Psychologists differ on the precise details of a human’s emotional requirements, but on the whole, they agree that they cover the following:
- the need for recognition; to give and receive attention
- the need for connection with other humans
- the need for purpose and meaning, i.e. spiritual fulfillment
- the need for security; to feel safe and anchored
- the need for feeling part of a wider community
- the need for friendship and intimacy
- the need for privacy
- the need to feel a sense of status within a social grouping
- the need to feel a sense of accomplishment and capability
Hasidism intrinsically provides all of the above.
Connection with other humans/ Feeling part of a wider community:
At the core of Hasidism lies the community. Community in this sense encompasses both the social grouping of like-minded individuals and a shared locality. The shared locality is mandatory because when one belongs to a hassidus, he generally prays in its synagogues and sends his children to its schools; consequently, proximity to these facilities is of essence. Hasidim, therefore, cluster into specific neighborhoods and tend to remain there for years. In fact, a majority of Hasidim, especially girls/women, end up living in the same neighborhood from birth to death. (Boys/Men, once they get married, generally move to their wife’s neighborhood, which makes it a little more likely that they will live in different areas within their lifetime.)
The implications of this—living in a community of like-minded people, attending the same schools as one’s neighbors, frequenting the same shops for years—cannot be overstated. It means that when you walk down the avenue to do your shopping, you are likely to be nodding your head in greeting to a number of people who know you since you were a kid. Who know your parents or your sister or your brother. Who know your approximate age. Who know your kids or your friends. Who know parts of your history. When you walk down the avenue to do your shopping, you are likely to stop and chat (several times) with old classmates, with your kids’ classmates’ parents, with your grandmother, your cousin, or your neighbor. When you step into a beis medrash, most people do not have to look at your t’fillin bag to know your name. You have an identity. You belong.
While people in western society often bemoan their feeling of invisibility, Hasidim, if anything, sometimes feel too visible. This feeling of too much visibility (or yentishkeit) is something Hasidim often gripe about. But it is a gripe that’s akin to a mother complaining about her kids. Yes, she resents the work they engender, but she wouldn’t want life without them.
Recognition/Give and receive attention:
There is a song by Avraham Fried called “No Jew will be Left Behind.” It refers to a future time, a time when Moshiach will arrive. But I will use his lyrical clause in a more mundane context.
Hasidim get married. They have children. These two statements apply to the vast majority; I would venture to guess it is true for at least 95% of Hasidim. This means that nearly everyone gets to be a bride/groom. Nearly everyone gets to have that first child (and more) with all the attention such occasions entail--attention from family, from friends, from well-wishers attending the sholom zocher or Kiddush. Nearly everyone gets to be a mechiten (several times). Nearly everyone gets to be a grandparent (several times). Nobody gets left behind.
In the world at large, there are Susan Boyles who at age 48 have never been kissed. There are girls and boys who never get a date. There are people who die alone, their deaths unnoticed and uncommented upon. There are people who live for years and years without seriously engaging or connecting with others. This is practically unheard of among Hasidim. Besides extra-curricular recognition (specific talents, charitable acts, good business acumen), people are recognized merely because they are part of the Hasidic family. They are the center of attention at various times in their lives because that’s the way this social structure works. Every Hasid is a mechiten: no one is left behind.
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I won’t go on to elaborate on each individual emotional need listed above, as this essay is already quite lengthy for a blog post. In short, then:
Judaism’s ideology infuses the hasid’s life with spirituality and purpose.
The nuclear family (divorce is rare) is a source of security and safety. Furthermore, because of OJ’s structured setup—there are rules and guides and timelines for almost every part of the day—hasidim don’t generally feel as if they are floundering, lost and directionless. Structure can feel stifling at times, but it also provides a sense of safety.
Remaining in one neighborhood for a long time makes it easier to maintain close friendships.
Prayer is an essential part of OJ, and by extension, Hasidism. When one prays, she/he connects with her/his inner self. It is a private communication between God and the individual. It is where one feels comfortable exposing himself, laying all his innermost emotions bare, even those he’d be embarrassed to tell anyone about. It provides moments of true privacy, the sort secular society attempts to achieve with meditation; long, solo walks; writing a journal, etc.
Status within a social grouping and a sense of accomplishment are easier to attain when one’s social grouping remains constant and, consecutively, when one is anchored in a structured setting. Re the latter, I remember reading an interview with a writer whose books are of the “all hell breaks loose” sort, as imaginative and out of control as it gets, and yet he himself is married with three or four children, living a predictable, prosaic life. In the interview he claimed that he was only able to allow himself the outlandish creativity in his books because he felt secure and anchored in his regular life. Although the bohemian lifestyle is romanticized as the ideal “artist life,” most of us tend to accomplish more—creatively and practically—when the backdrop in our life is stable.
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All the points in this essay can be fleshed out more. They can also be presented with their counterpoints as comparison/contrast. However, as I’ve already said, I’m trying to limit the word count on this blog post, or I fear no one will undertake to read it.
I would be remiss, though, if I were to omit one more factor that is essential to the contentment and satisfaction of the Hasidic lifestyle, namely, the community’s amazing network of social services. This may vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, but all have developed a system that gives the community a certain self-sufficiency and its members excellent access to help of all kinds. To give an example of one community’s services, Williamsburg offers the following: Hatzolah, a volunteer ambulance service; Chaverim, a volunteer group who bails you out when your car is stuck, or if you’re locked out of a room or car; Shomrim, a volunteer anti-crime group; Bikur Cholim, a volunteer group that visits the ill in hospitals and homes, and provides them with homemade food; Chesed, a volunteer group that drives people to and from hospitals; Misaskim, a volunteer group that steps in with the necessities for a shiva after a family member dies; and various free medical referral services as well as specialized services, e.g. for couples struggling with infertility. Additionally, there are a host of non-volunteer organizations, such as Hamaspik, which are run by Hasidim, making it simpler for community members to get the help they need.
Hasidim have learned to expect these services and to rely on them. It is their crutch, but because it is always there, they barely notice it until it’s removed and they suddenly have difficulty walking. But, of course, unless you leave the “fold,” the crutch is never removed.
There is an African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Each Hasidic community is just such a village. They work as a unit to raise all children in the community. Living in this community means you are recognized and acknowledged; you have a safety net at all times; you are part of a population with whom you engage, befriend, and share. For all of this to implode would take more than a few individuals leaving. And it would take more than some people sharing their grievances in cyberspace.
Is Hasidism imploding? Not, I believe, anywhere in the near future.