A Meditation

This is a guest post by an LGBTQ recent college graduate anthropology student. 
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.[1]  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.

[1] http://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/etd_hon_theses/147/

8 thoughts on “A Meditation

  1. I have read all the unpious articles of Katz of Deen and Vincent and i have read Deborah Feldman’s book i don’t understand why you would knock Feldman that she is not so intelligent then Katz Deen and Vincent. I disagree wholeheartedly in your lowering Feldman to raise the UnPious Kave Shtibel crowd. BTW Kave Shtiebl is in Yiddish, My first language, very unintelligible stuff, they gossip that Katz became OTD bc he comes from a divorced broken home, (which isn’t entirely true i think his parents divorced when he was already in Yeshivah) Why u would call them intelligent is so disgusting.

  2. Feldman caters to just as much “intelligence” than Vincent. Oprah is not less intelligent than Katie Couric. And the JCC isn’t more intelligent than the 92nd street Y. And the NY times best seller list isn’t less intelligent than footsteps membership.

  3. Re kave shtibel maskilim… Understanding a language with the help of a dictionary can be very misleading. Consider the link i gave you to that Yiddish Keve Shtibel site and know that those “intelligent” friends of yours that blog there are indeed a minority. Over all Kave Shtible site was founded by 1 writer who was blocked out from Ivelt.com bc he wrote some private very harming stuff against someone, so he opened a new site that may attract some of your intelligent friends. But the site over all is less intelligent than the average hasid on the williamsburg streets that work hard for a living and have no time to answer them.

  4. Maybe you didn’t write it explicitly that Kave Shtible & UnPious are intelligent, but your gushing terms of those blog authors and subsequent knocking that Feldman somehow caters to less intelligent ppl than Vincent & Katz is very clear to the reader. I would beg to differ, What Vincent and her UnPious group did to Feldman is unforgiving. (They knocked her book a week before it was published in order to lessen it’s sales, which boomeranged big time only to rocket up the NY Times Best Seller status, they couldn’t wait a few days to read it & form an intelligent opinion, and they were actively involved to fight her book i can provide backup in private) This makes them the perfect dark-aged Haisidic “Pashkevilen” writers they are. Feldman was graceful enuf not to dignify Vincent & UnPious.Co with a response. This comes to show who caters to intelligence exactly. http://www.unpious.com/2012/02/%E2%80%9Croundtable-discussion%E2%80%9D-%E2%80%9Cunorthodox%E2%80%9D-by-deborah-feldman/

  5. This is academically interesting and it is certainly worth reflecting on how non-Haredi Jews use the Haredim as a foil to our own lives. For me, it helps to remember that we are all moderns. Modern Haredi life in Kiryas Joel or Jerusalem is just as modern as my own life. Modern Islamic fundamentalism is just as modern as Arab feminism. Here we all are, in the same time and space, living modern life in different ways.
    But to recognize that we are all modern and that Haredim simply are themselves — is that to say that I have to like or respect all modern options equally? I hope not. I don’t personally approve of closed societies, whether those societies are Haredi, Amish, Mormon fundamentalist, Wahhabi, etc.
    Because we have fought to make it so, this is a free country. I respect people’s right to form and maintain a closed community, but I don’t have to like it. I don’t have to support it — with my words, my donations, or my tax dollars.
    And if I want to walk around offering people internet access and free radios, English classes and battered women’s shelters, online gay forums and secret meeting places, I have every right to do so. It’s a free country.
    Where will their heretics, their rejects, their victims go if not to us? A Mormon fundamentalist was once quoted in the paper: “Everyone is here by choice. The roads go in and out.” This is technically true, but for a Yiddish-speaking 12 year old girl who is being raped by her father or her rabbi, there is no road out. It is our obligation — the obligation of the larger Jewish community — to create that road.
    Academics are great, lovely, it’s all very interesting. When I worry about things late at night, I worry about the 12 year old girl. That’s what I care about.
    Progressives make a serious mistake when they offer tolerance to the intolerant. There is nothing cute or quaint or mysterious about Haredi life. It can be beautiful, it can be terrible. One thing you can be sure of is that there is a lot of laundry.
    If we believe in our progressive values, we should fight for them. There is no obligation to treat all points of view, all communities, all options as equally valid. Our belief in progress, modernity, individualism, personal choice does not make us imperialists but rather Enlightenment thinkers.
    The Maskilim in Europe never got along with the fundamentalists but if it were not for Haskala and its offshoots, there would be no Jerusalem municipality to build new religious neighborhoods. There would be no welcoming environment for all religious communities in America. These are the fruits of the Enlightenment.
    We all eat from the fruit of that tree, we all live under its protection. The very least we can do is defend it without apology.

  6. @SDK
    Do you worry about the 12 year old girl being raped by her progressive, reconstructionist rabbi father? Only the Haredim rape their 12 year old daughters?
    I’m genuinely curious, and you seem to know so much about the Haredi community and work so hard to uncover their incestuous rapists, I figure you’re just the truth-seeking, justice-loving do-gooder to answer my questions.

  7. Of course, I worry about any 12 year old girl being raped (don’t you?). But I believe that a 12 year old outside — where people are not afraid that their children will remain unmarried or that they will lose their jobs if they call the police — has a fighting chance. I don’t think the 12 year old Haredi girl has a fighting chance. People will not use the police, because of mesira. They will not defy the rabbi if he tells them to ignore it. They are terrified their children will be expelled from school, they will lose their housing, their jobs.
    There are advocates for other 12 year old girls. Who will advocate for this one? Where is the Yiddish-speaking, observant home to which she can flee?
    I’m not the one uncovering dirty laundry — it’s being done by people from within those communities. I’m saying that we (outside) have an obligation to support those who are trying to ensure that the roads go in and out — that people are making choices. The choices may be hard to make — and no one can prevent that — but it’s important that they exist.
    You might argue that secular or liberal people are also denied choices because of their ignorance of the beauty of religious life or similar. But ignorance is not the same as a physical threats. Ignorance is not the same as losing your livelihood. Liberal Jews are not necessarily thrilled when their children become Charedi but have they ever told their oldest girl that her brother will be thrown out of the house and never go to college if she follows through with her plan to observe shabbat? That is the equivalent of telling someone that their siblings will never marry. Liberal Jews do not try to prevent divorced mothers and fathers from having contact with their children. This is common — even assumed — in closed Charedi communities.
    When a woman is told that she will lose her children, never see them again, if she no longer believes — can you say that the road goes out?
    Sexual abuse is present in every community but a closed community often has no mechanism to protect its members. This is true of all the different closed communities I listed, but I’m a Jew. So yes, you can accuse me of caring more about my own people. I plead guilty.

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