The problem with the Black Hats

My twin flew to Mumbai in 2008, on a quest that the rest of the family was kept in the dark about.  As many Jewish visitors to that city do, he dropped in on the Chabad house.  This house was about to make the news in a very, very bad way.
The Hasids who run the Chabad houses, some in very exotic locales, provide a welcome service for Jewish tourists.  Visitors can socialize or pray, or eat Kosher food together.  It was not unusual for the Rabbi who ran the house in Mumbai, Gavriel Holzberg (and his wife Rivka), to host 30 people at a meal.

In conversation, Gavriel  Holzberg told my brother he had noticed something odd.  He had noticed a visitor who seemed to be canvassing the place.  Gavriel got alarmed enough to contact the Mossad (Israel’s intelligence agency).
I don’t know what the Mossad’s reaction was, but given what happened later, they missed a chance to stop something big.  A small worry, which could be dismissed as subjective experience, was the forewarning of the oncoming tornado.

The Holzbergs

My twin left India, with a baby girl from a surrogacy clinic, (a surprise that initially shook me up, but the girl, 7 years later, is a fun person to talk to and go on walks with) and then disaster struck:
Ten highly trained terrorists in inflatable speedboats landed on the Indian coast, and headed into Mumbai.  Two attackers entered a railway station and killed 58 people.  Then they attacked the people staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel and Oberoi Trident hotel.

Two of these Islamic fanatics went after the very few Jews in the very big city of Mumbai.  They took over Chabad house and held hostages.


Indian NSG commandos arrived from Delhi, and managed to rescue 9 hostages from the first floor on the first day. The following day the commandos fast-roped from helicopters onto the roof with cover from snipers positioned in nearby buildings. After a long battle, both perpetrators were killed but not before they murdered Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka along with four other hostages inside the house.  (There were signs of torture on some of the bodies, and perhaps sexual assault and mutilation – this is all from Wikipedia, and sources are not always given.)
Smoke rises from the Taj Hotel in Mumbai
Smoke rises from the Taj Hotel in Mumbai

I tell this story because I’m about to criticize some of the Hasidic movements for hiding from the world, and yet here is one sect that does not hide from the world, and they paid an awful price for that.
My father, who is interested in Jewish history, says that Hasidism gained many adherents after the Khmelnytsky Uprising, in which many Jews were killed, and others were left without their families or villages.   Hasidism was an optimistic celebratory movement, and they needed a dose of optimism.
Anyway, we have in the U.S. various black hat groups, some who do well enough, and some of them do not get enough of a secular education to have the skills to make a living.  As a result, there are a substantial number of Hasidim who rely on government aid for their large families to survive.
The problem is not that they are lazy, on the contrary, one former Hasid said in an interview that they study 16 hours a day.   The problem is their attitude to secular education.  The problem occurs in Israel too.  Ironically, the Hasidic women (in Israel) are not as discouraged from learning skills that can bring in an income.  The men though, see the highest calling as studying the word of God.
if I were to argue with them on this point, I would say this.  I’d say that the ancient Israelites, like almost everyone else in that period, were an agricultural people.  Even King David started out as a shepherd.

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Young David: (c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Bible was a mixture of history and commandments, but Jews did not spend their lives in front of a book.  To survive, they had to earn their daily bread, and in the process interact with the various peoples in the area.

I’d say that if you go on the journey of life, like any journey, you study the map, but also eventually set off on the road.
I’d also say that poverty caused by a lack of willingness to learn skills does not ennoble people.  Poverty forces people to live at the expense of others.  I don’t know much of the bible, but I doubt that it encourages dependency.
Finally, I’d say that if you don’t want your children to learn about evolution, if you believe it contradicts the biblical narrative, then you can still teach your children math, or bookkeeping, or architecture, or construction, or computer programming, or some other applied skill.
I do not believe in shutting out the world, but American society has some serious problems that make the approach of the Hasidim and the Amish look somewhat sensible.
For instance, one problem that both communities avoid was described in the Wall Street Journal:
From our respective positions of rabbi-counselor and former Playboy model and actress, we have often warned about pornography’s corrosive effects on a man’s soul and on his ability to function as husband and, by extension, as father. This is a public hazard of unprecedented seriousness given how freely available, anonymously accessible and easily disseminated pornography is nowadays.
Put another way, we are a guinea-pig generation for an experiment in mass debasement that few of us would have ever consented to, and whose full nefarious impact may not be known for years…
The statistics already available are terrifying. According to data provided by the American Psychological Association, porn consumption rates are between 50% and 99% among men and 30% to 86% among women, …

Anderson and Boteach.  Anderson is already getting criticized for her stance (in this op-ed) against Porn.

