Deborah Feldman

Author of "Unorthodox" and "Exodus"

In the early part of the Passover Haggadah there is a section containing instructions on how to educate four potentially different sons on the story of the Exodus. They are respectively referred to as the wise, the simple, the ignorant, and the wicked sons. The wicked son is quoted as phrasing his question to his father using the pronoun “you.” This is interpreted as meaning he excludes himself from the question; he assumes the answer does not apply to him. It is his self-selected exclusion that is equated with wickedness here. It denies a basic principle of Judaism, which is conformity and joining; that is we are redeemed through enduring unity – with individuality comes the threat of breakage, of fragmentation. What is the only acceptable answer to this wicked son? The Haggadah says to knock out his teeth, implying that to reason with him is hopeless, since individuality, once it takes root, cannot be excised, and the only way to defeat it is to disable its means of expression. If the wicked son had been in Egypt, the father is supposed to say, than he would not have been redeemed.

The Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who pioneered the Jewish enlightenment movement (Haskalah) of the 18th century, was one such wicked son. Born in the 17th century to a family of Portuguese Jewish descent, he was the first Jewish thinker to openly question the validity of the Jewish bible, and the nature of the God described therein. By the time he was twenty-three years old, the Jewish religious authorities had issued the ultimate ban against him, called cherem: a form of ostracism and expulsion so permanent that Jewish law views it as akin to total annihilation of the spirit. In the document recording the official censure and rejection of Spinoza, both his “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds” are recorded as reasons for expulsion. This because he dared to postulate that the laws practiced by Jewish communities were not literally given by God, and that they were no longer binding on the Jewish people. What is most fascinating about the story of Spinoza, is that after his vitriolic and irrevocable excommunication from the Jewish world, he did not do what was expected of him, and what had been done by many others who had committed lesser offenses against the Jewish leadership and the institution of its authority – that is, convert to Christianity and be welcomed into a world that had a clear stake in any views that invalidated Judaism. Instead, Spinoza became the first secular Jew of Europe, and the first public example of a wicked son who continued to question even after his “teeth had been knocked out.”

So begins a storied tradition of Jews who say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Fast forward three centuries to Hannah Arendt, a secular Jewish thinker and political theorist, whose career was aligned with the likes of Heidegger before WWII tore them apart, both literally and figuratively, after which she emigrated to the States and was left to struggle with the aftermath of the Holocaust in her writings. She felt legitimately torn between her past affiliations with philosophers who were now personas non grata, and the new philosophy of explanation and accusation that became the task of her and peers such as Karl Jaspers. In her seminal work The Banality of Evil, first commissioned by the New Yorker as an analysis of the Eichmann trial, she dared question the black and white views that had been adopted by the Jewish leadership for the entirety of the diaspora, namely that of the monstrous evil of the anti-Semite and the angelic victimhood of the Jew. Portraying the Nazi who had organized massive transports of Jews to death camps as a thoughtless automaton, she also suggested that were it not for the behavior of Jewish councils who cooperated with Nazi policy, the annihilation of European Jewry would not have been nearly as successful. She asserted:

“The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had been really unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and half and six million people.”

It is this unacceptable pointing of fingers at the Jewish elite, in their new seat of power in post-war America, that earned her scathing, venomous criticism and attacks from the Jewish world, the central figures of which accused her of “blaming the victim” or being a self-hating Jew, as a means to distract from her accusation, instead of having a viable and necessary discussion about the possibility of error and culpability within the Jewish community.

I too am a wicked son – or rather, daughter (interestingly the Haggadah wastes no time instructing fathers how to answer their daughters.) First I left the Hasidic Jewish community and wrote a memoir about what life was like in that world, an act of self-selected exclusion in that it violated the unspoken rule of speaking publicly about the problem of fundamentalism within the Jewish community. I was most viciously attacked because I dared to discuss the laws of marital purity – which is the very foundation of the patriarchal oppression of women that plagues Jewish history. Then I wrote another memoir, in which I describe the process of rebuilding my life from scratch once outside the Hasidic world, and in finding the other acceptable norms of Jewish identity insufficient or flawed, I embarked upon a journey to discover my own version of Jewishness that felt honest, compassionate, and real. Because I dared to comment on the prevalence of divisiveness and the practice of prejudice in a Jewish community that preaches unity in public, and because I then chose a form of Jewishness that didn’t comfortably fit into any mainstream or acceptable idea, my critics now claim my Jewishness isn’t real. I am no longer one of them, they say. The possibility that authentic Jewishness can exist outside of their narrow spectrum is anathema to them, as it was to the authorities who expelled Spinoza from their midst so many centuries ago.

