In 1976, I considered taking a rabbinic post in a Modern Orthodox synagogue that was located in a Hasidic community in New York. It would mean that my kids would attend a Hasidic Jewish day school with a minimalist curriculum of secular studies. Ultimately the job was not offered to me, but I had no hesitation about taking the position even if it meant my kids would attend a school that was not necessarily in sync with the way I practiced my Judaism. I reasoned that whatever the approach of the school, I would balance my children’s education with my own parental perspective on things and my kids would turn out fine. Of course, it was only a hypothesis, but it made sense to me at the time. Watching One of Us made me wonder if in 1976 I was overly naïve about the consequences of an education devoid of serious secular studies.
One of Us is a scary movie on one level. It describes the journey of three people who left their Hasidic community to lead a more open, independent life. They are Ari, Luzer, and Etty, all of whom were considered outcasts by their community and even by their own families, which once embraced them. Their narratives are not simple. They touch on topics such as domestic abuse, religious doubt, and preparation for work in the marketplace. A humorous but telling comment by Ari sums it up: ”I couldn’t google how to google because I didn’t know how to google.”
Behind the insularity of the Hasidic community is the desire to protect their way of life. Secularism poses a serious spiritual threat to the religious life. Going to college exposes the devout to things that corrupt the religious. Therefore, the general approach is to erect walls between the religious world and the secular world, and never the twain shall meet.
Conscientious Jews living outside of the Hasidic orbit have a different approach. They embrace modernity as long as it does not compromise their religious practice, and there is a symbiotic relationship between the two worlds of the sacred and the secular.
Johnny Solomon, a Jewish educator, observes that the film highlights three areas of dissonance between the world of the Hasid and the world of the Modern Orthodox Jew, both of whom are faced with the challenge of being true to one’s faith in morally chaotic times. The three areas include secular knowledge, modernity, and the approach towards questioning the status quo.
Solomon argues that secular knowledge is a must if one wants to be successful at earning a living. Its absence limits people occupationally. Modernity does not necessarily mean that one takes one’s faith less seriously than the Hasid. In the Hasidic world, the word “modern” is often used pejoratively. In Solomon’s view, being modern does not mean compromising one’s religious principles.
Perhaps the most egregious difference between the modern Jew and the Hasid is their approach to questioning. The subjects of the movie, Ari, Luzer, and Etty, all implicitly say that to question authority leads to rejection by the community. The questioner finds himself alone with no communal support system. Solomon quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a Modern Orthodox theologian, who reminds us that “questioning is at the heart of Jewish spirituality, and in Judaism, to be without questions is not a sign of faith, but a lack of depth.”
One of Us tries to be balanced. On the one hand, it depicts the dark side of the Hasidic life through its stories of three Hasidic Jews who left the fold. On the other hand, it demonstrates the tremendous sense of family that permeates the Hasidic community. Watching the film reminds us of the need to lead a balanced life, embracing the positive aspects of modernity while remaining faithful to one’s religious principles.