Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers

I recently read Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers by Stephanie Wellen Levine. Ms. Levine spent a year living in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn observing interviewing teenage Lubavitch Hasidic Jewish girls. I really recommend this book to anyone who is interested in orthodox religion and the social development of teenage girls. There were so many things that caught my attention in this book, but I will try to limit it to a few examples.

First of all, a lot of the codes for Hasidic Jewish behavior were not that different from many I hear coming from the conservative Christian and orthodox Catholic circles I encounter on-line. For the sake of modesty, girls are required to wear skirts or dresses that go past their knees and tops that go past the elbows. The less skin you show the more devout you are perceived to be. Like girls in Catholic schools some girls try to push the limits by “skirting” the requirements in little ways. Furthermore, no dating is allowed until the girls are prepared to be married; in Christian circles this is referred to as courtship. The Lubavitchers take it a bit further forbidding all interaction between members of the opposite sex who are not related to each other (beyond simple pleasantries or necessary business), and young people are set up on dates by matchmakers, usually becoming engaged after only three or four dates.  The Lubavitch community is also against using artificial birth control unless one got permission from the Rebbe.

The Lubavitch Hasidic have an interesting view about their place in the universe. They believe that every ritual act or good work performed by a Jew, whether they are orthodox or not or even have any belief, contributes to speed up the Messianic era. This leads them to a kind of evangelization or missionary work. Lubavitchers have the goal of getting as many secular Jews to return to orthodoxy or at least perform little orthodox rituals as possible. I particularly found their ideology particularly interesting given the arguments I sometimes encounter between various Protestants and Catholics over salvation by works, faith, or grace. Catholics are often falsely accused of believing in “salvation by works”, but I think the Lubavitch Hasidic really fit the description best.

The book touches on young people who rebel against the strict moral and social codes of the community but usually end up returning to the fold at marriage time. However, there is also a small percentage of questioners who end up rejecting the community they were born into. While a higher proportion of these questioners can only trace their Lubavitch heritage back one generation, some even come from the oldest Lubavitch families at times. This puts me in mind of devout Catholic families that lament their child falling away from the Church, usually when they go off to college. They wonder what they did wrong and how can they protect their other children from the same fate. The day after I finished the book I caught an episode of “Life on the Rock” on EWTN about keeping kids Catholic in college, and they talked about how even in the best of families children will sometimes slip away.

I particularly found the conclusion of the book slightly humorous. The author became very fond of the Lubavitch community, and she had to admit that the teenage girls were happier and more well-adjusted than she expected them to be. In fact, she kind of expected them to be even more depressed and lacking in self-expression and awareness than groups of mainstream teenage girls who have been studied, given the religious “repression” the Lubavitch girls live under. Despite how impressed she is with the community, Ms. Levine spends the whole book being adamant about how she has no desire to be anything but a secular Jew (to her parents’ relief); she just likes pork chops and blue jeans too much.

So she spends the last part of the book trying to find ways to get the good results of growing up Lubavitch without being religious. She suggests a few single sex classes in schools or activities, hoping to build up the mainstream girls self-confidence. While she acknowledges that the Lubavitch message that their actions carry cosmic importance help to keep the girls from sinking into normal teenage apathy, she refuses to acknowledge that you can never really have a true sense of cosmic importance if you don’t have religious faith.

Ms. Levine is so concerned that everyone have all of the choices in the world, that she can’t see that maybe part of the problem is that there are too many choices. Too many options can make someone feel just as powerless as having no options at all. That’s why they tell first-time parents to only give their toddlers two or three specific choices; otherwise little ones get overwhelmed and melt down. She never suggests that maybe parents should take away a teenage child’s option to date until they are ready for marriage, even though, she acknowledges that this contributes to the positive traits of the Lubavitch girls. How dare we limit the choices of teenagers to have committed relationships and engage in sex? They must have their choices.

At the end of the story, a Lubavitch woman gives her a stack of Shabbos candles and asks her to try lighting them once. Stephanie Levine knows that this is partly because her friend believes that just by lighting the candles Ms. Levine will help bring on the Messianic age. However, Ms. Levine refuses to even open the candles, because she knows that one way Lubavitchers try to trick secular Jews into becoming more orthodox is by suggesting they light candles. Shabbos candles are just a gateway drug for Jewish orthodoxy, and I am afraid that Ms. Levine has just bought in to the whole idea of moral and religious relativism. I believe that she is afraid to decide for herself what is true, because if you take the stand and say that you believe something is true that sometimes means sacrificing your choices. She wants the peace and happiness of the Lubavitchers without working for it. She wants the cure without having to take the medicine. I found this very intriguing and sad.

I highly recommend the book, though. It really can put things into perspective, even for goyim.

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