Defenders of Hasidic Judaism claim they're happier, whatever their educational gaps—but there are reasons to doubt this self-serving conclusion.
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Defenders of Hasidic Judaism are up in arms about the New York Times story that revealed the extreme educational neglect of their children. Many Hasidic private schools, called yeshivas, teach religion to the exclusion of all else. English and math are barely mentioned, and science and history are completely ignored. Adults who graduate from these schools are intellectually stunted and unequipped to function in the world.
Liel Leibovitz, editor-in-chief of the Jewish magazine Tablet, published a furious response with the comically over-the-top title “The Plot Against Jewish Education” (who knew it was a devious plot to want Hasidic children to have minimal English and math proficiency and a basic understanding of history and science?).
Leibovitz’s reply, believe it or not, that the Hasidim are decent people with strong morals and solid community ties—so it doesn’t matter if they’re educating their children or not.
…let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that everything the Times will argue is absolutely true. Let’s assume that Hasidic schools are failing to teach children the basic foundations of secular education, and let’s assume also that public schools would do a much better job giving them these tools.
So what?“The Plot Against Jewish Education.” Leil Leibovitz, Tablet, 8 September 2022.
Leibovitz’s argument is, explicitly, that the Hasidim are happier in ignorance. He says that the purpose of education isn’t to teach a catalogue of facts, but to produce happy, well-adjusted, emotionally and spiritually fulfilled adults. Whatever their educational gaps, he argues, the Hasidim meet this standard better than graduates of many public schools:
…a 2020 study titled “Prioritizing Patterns and Life Satisfaction Among Ultra-Orthodox Jews: The Moderating Role of the Sense of Community,” came up with the following conclusion: Haredi Jews are happier. “The results,” read the survey, “demonstrated that prioritizing meaning and sense of community were positively associated with life satisfaction … Our findings suggest that even in extremely close-knit community-oriented societies, a strong sense of belonging to a community enables individuals to prioritize more hedonic aspects of their lives in order to promote their life satisfaction.”
There are obvious reasons to be skeptical of this conclusion. Most important: Happiness is a self-reported measure, and the ultra-Orthodox are well-known for being hostile and suspicious of outsiders. How much can we trust what they tell researchers?
I’m not saying that they’re lying. However, people with a strong ideological identity often feel pressure, both externally imposed and self-imposed, not to admit to negative emotions. They don’t want to “let down their side” by admitting they’re unhappy, which would reflect badly on the way of life they represent.
For an example in another context: Many ex-Mormons have spoken of how the LDS church pressures its members to always present a cheerful appearance, whatever their real emotions. Mormons who go on missionary trips are encouraged and pressured to only report positive experiences, even if they’re depressed and miserable and don’t make a single convert.
This principle applies to any religion or political order that exercises broad control over its members’ lives and punishes deviance and freethinking. All too often, people report the way they think they’re supposed to feel, regardless of how they actually feel.
Leibovitz argues that drug addiction, suicide and other social ills are proof that secular public education fails its students, and—implicitly—that Hasidic Jewish communities don’t have these problems because of their strong moral foundation:
Of the overwhelming majority of Americans who attend public schools, an increasingly alarming number go on to live solitary lives that drive them to choose infertility and turn to drugs and alcohol in record numbers to numb their pain.
…How to fix it? The answer may be simpler than we think. If the problem we’re facing is despair, the cure may be hope, that precious metal that is best mined wherever a sense of belonging is strong and a higher purpose evident. Hasidic communities have all that in droves, which is why they’re faring much, much, better than their nonobservant neighbors.
This is false. Whatever self-serving myths they tell, Hasidic Jewish people aren’t immune to the evils that the rest of the world suffers from.
For instance, Hasidim do suffer from drug addiction and overdoses. But because of the stigma, it’s often hushed up so as not to bring shame on the family. As one rabbi said, “The Orthodox attitude about drug problems is to stay quiet on the issue.”
Domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse also afflict Hasidic communities. But these cases rarely see the light of day. Whistleblowers in the New York City police department have said that, because of the Hasidim’s political sway, they’re told not to investigate reports of these crimes. Instead, they’re ordered to stand down and let the shomrim—private religious police—handle it quietly. Needless to say, allegations against powerful rabbis get swept under the carpet.
Because they’re so closed off, it’s simply impossible to be certain how the Hasidim compare to secular society. We know that they cover up problems and don’t report them to outside authorities. This isn’t anti-Semitic rumormongering: it’s a teaching called din moser, or the “law of the informer”.
Finally, Leibovitz makes a massive unintentional admission:
Here’s a radical idea: Above all, we want students invested in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We want them to become neighbors who care for the needy next door. We want them to become children who care for their parents as they age. We want them to become siblings who support each other through life. We want them to become spouses who treat their husbands and wives with respect and reverence and love.
I’d agree with all of these ideals. In fact, I think I agree with them more than Leibovitz does. You may notice that he quoted, but ignored, a very important word: “liberty“.
What liberty do young Hasidic Jews enjoy?
Do young Hasidic Jews have the liberty to choose for themselves how they dress, what they eat, which religion they practice, or how to interpret the tenets of that religion? Do they have the liberty to choose what books to read or what course of education to pursue? Do they have meaningful liberty to choose who they marry, or whether to get married at all? Do they have the liberty to make their own choices without being punished, harassed or threatened?
The answer to all these questions is a clear “no”. Hasidic Judaism, like other fundamentalist religious sects, exerts an all-encompassing control over its members’ lives. In fact, it goes farther than most in that its children often don’t even learn the dominant language of the country they live in. If they wanted to leave, they’d be unable to communicate with people who might help them.
Furthermore, if Hasidic Jewish people do seek outside help, the community closes ranks against them and harasses them mercilessly. The documentary One of Us provides a frightening example: when a woman called the police on her violently abusive husband, an angry mob swarmed her house, yelling and hammering on the doors. Women who leave Hasidism often have their children taken from them, thanks to biased judges elected by the community.
Hasidic Jews even try to exercise this coercive control upon outsiders. In Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic community in upstate New York, a sign at the village entrance orders outsiders to follow Hasidic dress customs and “maintain gender separation” in public areas. What right do they have to ask this? How would they react to a secular town with a sign instructing visitors to take off any special religious apparel?
Belonging is a double-edged sword
It’s true that human beings benefit from having roots. A sense of community, of having somewhere you feel you belong, is a potent source of well-being. I don’t doubt that, for Hasidim who genuinely prefer this way of life, these claimed benefits are real.
However, this leaves the other side of the question unanswered: What about those who don’t fit in?
A community freely chosen is one thing. A community that you’re born into and have no meaningful choice about leaving is something else entirely. Rather than asking individual Hasidim how they feel, a more meaningful question is this: How do they respond to dissent? How do they treat people who don’t conform or who want to break away?
That tells you everything you need to know about the happiness and self-confidence of a community. If they react with fury, if they persecute dissenters or intimidate them into silence, if they try to prevent them from communicating with outsiders, or if they try to put up barriers so it’s impossible for people to leave—that tells you that they’re not confident in the merits of their belief.