The Intellectual Prison of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism

The Intellectual Prison of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism August 24, 2016


I’ve often written about Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, which is, in my opinion, one of the worst religious cults in existence. Whether in the U.S., in Israel, or any of the other countries where they put down roots, the Ultra-Orthodox live in closed-off enclaves, trying to keep their members isolated and ignorant of the world all around them. Daily life in these communities is a maze of rules and prohibitions, the result of centuries of elaboration by rabbis who only ever grow stricter, never more liberal or tolerant.

The Ultra-Orthodox have the most insidiously effective means of control of any cult. Unless absolutely necessary, they simply refuse to teach members, especially women, more than the basics of any non-religious subject. If a believer gets disenchanted and tries to leave, they not only have no support network, they have no skills they might use to support themselves. Sometimes, they don’t even speak the language of the country where they live.

The latest outrage, reported today by the Independent, fits into this pattern. The rabbis of Satmar Hasidism, the largest sect of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, issued a letter to all believers worldwide banning women from attending college:

“It has lately become the new trend that girls and married women are pursuing degrees in special education. Some attend classes and others online. And so we’d like to let their parents know that it is against the Torah.

“We will be very strict about this. No girls attending our school are allowed to study and get a degree. It is dangerous. Girls who will not abide will be forced to leave our school. Also, we will not give any jobs or teaching position in the school to girls who’ve been to college or have a degree.

“We have to keep our school safe and we can’t allow any secular influences in our holy environment.”

Notice how the letter says that it’s “dangerous” for women to seek higher education. From the rabbis’ perspective, I don’t doubt that it is! Education is extremely dangerous to all forms of fundamentalism. A worldview rooted in enforced ignorance always fares badly when it comes into contact with any significant quantity of facts. (This isn’t the first crackdown on education for women. Last year, another of their rabbis said that it was worse than the Holocaust.)

For Ultra-Orthodox women, higher education is a particular threat, since it might give them ideas above their station. It might teach them that there are other ways to live, alternatives to the narrow world of endless ritual and recitation of the words of long-dead godmen. It might give them the mental tools to imagine what freedom looks and feels like. Worst of all, it might make them aspire to something more than a life of domestic servitude and child-bearing. The rabbis’ prohibition reminds me of the American slaveowners who made it a crime to teach a slave to read.

The article also showcases, unfortunately, how liberal theists continue to make excuses for their fundamentalist brethren. It quotes Jonathan Romain, the rabbi of a Reform Jewish synagogue in the UK, whom you might expect to forcefully condemn this medieval mentality. Yet Romain can’t bring himself to issue anything more than a weak, mealy-mouthed, passive-voice objection. He says that consigning women to lives of darkness and ignorance is merely a “cause for regret”, nothing more. And he has to dilute even this extremely mild criticism with praise by saying that there’s “much to be admired” about the Ultra-Orthodox.

However, the fact that so many Hasidic women are seeking higher education, in sufficient numbers to alarm the rabbis, is an encouraging sign. Their particular mention of online courses, which are easy and private to access, is a data point supporting the internet’s power to undermine religion.

Despite all the barriers put in their way, some of them do find a way out. Deborah Feldman was one, and she took her son with her when she left. But according to another article, the Ultra-Orthodox are trying to foreclose that path, too. They’re soliciting donations for a legal fund to ensure that ex-Hasidic parents can’t take their children with them if they escape:

The flyers were accompanied by a letter of support from a local rabbi stating they wish to fight cases involving 17 children: “To our great pain, and our misfortune, our community finds itself in a terrible situation – 17 of our pure and holy children where one of the parents, God rescue them, have gone out into an evil culture, and want to drag their children after them.

“This is a decree of apostasy and this situation has motivated our rabbis who are in Israel… to come here in a personal capacity to increase prayer and to gather money for legal fees, and to achieve this a convention has been organised of prayer and also to collect money.”

Ideally, in cases like this, the legal system would disregard which side had the higher-priced attorneys, and would only do what’s in the best interests of the child. Yet we know the legal system is far from ideal. If the fleeing parents had a counter-fund, I’d gladly give a link to support it, but I haven’t been able to find if one exists.

Having to choose between one’s freedom or one’s children is a horrible dilemma for any parent to be in, and I’m sure the rabbis are organizing this fund in the full knowledge of that. Their communities are prisons, they want to prevent anyone from getting out, and they have every weapon at their disposal – except one. The one thing they don’t have is the truth. It remains to be seen whether that will be enough.

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