Last week, Brandeis University announced that it was revoking the honorary degree it had long since promised Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her work against the abuses of women and children under the name of fundamentalism. Though it had thoroughly researched Ali’s work prior to offering the degree in the first place, it cited requests from faculty members and an online petition that accused Ali of expressing anti-Islamic sentiment for the sudden reversal. Understandably this sparked outrage all over the world. I, too, was infuriated. Coming from a fundamentalist culture myself, albeit a Jewish one, Ali has always been a personal hero for me; she endured much worse in Muslim Somalia than I did in Hasidic Williamsburg, and the criticism and attacks against her make my own experience of ostracism in the Jewish world look mild, yet she continues in that tradition I know so well in my own world – that of the individual questioning “group-think,” or the wicked son who dares exclude himself, and thereby achieve the objectivity necessary for true questioning and thought. She may not be Jewish – which is probably why Brandeis was willing to give her the honor of a degree in the first place, since the Jewish community has never quite been comfortable confronting the threats against humanity inherent in fundamentalism when the presence of it is growing ever stronger in the Jewish world, but her bravery brings to mind the courage of Spinoza in that she has been so thoroughly exiled, and yet has never once sacrificed her integrity.

If Ayaan Hirsi Ali were to have accepted that degree from Brandeis, it would have legitimized them as a Humanist institution, but the truth is, until institutions of Jewish thought are willing to face the fundamentalism in their own backyard, they will not be qualified to participate in a discussion about it anywhere else – Islamic or otherwise. Yet this particular contradiction of criticizing the faults of other communities while bolting the door against one’s own skeletons - this is applicable to the mainstream American-Jewish community at large, and their flawed philosophy is one that Brandeis pays its own allegiance to – so it cannot then rightly call itself humanist or progressive or a force for good in the world while conveniently ignoring this.

Although I think Ali is better off without the patronizing pat-on-the-back that a degree would have represented, it is still absolutely untenable that Brandeis has seen fit to behave in this way, because in doing so it has made a clear statement: it is legitimizing abuse of human rights under the banner of multiculturalism. Too long have we allowed this hypocrisy to continue in our so-called liberal, progressive society – too long has academia, Jewish or not, allowed itself to turn a blind eye to the suffering of innocents in the name of this higher cause – this blind reverence for “culture” even as it implies religious extremism and the evils that come with it. It is not progressive to make exceptions out of women who are born in environments that promote their oppression – it cannot be called “humane” to fight for other women’s rights but ignore the ones who are truly in need of advocacy. The fact that Brandeis was intimidated into rescinding Ali’s degree is blatant proof that our society is dangling at the end of strings held in the hands of fundamentalists and their advocates. It is telling indeed when fingers are pointed at women who have experienced tremendous suffering because of religion, and attempts are made to silence them by calling them “anti-religion.” This cowardly and convenient slur echoes those heaved at Hannah Arendt all those years ago. When has religion become so holy to the secular that it is exempt from criticism and reform?

The actions of Brandeis have shown that no real progress has been made since the day Spinoza was ostracized for having thoughts that contradicted the prevailing authorities of his time. In the end, the only “progressive views” permitted to be expressed in this world of Jews who align themselves with the secular are those that adopt the mainstream ideas being forced on us from on high, while making the leadership look “liberal” in the process. It is a bizarre conundrum indeed, to have reached the moment in time when the authoritative voice would by all means prefer to appear liberal, while at the same time perpetuating those same stifling black and white ideas of our fearful and restrictive past. The leadership of Brandeis may as well be Arendt’s critics, or Spinoza’s enemies. They have participated in that age-old tradition of knocking out the teeth of the wicked son, instead of allowing for productive conversation and progress.

Were the Jewish community to have adopted a different attitude to dissent, perhaps the betrayals of trust and violations of human rights that have systematically occurred within the Jewish world itself could have been mitigated and prevented. It is the belief of the Jews that redemption can only occur when all Jews are united; yet our idea of unity seems to consist of hiding our petty squabbles from view while making a show of being cohesive, as if to fool outsiders is to fool God. It is imperative that we stop prioritizing appearances and conformity and start addressing our own problems. Fundamentalism is a genuine threat to the future of Judaism; divisiveness and hatred continues to poison us in our sleep.

For all the ways in which I have and continue to exclude myself from acceptable Jewish thought, I have been vilified in my own sphere. Yet I have a tradition in which I can find myself, in those golden words of Spinoza, in the raw, courageous honesty of Hannah Arendt. I am not alone in my refusal to be silenced or intimidated. I hereby extend this illustrious tradition to include Ayaan Hirsi Ali, permanently and irrevocably. It may not be a degree, but it is a worthy honor on its own.




