Lessons for All of Us from ‘One of Us’

Over the past few weeks the Jewish blogosphere has been awash with numerous posts about the Netflix documentary ‘One of Us’ which tells the story of three ex-hasidic Jews – Etty, Ari & Luzer – who, for reasons that include abusive relationships, theological dissatisfaction, curiosity towards the secular world and personal unhappiness, left their Hasidic lives and families.

Like any powerful documentary there are many facets to One of Us. For example, there is the sociological facet which speaks about the struggles of those who leave close-knit religious communities. There is also the legal facet, which explores how divorce law (in the case of Luzer and especially Etty) requires the maintenance of a status quo despite this being utterly impossible in such situations. There is the abuse in the community facet where Ari spoke of having been raped as a youngster by one of the leaders of a religious summer camp, while Etty’s husband abused her children while claiming that it was his right to do whatever he wanted in his home. And there is the freedom facet, where all three subjects felt that their life in the community was imprisoning them in one respect or another.

Ultimately, what One of Us seeks to show is that those who wish to leave the community rarely do so unscathed, and especially in the case of Etty, it was truly tragic to see how her children were separated from each other and how she was so restricted in the time that she could spend with them following her divorce.

Ultimately, what One of Us seeks to show is that those who wish to leave the community rarely do so unscathed

Of course, it must be pointed out – as it was pointed out by Luzer – that there are plenty of happy hasidic people which means great care should be used when seeking to extrapolate lessons from this documentary about a community that many of its viewers may know little about. Still, I would like to share four brief thoughts that emerge from One of Us which I believe are of great importance to us all.

1. SECULAR KNOWLEDGE

One of the key themes in One of Us is the near absence of secular studies in Hasidic communities. As Etty explained with reference to her local takanos (set of communal decrees), it is expected that ‘Parents will never read any secular oriented books’, and that ‘Children will never enter a secular library for any purpose’. Such sentiments were further confirmed by Ari who made it clear that he had a very low proficiency in Math & English.

Of course, some people may regard such attitudes as merely being reflective of a close minded and backward way of approaching the world. I, however, don’t take that approach because I too love Torah and I fully understand that if you are lovesick with Torah it is only natural to think that any distraction from your love is a sign of weakness.

Instead, there are three basic reasons why every Jew should have a solid secular education – even if it only takes up a minority of the school curriculum:

a) True greatness in Torah requires an understanding of the world (or to quote Rabbi Sacks, ‘if we are to apply Torah to the world, we must understand the world’ [1]),

b) Since Jewish law requires parents to teach their child a trade (and thereby earn a living wage), and since doing so generally requires secular knowledge, then secular knowledge is required by Jewish law,

c) Human beings have a wide range of needs and interests and these include exploring secular studies (or to quote R’ Aharon Lichtenstein, ‘there are certain needs of mine that are only met elsewhere’ [2]).

This means that presuming that we are not talking about the study of heresy or the viewing of forbidden images, the mere act of secular study is principally permitted and we should be very wary when we start forbidding that which is permitted because, to paraphrase a classic rabbinic teaching, by forbidding that which is permitted, it is likely that it will lead to permitting that which is forbidden.

by forbidding that which is permitted, it is likely that it will lead to permitting that which is forbidden.

2. IT’S NOT ABOUT RELIGION

When discussing the lengths to which her ex-husband and the community were going to prevent her access to her children, Etty rightfully remarked that ‘its not about religion’. This is an essential point, and it must always be remembered that just because religion is invoked to justify certain acts does not mean that such acts are religious.

just because religion is invoked to justify certain acts does not mean that such acts are religious.

In his book Not in God’s Name, Rabbi Sacks writes that ‘most conflicts and wars have nothing to do with religion whatsoever. They are about power, territory and glory, things that are secular, even profane. But if religion can be enlisted, it will be’ [3]. Similarly, the bullying and terrorizing of Etty has nothing to do with religion, but religion was certainly invoked to justify such acts. In a sick ironic twist, a community that so publicly rejects secularism can include members that act in a way that is utterly secular and profane.

3. MODERNITY

When speaking about his interests and pursuits, Ari often remarked about the lure of technology and modernity, while we also heard how the word ‘modern’ was used pejoratively against him. In fact, for those who are not aware of the nuances in the Hasidic and the wider haredi communities, if a young man or woman is going on shidduchim and is described as being more ‘modern’, this is generally not a compliment and it is suggestive of them being less committed to traditions.

Personally, I find this association of ‘modern’ with less sincere or less committed to be profoundly disingenuous as it suggests that someone who lives in the modern world is – by default – automatically compromising their religious values. Knowing many very committed Modern Jews I can say – for a fact – that this is not the case. However, what I learn from here is that as a modern Jew who takes Torah & mitzvot seriously, I too must be an ambassador of Orthodox Modernity through showing that Torah is my love and being modern is not equivalent to living a diluted form of Judaism.

as a modern Jew who takes Torah & mitzvot seriously, I too must be an ambassador of Orthodox Modernity through showing that Torah is my love and being modern is not equivalent to living a diluted form of Judaism.

4. QUESTIONING

Both Ari and Luzer spoke about their dissatisfaction with the answers they were given to the questions that they had asked, and Luzer went so far as to say that ‘the more of a seeker you are, the more of a questioner you are, the more likely you are to leave’. In fact, this remark parallels the Hebrew phrase ‘Chozer B’She’elah’ (literally, someone who goes back through questioning) which is used to refer to formerly Orthodox Israelis who are now secular as if to suggest that the more one questions, the more distant one becomes from religion. However, לא זו הדרך – this is not the way, and throughout my education I have come to appreciate that the more of a seeker you are, the more of a questioner you are, the more you should want to stay and take part in the Torah conversation.

the more of a seeker you are, the more of a questioner you are, the more you should want to stay and take part in the Torah conversation.

According to Rabbi Sacks, ‘questioning is at the heart of Jewish spirituality’ [4], and ‘in Judaism, to be without questions is not a sign of faith, but a lack of depth’  [5].

Sadly, it seems that those teachers who failed to make room for the questions of those like Ari and Luzer would rather their students live a shallower robotic religious life, than a rich and deep religious journey that is personal.

those teachers… would rather their students live a shallower robotic religious life than a rich and deep religious journey that is personal.

IN CONCLUSION…

let me reiterate that while One of Us raises many concerns that go way beyond the lives of Etty, Ari & Luzer (and, I should add, way beyond just the hasidic community), there are also many many people living very joyful and meaningful lives within hasidic communities across the globe.

Still, this well-produced documentary has many facets and carries many messages. And it is up to us whether we listen, discuss, and as a result try and make positive changes to our lives and those around us.

[1] Jonathan Sacks, Future Tense p. 211

[2] Haim Sabato, Seeking His Presence p. 108

[3] Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name p. 39

[4] Jonathan Sacks, Haggadah p. 106

[5] ibid. p. 105

About the Author
Rav Johnny Solomon is a Seminary teacher and a Jewish Education Consultant.
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