Some forms of haredi piety are really OCD
By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel
CHULA VISTA, California — Who says religious people aren’t funny? Where is Jay Leno when you need him?
The world of the Ultra-Orthodox (a.k.a. “Haredi” and “Hasidim”) never fail to evoke laughter and irony. In their quest for personal piety, they will go to extremes to keep themselves away from the thoughts of sins.
This is not a new phenomenon; in ancient times, the Jerusalem Talmud tells us:
- There are seven types of Pharisees: the ostentatious Pharisee; the Pharisee who knocks his feet together and walks with exaggerated humility; the Pharisee is one who knocks his face against the wall rather than gaze at a woman; The Pharisee who feigns religious piety while constantly exclaiming, ‘What is my duty that I may perform it?’ 
Today’s Ultra-Orthodox bear a striking resemblance to the Pharisees of the 1st century. First, the rabbinic savants introduced separate sidewalks, segregated buses, and separate shopping hours for men and women in Israel. Then the rabbis introduced a “Personal Mechitza” (barrier) that is worn around the head and blocks the individual from seeing any immodestly clad female neighbors or in-flight movies.
And the story gets more interesting.
The saga of gender separation continues to burst forth with new technological wizardry that tantalizes the mind: New glasses that prevent men from seeing immodestly dressed women that threaten to fill their minds with erotic and other sinful thoughts. The glasses cost only $32.50 and have a special blur-inducing sticker on their lenses that provides clear vision for up to a few yards so as not to impede movement, but anything beyond that becomes blurry – especially women.
I guess blinders aren’t just for horses—they work well on people too.
The Ultra-Orthodox Modesty Patrol promises other exciting new products against the threat of seeing immodest women.
Maybe next time, they will introduce kosher blindfolds . . . Look out Calvin Klein, there’s a new fashion designer in town!
Personally, I think the Haredim are obsessed with sex–24/7. Maybe the rest of the human race is also obsessed with sex, but the majority of our planet doesn’t seem to have a problem with at least admitting it–unlike the Haredim or the Taliban.
Of course you might wonder: Why did it take over 2000 years for our great rabbis to come up with a new device to keep the sexes apart?
Most modern psychologists and therapists I know are not deeply in love with Freudian psychology; they have many good reasons for feeling that way. Personally, I have a pretty healthy respect for Freud’s view of religion as an obsessional type of neurosis. Unlike Jung, Frankl, Rodgers, Fromm, and others who saw religions as serving a potentially positive function in society and in the life of the individual, Freud only concerned himself with the pathological aspects of religion that constricts rather than liberates the human spirit from its shackles.
Freud also had a terrific sense of humor and his works on the psychology of humor are still incredibly most thought-provoking—even 100 years later.
In his 1907 book, Religion as Obsessional Neurosis,” Freud writes that most of his religious patients suffered from an overwhelming feeling of guilt:
- We may say that the sufferer from compulsions and prohibitions behaves as if he were dominated by a sense of guilt, of which, however, he knows nothing so that we must call it an unconscious consciousness of guilt, in spite of the apparent contradiction in terms. This sense of guilt has its source in certain early mental events, but it is constantly being revived by renewed temptations which arise whenever there is a contemporary provocation. Moreover, it occasions a lurking sense of expectant anxiety, an expectation of misfortune, which is linked, through the idea of punishment, with the internal perception of the temptation. . . 
Compulsively religious people are always afraid of losing control of their inhibitions. They fear not just the external world around them, they also fear that their internal world might implode within them. Obsessive and compulsive behavior creates the illusion that they are in control of both their action internal and external world.
I came across a citation from Victor Frankl’s The Unheard Cry for Meaning, where he writes about his travels through Mexico back in 1975, when he once decided to visit a Benedictine monastery. After having a discussion with the monastic supervisor about the issues of neurosis and and how one may extricate oneself from its grip, the head of the monastery decided to let the monks undergo therapy with Frankl. Surprisingly, after Frankl finished, about 80% of the monks decided to leave the monastery! By addressing the real underlying issues that religiously compulsive people have about themselves, they have a much greater chance of living a healthier and more honest–not to mention psychologically well-adjusted–way of life.
Lastly, Abraham Maslow’s insights develop Freud’s concept of religion as neurosis even further. Religion becomes neurotic whenever it frustrates our basic human needs, thus short-circuiting the possibility of self-actualization. His exposition explains the religious and social phenomena we are witnessing in the Haredi world with its endless penchant for obsessive-compulsive behavior–all of which is masked under the guises of piety and the “fear of God”:
- The neurosis in which the search for safety takes its dearest form is in the compulsive-obsessive in Compulsive-obsessives try frantically to order and stabilize the world so that no unmanageable, unexpected or unfamiliar dangers will ever appear; They hedge themselves about with all sorts of ceremonials, rules and formulas so that every possible contingency may be provided for and so that no new contingencies may appear. They are much like the brain injured cases, described by Goldstein, who manage to maintain their equilibrium by avoiding everything unfamiliar and strange and by ordering their restricted world in such a neat, disciplined, orderly fashion that everything in the world can be counted upon. They try to arrange the world so that anything unexpected (dangers) cannot possibly occur. If, through no fault of their own, something unexpected does occur, they go into a panic reaction as if this unexpected occurrence constituted a grave danger. What we can see only as a none-too-strong preference in the healthy person, e. g., preference for the familiar, becomes a life-and-death, a necessity in abnormal cases.
Obviously, the Haredi are really quite unhappy and frustrated because they are failing to realize their true human potential. An army of social workers and therapists might actually help heal their tragic and broken lives. Like the primitive peoples of antiquity, today’s religious primitives of the Haredi world fear the power of the image and its ability to contaminate the human imagination.
I wonder how people will narrate the piety of today’s modern-day Pharisees. I suspect future generations will regard them as comical and tragic figures of history.
 JT Sotah 3:4, f. 19a.
 “New glasses blur women for Haredi Orthodox men” JTA, Aug. 7, 2012
 Abraham Maslow, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review, Vol. 50, NO. 4, 370-396.
 Sigmund Freud and Peter Gay, “The Freud Reader” (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995), 433.
Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista. He may be contacted at email@example.com
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