Guest post by Guravitzer
Harry Maryles discovered the Essenes recently. In his search for new comparisons that demean Chasidim, he suggests in his post Modern Day Essenes: “By isolating oneself from all outside influences one becomes a modern day Essene. Essenes were an ancient sect of Frum isolationist Jews. They too couldn’t stand what they saw in the streets of Jerusalem in their day over 2000 years ago. They too wanted to live a life free of such influences. So they moved to a community just outside Jerusalem in order to isolate themselves from such sights. Even though they were extremely Frum Jews - Chazal frowned upon these people – and rightly so. Living like that is not the Torah ideal. Torah Jews are not mandated to withdraw from the world. We are supposed to participate in it.”
In a possible fit of Hashgachah Protis, a scholar named Rachel Elior has just dredged up the waters of the Essenes. Her radical conclusion – that the Essenes never existed, that they are a production of Philo’s wishful thinking – is best discussed among scholars. Her scholarship reminds us of one relevant point. The Essenes were never mentioned by Chazal. We don’t know why the Essenes separated. We don’t know if the Essenes separated. Apparently, we aren’t even certain they existed. We are certain that Chazal never “frowned upon these people,” among his other inaccuracies. Perhaps Mr. Maryles is so confounded by his intense dislike for Charedim and his need to pound the drumbeat of “they are isolationist!” that he missed this inaccuracy in his thought process. From the concept of a Seyag, a fence for Torah, to the admonition of the Rambam to retreat to an island if all humanity fails, to the walls erected around G-d-fearing European communities against the Maskilim, isolationism works. Perhaps Mr. Maryles means to refer to Bedidus Besoch Bnei Odom, to remaining walled off while walking among the masses. The goal is then not to participate in the world, but to allow the world to participate in you. You are not affected by the world; the world is affected by you.
There is room for discussion of the cynicism and materialism pervasive in the Jewish world. The lack of Yiras Shomayim, a staple to be being a Jew when you think no one is looking, is appalling. Return the straw man and illogical argument of isolationism to its proper place on the back shelf. Straw man because no one is truly isolationist in thought or deed, and illogical because isolationism always had and will always have its place in Judaism – the problem lies elsewhere, perhaps in the prophetic words of Chazal that as Moshiach approaches, Chutzpah will increase. Perhaps, as is the case with the Essenes according to Rachel Elior, Mr. Maryles creates the Isolationist-Chasidic-Essene in his mind in his search for Utopia. The wonderful place that will allow for participation in the world, a complete secular education yet complete Jewish G-d-fearing education, a complete involvement in the world yet remaining utterly unaffected, or perhaps even a Utopian yes-beard-no-beard solution (skin patch on top of beard, anyone?) may have affected Philo with the dream of the Essenes, and seems to have affected Mr. Maryles with incoherent thoughts that lead to a Jewish Dystopia.