A Call to End Anti-Chasid Bigotry

  • 0

A few days ago I spoke with a Satmar chasid who studies academic Biblical Scholarship. We talked for a while and I got a sense of his typical chasidic upbringing, his current life situation, and his scholarship activity.

Like almost everyone raised in a deeply insular chasidic environment, he speaks English as a second language. HIs accent is not as thick as some of the other chasidic people I know, but it’s clear that Yiddish is his first language. However, once I got past the accent, it was also very clear that this was an extremely bright and erudite young man.

I talk to people all the time. Some are smarter than others. Some people have quicker minds than others. This fellow was smart, no question about it.

He wrote a superb article describing his journey into Bible Scholarship and the various ways it has adjusted his thinking and Jewish experience. It was beautifully written and made its points eloquently and somewhat poetically. I was asked to vouch for his chasidic bona fides, which I did, based on a mutual friend and my assessment following our conversation. (Verifying that the fellow exists and lives in the Chasidic community is not an endorsement or approval of the content of his article.)cityside060501_560-600x396

The article generated a bit of a firestorm. Not because of its provocative content though. The largest issue seemed to be that people could not believe that a chasid could write such an amazing article. Turns out, the article was too good. It was suggested (accused?) that the chasid had written some notes and the editors of TheTorah.com must have rewritten it in proper English. To alleviate the skepticism I asked to see the original draft he submitted to TheTorah.com and I again confirmed that it was at least 98% of his own writing. Only a few minor edits were made and they were use and stylistic edits, not wholesale rewrites.

But the skepticism remained. People were literally saying that a chasid cannot write so well. It’s impossible they claimed. I was challenged on my Facebook page and TheTorah.com also received extremely skeptical, bordering on accusatory, comments and feedback.

This is pure bigotry. And it disgusts me.

It is absolutely true that a chasid is going to be severely handicapped by his lack of proper secular education. The average chasid starts much further down on the ladder of English erudition. I don’t dispute that fact. But with some effort, anyone can learn how to write well. And if one has a gift with words, is able to put ideas into black and white in any language, those skills will translate into beautiful English prose and poetry.

While it is fair to say that a chasid will lack teachable skills simply because a chasid is untaught, it is bigoted to assume that a chasid will lack talent and ability.

After the Leiby Kletzky tragedy, I paraphrased Lee Anne Touhy from “The Blind Side”. In talking about the inner city ghetto, Touhy said that the cure for cancer might be in those ghettos. We need to give all youth the opportunity to discover it. The same thing applies to the chasidic ghetto. There are plenty of super talented people behind those walls. Some might have the talent to cure cancer, unfortunately few have the opportunity. Some have the talent to write incredible articles or books in English, unfortunately few have the opportunity.

But when someone gets the opportunity, it’s cause for celebration and recognition. When a chasid breaks free from the artificial wall his community has placed around him and discovers a special talent, we all benefit. And let’s not be so prejudiced against chasids that we can’t believe that talent can be found behind those walls. The only real difference between those on the inside and those on the outside is opportunity. But insofar as talent goes, those on the inside are at least as blessed as those on the outside.

To think that a certain group or subgroup is inherently inferior and incapable of achieving greatness is bigotry. Pure and simple. It’s no different than saying that a black person cannot be president or that a woman cannot be a Supreme Court Justice or that an Asian cannot play basketball or that an Orthodox Jew cannot be a rockstar. There are talented and incredible people everywhere. Some are given an easier path to discovering and sharing that talent, but talent is everywhere.

We should be encouraging talent from the chasidic community to contribute to greater society, and stop being so shocked when they actually do.

One suggestion would be to stop using “chasidish” as a pejorative, whether in style of clothing or otherwise. To stop imitating or mocking chasidic people for their accents and foibles. We all know that non-chasids do it. But it contributes to a bigotry that makes it impossible to believe a chasid might be the next Hemingway. Let’s help make that happen and not stifle their creativity. Let’s embrace their talent, not question it. I guarantee you that they will continue to impress us.

  • Shlomo Abraham

    First sentence: studies.

  • Tova Ross

    I agree with most of what you said, but something rubs me the wrong way about you referring to the Chasidic ghetto, either because Kristallnacht is tomorrow or because you argue right after that Chasidic should be not used pejoratively. Which is it?

    • Ghetto is not pejorative. They insulate themselves by choice.

      • Tova Ross

        They insulate themselves by choice but the word ghetto itself certainly does have pejorative connotations; I might be wrong but I would think Chasidic people themselves would take offense to your choice of word and not describe their community as a ghetto.

        • That’s not been my experience.

          • Yoel S.

            I have myself used the word ghetto in my essay, if that makes a difference. I think ‘virtual ghetto’ would be a better description of our reclusive community.

  • MarkSoFla

    I find it amazing how people are so lacking in knowledge (or wisdom) as to not be able to discern between “average” and “individual”. Yes, it is well-known that on average, chassidic skills in English are low, and that they don’t intensely study secular subjects. However, that has no bearing on an individual chassid doing those things and having those skills.

    It is the same kind of bigotry that says that since Jews as a group have higher than average incomes, that no Jew is poor. Meanwhile, it is a fact that there are plenty of destitute Jews all over the place.

  • Joe

    >This is pure bigotry. And it disgusts me.

