Saturday, May 28, 2011

Squaring Off

"In the world, but not of it" is a mindset that I associate with evangelical Christians, but it's not exclusive to them; Hasidic ("ultra-Orthodox") Jews live by the same philosophy. Most Hasidic Jews live in big cities like New York and Los Angeles, but some choose to live together in isolated communities so they can minimize their exposure to behaviors and clothing styles that might lead to "inappropriate" thoughts. Secular influences like television, non-religious music, and the Internet are strongly discouraged. Males and females are expected to remain physically separate in public places, to the point of walking on different sides of the street in some Hasidic communities. Hasidim dress very modestly; women are expected to cover almost all skin other than their faces and hands, and to wear a wig, headscarf, or hat. (The Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel was criticized by non-residents last year for putting up signs asking outsiders to "dress and behave in a modest way" while visiting the community.) The lifestyle sounds unbearably oppressive to me, but is intended to minimize worldly distractions and permit constant reflection on—and joy in—the nature of God.

A central aspect of Hasidic Judaism is loyalty to the group's "rebbe," who is not just a rabbi but also the leader of the community. The rebbe is consulted on spiritual matters and other important issues such as what job to take or who to vote for. The rebbe is regarded as the liaison between man and God; failure to accept his advice is viewed as an affront to the whole community. So when Aron Rottenberg, a resident of the Hasidic village of New Square (or "New Skver"†), New York, defied Rebbe David Twersky's directive to worship only at the community's main synagogue, he was criticized and intimidated by other New Square residents for more than a year. Windows in his car and house were smashed, and earlier this month, another dissident family's home caught fire. Reportedly, Rottenberg was told by other residents to leave the community, but he stood firm, although he did take the precaution of installing home security cameras.

Early Sunday morning, Rottenberg's security cameras showed 18-year-old Shaul Spitzer (who worked as a butler for Rebbe Twersky) on the house's back porch; it appears that Spitzer was trying to set a fire using a gasoline-soaked rag. Rottenberg confronted Spitzer and was badly burned over half his body. He's already endured several hours of skin graft surgery and is expected to be hospitalized for some time. Rottenberg's adult son was burned on his hands as he rolled his father on the ground to put out the flames. Spitzer has been charged with attempted murder, assault, and arson. His family and friends posted his $300,000 bail for him, but because he too was burned and remains hospitalized, being "out" on bail means only that the local sheriff's department doesn't have to guard him in the hospital.

Why Rottenberg chose to worship at a rehabilitation and nursing center a mile from his home instead of the village synagogue a few blocks away isn't really relevant, although Rottenberg's acquaintances/family members mentioned in news videos that he considered the sermons at the synagogue "too long," and that he wanted to teach people at the nursing center to pray correctly. Why Rebbe Twersky waited until several days after the incident to condemn the violence against Rottenberg is relevant, but I haven't heard any explanations for that. Why Rottenberg stayed in New Square after being ordered where to pray and then being abused for disregarding that order is none of my business, but I'd like to think it's because he's a grown man and (so far as I know) an American citizen, and realizes that he has the right to pray when and how he damned well pleases.

H/T to Howard Friedman at Religion Clause

† This story captured my attention in part because my screen name, "Cквер," when pronounced as a Russian word written in the Cyrillic alphabet, is pronounced "skver." "Skver" means "square" in the sense of a "community square" (a public space or garden), but my username has nothing to do with community gardens (or Hasidism). I first started using the name more than a decade ago, after reviewing several entries on the then-new Yahoo! Personals online dating site (which has now been absorbed into All I could think was, "Geez, I am such a square..."

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