Saturday, April 11, 2009

Hasidic Rebels and Christian Reactionaries

This post is Part II in a miniseries that began with Wednesday's Hasidic Rebels. (Yeah, I know this post took too long to write - but I got busy! Yay, new full-time job! Plus, this was hard to write in a way that made sense and wasn't overreaching. Oh well, it's very meandering. I really didn't plan it out as much as I should have.)

In Hella Winston's Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, Winston, a doctoral student in sociology, tells the story of "Yitzchak," an Hasidic scholar and lecturer whose doubts began when he studied in Israel as a young man. There, he encountered for the first time liberal Jews who were nevertheless deeply knowledgeable about Jewish law, in addition to secular subjects such as history and comparative religion. In fact, says Winston,
[Yitzchak] vividly recalls reading one article in which the writer demonstrated how a particular Jewish ritual practice had parallels in other religious traditions. Suddenly he realized that what he thought was unique to "beautiful Judaism" often derived from pagan rites that had influenced not only Jewish practice, but that of other religious traditions as well. Suddenly, it became very hard for Yitzchak to see the same degree of meaning in the rituals he had practiced all his life; in fact, it became hard to see in them any meaning at all. For, if the very things his community claimed to be revealed truth were really no more than social practices reflecting a particular historical context, then, far from being sacred, they could only be seen as really quite mundane.
Also intriguing is the example of Dani the restless housewife, who became friendly with teenaged Muslim girls online after discovering a shared conflict over cultural/religious standards of female modesty and behavior.

Despite this, Winston never develops what could have been a fascinating discussion: a comparison between the lifestyle practices of different religious groups who may be theologically distant. For example, I found the social isolationism and deliberate lack of (secular) education among the Hasidism to be quite reminiscent of Amish practice. It's been awhile since I read Ruth Irene Garrett's Crossing Over: One Woman's Exodus from Amish Life, but Unchosen really brought some of it back for me. In an article for the UK magazine Sun, Garrett recalls Amish life as a "prison with rules based on fear," an assertion not unlike Winston's (debatable) conclusion that Hasidic communities are also ruled by perpetual, deeply ingrained fear, suspicion, and aversion.
But ultimately, it was not this focus on the primacy of the group over the individual that was troubling to me, but rather the extent to which fear seemed to regulate behavior and maintain conformity in these communities, ultimately reproducing their way of life, one generation after the next. In some cases, it was the fear of God's wrath, or of ending up in hell - something not limited, of course, to Orthodox Jewish theology [emphasis mine] - that drove people to conform, even against their will. In many cases, it was the fear of the community that motivated behavior. In fact, there were several people who agreed to participate in this research, only to call me at some later point - sometimes in the middle of the night - to express their concerns about their participation.
You will recall from my last post that one of the issues I had with Unchosen was her seeming lack of interdisciplinary research, especially given the lack of work done on Hasidic sects other than the Lubavitchers, whose extensive PR machine is potentially misleading to anyone seeking serious inquiry into the "dark" side of things. Obviously, the focus of Unchosen is Hasidic dissenters, some of whom even end up leaving. And clearly, this is a work of sociology, so an entire digression into comparative religion would be potentially more distracting than illuminating. But still, since people are people regardless of cultural background, I wonder if it would have been helpful to introduce similar case studies from other fundamentalist religious groups and extrapolate from there. To me, the interplay between religions is definitely a compelling subject, and one that is always relevant.

(Note: I am aware that the label "fundamentalist" in this context may be misleading. A fundamentalist, strictly speaking, is one who "reduces religion to a strict interpretation of core or original sense" or a member of a specific movement in American Christianity "that began as a response to the rejection of the accuracy of the Bible, the alleged deity of Christ, Christ's atonement for humanity, the virgin birth, and miracles." However, the word is popularly used to refer to any zealous practitioner of any religion, and that is how I will use it here.)

At times it is fun to see the parallels between different faiths. C.L. Hanson, a former Mormon turned atheist, wrote an eye-opening guest post for the now-defunct skeptical Jewish blog Lubab No More, in which she argued Mormons often feel that they have a special affinity with Jews as members of an alleged "lost tribe of Israel" (a belief that has them referring to non-Mormons as "gentiles"). (You can read the whole thing here in the comments section of one of the recent posts on her blog Letters from a Broad. Scroll down to the bottom.) They also see a connection between the Israelites' exodus from Egypt in the Old Testament and their own persecution and subsequent exile to the untamed American West. Furthermore, says Hanson, there "are also practical similarities in religious observance department: strict gender roles, a modesty code for women, rules about what one can/can't do on the Sabbath, requirements of wearing certain articles of clothing, and a strict dietary code." And above all, she concludes, as another minority everywhere in the world except for a tiny homeland (Utah), Mormons frequently look to the Jews as examples in forming an ethnic/religious identity. Hanson notes the popularity of Fiddler on the Roof in LDS culture and a consequent "Fiddler envy." A friend of mine who taught in a heavily Mormon section of Idaho and still frequents Mormon blogs actually claims that Chaim Potok's The Gift of Asher Lev is an especially beloved novel among LDS artists and writers because it offers the hope of free expression within a strict religious environment.