Nine percent of porn users said they had tried unsuccessfully to stop—an indication of addiction that is all the more startling when you consider that the dependency rate among people who try marijuana is the same—9%—and not much higher among those who try cocaine (15%), according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
But it is a fair guess that whereas drug-dependency data are mostly stable, the incidence of porn addiction will only spiral as the children now being raised in an environment of wall-to-wall, digitized sexual images become adults inured to intimacy and in need of even greater graphic stimulation. They are the crack babies of porn.

So there are tradeoffs, and we do have freedom of religion in the U.S., which includes freedom to be a Hasid, but in the pursuit of righteousness, a person can find himself in a financial trap that is not righteous at all.
And then there is the issue of self-defense.  Hasidim may eventually be targeted, no matter how much they try to wall off society.  As Leon Trotsky once said, “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you!”
The same New York State that has various Hasidic communities also has a Muslim encampment where the inhabitants learn to shoot.
Islamberg, NY.
Now that I’ve bashed Hasidim in my quest in this blog to antagonize as many groups as possible, I should stress that I don’t know any Hasidim personally, I don’t know the percentage that does make a successful living (not all Hasidim are poor), and there are efforts to address the problem of poverty.
The hats that Hasids sometimes wear were worn by Eastern European nobility.  It is odd though that they freeze their garb in time.
Hasids give Amish a tour of Brooklyn
I bicycled past one of these Anish carts to the disapproving look of the women aboard.  These women look more cheerful.
: No More Indulging Porn – By Shmuley Boteach  and  Pamela Anderson  Aug. 31, 2016 – Wall Street Journal

2 thoughts on “The problem with the Black Hats

  1. An excellent and very interesting look at a group that I didn’t know much about. Interesting too that you should point to a connection between the Hasidim and the Amish, because the latter sect came into my mind as you were describing the former. Your point about their garments being “frozen in time” is very apt — their whole lifestyle, both groups, is one of trying to live life out of the correct time. Agreeing with your comment about studying scriptures, I would suggest that the problem is the lack of any conception that spiritual teachings are tailored to specific communities at specific times, and that reading and rereading materials that are no longer appropriate to one’s time and culture is obsession rather than anything more profound. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Biblical ban on eating pork has been explained as a recognition that thousands of years ago pigs all carried parasites that were extremely dangerous to people. In more recent times, agriculture has developed various antibiotics and treatments that have removed the threat. Obviously when there was little understanding of biology you couldn’t explain why you shouldn’t eat pigs in any language the people could follow, so you had to say pigs were unclean, unholy, tabu, or whatever, and that eating them would send you to Hell. Yet I imagine that the Hasidim still refuse to eat the unholy pigs? And the Amish still live a 19th Century lifestyle (I can’t figure why they are stuck in that century), as though that in itself makes them more good or religious or something. In fact it is odd how extreme authoritarian groups (e.g. the Islamist terrorists, the Kmer Rouge, even the Chinese Cultural Revolutionaries) always seem intent on turning back the clock and returning to a more primitive life style.

  2. There is a basic conservatism to religion. That conservativism used to be enforced. Less than 500 years ago, being a heretic to Christianity could lead to punishments similar to ISIS’s punishments (decapitation, for instance). On the other hand, both Christianity and Judaism have changed in some good ways. Jews don’t stone Sabbath-breakers any more, for instance.
    I think if you are too orthodox, you want to be sure you are following God’s commandments as strictly as possible, and in some cases, that leads to situations where you tell women to sit in the back of a bus, (some orthodox women in Israel have complained about that happening in the mea-Shearim area. There are people who refuse to study any secular subjects at all in Jerusalem (because it is a holy city).
    On the plus side, my father tells me that the Sabbath in Mea Shearim can be really nice, with a minimum of vehicles and a lot of quiet.
    In some cases, religious people regard questioners as back-sliders, or morally-flawed or even traitorous (I’ve seen one quote like that by a Muslim). At least Hasids are willing to argue, from what I’ve heard.
    Hasids and others will not eat pork presumably because they don’t agree with you that the prohibition against it was originally a health prohibition. They believe that for some reason God sees it as unclean.
    Anyway, my gripe is only with some of them, and it is that something has gotten way out of balance, to the point where it radically interferes with their ability to make a living. It also interferes with their reputation in the wider society.
    One day in America, the welfare checks will cease to arrive. When that day comes, the Amish will be OK, but a fraction of the Hasids will not be.
    I am not religious, but I am not dogmatic about it either. I certainly can’t explain the universe. Still, I can recognize when a religion becomes mired in the past, or causes people to lose their sense of proportion.

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