“Hasidic paradigm” already at work in church-state relations?

The controversy surrounding the Satmar Hasidic Jewish sect of New York over its use of public funds for its schools already suggests that Americans are in the middle of a paradigm shift in how religious communities navigate church-state relations, writes Rita Koganzon in The Hedgehog Review (Summer). The way that the Satmar Hasidim, the largest group in this mystical and strictly Orthodox branch of Judaism, have received public funding for a school system seen as not measuring up to state educational standards has been front-page news for the past year. The New York Times in particular has regularly run investigative articles on how the Hasidim have miseducated children and are not held accountable for their abuse of welfare programs. “Every subsequent article is quick to remind readers of the raw deal they are getting as taxpayers: Hasidim take your money, but they don’t follow your laws,” Koganzon writes. Critics argue that it is not actually clear what the law in question means, as state law requires private schools to offer a “substantially equivalent” education to that provided by public schools, which could be interpreted in several ways.

But more important to the gist of the controversy is that the Times and other media and lawyers are relying on what Koganzon calls the “Amish paradigm” in their opposition to the Hasidim. That paradigm, backed up by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1972 Wisconsin v. Yoder decision, holds that religious groups may enjoy broad freedom as long as they do not accept public funds and are isolated enough that they do not run for public office and get other public accommodations. While this paradigm held for almost a half-century, Koganzon writes that this “equilibrium is breaking down, and the Hasidic model is already superseding the Amish paradigm even as opponents of the Hasidim attempt to constrain them with Amish logic.” Since the 1990s, the courts have been expanding public funding for religious activities, and in contrast to the peculiar geographical remoteness of Amish communities, “religious dissenters from secular modernity remain embedded in cities and suburbs and entangled in the same web of civic and cultural institutions that shape the lives of everyone else.” The strong opposition particularly to the Satmar Hasidim “might be more representative of the religious liberty battles to come than the Amish ever were of the battles past. Their insularity opens them to easy demonization, but considered from another angle, they offer a model of social cohesion and civic participation in an increasingly fractured, alienated age,” Koganzon adds. The Satmars have adopted the strategy of playing “ball with liberalism while neither being absorbed into it nor undermining it.”

Orthodox Jewish family, Williamsburg, NYC (© 2009 Chris Ford | Flickr).

Even the most controversial of the Satmars’ programs, the establishment of the village of Kiryas Joel in upstate New York, an independent municipality inhabited and governed entirely by Satmars that would seem to violate the Establishment Clause, has survived the courts as they have moved away from the doctrine of “strict separationism.” Koganzon notes that the Satmars’ main source of opposition has been secular Jews—from Times reporters to lawyers. Aside from mainstream Jewish frustration and embarrassment at the unassimilated nature of the Satmars, she writes that Jewish liberalism has long prioritized free-speech absolutism in the form of “taboo busting,” strict church-state separation, the removal of religion from the public sphere, and “meritocracy as a vindication of individual rights”—values that the Hasidim disparage right in the middle of New York City. While the New York Times’s crusade against the Satmars evokes all of Jewish liberalism’s presuppositions, the tide is turning against it. “From different partisan directions, the courts have slowly abandoned [this liberalism’s] interpretation of the First Amendment, elite institutions have rejected its argument for meritocracy, and the culture is turning away from its celebration of exposure and taboo busting. Even demography has turned against Jewish liberalism—Orthodoxy is growing, secular Judaism is shrinking…Ironically, Hasidism is now closer in form to the emerging ideals of the left and the right than the American Civil Liberties Union of the 1970s. It is the urban, family-centric, anti-corporate, and in some respects anticapitalist, welfare approving, religious-communitarian Benedict Option that has actually worked over half a century,” Koganzon concludes.

(The Hedgehog Review, https://hedgehogreview.com)