Friday, July 31, 2015

Totalitarian Chassidism - my impressions of this book.

Reading this, recently published, book. It is not for everybody. Not likely to be interesting for non-Jewish people, or for those with no interest in Jewish socio-religious matters. For me it is captivating - a page turner. I find myself alternating between sympathy and disgust. It is one man's perspective - declared a heretic and forced to leave the Skverer Chassidic community - a very puritanical community. (His parents were baalei teshuva Chassidim, who lived 'on the edge' of the Skverer community, and he was born into it.) 

I am intrigued and interested in how others with more knowledge than I react to it. Is it accurate of the Skverers? How different are the Satmars and other groups? Or the non-Chassidic groups (at one point he is very dismissive of what he sees as the Litvisha culture). And as far as I have read in the book, Chabad is sort of beyond the pale for all, or most, of these Chassidic groups - totally corrupted and contaminated by goyishe culture, true?

My reflex impression is of a community caught in and struggling to preserve its tribal (clan) mores and rituals that evolved over many years as a response to persistent existentially threatening persecution. And the overall preservation strategy includes ingenious types of insulation strategies - like regarding all those who disagree as 'mentally ill'. It is a horrifyingly totalitarian society in which the most minute and intimate details of personal life are strictly scripted and departures severely punished by shaming. 

And yet, in spite of that the overall approach is remarkably civilized insofar as it is essentially non-violent and, at times, compassionate and loving. It is a model for an earlier more violent age in which it was superior in its treatment of women and dissidents. Today it is just the opposite.

A moving and revealing exploration of Hasidic life, and one man's struggles with faith, family, and communityShulem Deen was raised to believe that questions are dangerous. As a member of the Skverers, one of the most insular Hasidic sects in...