Satmar Ideology and Lifestyle (part 2): The Charedi Worldview

22nd May 2020

This is a cross post by Izzy Posen

In my last post in the series I used various illustrations in order to make sense of the interconnectivity of charedi communities. One of them was the imagery of nested circles. But truth be told, that was just an approximation. To more fully represent the way in which charedi ideologies fit in with each other, I would need a complex Venn diagram with lots of intersecting circles.

For example, the Brisk community in Israel is a non-chassidic community that shares much of Satmar ideology and is in many ways closer to Satmar than are other chassidic groups.

May this be a general lesson that applies to the whole of this series: I am speaking in approximations. It is impossible to write about any community in its full human complexity. Rather one has to paint a general picture, following trends and generalisations. I trust the nuance of my readers to take my descriptions as merely generalisations and approximations that apply in many cases but not in all of them.

This will be all the more important in the current post in which I start sketching some trends of charedi, chassidic and Samtar thought. Asking “what do charedim believe?” is a bit like asking “what do secular people believe?”, in the sense that there will be many answers and no unified belief-system that is exceptionless. And yet, one can make some good generalisations that will hold in many cases. This is what I will be attempting in this post. So when I write “charedim believe x”, that is not to say that all charedim believe that, or even that all charedi rabbis believe that. Rather I will mean by that that x is a belief held by mainstream charedim and rabbis and that those who don’t believe x are a minority, are on the fringes, or keep quiet about it.

Here’s an example. Charedim, as a rule, accept the creation account of the first chapter in Genesis as literal history. That is, they believe that the world was literally created in 6 days precisely as described in Genesis. This does not mean that you can’t find the odd charedi thinker who has a more nuanced perspective and who might interpret these passages more metaphorically. But in general those thinker will be a) a minority, b) on the fringes and c) will keep quiet about those beliefs, thinking that most charedim wouldn’t be able to handle these nuances. (For more about these controversies within the charedi community, see Natan Slifkin’s blog at rationalistjudaism.com.)

In my previous post I said that I will explore the ideologies of charedism (or ultra-orthodoxy), of chassidism and of Satmar. Now there will be some elements of ideology and lifestyle that are held by one or two of these categories only. For example, many elements surrounding the rebbe are unique to chassidism only. I will talk more about the rebbe later. However, there are also bits of ideology that all ultra-orthodox Jews hold and yet it is held differently in different communities.

Here’s an example: all charedim believe in a literal hell that awaits sinners after their death. However, Satmar’s hell is much more fiery, pitch-forky and, in general, scarier than the hell that non-Satmar charedim believe in. So whilst they all accept a literal hell, their respective hells are of different temperatures.

I want the reader to keep these general trends in mind when reading on. I will talk at length about the first kind of difference in ideology between the sects. That is those bits of ideology that are exclusive to some of the sects within the charedi umbrella. But I won’t – in general – be able to go into detail with regards to the second kind of difference – the more nuanced kind, although I may hint at them at some points.

With these preliminaries out of the way, here are the general trends of ultra-orthodox, or charedi, ideology:

In charedi ideology the Universe was created so that the Jews fulfill God’s will. Jews fulfill God’s will by keeping all the commandments of the Torah, as interpreted by the Talmud and as codified in the Shulchan Aruch (a 16th century work of Jewish law, or “halacha”). The charedi God is a quite simple man-in-the-sky kind of God. They are not bothered by philosophical paradoxes about whether or not God can create a rock that He can’t lift. The charedi God is a very non-philosophical, non-rationalised, anthropomorphic God. In fact, charedim don’t do theology. Instead they do what’s called “hashkafah”, which translates as “worldview”. The devout charedi is concerned not with the theological and philosophical questions about God and the divine, but about the correct worldview that God wants him or her to believe in. He wants to know, not who God is, but how he can serve Him.

