the streets of your own neighborhoods. It is their agony and suffering that you refuse to acknowledge, for it is they who will always remain silent.
Notes and Links
*Pell grants are means-tested federal grants for higher education. They are the Department of Education’s biggest expense and are under serious criticism for the cost and the failure of many of the students to graduate. Wall Street Journal, April 2013.
Inside Out series on The Hasidic community in Brooklyn, and leaving it, by Judy Brown.