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Holy Shtit.

(cross-posted at Skepchick)

Sorry, that’s “shtetl,” not “shtit.” NY Mag just published a fascinating look at one woman’s struggle to escape a Jewish cult called Satmar Hasidim from Kiryas Joel in the Catskills — it’s a story that reads as though it’s coming from a fundamentalist Muslim community in the MidEast. In addition to having no access to the outside world by way of the Internet, TV, radio, or newspapers, women are expected to adhere to arranged marriages with men they’ve never met and pop out babies on a fairly regular schedule from their teen years on.

Of course, as most cults go, they’re pretty ignorant on anything that smells of science. From the article:

It was also in school, looking at textbooks with large sections blacked out, that young Satmars learned there was no such thing as evolution, that dinosaur bones are nothing but G-d’s inference of an inaccessible past world, and that stars in the skies are not stars at all but pinpricks of light in a vast scrim placed by G-d for the Jews to gaze upon as they made their passage through the profane world, a world due to expire with the coming of the seventh Hebrew millennium, now 232 years away.

Gitty, the woman at the center of the piece, tells a lot more — including the part where the cult kidnaps her daughter and gives her to the father, who then maintains control over the child while Gitty fights back through the courts. The mother is allowed to see her daughter only when the cult allows. All of it combined with what I’ve read about the equally disgusting Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (start with Under the Banner of Heaven for a terrifying read) and fundamentalist Muslims really makes me think that cults often use children as nothing more than little tools for keeping the women tied down. Even the strongest woman will think twice about running away when she’s pregnant, and once she’s had a child she must consider what a life on the run will do to a baby. Or, she has to give up her child(ren) in order to focus on getting herself to safety, an idea that most mothers will naturally avoid.

While I think that women have it the worst in just about every cult I’ve ever studied, Gitty talks a bit about the troubles faced by the KJ boys:

“A lot of grooms faint on their wedding nights,” Gitty continues. “You see—before you get married, they keep you apart. You talk to the person once or twice. On your wedding night, you’re supposed to get it on with this total stranger. It is really bad for guys. Hasidic men are told all their lives if they masturbate they go to hell. Spilling the seed—that’s the biggest sin. At school, a lot of the boys had their pockets sewn up so couldn’t poke around with their hands. Then, all of a sudden, they’re with this naked woman and they think if they don’t screw her and produce more Jews, G-d is going to get really, really mad at them. That is a lot of pressure.”

Sad, though of course that sort of ignorance of human sexuality is something encouraged even by what we might consider more moderate religions in the US. Of course, this cult takes it so much further for the adolescent girls:

After a woman stops bleeding, she has to wear white underwear for seven days, checking constantly to see if there’s any discharge. Should spotting occur, the woman takes her underwear to a special rabbi who examines the color, shape, and density of the stain. It is he who divines when it is safe for the woman to immerse herself in the mikvah (ritual bath) and be reunited with her husband

Are you horrified yet? You should be. What I find particularly sad is the reaction of a writer on Jezebel, where I first saw this story linked. Overall, I like Jezebel and think they do a good job of drawing attention to good feminist stories like this. However, there are many times when I strongly disagree with the opinions of the individual writers, and this is one of those times. (Those of you who read Jezebel might be familiar with what happened last week with Thinking & Drinking — let’s not even go there.) Here’s what the writer, Jessica, has to say about this story:

When learning about the most Orthodox sects within any religion, it’s very easy to judge their more extreme rituals as freakish. I think I was a little guilty of painting the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints with the freak brush, and I will consciously try not to do that with the Satmar Hasidim from Kiryas Joel, a group of ultra-religious Jews who are the subject of this week’s New York Magazine cover story.

While it’s a good thing to refrain from pre-judging a particular person because of his or her religion, it saddens me that this woman is shy about judging a sect by their actions. That is exactly how we should judge a cult: by what they do. This cult abuses and oppresses women, and god damn it we need to have the figurative balls to say so. Another quote from Jessica:

It’s easy for us to judge the Satmars, call them backwards and misogynistic and sad. And while I privately do think those things, religious freedom means never telling someone else how to live.

That kind of sentiment makes me want to tear my hair out, not least because it makes no sense to say you only “privately” think something while quite publicly declaring it on a popular blog. Let’s get something straight: religious freedom does not mean freedom from criticism. When we talk about religious freedom, generally we are talking about the right of every person to believe what he or she wants to believe without interference from the government. Those people do not have the right to go on raising children in their backwards, misogynistic, sad world without hearing an outcry from the rest of the rational world.

Jessica does a grand disservice to women by suggesting that we should keep our feelings about cults like these private. Consider Gitty’s story — she escaped when she gained access to the Internet and read blogs about other people who had escaped. Bloggers helped her gain her physical and mental freedom. Bloggers who were not afraid to say what they knew about the dangers of a closed-off cult.

5 comments to Holy Shtit.

  • Laura Salo

    I remember on one episode you guys talked about how Americans are sometimes so concerned about being fair (this was in the context of the ID debate), that they fail to notice when something really is wrong. Jessica may be one of these people.

    I think any religion/cult which restricts your right to gain knowledge is definitely crossing the line. There just isn’t a situation when that would be justifiable. And I will criticise any such organization as much as I want to.

    I’m so happy Gitty managed to escape.

  • Excellent post! I can tell you that most people in the mainstream Jewish community have never heard of this cult/sect. It’s important that more are made aware of this.

  • Imperius Rex

    I’d heard of this in some sects before, but there was more to it. The woman, until the rabbi checked her skivvies and gave her the go-ahead for the mikvah, she was not allowed to even hand anything to her husband. He could not even interact with his children if she was ‘unclean’. Archaic bullshit.

    If this activity was undertaken by any other type of institution it would not be tolerated by our legal system. Where is the legal line drawn for what is unnacceptable where ‘religions’ are concerned? Polygamy was OK within some Mormon sects, but the law trumped their dogma and now it just can’t legally be done. It would seem that women within the confines of this sect are relegated to second-class citizenship. I’d love to hear the legal rationale behind protecting some of these practices which seem, at the very least, gender-bias. And if the sect indoctrinates from birth, I don’t believe “they choose to live that lifestyle” is a valid defense. That would seem to eliminate the possibility of them being able to make an informed choice.

  • Totally repugnant. It amazing how some human beings can get it so so wrong.

  • MindBlown

    You nailed it, Rebecca. Cultural sensitivity and openness to differences is all well and good, up to a point. We still have to draw lines and declare some forms of behavior out of bounds. This religious group’s actions are clearly out of bounds. Members within that group need to hear other points of view, and the leadership of that group needs to know that the larger society will not tolerate their misconduct. Wacky ideas, religious or otherwise, cannot go unchecked!

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