Prejudice regained

Just when I started to think I ought to cut Chabad some slack …

I love abandoning old prejudices, especially ones I come to recognize as mere snobbisms.

So I really, really hate it when, having managed to (mostly) abandon one, I’m reminded that the prejudice has a basis, and the snobbism a purpose and a point.

Growing up as a secularized Jew, I found the Chasidim embarrassing. They dressed up funny (I later learned, dressed up as 18th-century Polish bourgeois) and they were way, way too far into religion. Worse, other people thought of them as Jews. I wanted “Jew” to mean Einstein, not some Shtettler Rebbe mumbling in Hebrew and doing not-very-graceful men’s circle-dancing.

Imagine how an Episcopalian living among Buddhists might feel about a bunch of Holy Rollers or snake-handlers who moved in next door. Chasidism, I thought, was Not Good For The Jews.

Learning about the link between Chasidism and what I called “all that Kabbalah crap” didn’t make me feel any more warmly toward the Black Hats. (At that point I didn’t know enough to distinguish between the silly superstition Madonna practices with the actual Jewish mystical tradition going back to the Zohar.) Confronting the violent and corrupt politics of Satmar Chasidism in Brooklyn* seriously hardened my dislike.

When the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Scheerson, had a stroke that left him aphasic, and some of his followers decided that his vacantly senile stare was a sign of profound enlightenment and proclaimed him the Messiah, I could hardly decide between disgust and laughter.

All this was brought into question for me the other night watching Cory Booker and Eric Garcetti on stage with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. The love among the three of them was so obvious, and their discussion of how difference could be made productive so inspiring, and the Rabbi’s comments so wise and gentle, that I was led to wonder whether I had been unfair to Chasidism. It was clear that the non-dualistic mystical strain had made Boteach open to, and accessible to, people from radically different traditions; I couldn’t imagine an Orthodox group electing a Baptist as its leader, even at Oxford.

After all, the Chasidim aren’t really “ultra-Orthodox;” they’re the major expression of the mystical tradition within Judaism, and I’ve learned from Huston Smith to think that the mystical, as opposed to the legalistic and doctrinal, strands in the world’s religions are the ones that potentially carry within themselves the seeds of peace. The odium theologicum is proverbial, but there doesn’t seem to be any odium mysticum; it’s hard to start a holy war with “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

So maybe, I thought, I ought, I ought to cut Chasidism (and its megachurch version, Chabad) a little bit more slack.

Then a Jewish friend sent me a link to this story (from the Forward, naturally) about the genocidal ravings of a well-known Chabad rabbi, the one who helped reclaim Bob Dylan from Christianity. The story points out that in Israeli politics Chabad is associated with the worst sort of eliminationism. My friend’s one-word comment:


You might even say, “Oy, weh!”

All those Enlightenment folks were on to something: Giving yourself permission to believe absurdities is halfway to giving yourself permission to commit enormities.

It turns out the rabbi in question is a coward and a liar as well as a genocidal lunatic; now that he’s been called on what he said, he (and Chabad Headquarters) are trying to unsay it.

* The Satmar Rebbe, the leader of the smaller Chasidic group in Brookly, was strongly laisser-faireand hated socialism. Forverts, back then still published in Yiddish, was also still socialist. So the Rebbe forbade its sale anywhere in Jewish Williamsburg, and enforced that ban by having his thugs wreck any newsstand that carried the paper. He also had worked a deal with the local reactionary Democratic Congressman where in return for the Rebbe’s support the Congressman used his position on House Appropriations to protect the illegal process of importing young brides from Eastern Europe to replace the Satmer girls who, disgusted by the heavy-duty patriarchy, left the community.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: