In Defense of Chasidic Culture
In response to the complaints about the pervasive negativity, real or perceived, of the Chasidic way of life by writers on this site, I have decided to write a short piece showing the flip side of the coin, the exquisite beauty of this way of life that comes through once you get to know it up close. Truth be told, I’m not the ideal candidate for this job. I have neither the time nor the inclination to expand on this subject and give it the consideration it deserves. But since it seems that nobody else will do it, I have decided, following Chazal’s dictum, to be the man where no one else will. Consider it a labor of love.
Foremost among the stereotypes insidiously promulgated here (between the lines) is that Chassidim, in the aggregate, live a cultish and uncultured existence. Yet this is as far from the truth as Mauritania is from the Atlantic. Chasidim do have a flourishing culture, even if it is mighty different from what outsiders would call culture. True, there is no quality art or poetry, literature or music produced by people working within the Chasidic framework. True, most who went through the Chasidic education system – and are not autodidactic – cannot tell the works of Beethoven, Shakespeare, or Picasso apart. True, novel thinkers or brash young artisans would quickly be crushed by the weight of tradition, so as not to mess with our own immovable cultural objectives. But thinkers and artisans mostly have sex on their minds anyway, and who wants that pollutant wafting through our streets and blackening the pure souls of our youth?
All that said we do have our own way of creating culture, and who can argue we are the worse for it? For example, many of our young men — lacking any other communally sanctioned secular outlets — learn how to play the keyboard. ‘Play’ may be a misnomer in many cases, but they certainly know how to make lots and lots of noise. And that is perfect for our own peculiar cultural dances, which in itself is certainly no worse than the cultural African dances one regularly sees on those National Geographic-type channels. Why is that not art? How can anyone argue we are culturally lagging behind the Western world?
True, we refuse to allow any outside cultural influences to affect us. The Internet is strenuously inveighed against in the hallowed halls of higher learning. The supposed wisdom of the gentiles is regularly shown to be just that, supposed. No science or history or chemistry or the horrors of calculus, philosophy, and biology will be allowed to influence us. But all this is for a good cause. Imagine someone accidentally discovering the writings of Darwin or Wittgenstein or Samuel Clemens, or scariest of all, discovering pictures of a shiksa’s naked boobies or a sheigetz’s uncircumcised penis. God knows our painstakingly maintained culture is in danger of collapsing like a house of cards! We cannot allow ourselves to take that risk.
But that does not mean we are completely closed off from our surroundings and are blind to the things of interest to us. No, our own culture works overtime to make sure we are aware of everything. Our enclaves are known to have gossip down to a fine art. Art and culture, working beautifully hand-in-hand. From the women who sneak out to attend college to the busiest of housewives, as long as they toe the line in public, will of necessity participate in this finely-honed art form, at least those living in certain well-known ghettos. This assures that we are not completely unaware of the world around us (or at least the ten miles around us). We know what most everyone had for breakfast, what types of entertainment they like to pursue, how smart or well-dressed or good-looking they are in relation to others, where they like to shop, how they dress and discipline their children, the make of their strollers, the time they go to sleep at night, how well they live with their spouse (if any), and the shape of their pubic hair (if any). How dare anyone in good conscience call us ignorant or lacking in culture?
So we have a fine and flourishing culture. But what about the charge that we are cult-like and obstinate in our false beliefs and our children are woefully mis-eduated? Nonsense! True, we teach our children to believe in and fear a false God. Yehovah, hoary God of the ancients, petty and meddlesome, long ago rendered impotent by Spinoza, mortally injured by Hume, put out of His misery by Nietzsche and finally buried by Russell. True, we teach them to believe that the universe is about 6,000 years old and is about to end in a few hundred years, an error of many, many orders of magnitude at both ends. True, we teach them that the Torah is the inerrant word of God when we know it is a composite work composed over many centuries. True, our children (and many of our adults) cannot tell a planet from a star or tell which should orbit the other. Many will insist that the sun orbits the earth still, as it did in pre-enlightenment times. And evolution, if it’s mentioned at all, is known to be a hoax pulled on us by militant atheists. Many know with smug surety the true history of earth and man, which properly goes approximately as Douglas Adams put it: “In the beginning, the universe was created. This made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.”
