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From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: The Jewish Schools Scandal and Religious Studies
“Conflicts over religious freedom continue to result in a crazy quilt of local solutions.” That’s Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Saba Mahmood, and Peter G. Danchin in their editors’ introduction to Politics of Religious Freedom (University of Chicago Press). One patch of the American edition of that quilt was recently explored in an investigative report in The New York Times by Eliza Shapiro and Brian M. Rosenthal (with contributing reporting by, among others, the Chronicle‘s own reporting fellow Marcela Rodrigues-Sherley).
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“Conflicts over religious freedom continue to result in a crazy quilt of local solutions.” That’s Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Saba Mahmood, and Peter G. Danchin in their editors’ introduction to Politics of Religious Freedom (University of Chicago Press). One patch of the American edition of that quilt was recently explored in an investigative report in The New York Times by Eliza Shapiro and Brian M. Rosenthal (with contributing reporting by, among others, the Chronicle’s own reporting fellow Marcela Rodrigues-Sherley).
The article is long and detailed, but its major findings can be summed up quickly: Despite taking large sums of public money, many New York Hasidic schools fail to teach students the rudiments of math and English, focusing instead on an exclusive curriculum of Bible study. At some schools, precisely zero percent of students are able to pass state tests in verbal and quantitative reasoning. Corporal punishment, moreover, is common. This state of affairs is treated with forbearance by city and state authorities because Hasidim vote in a block, as directed by their religious leaders, and so have substantial democratic power.
Nevertheless, politicians including former mayor Bill de Blasio have repeatedly vowed to impose reforms on underperforming yeshivas, which Hasidic leadership interprets as a dire threat to their way of life. This, then, is very much a case of what Sullivan et al. call “bad religion,” by which they mean religion stigmatized by secular power as undeserving of the privileges guaranteed by religious freedom. The “accommodation of religious diversity,” on which secular states pride themselves, cannot but entail “a dividing of legal religion from illegal religion — good religion from bad religion.”
One label for the tradition in which Sullivan et al. write is “postsecular critique,” which, drawing on fields including political philosophy, history, theology, and anthropology, grapples with what it sees as the blind spots of a secular political order deluded by its own exclusive presumption to rationality and, in the American case, by a failure to grasp the specifically Protestant nature of its putatively neutral institutions.
At its best, this avenue of critique can do much to unsettle ossified and self-congratulatory assumptions about liberal pluralism — restoring a sense both of its own ritual character and of the covert aggressions of its “toleration” toward religious difference. At other times, skepticism toward the secular can edge into the implausibly hyperbolic, as when a study of 19th-century Mormonism insists that secularism just is “the racialized theodicy of hegemonic liberalism.”
A version of that strong suspicion has its mirror both in American conservatives’ sympathy to religion and in some of the legal strategies they have used to shore up their vision of religious liberty. In his contribution to Politics of Religious Freedom, Samuel Moyn describes a novel coalition of Catholics and Evangelicals for whom, in his unconvinced summary, it is “now … blatantly clear that the scourge of intolerance — especially secularist intolerance — persists.”
A Jewish variant of that concern has always existed around crackdowns on Hasidic yeshivas and has emerged again in response to Shapiro and Rosenthal’s reporting. In Mosaic, the Hasidic education reformer Eli Spitzer wrote in October of last year that although by the age of 15 he “had forgotten almost entirely the smatterings of English and mathematics” he had learned in elementary school, he nevertheless sees state pressure as an existential threat. “What the dispute about Hasidic yeshivas is really about … is something much more critical than instruction in secular studies. It’s about whether the liberal state is willing to let a countercultural social movement that bends the rules of the liberal order grow up in its midst.” And in Tablet, Liel Leibovitz insists that, no matter what they learn or don’t learn, yeshiva students “spend their days doing things they love and believe are of the utmost importance. As a result, they are happier.” (For what it’s worth, the study he cites focuses on Haredi Jews in general, not Hasidim specifically.)
