The Machers and the Rebbes

by Maskil on August 10, 2009

Reading this NYTimes.com article (highlighted on the FailedMessiah.com whistle-blower website) had me wondering again why so many of our “Machers” – highly successful and powerful businessmen and politicians – feel the need to pander to and financially reward the most reactionary trends within Judaism. What do the Machers and the Rebbes have in common?

In many cases, our Machers are the product of secular, Reform, Conservative, Traditional (non-observant Orthodox) or Modern Orthodox backgrounds, seemingly a world away from the sour, closed societies represented by the Rebbes. Some may be inter-married, or even the product of inter-faith families.

In the case referred to in this article, political self-interest appears to be the main motive. Haredi and Hassidic communities give the impression of a worthwhile constituency; organised and regimented to the will of their Rebbes, they are far more structured than the rest of the Jewish world.

Buying political favour is not the whole explanation, however. Other motives which appear to be at play include:

  • A misplaced nostalgia for something they never knew; the apparent warmth and community of the Shtetl or its urban equivalent
  • What I’ve referred to elsewhere as “Judaism by Proxy”; the damaging belief that the ultra-Orthodox are the guardians of authentic Judaism. So, even if you’re not prepared to take on the yoke of Torah for yourself, funding the Rebbes allows you to perform the Jewish equivalent of “purchasing an indulgence”.

Is there really anything fundamentally wrong with channelling funds (especially public funds) to organised ultra-Orthodoxy? A few I can think of:

  • This world has become almost synonymous with corruption. Those concerned with due diligence should at least give a second thought to whether the money will end up in the right hands or not.
  • It rewards “inappropriate behaviour”, in the sense that these organised communities are almost the antithesis of the open, rational, democratic and egalitarian atmosphere many of these Machers come from, operate in and are comfortable in. They are, quite simply, not deserving of the financial support of those outside their own world.
  • It punishes appropriate behaviour, in that funds are diverted away from the worthwhile, innovative and sustainable trends within Judaism.

Can anything be done to arrest or reverse the trend?

  • Talking about it and highlighting the incidents and individuals concerned is already a start. As Louis Brandeis and others since have reminded us “Sunlight is … the best of disinfectants …”
  • The Machers themselves: give some thought as to whether your money is saying the same thing as your values.
  • Organised modern Jewish life: offer alternative avenues for funds from donors and trusts. Ones that advance the modern, open and progressive trends within the Jewish world, rather than the backward and reactionary ones. Black Hat Judaism is not the one, single “Authentic Judaism”.
  • The rest of us: Occasionally remind our Machers (who mostly try to do what’s best) of who their real constituency is.

Backing the Rebbes may look like a safe bet, but their style of Judaism will not take us forward into the future.  Our Machers – who know how and when to take risks – should rather put their money on the outsiders; the still-emerging forms of Judaism capable of engaging with open societies and the explosion and democratisation of information and knowledge.

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