What is really going on in the Gur Hasidic community?
Dr. Dafna Schreiber | 23.05.2023 | Photo: Benjaneson, Creative Commons
The price of ideological policing
The Gur community—the largest, strongest, and most influential Hasidic sect in Israel—has hit the headlines again. This time it’s because of a case of severe sexual abuse, and instead of helping the victims, the sect leader’s court is trying to cover up the case through intimidation and violence.
The deep roots of this grave affair appear to go back to a seed planted during the leadership of the first Rebbe (rabbi) of Gur in Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Alter, known as the Beis Yisroel (1894–1977).
In an opinion piece first published on the Srugim website (April 19, 2023), Dr. Dafna Schreiber—a Hasidism scholar specializing in the Gur community, and the director of the Jewish Thought, Sacredness, Religion, and Secularization cluster at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute—focuses on three points in the thought and leadership of Rabbi Yisrael Alter that presaged the current situation in the community: the rules of sanctity and sexual abstinence, the establishment of policing and control mechanisms in the community, and a radical concept regarding the nature of women.
The article also tries to answer difficult questions that arose within the community itself in May 2022, when the police had to intervene in a wave of violent protests in Gur neighborhoods throughout Israel against a group of dissidents from the community, headed by Rabbi Shaul Alter (the cousin of the reigning rabbi), who quit the Gur community with a number of families and established a separate Hasidic community, causing a rift and split in the Gur community for the first time in its history. Schreiber quotes from a scathing text by a female member of the Gur sect who wonders why it is that precisely in that community, known for its avoidant attitude toward women, it is women who have become the vanguard of the central court in its violent and uncompromising struggle against the dissidents.
Schreiber also calls attention to an article by another Gur woman about that violent Sabbath. In this article the author asks, What is the role of a Gur hasid [member]? Is the hasid supposed to serve the communal collective and align himself absolutely with the court’s norms? Or, conversely, should the community serve its individual members?
Dr. Schreiber concludes that the sanctity rules that shunt aside and suppress the sexual drive of both men and women, the lack of a place for women as entities in their own right, and the development of controlling and policing mechanisms that draw the community’s very clear boundaries, all turned “obedience” into the supreme value of the Gur sect. The community does not serve the individual; instead, it is the individual who is supposed to serve the communal collective. To be more precise, the individual is supposed to submit to the “system” and to the will of his holiness the Rebbe, who is viewed as the foundation of Judaism.
Reading recommendation: The Gdoilim: Leaders Who Shaped the Israeli Haredi Jewry, Benjamin Brown, Nissim Leon, Van Leer Institute Press and Magnes Press