But look at what we get in return! Compare our home-grown geniuses and charismatic leaders to those from the outside world, especially those who originally were Jewish but then foolishly decided to pursue secularism and science in place of sticking with our own theology, as irrational as we may think it is. Compare Rebbe R’ Burech of Mezhubizh, the inspiration of many mystical tales and miracle-stories that lifts one up to the loftiest heights imaginable and of whom every child has heard, to Rebbe R’ Burech Spinoza, long-ago dead and forgotten and left to rot in the dustbins of history. There is no comparison! Who has ever heard of Spinoza? Who is ever interested in his treatise or his thoughts, his Ethics or so-called philosophy of pantheism? Did you ever hear of a nice Chasidic boy or girl inspired by his writings? Or compare the genius of Rebbe R’ Issac’l Kaaliver, inspiring generations with his uplifting music bought from the little shepherd boy and Rebbe R’ Issac’l Kamarner, revealing to us all the deepest mysteries of angelic literature and how to connect to the true essence of the mystical universe, to Rebbe R’ Isaac’l Newton – what has he ever done for the betterment of mankind? Popularized some meaningless letters like F=mA? How pointless! Did any of us ever use this meaningless knowledge? Would the world miss him had he not been born?
Or take a genius like Albert Einstein. Religious for a short while in his youth, his mind was soon poisoned by reading philosophy and scientific literature, including Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. He was poisoned to such an extent that he once wrote “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.” But what has the poor schmuck ever done for humanity? Has he helped us understand the true nature of our universe, like the holy Kamarner? Relativity is his greatest claim to fame, but is everything really relative? He famously claimed that God doesn’t play dice, but Niels Bohr of the Copenhagen school – himself a product of an unholy union of a Jewish mother and Christian father – certainly showed him up on that point. Poor Einstein, dead wrong and just plain dead as well. Compare him to the ever-living Chofetz Chaim, famed fighter of malicious gossip and warrior for all that is good and holy. His books and ideas are studied even today, unchanging and everlasting, in many languages and many circumstances, at home and abroad, right before the malicious gossip and right after.
Why would we as a culture give up on our unchanging and ageless truths known to us for millennia, for nebulous and always conditional scientific truths? After all, which is more likely to bring us closer to true knowledge — rigid and unchanging dogma we inherited from pre-historic times, or knowledge based on evidence, with the ever-present possibility of changing theories based on new evidence? Surely it is the former, since dogma will never be changed based on such a flimsy and gossamer idea as “reality.” And so why would we give up our chance of producing geniuses that truly affect the world and the way we live in it, just because it is the fashion of the day to educate your children?
Besides, in the final analysis, we don’t even miss that much in terms of knowledge of science and culture and art. I have been reliably informed that there are now Chasidic adults who have watched all three Godfather movies, and they don’t even need to hide that fact anymore! The new generation is much more relaxed about these things. Well, they need to hide it a little bit, but not from their personal friends. I have also been informed by persons claiming knowledge of such things that they can attend college if they chose to without negative repercussions — at least once they are married and have a few children — but think it silly because most college-educated professionals end up being erotic dancers or prostitutes in order to pay off their loans, and college education is useless anyway. (Although the Internet is still officially forbidden, apparently some do read Belle de Jour.) And I have heard of Kiruv professionals who can name the top teams of four different professional sports!
Apparently the outside culture has no problem seeping in. Pedophiles are now being sent to prison, and as I have been told by a bunch of the “cool” guys of the new generation, may they rot in prison with all other faggots out there. See, we have picked up some cultural tics from elsewhere. And I have even heard of a Chasidic woman who has her own secretary!
Yes, you may think of us as backwards, ignorant and uneducated rednecks who refuse to teach our children any useful knowledge at all and instead fill their heads with millennia old superstitions; or you may think of us as obstinate boors who will quickly quiet – by any means necessary – any dissenting voices or anyone who dares to be different; or you may think of us as a people lacking in appreciation of the tremendous leaps in knowledge and culture and art and politics made in the last five centuries. And all this may be true. Because we have our own culture and art with its own intrinsic beauty and this so called “knowledge” is dangerous and useless and doesn’t lead anywhere, as I have shown.
I will finish in the spirit of the famed and unparalleled Chasidic amity (as long as you’re not too different, in which case I will pour paint on your windshield and decry you as a heretic and an apostate who deserves death anyway, and who will certainly get what’s coming to you in hell) – I love you all, my Chasidic brethren!Printable Version