The charedi God is everpresent. He knows everything and – more importantly – He cares about everything. There are no neutral acts in charedi life. Everything is either good (or a “mitzvah”), or a sin (“aveirah”). God rewards you for mitzvahs and punishes you for aveirahs, with the punishment and reward usually being after one’s death in hell and heaven respectively. The charedi world is also ethnocentric in the belief that the whole world exists for the Jew, or more precisely, for the Orthodox Jew. This makes sense if you keep in mind that God created the world so that Jews may observe His commandments. The rest of humanity is there either to serve the needs of the Jew (for example, by manufacturing his goods, healing his sick and so on) or for God to send messages through them to the Jews (for example, a calamity might occur in the East – such as a tsunami, or earthquake – just so that Jews learn from it to fear God).

As we’ve seen, there is no neutral in charedi life. And this is where the halacha comes in. The halacha is a humongous corpus of law that sets up in astonishing detail the exact ways of Jewish daily life. In halacha there is no distinction between the religious sphere and the mundane sphere; there is no switching off when you finish praying and leave the synagogue. Every second of the day and every act – from tying your shoes to wiping yourself clean after using the bathroom – is prescribed in great detail. There is a right and wrong way to do everything and anything.

For this reason, the classic charedi education for boys is to bring them up as if they will all be rabbis. Of course not all charedi men are rabbis, but to be a properly observant charedi man you need to have a basic rabbi-level training in Jewish law. You can phone the rabbi and ask for clarification on occasions that are more unusual, for example when you have cooked meat in  a milky pot and you want to know how to make the pot kosher again. But you can’t constantly consult the rabbi on your daily activities. And, as we’ve seen, everyday activities also need to be done right. Women are also taught the basics of Jewish law and are told to ask their fathers and husbands for the rest.

Another aspect of the charedi way of life is their separation and self-isolation. Different communities do this to different degrees, with chassidim being – in general (at least outside of Israel) – much more extreme in this. But all charedim believe in a general need to isolate from secular culture around them. Charedim will send their kids to their own schools and they will almost never go to university. Using the internet (without special filters and supervision) is officially banned and no TVs are found in charedi households either. They read only their own, heavily censored, newspapers and they censor the textbooks of their kids (to remove ideas that are in opposition to their ideology, such as relationship and sex education, evolution, the Big Bang Theory and so on).

This censorship of science text books is part of a wider charedi scepticism about science and the very idea of progress through empirical investigation. Not only does the charedi world not recognise the ideals of progress, they actually believe that we live in a world of regress. A basic charedi tenet is that of “yeridas hadoros”, or “decline of the generations”. This is almost an inversion of the Darwinian idea of evolutionary “progress”. Charedim believe that man was more perfect in every regard in generations past. In fact, the further you go back to the time of creation, the more clever, stronger and holier man is. It is over the generations that his wisdom and strength has diminished, until we arrive at the present day, the weakest of generations.

This belief prevents the modern charedi from trying to assess ancient Jewish literature by current standards. The Talmud is full of claims that we now know from modern science not to be true. This is unsurprising, given that it was written one and a half millennia ago. But from a charedi perspective it is whatever the rabbis believed in that must be true, since they were far wiser and holier than us. If the rabbis say something that seems to contradict modern science, it is either that we have misunderstood what they really meant, or that they are right and modern science is wrong. In general, you may not question, or disagree with, anything said by a rabbi of earlier generations. And the further back the rabbi lived, the more untouchable are their words.

In addition to the belief of the decline of the generations, there is also a basic charedi belief called “da’as torah”, or “Torah knowledge”. The idea is that the Torah gives you access to knowledge about the world far beyond the simple content of its words. The spiritual and divine nature of the Torah means that you can read in it about the laws of kosher, or about some other bits of Jewish law and through that be given special insight into, say, how to run a business. This is a supernatural kind of access to knowledge that is granted to those who study the Torah in purity and for its own sake (Lishmah).

Thus a rabbi is not only an expert in the Torah law that he has spent his life studying. He also has a special “Torah knowledge” and insight on all kinds of worldly matters as well. You might consult the rabbi, for example, on matters of business and health, even though he has not directly studied either. That’s because his Torah wisdom gives him special access to these matters.

And this leads on to a phenomenon that exists in all charedi streams, but manifests differently in the chassidic sects and differently in the non-chassidic sects. This is the idea of a supreme leader who is considered to be wise, saintly and unquestionable. In chassidic sects this is the rebbe and I’ll talk more about that in the next post. In the non-chassidic sects this is the “godol” – the giant.

