This is a guest post by Sam Shuman. (Here is another one.) Sam is a recent graduate of Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. As an undergraduate, Sam was the recipient of the Dean’s Prize in Anthropology and an Ella Deloria Undergraduate Research Fellowship for his ethnographic research on the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Uman. He is currently investigating how globalization is rapidly transforming the face of Hasidic labor industries.
Conversations never emerge in a vacuum, ex nihilo. A conversation always precedes the conversation. A question always emerges before the question is uttered. And before the Footsteps sponsored event at the UJA on June 17, “Beyond Romanticization and Vilification: The Progressive Jewish Response to Ultra-Orthodoxy,” many conversations were had—floating ephemerally in-and-out of dining rooms, on virtual Off-the-Derech facebook forums, splintering into ever-more specific conversations (“LGBTQ and Off the Derech”), on blogs (Kave Shtiebl), at rallies (outside the Weberman trial and on the periphery of the Anti-Internet Asifa), at Thursday night Chulent, and at the Footsteps office itself.
But, as much as Monday night marked a continuation of gazing back at the Haredi world—reversing ex-Haredim as the subjects, rather than the objects, of the Haredi gaze—it marked a caesura in the conversation. A long and extended pause. A breath-mark. A forum for processing in-through-the-nose and out-through-the-mouth. To be fair, the social and political frenzy of the past year alone has allowed little time for respite. Sexual abuse cases exploded, education reform came to a forefront—with little time to plan and even less time to reflect.
Although an outsider of the ex-Hasidic, Off-the-Derech community of Maskilim (the politics of identification feel as divisive and politicized as identification in the alphabet soup of queer kinship), Monday night felt like a mediation—in the most expansive sense of the term.
It would have been far too easy to put Haredim on trial—constructing effigies of the G’dolei Hador for cheap and cathartic swings at $1 a pop. Instead, the night adopted a cerebral tone at the outset—shaped by the introductory remarks of Leah Vincent and by the moderator himself, Sam (“Ushy”) Katz, whose erudite and reflexive critique of OTD culture—at the level of narrative construction—placed him as the obvious contender for the position (other than the editor of Unpious himself, Shulem Deen). What Deborah Feldman feeds to the masses (and Oprah bookclub membership), Sam feeds to the intelligentsia.
And in the expansive space of this meditation, substantive questions around agency and authority emerged. In whose hands (or perhaps, more appropriately, voice) lies the authority to critique? And what are the limits of critique? And if critique is, by its very nature, secular, why ever would the Haredi world respond—or even listen to the discussion? Ingber noted the elephant in the room: the absence of Haredim at the event. Haredim became a disembodied site of rhetoric—a thing to be discussed. And, perhaps paradoxically, only in their physical absence could they become present in the conversation.
The event fulfilled its mission of moving beyond the sensationalism of New York Times articles that primitive the insularity of Haredim through images of naïve romanticization or caricatured vilification. These seemingly polarized representations are, despite all appearances, flipsides of the same coin—negatives of one another in the darkroom of sensationalist journalism. Leah Vincent, quite refreshingly, never claimed the event would transcend this dialectic; it would only traverse it.
What was surprisingly absent from the conversation was the symbolic role Haredim play in the non-Haredi imaginary: how they perform the role of the “noble savage,” stand as the foil against which the American Jewish meta-narrative of Progress and emancipation forms—to borrow from Jonah Boyarin’s undergraduate thesis, Chulent: Post-Hasidic Explorations and Jewish Modernities. Or, alternatively, how journalists fetishize the transgression of ex-Haredim to the same degree they fetishize the purity of Haredim—constantly seeking the “fallen Hasid” to castigate Haredim and legitimate the joys of modernity.
What distinguished the panel from others similar forums on the limits of secular critique (about “fundamentalism”)—organized by academics like Saba Mahmood, Judith Butler, and Lila Abu-Lughod—were the participants: a Conservative rabbi (Rachel Ain), a Modern Orthodox rabbi (Dov Linzer), and a renewal rabbi (David Ingber). While all decidedly identify as “progressive” in one form or another (like their academic interlocutors), none, I would harbor to guess, would identify as “secular.” And these distinctions cannot be overlooked. What the panel articulated, although never explicitly, is that Haredim cannot identify the subtleties of these “discursive formations” (to borrow from Foucault). To be religious and progressive is, for the vast majority of Haredim, an ontological contradiction-in-terms, an either/or proposition. For Dov Linzer to stand on stage and identify as progressive would negate his legitimacy to speak as “religious” (and visa-versa).
The secular critique of “fundamentalism” in the American academy, which questions the hegemony of pivoting secularism as “Western” and fundamentalism as non-Western—particularly in relation to feminism—must tip-toe around reasserting attitudes of Western imperialism in the conversation. Although caricatured as primitive in similar terms, Haredim cannot legitimately claim a subaltern status—any more than American Jews could claim themselves to be a conquered, displaced, or territory-less people. The war between Haredim and the rest of American Jewry cannot be analogized to that dreadfully misguided neo-conservative, “clash of civilizations” hypothesis—reducing conflict to an ideological tug-of-war between the West and the Rest. After all, Haredism emerged in Europe—despite all primitive representations of Eastern Europe as the “Jewish Dark Continent” in the writings of Simon Dubnov. While these conversations will never be used as political justification for war and occupation—the Obama administration would never fathom occupying Monsey to save the oppressed burqa-wearing Haredi women that now live there—these conversations do bear political and social import on the domestic and, certainly, hyperlocal level. How the American education system, police and welfare states relate to and provide for American Haredim—can be shaped and re-shaped through discourse, and ultimately, dissent.