A quick search of YouTube for videos about Hasidic Judaism will result in a variety of videos posted over several years. While some of these videos are just informative personal interest stories, others seem to be criticisms of Hasidic Judaism.
Videos that criticize Hasidic Judaism generally focus on: interviews with people who have left the community, ways in which Hasidic communities clash with neighbors, and scandals (wherever they can be found in the world). Those who have left the community typically talk about how horrible and oppressive it is, and how wonderful and problem-free secular life is.
In the past 24 hours, three videos have been posted by a mainstream news outlet that are particularly unsavory. These videos perpetuate three stereotypes about Hasidic Jews: they are fearful of and ignorant about technology, they are insular and don’t know anything about the world around them, and they generally stir up trouble wherever they go.
Those wishing to discredit Judaism will find an easier target by attacking often misunderstood Hasidic Jewish communities. They are not only criticized by non-religious people but also criticized by less religiously observant Jews.
When considering these videos, it’s important to have some context.
EDUCATION. Jewish community has survived over thousands of years and there’s an emphasis to look ahead to the future survival of Jewish community and culture beyond whatever the current political or entertainment news is. With this in mind, there’s a desire to have an emphasis on subjects of relevance to the appreciation of an continuance of Jewish culture. Engineers, surgeons, Olympic athletes and other people in complex and demanding professions seem to dedicate their entire being to learning and excelling in their specialty. Those who study Torah are no different, and the study of Torah is no less demanding. Torah observance and Jewish culture will not be preserved, protected, and propagated through the use of a Cliffs Notes or Reader’s Digest version of Judaism by people who are only marginally engaged in the practice. This is not to say that every Jewish person in the world needs to go to Yeshiva become a Rabbi and forsake the world. It’s simply important to acknowledge that dedicated Torah study and observance has value, and the Torah is deserving of such dedication. Those who dedicated their lives to an expansive and comprehensive Torah observance are in service to G-d and the world. At a certain level, we all benefit from Judaism, whether we are Jewish or not, observant or not — we benefit from those who are observant.
TECHNOLOGY. The belief that Observant Jewish people are not scientific or technically savvy is a misconception. There are many Jewish people (besides Albert Einstein) who have excelled various areas of science. Technology is a tool that can produce certain results and benefits. Those who need that tool, will use it for work. Yet, there is a concern about the influence of ‘television’ or the internet on Jewish families and children. It’s not just Hassidic Jews and the Amish who are concerned. Corporate executives are divesting from the social media companies they once worked for and promoted. This year there has been harsh criticism of Facebook from former Facebook employees and investors. (Source: NYMag, 10 Apr 2018) Everyone recognizes the damage being done to society by too much time on computers and mobile devices. On 4 Jun 2018, Apple announced their next mobile device operating system will include the ability for users to track and limit their use of Apple devices.
ISOLATION. Hasidic Jews are often portrayed as being sectarian, anti-social, isolated, and at some times in conflict with the world around them. If a group of people are trying to hold on to an identity that includes a specific kind of clothing, food, language, and various practices, it makes sense to create a community where everyone is engaging in these things. Much of learning and reinforcement happens through observance. For example, when someone is trying to learn a foreign language, they are told that immersion is the best way to learn a language. For those trying to teach a culture to a new generation, that immersion experience has to be recreated in various places around the world. So, it’s not out of a desire to be unsocial that strong Jewish communities emerge. It’s simply a desire to preserve a living Judaism, and not just a Judaism in history books. To some extent, we all gravitate toward what is familiar. The diversity of the United States can be seen in how immigrant communities continue to thrive in big cities. Some neighborhoods may have strong Irish, Italian, German, Chinese, or some other ethnic heritage. Shop signs may be in those languages. People new to the country, or those feeling an affinity with a particular heritage, may desire to live in an ethnically distinct neighborhood. This is simply out of a desire to be close to what’s familiar, and that which supports one’s beliefs and upbringing. Those from with a background in Asian culture, may find it comfortable to be around people who respect their elders, and disrespect of elders may feel uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and just wrong. So, they find comfort in being immersed in a community where that and other traditions are preserved. Jewish community is no different. It’s about preserving the identity, heritage, and values of a culture.
The videos below are examples of how certain people and cultures can be negatively portrayed. Sometimes the message is subtle, and sometimes it’s blatant. Usually generalizations and stereotypes are used. Comparisons with other cultures are emphasized, and there’s a general tone of criticism and cultural superiority that permeates the overall message.
The three part series begins with this statement:
“Hasidic Jews, the most strict of the Orthodox, learn from the time they are very young that beyond their insular communities lies a depraved world with evil and destructive temptations, bereft of noble values, hungry for immediate gratification.”
The narration and soundtrack make this statement sound extreme. Yet, as you think about it, our society is filled with a variety of ills that are the subject of headline news and the topic of conversations among leaders concerned about instability and violence in America. These concerns aren’t just something observed by Hasidic Jews. Parents, teachers, politicians, and leaders are concerned about eroding values in society, and various ills caused by the need for immediate gratification. Addictions are a national epidemic being addressed at the highest levels of government. So, these Hasidic Jews who are concerned about American culture are not alone.
As the experiment of western society moves blindly forward driving by impulsive desires, and desire for personal gain, it seems wise to have some isolated communities that preserve some tested and proven ways of life. Whether Amish, Jewish, or some other culture, we may need those cultures as a kind of life raft if our society becomes shipwrecked. They are a way for us to evaluate and judge our success and progress.
Part 1 – Education
The following video, “Community in Conflict: Hasidic Jews & Education,” is part 1 in the three-part series. It portrays Hasidic Jews as uneducated about the world around them and only focused on studying Torah. As explained above, this is a misrepresentation and also a generalization that’s not universally true. To the extent that some people dedicated their lives to Torah study, this is no different than a professional who dedicates their life to any demanding profession.
Part 2 – Technology
As mentioned above, technology can be a useful tool, but it also has some potential negative aspects as well which are observed by many people. This video portrays Hasidic Jews as anti-technology. Some of the concerns about technology and mobile devices are similar to those expressed by professors in modern-day colleges and universities. Many people have expressed concern about the impact of excessively addictive social media on our youth and society. So, those in the Jewish community are simply stating similar concerns.
Part 3 – Conflict
A popular theme in videos about Hasidic Judaism is the topic of conflict between Jewish people and their neighbors. While these stories are fairly isolated and infrequent, they seem to be a disproportionate amount of attention which results in people having an impression that Hasidic Jews are difficult to get along with. Typically these conflicts arise when people outside the Jewish community try to impose laws or restrictions that interfere with the free practice of religion.