The godol is the generation’s most eminent Torah scholar and is believed to have ultimate da’as Torah. The godol has the final word on religious and non-religious matters and in Israel he has tremendous political power too. Charedim are constantly reminded to do as the godol says under the slogan of “You shall do exactly as they instruct!”, which comes from Deuteronomy 17 and is being interpreted as a commandment to do as the godol instructs.

It should be noted that the matter is a bit more complex, since there is usually more than one godol-candidate and different charedi groups will accept a different rabbi as THE godol. Things get nasty when the various gedoilm (plural for godol) disagree and each side accuses the other of not “doing as they were instructed”.

A final bit of charedi ideology that I will be discussing is the strict gender-segregation and the suppression of sexuality. Chassidim have taken this to another level with males and females not being allowed to make eye contact and with dating reduced to one or two 1-hour meetups followed by engagement. I will talk more about the chassidic side of this in the next post. But what all charedi groups have in common is the suppression of sexuality in unmarried men and women and strict gender segregation in schools, communal gatherings and celebrations.

As a rule, boys get brought up to guard their eyes and thoughts to not look at, or think of, women. Sex is not taught, nor discussed and masturbation is considered amongst the most severe of sins. This obsession with keeping boys’ eyes and thoughts pure has resulted in a wholesale ban on displaying any images of women – even modest, charedi women – in charedi newspapers or magazines. Women in the community are faceless. They are also powerless when it comes to official positions of power, such as the rabbinate, synagogue boards, community committees etc. You won’t find women on any of these. But I hope to devote a whole future post about gender and gender roles in the community, so this will suffice for now.

This has been a long post. I could have written about the fundamentals of charedi ideology in the format of a numbered list or bullet points. But I opted for the continuous prose approach instead, as I wanted to emphasise the interconnectedness of these beliefs and values. The charedi worldview is not a list of faith articles that one accepts and affirms. In fact there is no such list and no charedi is ever required to assert belief in these. (There is a list of 13 principles of faith due to Maimonides that every charedi is required to believe in, but those are distinct from the values and beliefs that I have enumerated here. The charedi belief-system extends well beyond these 13 principles.) Rather, the beliefs and values discussed here form a whole worldview, or web-of-beliefs that is just the way in which the charedi sees the world and believes it be.

But to conclude this rather long post, here is a summary of the basic charedi beliefs that have been discussed:

  1. The world exists for the observant Jew, so that he or she may fulfill God’s will as explicated in the Torah
  2. The Torah is read literally (fundamentalism). Heaven and hell are literal and for reward and punishment after one’s death
  3. There is no neutral or mundane in life. Every act is either a mitzvah or a transgression and there is a right and wrong thing to do everything, as expressed in halacha
  4. The charedi needs to separate him/herself from the harmful influences of secular culture. He/she must not read, watch, listen to the secular media. One’s hashkafah (worldview) must remain pure and protected
  5. Yeridas hadoros: previous generations were wiser, stronger and holier than us. It does not make sense to question past rabbis. Where the Talmud clashes with modern science, it is the latter that is wrong
  6. Da’as Torah: proper study of the Torah in purity gives one divine access to worldly knowledge. Holy rabbis therefore know best even on matters of science, business and politics
  7. The godol: in every generation there is a supreme torah authority to guide the people. He must not be disobeyed
  8. Sex and sexuality are sinful outside of marriage. Strict gender segregation is required to avoid sin

I want to note that this is by no means an exhaustive list. For example I haven’t talked at all about the moshiach (messiah) and how his awaiting plays a vital role in charedi life. I have mainly been concerned with giving a taste of the charedi worldview, rather than being precise and exhaustive. I hope that I have achieved my goal and that the reader has got a flavour of charedi life and ideology.

Now, everything written in this post applies in a general sense to all ultra-orthodox groups, including chassidim. But there are many ways in which chassidim have taken these to the next level and have added many beliefs and views over and above these. This is what I will be discussing in my next post. Stay tuned!