My January 15 post, “Loyalty and Betrayal,” explored the unwillingness of many people to disagree with a group to which they belonged—even when they knew something was wrong. Two more examples highlight the danger inherent in giving up independent thinking and submitting to mind control.
Fundamentalist religious sects long have abounded. Judaism has its share. Many ultra-orthodox sects are part of the Hasidic movement founded in the 18th century. Hasidism sought to replace a dry intellectual approach to Judaism with a direct, spiritual approach. The movement soon ossified. Hasidim removed themselves from the rest of the world—and much of the Jewish people.
The story of Shulem Deen proves instructive. The former Sqverer Hasid tells a sad, shocking yet inspiring tale in his memoir All Who Go Do Not Return (Graywolf Press, 2015). Deen grew up in a Hasidic family in Brooklyn and wound up studying at a Yeshiva in New Square, a small town in New York’s Rockland County. Many ultra-orthodox Jews have retreated there.
Deen studied Torah and Talmud but precious little English—he was a native Yiddish speaker—and math. A secular education is a necessity for making a living. This was of little concern to the Sqverer Hasidim and their rebbe, an all-powerful leader. Yeshiva learning kept Sqverer boys apart from the “other.” Nonetheless, Deen attempted to know about the rest of the world. He also questioned Sqverer beliefs and the very existence of God.
But Deen was part of a rigidly organized community. Per tradition, a wife was chosen for him. He married at 19 having previously met his bride for no more than a few minutes. An older man gave him a cursory lesson about sex. It was little help. Over time, Deen and his equally ignorant wife figured out enough to have five children.
Deen learned more English, got jobs in Manhattan, and surreptitiously connected with the world through TV and the Internet. He wrote a blog and found many other Hasids and other ultra-orthodox Jews asking the same questions. Interestingly, they didn’t all want to leave their communities, which offered familiarity and warmth to those who followed their rebbes’ dictates. But inquiry was forbidden. Ultimately, Deen’s community excommunicated him. His wife sought a divorce. She and his children turned away from him.
Deen now lives in Brooklyn. He wears standard American clothes. He also shaved off his beard and payess (sidelocks). Life poses challenges, but he is continually learning. His writing career has blossomed.
This leads me to the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. The party hierarchy has basically disowned frontrunner Donald Trump. Competing candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have vilified Trump. (Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican candidate, called Trump unfit.) Yet all the other candidates said that they would support Trump if he won the nomination.
Does it make sense that many Republicans would so hate the “other”—Democrats and modest Republicans—that they would support a man they believe disastrous for America? Does it make sense that anyone would abandon his or her right to think and act independently, and tow the party line in Orwellian fashion? (Black is white, war is peace.) Yes, people want to belong. But at what price? It seems bizarre. Probably not to Shulem Deen
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