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Lubavitchers as Citizens: A Paradox of Liberal Democracy.

Lubavitchers as Citizens: A Paradox of Liberal Democracy, by Jan Feldman. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. 212 pp. $32.50.

Political scientists and political theorists have not been very kind to Lubavitchers. The main complaint against the Lubavitchers is, simply, that they are not very good citizens. The critics argue that the Lubavitchers do not think for themselves enough but simply blindly follow what their rebbe says, are not interested in the common good but use politics solely as way to advance their own interests, shelter their children from different ways of life, generally live an insular life that ensures that their children will have little choice about how to live their own lives, and live in a traditional and patriarchal system that discriminates against women. Moreover, these critics argue that the obvious corollary to the Lubavitcher attachment to faith is a dangerous denigration of reason.

Jan Feldman sets out to defend the Lubavitchers against these charges, though she wants to do more than that: she wants to explain the Lubavitch worldview and their relationship with the outside world. She has interviewed many Lubavitchers and lived with them, giving her an excellent understanding of their way of life. The first chapter shows how the Lubavitchers ill-fit in the reigning theories of democratic citizenship: the theories of liberals, civic republicans, feminists, and even communitarians all have trouble with Lubavitchers. Before Feldman responds to these complaints, she presents three chapters to explain Chassidim in general and Lubavitchers in particular. Chapter 2 gives a brief overview of the origins of Chassidim, their history, and their current structure, while chapters three and four explain the relationship between the Lubavitchers and American and Canadian politics (these chapters focus mostly on the Lubavitch community in New York and Montreal, since they are the largest in each country).

The remaining five chapters (capped by a very short conclusion) defend the Lubavitchers from their critics, and argue that liberal democratic theory ought to make space for the Lubavitchers and not treat them as an embarrassment or as a hostile enemy. Feldman argues that Lubavitchers do use reason, are quite reflective, and consciously choose to live their lives. Lubavitchers are also loyal citizens, who are quite thankful to be able to live in the U.S. or Canada. Lubavitch women are not hapless and hopeless victims of a patriarchal culture, but choose to live full lives, where they are treated respectfully, receive a good education, and are able to create their own world with other women. Lubavitchers are not classical liberal citizens: they are not radical skeptics or radical individualists. They are not relativists, like many liberal citizens are. Rather, their faith gives them certain values that help structure their world. Feldman contends that this makes the Lubavitchers different than typical liberal citizens, but not necessarily worse. Liberal society is hardly utopia, and Feldman suggests that liberals ought to recognize that there are legitimate reasons why some people would choose a non-liberal life.

Feldman is surely right that the critics of the Lubavitchers (and other tight-knit religious groups) are too blindly hostile to them, failing to see any virtues in these groups, and wrongly assuming that the liberal life is the only one worth choosing. Yet Feldman makes a similar mistake, as she is hardly ever critical of the Lubavitch way of life, seeing only virtues in the way they live, and never any flaws. Feldman paints something like a utopia here: many men work at home so they can help with their children; older children eagerly help raise their younger siblings; women happily create their own community with each other. Every Lubavitcher we meet is wonderfully cheerful. Surely some Lubavitchers have televisions hidden in their closets, yearn to go to an art gallery, wonder about the movies; surely some Lubavitch women resent their husbands for studying too much and not helping enough with the children; surely some teenagers (and perhaps some adults) ache to rebel against their way of life. Though Feldman assures us that the Lubavitchers she interviewed were open and honest with her, one must wonder if that was always the case, or if her sample was simply skewed. The critics may be too critical, but Feldman is too pollyannish.

Moreover, the Lubavitchers--and Chasidim generally--are a very small minority in North America, making any problems they might pose politically quite minor. Chasidim in North America make relatively few political claims. While the Chasidim are something of an novelty here, this is not true in Israel, where not just the Lubavitch, but the Haredim generally are a larger percentage of the population and make large political claims. What should we make of citizens who want subsidies for their schools but are exempt from the universal military draft, like the Haredi are in Israel? It is for this and other reasons that secular and some orthodox Israelis resent the Haredi, but Feldman says little about these issues since she does not say much about Israel. It is in Israel, not North America, that the paradox of ultra-orthodox citizenship becomes most acute.

Nonetheless, Feldman's book is a useful corrective to those overly critical of non-liberal lives. The liberal world is a flawed one, and people do choose to live non-liberal lives for reasons which we ought to respect, and understand. This book helps us to do so.

Jeff Spinner-Halev

Department of Political Science

University of Nebraska
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Author:Spinner-Halev, Jeff
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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