ESSAYS ON HASIDISM
Whereas in mainstream American culture the ego is at the center of the universe, for the Hasidim it is the group that counts. The experience of close community, united around religious purpose, can provide a profound sense of well-being and identity, of belonging and rootedness. On the other hand, personal choice and individual identity is limited. (And certainly Hasidic communities have their share of deviance and dysfunction, from substance abuse to domestic violence. In recent years, psychological treatment with certain approved therapists has become more accepted.)
In an interview with the filmmakers, Humanities advisor Samuel Heilman points out the "palpable sense of community" in Hasidic life:
What all Hasidim are always conscious of is: 'How many we are.' The purpose of a tish is ostensibly to gather at the rebbe's table, but really it is to look at 'How many we are,' to feel the press of flesh, to celebrate the group itself. The worst thing for a Hasidic group is to build a building which is too big. You have to be able to feel the body politic--if you can't feel it and smell it and touch it, it would be a failure. You will never hear a Hasid walking through a crowd of other Hasidim saying "Excuse me" or "Pardon me," he walks through pushing and shoving. The whole thing at a Hasidic gathering is, you get pushed and shoved and you can feel it and smell it in the most intimate way. Not only do they share food, they literally share their bodies. And this is an extraordinary thing when you think about it, because here are people who elsewhere go out of their way not to touch anyone else, not a woman, not a stranger.
An "insider," or even a sympathetic outsider, might take expection to Heilman's interpretation of why Hasidic men seem to enjoy crowding together. To our advisor George Kranzler, for example, the men jostle each other like this to get close to the rebbe, without minding what outsiders would consider rude behavior. Crowding together is an expression of spirit and enthusiasm. In any case, this palpable experience of community can be exhilarating. A non-Hasid describes spending the night of Simchat Torah, the holiday of rejoicing for receiving the Torah from God, with the Satmar Hasidim:
... All the differences between me and the hundreds of people there disappeared. We were all crowded into the huge hall, one big mass of singing, swaying people, sweat running down our brows. But I felt nothing of this. When I saw the Satmarer rebbe dancing around the hall, untiringly, through a narrow passage between the walls of swaying people, I felt an electric current pass through me, a fire of inspiration that seemed to burn in all the people around me. I have never felt the joy of deep devotion and religiosity as much. Now I understand what Hasidism did for the Jewish masses.
Women also have their own gatherings, where they study, listen to lectures and coordinate many of the major charities the community has organized. On special occasions some rebbes, notably Rebbe Schneerson of the Lubavitch have large gatherings with only women in attendance.
Nothing can illuminate the ties of community better than the difficulty of leaving it. The filmmakers have interviewed several people who have left Hasidic life, people like....
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