At other times, however, the ties between religions can be disturbing or even frightening, as an alarming phenomenon occurring in one faith reveals disquieting similarities to what has happened or is happening in another one. Taliban Rising, a blog run by one Jeanette, concerns the rise of "patriocentricity" in Catholicism and compares it to both movements within Protestantism and Islam (hence the title) and to National Socialism (which may have been a technically secular ideology, but I believe it was prominent atheist Richard Dawkins who admitted that sometimes followers of non-religious organizations can nevertheless act like religious zealots.)

What is patriocentricity? In my wanderings on the Net, I become morbidly intrigued by a particular website called Ladies Against Feminism, which I discussed in this post a few months ago. It is a website run by fundamentalist Dominionist Protestants who, in my view, seek a return to the glorious bygone days of the nineteenth century. Karen Campbell, a homeschooling mother and prominent opponent of this movement, briefly sums it up as the following: "The term [patriocentricity] was specifically coined to describe the philosophy of family life promoted within some extreme Christian and Reformed homeschooling communities that teaches that God gives a 'calling' in life to only men, specifically fathers, and that the purpose of the wife and children is to fulfill the father's calling." Though ostensibly complementarian (men and women are expected to fulfill different but equally divine roles), what patriocentricity actually preaches is that the father is the "prophet, priest, and king" of his family. (I've heard it allegorized as the father being the sun that the other family members "revolve" around.) In addition to LAF, here are other sites where you can find more information (kooky content warning): Home Living (blog), The "Prairie Muffin Manifesto," the Vision Forum, Your Sacred Calling (blog). In my LAF post I noted the clear influence of American "Republican Motherhood," but Cindy K. of the critical blog Under Much Grace identifies a multitude of other, decidedly non-biblical foundations of patriocentricity, including agrarianism, American nationalism, feudalism, homeschooling, neo-Confederacy thought, right-wing populism, and the Victorian cult of domesticity (the blatantly bourgeoisie ideal, unattainable by large segments of the population, that Republican Motherhood eventually evolved into).

So obviously, for all the impact of secular thought on patriocentricity, it is undeniably a Christian lifestyle thoroughly grounded in a largely Christian society (the United States, where it originated - for all its proponents' claims to be wholly biblical, it's actually quite American - you can read my overview of The Democratization of American Christianity for more insight). You can't imagine them as remotely open-minded, tolerant of other viewpoints, or even willing to associate with anyone outside their frilly, lace-covered, very narrow box. In their minds, it's a black-and-white world out there. And then there's this article on the LAF site, authored by one Anna S. "My Modest Clothes, My Armour" is standard fundie fare: as long as a woman dresses modestly, she can avoid being used and abused. If she shows off her "legs, shoulders, midriff" she can expect only pain. Personal experience is painted as universal experience. Implication: if a girl dresses "provocatively" she is a lost soul deserving of pity. I think we've all heard it before.

Anna S. also has a blog called Domestic Felicity (recently married, she is now known as Anna T.). At the very top of her sidebar are the following words:
I'm a Jewish woman, delighted in being the wife of a dearest, most wonderful man, and mother to a sweet and precious baby girl. We live in Israel, where my husband was born and where I grew up.

It is now that I must confess, in all honesty, to being an anonymous follower of Domestic Felicity. For all our many disagreements, Anna (who is exactly my age) is an incredibly sweet woman who comes across as one of the nicest people you'd probably ever meet. (And no, she is not originally from the United States. She was born in Russia when it was still the Soviet Union.) Everyone in her blogroll and "Delightful Websites" list, however, is an American patriocentric Christian. (And no, she is not a Messianic Jew. She is regular Modern Orthodox.) Nevertheless, it LAF that she credits with influencing her decision to become an observant Jew.
I don't remember how I got home that night. But when I got up next morning, my head buzzing with hangover, blurry images of the previous night flashing through my brain, I crawled out of bed and washed my face and told myself it was the last time I allow something like this to happen. Never again. I want to do what God wants me to do, I want to follow His plan, as a young woman in the beginning of her journey of adult life, and I want to be a lady. I sat down in front of my computer, and absent-mindedly, still immersed in thought, my fingers typed in Google the following words: 'how do I become a lady?'

Can you guess which site I came across? That's right! Ladies against Feminism. With a mixture of fascination and disbelief, I started reading, first the new articles, then the archives, and couldn't stop for a long time.

Needless to say, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I felt this is the model of femininity I have been looking for in my heart, during all those long and painful months. It felt like home. Heavily influenced by feminism, I never dared to articulate the thoughts LAF authors worded so boldly, but they sounded familiar, reflecting my heart's deepest desires. On the other hand, there were things I read with an expression of incredulity on my face: 'I'd love to do this, but how can it work? Can I ever really become a keeper at home? And what's all this talk on the father's authority? I don't have a father, so how do I fit into this picture?'

