Drawing on two recent books on the Satmar—America’s most numerous ḥasidic group, and one of its most insular—as well as recent controversies over their schooling system, Rita Koganzon investigates how this unusual religious denomination relates to the American liberal order.
The protections of the Free Exercise Clause allowed the Satmar sect to establish a network of private institutions and schools to sustain and to pass on its beliefs. Federalism and localism allowed them to create an independent municipality in 1977, the village of Kiryas Joel in upstate New York, inhabited and governed entirely by Satmar Ḥasidim. Welfare policies allowed them to support large families without devoting their lives to the education and time commitment required for professional advancement.
The Satmar don’t reject these policies and principles, but they’re not fundamentally committed to them either. Unlike other illiberal groups within liberal regimes, ḥasidic Jews have no ambition to take over the secular state or govern non-Jews; they want only to govern their own communities. But unlike the Amish, they do not understand self-government to be possible only through complete withdrawal from politics. Rather, they are thoroughly modern in accepting the tradeoffs of representative government. Running a self-governing municipality gave them an unprecedented degree of insulation from the secular world, . . . but it also made them players in state and local politics, enmeshing them more deeply in political life than they had ever been.
Satmar Ḥasidim tend to be poor—especially when compared with other Jewish groups—to a great extent because of their large family size and general lack of secular higher education. But in socioeconomic terms, Koganzon explains, they are very much an anomaly:
For them, it seems, poverty has not been as fatal to flourishing as it has for other Americans. It has not led to any of the social pathologies—crime, family disintegration, drug abuse, and so on—typically associated with it. This confounds the typical sociological explanations for these negative outcomes, which identify poverty as their root cause. In this respect, Ḥasidism confounds the right too, since it more successfully models, in actual practice, the corrective or even alternative to liberalism that Christianity often aspires to be.