A Life Apart - Hasidism in America Image Loading...

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    While at first glance Hasidim appear analogous to the Amish or other groups in America who actively defend themselves against all encroachments of contemporary life, it is more correct, as Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett has pointed out, that the Hasidim have found "a niche within modernity." Their ethos of sacralization allows Hasidim to use aspects of modernity towards ends compatible with their world view.

    Technology, shunned by groups such as the Amish, is embraced by many Hasidim and used to enhance, intensify, and strengthen their own culture and economic life. The Lubavitchers, for example, use state-of-the-art television technology to broadcast live and around the world the rebbe's audiences with his followers, although they are opposed to television viewing of all secular programs. Hasidim have dominated New York City's discount retail electronics market. They sell radios, televisions, computers and cameras, although they won't buy televisions themselves. They videotape weddings and other events and view them on monitors that cannot receive incoming programs. There is a lively recording business for Hasidic music, but most tapes only have the voices of Hasidic men.

    Some long-standing differences and tensions between certain Hasidic courts have only been exacerbated during their years in America. The most famous feud is between the Hungarian Satmar and the Russian/Polish Lubavitch, who divide over issues of outreach, openness to modern and secular custom and technology, and Zionism. The Satmar vehemently oppose the state of Israel, viewing it as a blasphemous arrogance -- since it is only the Messiah who is supposed to bring the Jewish nation back from exile to Israel. The Lubavitch, on the other hand, have accommodated themselves to Israel's existence and are now very involved in attempts to influence Israeli politics and social policies towards stricter religious observance. The division between the two courts has sometimes resulted in serious violence.

    The Satmar are one of the most separatist sects, resisting almost all behaviors, activities, styles, and contacts that would lead them to accommodation with the surrounding American mainstream culture. Other Hasidim see all daily behavior as sanctifiable, and go to some lengths to elevate potentially assimilative activities, or just plain neutral ones, to the status of sanctified acts. An interviewee reports conflicting views about the great American pasttime: "Baseball is not only a Gentile habit, it is a waste of time, a clear violation since it replaces an opportunity to study Torah." Yet he also approvingly recalls an incident at a Hasidic summer camp when the rabbi reminded the boys that their ball playing was also a mitzvah, a sanctified action, because it improved their physical condition so they could better pursue religious study.

    In a radical departure from tradition, Lubavitch Hasidim (the largest sect worldwide) have extended the notion of sanctification of the profane to proselytizing. Judaism generally discourages converting Gentiles as a threat to the integrity of Jewish life. While the Lubavitch do not seek to convert non-Jews, they do actively reach out to Jews. Their "mitzvah mobiles" work the streets of many American cities with significant Jewish populations. Young Hasidim buttonhole passers-by, asking "Are you a Jew?" They try to persuade Jewish men to put on tefillin (the ritual prayer straps of Orthodox and Conservative Judaism) and give women Sabbath candles to light at home. The widespread Lubavitch campaign includes sending proselytizing Hasidim to college campuses, as well as extensive missionary efforts abroad.

    The Lubavitch are distinctive in other ways. They have paid greater attention to the special needs of women within their community, and have extended religious and secular educational opportunities to women as they absorb outsiders and have increased contact with the world outside.

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