Monday, February 8, 2021

The Pandemic, the Ultra-Orthodox, and Social Change

Interesting article by Isabel Kershner in the Times that says the number of Israeli ultra-Orthodox leaving their communities has risen during the pandemic:

As the virus has rampaged through Israel in recent months, it has shaken the assumptions of some in the insular ultra-Orthodox world, swelling the numbers of those who decide they want out.

Organizations that help ultra-Orthodox who have left the fold navigate their transition from the highly structured, rules-based lifestyle into modern Israeli society have noted a rise in demand for their services.

Experts attribute the departures to a breakdown of supervision and routine, a rise in internet use during the pandemic and generally more time for questioning and self-discovery.

“If they are not in their usual educational frameworks and are on the internet, meeting friends and going to the beach, that leads to a lot of exposure,” said Gilad Malach, who directs the ultra-Orthodox program at the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank in Jerusalem. “They think of options they don’t think of when they are in yeshiva, and one of the options is to leave.” . . .

This was just what the ultra-Orthodox rabbis had feared and why some were so insistent on keeping their religious education institutions open in violation of lockdown regulations. In a letter calling for girls’ schools to reopen, Leah Kolodetzki, the daughter of one leading rabbi, said that in her father’s opinion “boredom leads to sin” and puts girls in “severe spiritual danger.”
I find this fascinating. It suggests that one key to maintaining any separatist group is to keep everyone so busy with in-group activities that they have no time to interact with others or to wonder whether they are really on the right path. In this case there is an additional point, which is that the ultra-Orthodox have a terrible record on preventing the spread of the disease, which may be causing some to question their leaders. But every leadership group messes up sometimes.

How far can we generalize the insight about busyness and acceptance of our situation?

It is certainly not a new idea that radical thinking comes from time apart; religious reformers spending their time in the desert or on the mountain, for example.

I have always suspected that the reason we secular westerners have so much dissatisfaction with our own system is that we have more time and energy to ask questions. No church to go to, no intense round of ritual or social activity.

But is, maybe, human life at some level a rule-based system just like being ultra-Orthodox, so the way to be satisfied with it is to interact all the time with other humans and throw yourself into human activities so that you don't have time or energy to ask too many questions?


David said...

"But is, maybe, human life at some level a rule-based system just like being ultra-Orthodox, so the way to be satisfied with it is to interact all the time with other humans and throw yourself into human activities so that you don't have time or energy to ask too many questions?"

Well, such systems are clearly ONE way to be satisfied. Humans are very prone to such systems, and I don't think they're just the result of control and self-interest from the top. But this pattern also clearly doesn't work all the time or for all people. I don't think there's any way to have a collection of humans without discontent of some sort. And arguably, societies with plenty of ritual and intense internal interaction (e. g., southwestern pueblos, Greek poleis) are arguably more prone (and certainly no less prone) to internal conflict and fission than giant cosmopolitan ones.

One thing to note is that, from a certain point of view, the intellectual and questioning life in many of these communities is very intense. A significant portion of ultra-Orthodox males spend all their time trying to understand Torah and disputing about it. So there is consensus and ritual, but conflict is also built into the system. One could say the same about medieval Christianity, the intellectual life of which from about 1100 was, in a sense, about holding and winning arguments.

John said...

Interesting. Could, maybe, disputes within the system be another way to keep people busy, as opposed to questioning the system itself? If you're arguing with the other members of your Pueblo or College then you aren't interacting with outsiders and raising fundamental questions about your institution.

David said...

I'm wary of a phrase like "another way to keep people busy," because I'm skeptical that social forms evolve to serve functions in that kind of simple, one-to-one way, and especially in a simple-but-covert way. In addition, disputes within the system can be as destructive as those that question fundamentals from an outside perspective. Pueblos and poleis were never very stable societies. History is full of final breaks, social splits, and bloodthirsty quarrels where it is an open question just how fundamental the differences were.

I also suspect orthodox Judaism presents an artificially stable system--although there are factions within it--because its status as a small minority in a much larger society means that fundamental differences can be easily solved by dissidents simply leaving. If 20,000 ultra-Orthodox lived isolated by themselves in a valley, I bet you'd see plenty of turmoil.

I would say a very important factor in social stability and keeping down mental complaints is the ready availability of disapproving social surveillance. One of the values of keeping people busy is that it gives them something to do that they won't be criticized for while they're not doing what they'd really like to do (including dithering, being anxious and/or lazy and/or weak, etc.), which they would be criticized for. As I've said before, I'm skeptical that pre-modern people--whom I'm guessing you're sort of using the ultra-Orthodox as a stand-in for--were that much more mentally healthy than we are. Some of their uncomplainingness came from the demands placed upon them, as you seem to be suggesting here, and some from the fact that they were often worried about survival, as you have suggested in the past, but some of it came from social disapproval directed toward things like complaining. Indeed, when survival is in question, it seems to me the most important factor in survival, apart from sheer luck and a good immune system, is probably social acceptance.

Beyond all that, human variability is king. I'm sure living like the ultra-Orthodox suits some people very well, and once they learn the rules, social disapproval doesn't come into it. Being a beach bum suits some other folks very well as well.

G. Verloren said...

"But is, maybe, human life at some level a rule-based system just like being ultra-Orthodox, so the way to be satisfied with it is to interact all the time with other humans and throw yourself into human activities so that you don't have time or energy to ask too many questions?"

To once again quote Carl Sagan, "As if there were only one human nature!".

For some people, sure - a rules based life and keeping themselves busy so they don't have the time or energy to question anything is perfect. Some people genuinely would be happiest living an unexamined life - for such people, ignorance really is bliss.

But it's insanity to think what satisfies one person will satisfy everyone. I'm perfectly happy to let the people who want to lead Ultra-Orthodox lives do so - live and let live, and all that. If someone genuinely wants to live that way, who am I stop them from doing so?

But the problem with these hyper conservative groups is always that they want to impose their values on others, and will go to extreme lengths and commit atrocious acts against even their own children to maintain control and force compliance to their worldview. They want to be allowed to live their own lives as they wish, but then turn around and refuse their own flesh and blood the right to decide for themselves how to live - they must remain part of the community, and they must not be allowed to exercise free thought or choose for themselves.

If that wasn't the case - if these groups were truly voluntary and didn't coerce people, particularly the young and vulnerable, into staying, I wouldn't have any complaints. But as things stand, I look forward to the day when all such controlling cultures perish from the earth because they drive all their young people away with their toxic and immoral behavior. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.