In general, ḥasidic Jews tend to look askance at academic Jewish studies, even when its practitioners are pious Jews. Thus Joshua Berman, an Orthodox rabbi and professor of Bible, was taken aback when a small group of Satmar Ḥasidim approached him to give an online seminar on his recent book on biblical criticism and Jewish faith (an extract can be read here, and Berman discussed the book on our podcast here). The five participants were not heretics-in-the-making, but simply eager to expand their intellectual horizons:
These men . . . are a stark contrast to the [usual] stereotype of ultra-Orthodox Jews [as] narrowminded individuals who eschew critical thinking and scientific evidence, treating as gospel every word of their community leader. These are men in their thirties who are happily raising families, working as accountants and as manufacturers and living in full devotion to their community and its interpretation of Jewish tradition and Jewish belief. But today, even behind the highest walls, the Internet seeps in. They seek to understand the complexity of the world they inhabit and make greater sense of their place in it.
At their initiative, we touched on the writings of Alan Dershowitz, James Kugel [another professor of Bible], and the Princeton scholar of modern Jewish thought Leora Batnitzky. For nearly two hours we engaged questions such as, are the Jews a nation or a religion? Are the biblical portraits of the patriarchs historically true? What are the limits of what a Jew must believe?
This is all quite extraordinary. There are individuals of many stripes who read widely to gain a greater appreciation of the world we live in and to find their place in it. But it is rare, indeed, to find a community of people who pursue this together and without the social and institutional structures to tell them that this is expected, or even virtuous. And it is all the more remarkable that they are engaged in this common pursuit at that busiest stage of life, while raising small children and working. At the University of Chicago, Allan Bloom famously decried the closing of the American mind. Who would have thought that its awakening in a communal setting would happen in the Satmar confines of Williamsburg?