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  • Writer's pictureMike Diederich Jr.

Ultra-Orthodox Religion and Politics Don't Mix

Updated: Sep 15, 2021

Organized religion is becoming overly involved in politics nationally and in New York, and thus in governance. In Rockland County and metropolitan New York, the Hasidic community is being criticized for some of its members behaviors, and in response, the critics are being called “anti-Semitic” (even if Jewish). However, criticizing certain cultural traits (for example, fear of outsiders, a cultural trait that often is ingrained from childhood) is different from criticizing religious belief. And criticizing some cultural traits of a group (for example, insularity) may be appropriate if the cultural traits contradicts legitimate norms of the larger society (for example, the value that all Americans should contribute to the larger society).

The United States is a culturally pluralistic society. We allow—indeed, we embrace—the idea of allowing different religious and ethnic groups to maintain their unique cultural identities. We accept the idea of allowing (and often admiring) a diversity of cultural values and practices. However, government can also properly insist that core values of American society be respected. In other words, everyone can keep their religious and cultural heritage and traditions, but these must not be in conflict with the laws and basic values of the larger American society.

I have spoken about what appears to be the very severe absence of secular education in many Hasidic yeshivas. In my view, the lack of sound secular education creates many problems for Hasidics as individuals and for the larger society. Just look at Ramapo.

Sound secular education is not a "liberal" versus "conservative" or Democrat versus Republican issue. Most everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, agree that the better one’s education, the more likely there will be success in adulthood.

In criticizing the behaviors of some members of the ultra-Orthodox community, it is unhelpful to bring religion into the discussion. Criticizing bad conduct, or defending it, does not ordinarily stem from “Anti-Semitism,” or “Anti-Gentile-ism,” or “self-hating Jews,” or other forms of prejudice. The behavior being criticized is, it seems to me, not "religious" in origin.

Many if not most of the bad behaviors being criticized stem from the abuse of POWER, or the corrupting influence of power. Too many religious leaders use religion as a sword, to cut down their critics, Jew and Gentile alike. These religious leaders maintain control over their members by making sure their religious group’s children are kept in intellectual cages, isolated from the larger American society. Because our Nation has a culture and tradition of respecting our citizens’ religious autonomy (supported by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment) , we are loath to criticize religious groups, even ones that are quite extreme. Thus, ultra-Orthodox leaders have given themselves too much license to encourage, if not teach, unwise and un-American cultural practices, and to allow indoctrination of children.

Our Nation’s Founding Fathers recognized the danger that organized religion posed if allowed to intrude into governance. The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause requires a wall of separation between church and state. The ultra-Orthodox leadership too often breaches that wall.

The Founding Fathers also envisioned America as a culturally pluralistic society, where people can keep their diverse heritages and religious beliefs, but also accept the obligations of citizenship and the democratic values of the new nation, namely, the Enlightenment view that a democracy requires an informed, educated and participating citizenry.

In the Nation, in New York State and in Rockland County, we are all members of a culturally pluralistic society. We are all in this together. No group is entitled to be an island apart. To be a separate society. An separate culture. As the Satmar Grand Rebbe taught, "a holy camp in the desert," where American society is the desert.

People can go to any church they desire, and parents can teach their children any religious dogma they wish. But to be good citizens of this Nation and this State, parents must permit their children a sound secular education—in history, literature, science and civics—so that they will learn at an early age how to become good citizens as they mature. Adults who understand the core American cultural values of rational political debate, respect for others, religious tolerance, racial and ethnic non-segregation, and public service. That is the Founders’ vision for our democracy. It is our American culture, and it must be taught to children in school. With sound education in a child’s formative years, the child will become a good citizen, because the child will have learned our core values and culture. Better cultural values means a better society.

Let me suggest that the above is a principled approach to discussing many issues involving any religious group whose cultural views may conflict with the Founding Fathers’ vision of an informed, educated electorate.

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