    Studies exist out there for a simple reason; we accept generalities. The caveat is, that it is backed up by some sort of data. It is far better to look at this the other way around and ask “What have CHASSIDS done to cause this perception to be so accepted?” Frankly, I don’t think there is anything bigoted about people’s bewilderment that a chassid can write the way he did. They are the ones that have cause this perception to exist. If they make a conscience effort to change their communities (and do in fact change it), then I can call out bigotry to anyone that still perceives negatively. If feel people have negative thoughts about individuals, it is only due to the greater community that has not allowed us to look at the individual.

    • Yerachmiel Lopin

      The generality can be true (i.e., most Chasidim have lousy English skills). Yet it is still bigotry to insist it is true in every case when discussing a specific case. To have said, “it is a pleasant surprise to see such English skill from a chasid” would have been valid. to insist that this had to be a fraudulent document because it could not have been written by a chosid was bigotry.

      BTW, I think some of the bigotry was exploited by those who just don’t want to concede that biblical criticism could make inroads in the haredi world. But rather than expressing discomfort they tried to claim the document was a fraud and latched onto anti-chasidic bigotry as their method of avoiding the content of the piece, and the otherwise tres chareidi pedigree of the author. If that was the motive, the bigotry is even more shameful because it grew, not out of ignorance, but out of willful reinforcement of stereotypes to win an argument.

  • Orthoprax Bible

    1. I loved his article. By treating Torah as monolithic and empirically factual Haredim are actually losing in even religious experience more than they gain in obeisance. The Haredi world falsely portrays their lifestyle as inextricably tied to their fantastical beliefs about history, and it takes time for evolved Haredim to rethink the relationship between historical belief, ideology and practice but it is possible to be Haredi and rational.

    2. I would never have questioned a Satmar chassid’s ability to write such an article. The secular education I and most of my friends received was a joke. But if someone has even a passive intellectual curiosity, it is not that difficult to make up ground. I and many of my childhood Haredi friends have gone on to Ivy-level graduate schools. But it takes luck and we should be very concerned that not enough people are able to recover from a Haredi education.

  • thtorah.com? Please fix. Shabbat Shalom!

  • Yoel S.

    As the author of the essay on thetorah.com, I want to thank rabbi fink from the depth of my heart for coming to the defense of me and my fellow Hassidim. Congratulations for a beautifully written and thought provoking post. I must say that initially I actually took it as a compliment that people couldn’t believe a Hassid has written this essay, as it confirmed to me that my efforts in gaining literary and writing skills have paid off. However, when people kept on questioning it and refusing to believe it’s authentic, even though Rabbi Fink verified it time and again, I was indeed very uncomfortable with it. I see it as no better than the Hassidic myths about the outside world, such as ‘the ‘goiyim’ have zero family life.’ Yes, it’s true that Hassidim in general put more emphasis on family life than does the outside world (for better or for worse), but to deduct such shallow and narrow-minded conclusions is simply wrong and disgusting.

    As a Hassid myself, I can attest that there is huge potential in our community. There are so many bright and smart individual, among them young men and women who have acquired impressive knowledge in various fields of academia and the arts. Although few of us are open-minded enough to pursue their intellectual endeavors against all odds, this incident shows me that our community is not an exception. Truly open minded people are rare phenomena everywhere. That’s yet another demonstration of how we are all equal 🙂

    Best wishes to all of you, and feel free to contact me at yoelstabs @ gmail.com.

  • Susan Barnes

    “If one has a gift with words, is able to put ideas into black and white in any language, those skills will translate into beautiful English prose and poetry.”
    This is absolutely correct. A person who has a gift with words is able to translate that gift into any language they learn. When I was in high school, my Spanish teacher thought I was a brilliant student of Spanish because my Spanish essays were so good. In reality, I was only average in Spanish, but my better-than-average writing skills made my Spanish essays better than those of my classmates even though I was not, and I have never been, fluent in Spanish.

  • Shuli

    I think anyone with talent to write should do so and not worry about being judged, because it seems to lack in today’s society (both beautiful writing and not being judgmental…)

    I may be wrong, (and I am sorry if I am) but side note: in the fourth paragraph you wrote “…in ways it has adjusting…” Maybe you meant “adjusted”?
    And in the fourth-to-last paragraph you wrote “…wall his community have placed…” I think maybe it should be “has” since community is singular in this case?

  • Strudel

    With great respect – and I was raised in the (non-Chabad) Chasidic community myself – I imagine that what is behind some of the comments that this man could not have had the English to write his article comes from frum people themselves who want to discredit his message, and to argue that no Chossid could have the views he does. Obviously what he writes is threatening to the whole foundation of current Haredi thought. I truly don’t think the great majority of people in this day and age believe that any one group is inherently more or less intelligent than anyone else.

  • Tomim Ti

    Hmm.. so only when a Chasid proves himself to what you like, is that considered bigotry by others ?


  • kweansmom

    I thought some of the comments I saw were bigoted but some were raising legitimate questions about the authenticity of the authorship of the article, much like Biblical Criticism questions the authorship of the Torah. The first time you posted about this you just said that you had exchanged emails with him, and I think it was fair to ask if that was enough proof that he was who he said he was. After all, fairly intelligent people corresponded with Rabbi Hershel Goldwasser and thought he was real, too. And I didn’t find that those who thought he was a fake were charedi, at all.

    In short, you have a good point about not being prejudiced, but I think you over-reacted by calling all the skeptics “bigots”.

    • Shades of Gray

      It’s less important whether this particular Satmar Chasid exists, it’s the actual concept. As I think R. Bere Wein said, all my stories are true, some just haven’t happened yet 🙂