You know, it's like Glenn Beck and Mormonism, Tom Cruise and Scientology. You don't quite approve of the solution, and yet you cannot help but be glad that someone has found an answer to their troubles and peace in their lives. For all the theological differences between Orthodox Judaism and patriocentric Christianity, I would venture to say that, in many respects, Anna has far more in common with the latter group than she does with secular Jews who go to synagogue about as often as I go to church. Which is to say, rarely.

Confined, narrow-minded, and reactionary as it may seem to most of us, however, I think it's safe to say that there are women who do find peace and contentment as wives and mothers submitting to God and their husbands. An intelligent, articulate Hasidic woman who calls herself "Totally Content" makes it quite clear in her blog Rechosen that she enjoys her life as a Satmar housewife in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and that she is proud of her culture and religion. In "A Satmar Ladies' Event" she writes that:
I have a classmate that has 5 sons. FIVE! She is 26 years old and she has 5 kids! I was about to get mad. Seriously mad. No woman should be subjected to that kind of life! When it suddenly dawned on me... She wanted it. Every woman at the table was discussing the pros and cons and above all the 'Why did she?'. Yes, every woman at the table was aware that they have a choice in the matter. But the woman in question - who is said to be one of the most relaxed mothers there is - actually commented that she would have no problem having five more sons. Foolish? maybe. Forced into anything? not at all. Many of my friends are relating that their husbands are the ones suggesting that they've done their duty (at least for the time being) in 'being fruitful' - but THEY are the ones who want another baby to hold... to cuddle. There are some who love motherhood - not because they were raised to admire it, but because it truly gives them satisfaction. Just like there are those who do not have the patience for it.
There are women in the Christian patriocentric circles who feel similarly. "I praise God for taking me in at my lowest," says one. "Imagine, if you will, a woman at her worst. Things that you would not ever think I was capable of...having done. The deepest darkest parts to me, only He knew----- and He still accepted me with the widest, most forgiving open arms that were full of the most merciful love I had ever seen and made me a new creation in Him." Again, as much as we may disapprove . . . if they're really happy, who are we to judge? If we do judge, how are we any different?

Still, as Hella Winston noted at the very beginning of Unchosen, not all is necessarily as it seems. When you have a walled-off, isolationist religious culture, there are inevitably those who will feel crushed under the weight of conformity; rules, rules, rules; undying tradition, refusal to change, the pre-modern worldview in a postmodern world; the "our way or Satan's way" moral absolutism; the maddening glimpses of a global society full of people who do not live like you do and seem all the happier for it because they can travel the globe, have myriad opportunities for personal fulfillment, have all the information and entertainment they could ever want at their fingertips, and are free to explore the whole spectrum from rationalist atheism or the most fundamentalist of religion. In the face of all that, maybe there is a "justifiable" fear running through the Hasidic, Amish, far-right Christian, and Islamist societies of the world. So they wall their people in, and while some are quite satisfied with their lot, there are those who are not. Furthermore, I think the extreme example of North Korea effectively demonstrates that where there is isolation, there is also a greatly increased potential for abuse that will inevitably remain hidden. In a discussion thread on the anti-patriocentric blog true womanhood in the new millennium, Cindy K.'s comment (#226) is especially chilling:
I put up that Overcoming Botkin Syndrome [link mine] blog just for girls like this. I’ve been through very similar problems, with some of my experiences more intense and some less troubling that don’t compare to what these girls have suffered.

Things I would like everyone here to consider because there may come a day when each one of us is asked to take these young women into our homes. I remember so vividly praying to the Lord on the way home from the theater after seeing the Hiding Place. I sat in the passenger seat with my mother (who went to bed for three days from depression as a result and did not speak to me), and I promised the Lord with all my heart that I would hide Jews in my home for Him. In a restaurant on Sunday afternoon, I burst into tears, and my husband and I decided that it may not be Jews that we’ll be hiding — it may be girls that are seeking refuge from their Christian homes. . .

1. There are legal considerations. Some of these girls have been physically abused. Some have endured sexual abuse. If they are a day over 18, there is not much help available to them, yet they have been trained to be children. . .

2. There are more immediate concerns that are more practical. The girls usually have few skills. Some of them have to get the police to help them retrieve their personal records so that they can get employment or arrange for assistance.

Says Mara in comment #228: "It’s like FLDS [link mine] in Texas all over again." Many Hasidic Jews who want to leave face similar issues and often barely even speak English despite being third-generation Americans. Malkie Schwartz, one of Winston's interview subjects, actually has an organization called Footsteps aimed at helping ex-Hasids adjust to mainstream life and acquire the requisite skills and education.

In closing, I guess I just have to say that when you get down to it, fundamentalist religion is fundamentalist religion, whatever the actual theology is. Some people are happy with it, some aren't, and some are too happy with it. I still wish Winston had been more creative in her research and that Unchosen had explored the flip side of the subject (Hasids who are perfectly content) to give it more balance. But this post has gone on long enough so I'll just stop here and let my readers ruminate.


Christine said...

Very thoughtfully written. This was worth waiting for :)

Eileen said...

Thanks! I was worried it was really unfocused.

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