The USCC & the Rebbe

By Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers | Commonweal, May 20, 1994 | Go to article overview

The USCC & the Rebbe


Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers, Commonweal


David Tracy, in Plurality, and Ambiguity (Harper & Row, 1985), eloquently articulates his hope for the healing possibilities of religion in the contemporary world. He warns, however, that "any religion, whether past or present, in a position of power surely demonstrates that religious movements, like secular ones, are open to corruption....Whoever comes to speak in favor of religion and its possibilities of enlightenment and emancipation does not come with clean hands nor with a clean conscience." The United States Catholic Conference (USCC) and other religious bodies would do well to attend to this warning when they urge greater government support and greater political power for religion.

This past February the USCC filed an amicus brief that argues for both the desirability and the constitutionality of legislative accommodations of religion." The brief and eight others advocating greater government accommodation have been filed in support of the petitioners in Board of Education v. Grumet, currently before the Court. (The Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish groups filing amicus briefs for the petitioners include the Rutherford Institute, the Christian Legal Society, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Center for Law and Ethics, the Family Research Council, the Institute for Religion and Polity, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Christian Life Commission, the Knights of Columbus, the Archdiocese of New York, the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, the American Center for Law and Justice, and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.)

Board of Education v. Grumet concerns the constitutionality of a New York State law that created a new public school district coterminous with the village of Kiryas Joel, a separately incorporated Hasidic village in Orange County, New York. The school district was created to settle a longstanding local dispute over the provision of special education to children of Kiryas Joel, children whose parents would not permit them to attend the local public school because they believed that the appearance and customs of their children would be ridiculed by non-Hasidic children.

Hasidic Jewish communities in the United States are successors to those created in Eastern Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These communities were centers of a new and distinctive Jewish piety and social structure that stressed joy in the observance of the commandments and the need for devekut, a cleaving to God by each individual. This new piety liberated many ordinary Jews from the highly structured culture of the rabbinic Judaism of the time, but later became more structured itself as Hasidic communities developed into royalist courts that consciously resisted acculturation, assimilation, and adaptation to reforming and rationalizing tendencies within Judaism.

Hasidic communities are governed by a rebbe, a charismatic religious leader, who is regarded as having special access to God and who has far-reaching authority over the daily lives of the members of his court. In Kiryas Joel, which is a part of the Satmar Hasidim, the largest and most conservative Hasidic community in the United States, the rebbe decides, among other matters, who may marry whom, who may buy property, and who may run for public office. Dissidents are punished by being ostracized from the life of the community. The rebbe also determines which aspects of the members' lives are religious and therefore governed by Jewish law (as interpreted by the rebbe), and which are secular and therefore open to negotiation with secular law and culture.

By creating a public school district for Kiryas Joel, New York State has endorsed the decision of the rebbe of the Satmar Hasidim that Hasidic children in need of special education may be educated only in this specially created "public school" rather than in the village's religious schools, which the rest of the children in Kiryas Joel attend, or in the special education programs provided by Orange County's public schools.

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