Here we come to the nub of the issue. Despite Leibovitz’s rosy picture, in fact a substantial minority of Hasidic students have themselves been vocally dissatisfied with the curriculum of the schools. As Spitzer explains, such students formed an advocacy group in 2011 — Young Advocates for Fair Education — lobbying the state “to enforce rules that would require yeshivas to teach the full secular curriculum … or face legal sanctions.” And Shapiro and Rosenthal quote many products of the yeshivas who feel angry about their lack of secular schooling. As Moishy Klein put it, “I don’t know how to put into words how frustrating it is. … It’s crazy that I’m 20 years old, I don’t know any higher order math, never learned any science.”
Is resentment of what the Times calls “levels of educational deprivation not seen anywhere else in New York” the norm for Hasidic yeshiva students? Surely not. Many of them would no doubt agree with the justice of the Satmar Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum’s refusal: “We will not comply, and we will not follow the state education commissioner under any circumstances.”
There is no general principle of religious freedom by which to adjudicate between Moishy Klein’s right to a secular education and the larger community’s right not to comply on religious grounds. As the anthropologist Michael Lambek puts it in his essay in Politics of Religious Freedom, “The very idea of freedom of religion is paradoxical; it is the freedom to be unfree in a particular kind of way.” Or as Sullivan says in the blog The Immanent Frame, religious freedom in America (but surely not only in America) will often involve “the reinstatement of the rights of religious authority by political authority — in the name of religious freedom.”
Although the membership rates of both churches and synagogues are declining nationwide, the claims of conservative religious communities on religious freedom show no sign of slackening. Quite the contrary. For the foreseeable future, secular leaders — and not just in New York — will need to navigate a world in which their power is checked and challenged by the particular convictions of groups of Americans with quite other, and otherworldly, commitments.
Read Eliza Shapiro and Brian M. Rosenthal’s “In Hasidic Enclaves, Failing Private Schools Flush With Public Money” here, Eli Spitzer’s “New York State vs. the Yeshivas” here, Liel Leibovitz’s “The Plot Against Jewish Education” here, and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan’s “The World That Smith Made,” here. And for more on secularity and its discontents, see this dispute between Jacques Berlinerblau and Caleb Smith, here, here, and here.
Jean-Luc Godard, RIP
The pioneering filmmaker died this month at age 91. Some essential reading on his oeuvre (h/t V21 Collective):
Susan Sontag on Vivre Sa Vie: “In great art, it is form — or, as I call it here, the desire to prove rather than the desire to analyze — that is ultimately sovereign. It is form that allows one to terminate.” Gary Indiana for the Criterion Collection on Weekend: “Less like a novel than a pamphlet, and more like a fairy tale than either.” J. Hoberman in The Nation on Goodbye to Language and much else: “No filmmaker has ever been more interested in the fiction of the real — or crankier.” Richard Brody with a retrospective in The New Yorker: “In his old age, he remained more playful, more provocative, and simply more youthful in spirit than younger filmmakers.” (Brody profiled Godard for the magazine in 2000.) In n+1, Blair McClendon on what Godard meant to him: “It feels impossible to think of a cinema without him, or after him, only ever beside him, panting, trying to keep up.” Finally, Scott Kraft in Cigar Aficionado on Godard’s penchant for cigars, about which he proved a recalcitrant subject: “Asked … to talk about his evident love of cigars, he demurs. ‘I’m not in the mood to answer questions,’ he says.”
- “Johannes Nathaniel Doncker sexually assaulted women, drank heavily, and used profane language, according to reports in the 1660s. Of course, most ministers were competent and above board, but, when pastors were few and far between, a few bad apples could spoil the missionary corps.” In Aeon, Charles H. Parker on early-modern global Calvinism.
- “You get inklings, in what these women felt in her presence and collectively built, of why they might devote themselves in service of her fanatical drive.” In Bookforum, Claudia La Rocco on a new biography of Martha Graham.
- “Secrets have come to seem quaint, something vaguely legacy or vintage, like glossy magazines or flip phones.” Also in Bookforum, Christian Lorentzen on what distinguishes autofiction from confessional fiction.
- “Schelling pronounced that everything — from insects to trees, stones to birds, rivers to humans — was part of one great organism.” In the New York Times, Andrea Wulf on what the Jena Romantics can teach us about environmentalism.
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