This is a cross-post by Joseph W
The Independent’s Christina Patterson wrote last week:
When I moved to Stamford Hill, 12 years ago, I didn’t realise that goyim were about as welcome in the Hasidic Jewish shops as Martin Luther King at a Klu Klux Klan convention. I didn’t realise that a purchase by a goy was a crime to be punished with monosyllabic terseness, or that bus seats were a potential source of contamination, or that road signs, and parking restrictions, were for people who hadn’t been chosen by God.
Many Hasidic Jews may well be suspicious about outsiders in their community, and it is certainly true that racism remains a huge problem amongst the ultra-Orthodox.
However, Patterson’s comparison is hugely inaccurate and rather revealing. The Klu Klux Klan was a terrorist group which used the religious theme of a burning cross as a symbol for its beliefs. What unified the KKK was a hatred of various minority groups, and not religion.
And Patterson did even not say “as a black man at a Klu Klux Klan convention” but “as Martin Luther King at a Klu Klux Klan convention.” Patterson did not compare herself as a Gentile with any individual who faced racial discrimination, but with a civil rights leader!
Patterson is in Stamford Hill, where she comes into contact with Hasidic Jews living in accordance with British law, and are not campaigning for Britain to have any kind of racial hierarchy.
Hasidism is a Jewish phenomenon emanating from Eastern Europe, which emerged as a challenge to the traditional Judaism of the rabbis which emphasised the need to read and study Torah and Talmud in order to gain piety. Traditional Orthodox Judaism stressed that God was unknowable, and sought to play down the interaction between God and his creation.
By contrast, the Hasidic movement infused every little thing with magic and significance. God was now present in everything that had breath, and praying and praising him could move the worshipper into a state of ecstacy and hysteria. Hasidim could praise God with music and dancing, and could see miracles occur in their communities. On top of learned rabbis, the Hasidim boasted rebbes: magical men of God connecting the Almighty with his people, from whom God’s essence would flow into the world.
The founder of Hasidism, Israel Baal Shem Tov, had a very positive attitude towards Gentiles and loved to spend time with peasants, often quoting their wisdom to his followers. Hasidism was a grassroots movement which sought to revolutionise Judaism and allow all Jews including the illiterate and poor to experience divine love through Hasidic practice, as opposed to simply the literate students learning in yeshiva schools.
However, in order to protect what they had, the Hasidim formed tight-knit communities in order to preserve the essence of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. Many Hasidic communities were annihilated during the Holocaust, and their reaction was – understandably – to become more insular. This insularity inevitably means that Hasidic Jews express themselves in a way which appears more hostile to outsiders. The more they felt threatened, the more they would emphasise the uniqueness of their spiritual mission, and their fervour for the messianic age would grow ever stronger – this is how they would cope.
It is sometimes tricky to understand a religious mindset, and religious groups are largely dependent on their ways been portrayed accurately and reported sensitively – something which surely does no-one any harm. Sometimes the media does this splendidly.
Last week I watched a programme on Channel Four World’s Squarest Teenagers about some Amish young people, some of whom were my age, who had come to London to experience another way of living. They mostly spent time with black Christian youths as well as a white Muslim girl. The Amish teenagers were understandably surprised by what they saw, but sought as best they could to integrate.
Amish Christians reminded me of Hasidic Jews in many ways. Just as Hasidic Jews place a high value on modesty, moral behaviour, close-knit community ties and respect for traditions, so do the Amish. Just as Hasidic Jews often appear frozen in time, still rooted in the shtetls of 18th century Poland and the language of Yiddish, so the Amish Mennonites wish to preserve their way of living from 17th century Switzerland and Alsace and speak Pennsylvanian Dutch.
One of the Amish girls admitted that she was not used to seeing black people. She did not treat the black Christians or white Muslim girl as if they were any different. However, perhaps if one of the religious ‘others’ she was with had entered into her community, they might have received a similarly bewildered reaction from the Amish to Christina Patterson amongst the Hasidim.
The religious communities of the Amish are infused with a high degree of fear of the corruptive influence of the outside world – as are those of the Hasidic Jews. This fear takes on another dimension amongst the Hasidim, given their experience of actual persecution. Neither Amish nor Hasidim are motivated by hatred.
I watched a really good segment on 60 Minutes recently featuring Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation. He explained how political Islamism played on community frustrations without offering any answers, and also how religion was not synonymous with bigotry. The programme showed him in cheerful dialogue with other young Muslims, and explained how Nawaz’s experience with disillusioned former Islamists in prison led him to realise that political Islamism had nothing to do with his beliefs about God. However, if you despair and say all Muslims are bound to become Islamists, you only make matters worse and reinforce the vicious cycle.
As groups become more insular or feel more persecuted, their dislike of the outside world or other religious communities may become more pronounced, and consequentially it is harder for them to defend charges of bigotry and prejudice. But I think that segregated religious communities will become more relaxed and tolerant if wider liberal society can find a way to relate to them, and recognise their common humanity. Consequentially, religious groups will reconsider and soften their theology appropriately.
The Enlightment’s deconstruction of religion was able to explain how many mindless prejudices have their roots in theological reasoning. But it’s also worth recognising that there are many people who hold mindless prejudices without any reasoning.