There is an article in the New York Times that discusses the clout Chasidim in America have achieved. And it does not paint a flattering picture. Some might say that this is just typical New York Times bashing of religious Jews. But I’m not so sure it is. Let us examine the issue.
Chasidim do have clout. There is no question about it. How did they get so much clout? Prior to the Holocaust, Chasidim in America barely existed as an identifiable entity. But they grew exponentially into huge numbers since the Holocaust. Chasidim tend to get married early (in some cases both bride and groom are in their teens) and have many children. A family of ten or more children is not uncommon. As a result, now over sixty years later they are a force to be reckoned with.
Although I have argued that – despite their rate of growth – their current numbers do not necessarily predict their future dominance as a culture in Judaism… their numbers are very definitely huge as is their current influence in government. This is mostly seen in the power of their vote. If their rabbinic leadership tells them to vote for a certain candidate, they tend to do so in large numbers without question and without needing to know what that candidate stands for. This gives Chasidim as a group out-sized political power!
This power does not go to waste. This community uses it to their full advantage. When they make a request to a government official, he pays attention. And often sees to it that the request is granted.
I have no problem with using one’s clout to get things done for your community. There is nothing wrong with petitioning your government for your cause. It is no different than any group lobbying for their particular agenda. In that sense Chasidim are no different than – say – the gun lobby. It is the right of every American citizen – no less Chasidic citizens – to petition their government.
The question arises when petitioning for rights becomes pressuring for rights. Requests then turn into demands with unspoken threats of political defeat in the next election if those demands aren’t met. Although it may be legal to do that – it can easily be interpreted as a form of political extortion to get what they want – sometimes at the expense of others.That can only result in resentment at best… and at worst create (or expose latent) anti-Semitism.
First let me say that I view it unethical to vote for a candidate without knowing what he stands for just because you were told to do so by a rabbinic leader. I understand why they do this. It is obvious. It gives them an extraordinary amount of power over elected officials. But one ought to vote for a candidate because of believing what he stands for – not because it will give your group collective power over him.
This is not good citizenship. And it makes religious looking Jews look bad. How does this affect the image of religious Jews in the world? Does this result in a positive image of Chasidim – or a negative one? What about the rest of Orthodox Jewry? Will we all be judged the way?
And how necessary are those demands? Are they Halachic or cultural? Let us look at some examples (described in the Times article) of achievements their clout has brought them.
How important is it for Chasidic women to demand a female lifeguard at their beaches that are apparently sex segregated? Although I understand their request – it is a not a Halachic requirement to have a female lifeguard. Is it worth exercising the community’s clout to get one?
I also do not understand why they insist on well water for their Pesach Matzos. They apparently object to chlorination. What does chlorine have to do with Chametz? It is not a leavening agent. It is a poison which if used in small quantities kills bacteria and has no harmful effects on human beings.
Separate – sex segregated public buses are now the norm in their neighborhood. Men in the front and women in the back. That is no doubt illegal. But since they do it voluntarily, no one bothers them. Is that so necessary? I know Chasidim consider separate seating on a bus to be more modest. But is violating the law the right thing to do if it isn’t a Halachic necessity – even if no one bothers them about it?
Last year the city’s Commission on Human Rights issued complaints to Chasidic stores in Williamsburg that demanded that Halachic norms of modesty be followed by a customer or they would refuse service. One can debate their right to refuse service to anyone they choose for any reason. There is a legitimate argument to be made for opposing views on this issue. But one cannot debate the negative image this projects to the world about religious Jews discriminating against non Jews or non religious Jews.
They are pressing for public libraries in their neighborhoods to be open on Sundays at taxpayer expense – since they cannot be used on Shabbos. (Which raises the question about what kind of books public libraries carry that are appropriate for Chasidim anyway… but I digress.) Do they really need the library to be open on Sunday?
And then there is Metzitza B’Peh (MbP) – the practice of drawing out the blood of a circumcision wound orally by direct contact with the mouth. Based on the studies done by national health officials New York city’s health officials consider it a dangerous practice. They wanted to ban the practice. Chasidim believe that without MbP the circumcision would be invalid. Despite the fact that there is an abundance of opinion that this is not so… and that the requirement of Metzitza could be fulfilled in sterile ways. Nonetheless, city health officials decided to allow the practice if it included a warning about the possible health consequences. That outraged Chasidim. Now – some mayoral candidates seeking their vote are in favor of rescinding that requirement.
The Times article puts this issue in a nutshell:
The remarkable rise in the population and the influence of Hasidim and other ultra-Orthodox Jews has provoked repeated conflicts over revered practices, forcing the city into a balancing act between not treading over constitutional lines by appearing to favor a particular religious group and providing an accommodation no more injurious than suspending parking rules for religious holidays.
The bottom line is that Chasidim now use a subtly intimidating approach on elected officials to get what they want. Which can easily generate resentment.
On the one hand something like requesting a female lifeguard for a beach frequented exclusively by Chasidic women does not seem like an unreasonable request. No one is harmed by it, and Chasidic women will benefit. But when taken in the aggregate, it makes for a lot of pressure on an elected government official. New requests no matter how innocuous – now seem like demands.
This enormous power – far beyond their percentage of the general population – can easily feed all the anti-Semites of the world and their canards about Jews controlling the government.
I therefore believe that the Chasidic community should re-think when and how they use their clout. They ought to not seek to satisfy every religious whim they can think of. They should instead deliberate very carefully – weighing need against negative consequences before making a request. Because feeding the anti-Semitism that their clout might generate if used too frivolously could backfire on all of us.
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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