The Limits and Necessity of Knowing: Two Stories of the Gur Hassidim

Haredim walking by parked cars on Shabbat

by Ehud (Creative Commons License - Attribution Required)

At the beginning of February, HaAretz posted a lenghty piece discussing the results of Nava Wasserman’s study of sexual practices and gender relations in the Gur Hassidi. The article cast the extreme separation between men and women in the Gur community as a search for sanctity. As strange as the community practices might be to outsiders, they had beauty and purpose to insiders, even when they caused pain.

The next week HaAretz ran a second article on the Gur community. Very few human endevors come without a cost, yet the article, and perhaps the study itself, made little mention of the cost. The article focused on those who found the Gur lifestyle hard and painful. Some of them stayed in the community and some left. Both men and women talked about the hole in their lives left by lack of affection and negitive attitudes towards sexuality.

These two articles, each presenting a different side of the story, raise serious questions about what it means to know a community. How much do we really know about the Gur or any closed community? More importantly, how much do we need to know to function in Israel as a single inclusive society? And how can we create that knowing given the closed nature of certain Haredi communities?

What Can We Really Know?

The insular nature of certain Haredi communities complicates “knowing”. In a community that is antagonistic to outsiders, the true believers of the community stay in the center. They study all day in a Yeshiva of like minded folk. They eschew the internet or use else visit forums and websites set up by their community and approved for use by members of the community.

Outsiders generally have contact in one of four ways: (a) rabbinically approved interactions, often related to work (b) family simchas and losses (c) reports of those who left the community and (d) disaffected members who remain in the community.

In a closed community, anyone who interacts in work life with the wider world almost always does so in highly structured situations. For example, one may work at a job that has been carefully screened and approved by the rabbi or in the official role as spokesperson.

Even if one’s job isn’t officially spokesperson, loyal insider-outsiders often feel like ambassadors. As ambassadors the natural inclination is to provide information that will portray a community positively. Even seemingly negative information is presented in the manner of a job interviewee. It is offered to build trust in the positive or else is a negative that can be converted to a positive by looking at how the community responds.

It is difficult to truly know someone who only offers crafted stories. No matter how true the stories, something will always be missing. Real life involves a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity. We don’t really know one another until we can get beyond the world as it ought to be and talk about the parts of life that don’t fit into neat boxes.

Further, to really know another human being we have to enter into their world of perception and feeling with nonjudgmental empathy. The outsider has limited opportunity for empathy because the filtered spin of the ambassador is a subset of experience distanced from the person by analysis rather than raw feeling and perception.

The insider is also constrained because he must be protective of their insider status. Too much empathy is both a threat to the insider and his community. The individual can fear that empathy will set up troubling doubts that will pull him or her further to the outside. The community around him or her may see any public acknowledgement of empathy as a sign of divided loyalty or even betrayal.

Family events also provide a point of contact between insiders and outsiders. Although these tend to be less sculpted than professional contact, they suffer from frequency and brevity. The strong emotions of both joy and sorrow open up communication and honesty that might otherwise be impossible. On the flip side, the encounters at such events are often brief – a few words spoken during a shiva call, a memory shared in a moment of joy at a bris or wedding. These encounters are humanizing but rarely complete.

Community leavers and disaffected insiders certainly speak genuinely from experience. They don’t carry the same burden of ambassadorship that an insider does. However, as ex-Satmar Deborah Feldman points out in an interview with Jspace, each person represents their own viewpoint. They can’t speak for the whole community.

Why Not Knowing is Not an Option

As can be seen from the above, no way of knowing is perfect. However, abandoning the effort to know one another is not an option. This is true, even if the Haredim are not particularly interested knowing those outside their community.

Increasingly in Israel, the two-state solution, i.e. allowing certain minorities to exist semi-detached from the rules followed by the wider society, is showing signs of strain. Isolation also facilitates prejudice and stereotypes, both of which are enemies of inclusion and tolerance.

It also makes it difficult to lend a hand when help is truly needed. Because of the deep mistrust of the police, until recently the Israeli police simply kept their distance from internal conflict inside predominantly Haredi areas. However, this leaves vulnerable members of the community without protection of the law. As the Haredi community has begun to realize this, they have called for more involvement of the police. The hands-off approach to policing Haredi areas practice has begun to change, at least in Jerusalem, under Police District Chief Niso Shaham.

The increasing involvement of police as protectors also requires that outsiders get to know Haredim in non-superficial ways. There are few if any Haredi police officers. Research on policing minority populations has shown that non-minority police have a tendency to stress police initiated enforcement (stings, stop and search, etc). They are also more prone to judgmental behavior based on negative stereotypes when police decisions are based on subjective judgement.

Finally, in an essay last week on the role pluralism plays in Israeli understandings of democracy ( “Do Israelis Agree with Their Own Declaration of Independence?” ), it was proposed that the extremes of accommodation and vilifying could be avoided by a frank discussion that reveals and honors each groups actual needs. Clearly that kind of knowing would need to move beyond scholarly studies and marginalized members of the community.

Categories: Building a Just Israel | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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