March 2, 2013 On the Times
In some ways, Hasidim are completely stuck in the past. They behave, dress, speak, experience culture and observe Yiddishkeit as if it were two centuries ago. In other ways, they are masters of modernity, technology and fashion. I can’t completely make sense of this contradiction.
There is no doubt that even if Hasidim tried to resist the times, the explosion of advancements in the last two hundred years has made it nearly impossible to do so. And Hasidim aren’t foregoing opportunities to exploit these advancements for their own good either. Where technology can aid religiosity, be it to detect some living germs on lettuce or to send lab analysis of Rabbi’s voice recordings to prove authorship, the role technology plays in Hasidic life is significant. Unlike the Amish, there’s no shying away from onslaught of technology. Instead, Hasidim modify it and adopt it.
The new theory I am developing is that the Hasidic society survives by a system of Structured Adoption (henceforward… ehhem…SA). This means that Hasidim adopt outside ideas but in extremely specific and limited ways. Whenever change or progress is made in the secular world, these changes affect the Hasidic community. There is initially some floundering and struggles to adopt these influences in ways that don’t threaten pious seclusion, but after a while leaders legalize a form of structured adoption (SA, like I said!). For example, thirty years ago our parents had much more liberty in dress and behavior, even in Satmar. After some time, the Satmar Rebbe codified the Satmar American dress code, devising for instance, specific Palm tights, and from that point on Western dress became a non-threatening expression of fashion in a particularly Hasidic way. The adoption became more structured when t-shirts were ruled unkosher except under a shirt or over a shirt.
A current example would be when a new hairstyle is released or a new style of music arrives on the scene. Rabbis and the people are ambivalent about what goes and what doesn’t, but after some contradictory stances rabbis pretty much codify the exact stance, i.e., new music by Lipa is assur but by Weber is ok, the Rachel Cut is okay, but reaching below the shoulder is not.
These structured adoptions (SA!) help Hasidism survive as they are also changing.
It is yet to be seen if my theory will hold with the biggest threat to Hasidism: internet.
PS: I’d originally really wanted to do this cartoon with a rebbeh at his tish instead of a chasunadika lady, but submitted that it would be entirely unrealistic for a rebbeh to use a modernity like a wristwatch.