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The Hasidim Exchange, part 1: What can Americans learn from ultra-orthodox Jews?

[additional-authors]
February 18, 2015

Joseph Berger has been a New York Times reporter, columnist, and editor for thirty years. He is the author of numerous books including Displaced Persons: Growing Up American After the Holocaust, which was a New York Times Notable Book; The World in a City: Traveling the Globe Through the Neighborhoods of the New New York; and The Young Scientists: America's Future and the Winning of the Westinghouse. He lives in Westchester County, New York.

The following exchange will focus on his critically acclaimed new book The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles with America (Harper Collins, 2014).

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Dear Mr. Berger,

In the introduction to your new book, which delves into the curious world of American Hasidim, you state that “Americans have much to learn from the Hasidim, eccentric as they are”. As an introductory question I’d like to ask you to elaborate a bit on this point: what kind of insights can Americans (and your readers) expect to reach by examining current-day Hasidic culture? Is there actual wisdom here that less-religious or even secular-minded people could find appealing?

Yours,

Shmuel.

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Dear Shmuel,

Hasidim, however one views them, have created a remarkably cohesive community. They have done so by teaching their children religious principles and vibrant rituals from an early age and doing so with the kind of zest that makes those principles and rituals attractive. As a result, the community has an impressive record of keeping the faithful within the fold; the number of defectors are few. Years ago Reform Judaism decided that its laissez faire, no-demands approach to Judaism was causing the children of its members to drift away and it began emphasizing some rituals and making more demands of  worshipers. Even secular groups can learn from Hasidim that bringing children up with values that are followed in sincere and spirited fashion and are enhanced with colourful, lively activities can help transmit one’s beliefs in more compelling fashion.

Of course, there is always the danger of zealotry that turns harmful or abusive, but that is a line most Hasidim seem not to cross and that others can avoid also.

Hasidim can also teach outsiders about the joy one can take in children, even by the dozen. They can teach outsiders about the joy of singing and dancing, They can teach Americans who have come to worship cynicism and take glee in cutting down authority figures about the respect one can show to a genuinely wise and learned figure and the good that one can derive. Hasidim, who look forward to holidays with their distinctive ceremonies, have much to teach about the pleasure in cyclical repetition.

In an ‘anything goes’ zeitgeist, Hasidim, like other Orthodox, have much to teach about the wisdom of limits, of carving out boundaries for foods, clothing, activities and behaviours. Of course, it is striking that they do not seem to care as much about spurning cigarettes  smoking or cholesterol. Despite sporadic problems, they have better resisted the allure, for example, of drugs and other destructive behaviours.

Hasidim can also teach the wider society about the deep pleasure of daily study and the riches in argumentation and dialectic that for them comes with delving into Talmud but for others may come in the deep study of literature or history.. Even their methods – the concept of study partners, for example – deserves imitation or at least appreciation.

All this is not to say that Hasidim are paragons of virtue and have little to learn from the wider society. My sense is that they can think about the richness women can absorb from having opportunities to work and study on par with men. They can learn that allowing their men and women to further their secular education – math science, history and literature – is not as treacherous as they seem to think. But that is an essay for another day…

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