Posted at 10:01am and tagged with: ayaan, ayaan hirsi ali, brandeis, spinoza, arendt, hannah arendt, judaism, fundamentalism, islam, women's rights, individualism,.


On Tuesday, officials at Brandeis University backed off granting an honorary degree to Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Alian, a staunch women’s advocate and fierce critic of Islam, due to many faculty members’ requests and a large online petition. Here is Ali’s statement in response to the university’s actions:

Yesterday Brandeis University decided to withdraw an honorary degree they were to confer upon me next month during their Commencement exercises. I wish to dissociate myself from the university’s statement, which implies that I was in any way consulted about this decision. On the contrary, I was completely shocked when President Frederick Lawrence called me — just a few hours before issuing a public statement — to say that such a decision had been made.

When Brandeis approached me with the offer of an honorary degree, I accepted partly because of the institution’s distinguished history; it was founded in 1948, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, as a co-educational, nonsectarian university at a time when many American universities still imposed rigid admission quotas on Jewish students. I assumed that Brandeis intended to honor me for my work as a defender of the rights of women against abuses that are often religious in origin. For over a decade, I have spoken out against such practices as female genital mutilation, so-called “honor killings,” and applications of Sharia Law that justify such forms of domestic abuse as wife beating or child beating. Part of my work has been to question the role of Islam in legitimizing such abhorrent practices. So I was not surprised when my usual critics, notably the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), protested against my being honored in this way.

What did surprise me was the behavior of Brandeis. Having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement, the university yesterday announced that it could not “overlook certain of my past statements,” which it had not previously been aware of. Yet my critics have long specialized in selective quotation — lines from interviews taken out of context — designed to misrepresent me and my work. It is scarcely credible that Brandeis did not know this when they initially offered me the degree.

What was initially intended as an honor has now devolved into a moment of shaming. Yet the slur on my reputation is not the worst aspect of this episode. More deplorable is that an institution set up on the basis of religious freedom should today so deeply betray its own founding principles. The “spirit of free expression” referred to in the Brandeis statement has been stifled here, as my critics have achieved their objective of preventing me from addressing the graduating Class of 2014. Neither Brandeis nor my critics knew or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced. I regret that very much.

Not content with a public disavowal, Brandeis has invited me “to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.” Sadly, in words and deeds, the university has already spoken its piece. I have no wish to “engage” in such one-sided dialogue. I can only wish the Class of 2014 the best of luck — and hope that they will go forth to be better advocates for free expression and free thought than their alma mater.

I take this opportunity to thank all those who have supported me and my work on behalf of oppressed woman and girls everywhere.

Posted at 9:04am.

Review of Exodus in this issue of Shelf Awareness!

Posted at 9:25am.

Chicago public library asks, What are Satmar Girls Made Of? 

Posted at 9:20am.

What is your take on "baal Tshuvas" secular Jews who become religious or Hasidic? What do you think it is that they are drawn to and why would they give up their freedom for restricted Jewish laws?

Because the ambiguity in the secular world can be scary and confusing, and for some people it will always be easier and more comfortable to let someone else decide how to live their life. Personally, I am not afraid to live without the totalitarian structure of religion, but I can easily sympathize with those who are. 

Posted at 9:07am.

do you pose nude

Once in a while, for an artist, if I’m particularly inspired by their work. If you’re trying to ask me if I’m ashamed of my body, then the answer is no. If you’re trying to make the point that so many others make, that I’m a whore - then sure - if being comfortable in my skin and refusing to apologize for being female equals being a whore in your head, then yeah. You got me. 

Posted at 9:04am.

i just finished reading your book. It was very well written. Are you following any type of Judaism or have you completely left our faith? also what are the other sects of Hasidism in Brooklyn other than Satmar and Lubovitch. Are the Lubovitch really less stict than the Satmar sect?

In some ways they are less strict, but in some ways they can be even stricter. They seem to have different priorities. There are a lot of smaller Hasidic sects in the world but they tend to rest under the umbrella of the larger sects, in part because they share many common views and traditions. The difference tends to lie in the geographical origins of the sect and its members, for example Satmar is mostly Hungarian/Romanian, but a sect like Bobov would be Polish, and Vien would be Austrian. Traditions formed according to locations, and descendants of these former communities try to follow in the traditions of their individual ancestors. 

Posted at 9:02am.

I am currently reading your book. I absoluately love it!!! You are my new role model. I just want to start off being honest with you. I am a moslem living in New jersey and i fell in love with you. I am so proud of you and so thrilled i read your book. I have alot of respect for you and believe it or not i have respect for your community. when I see a hasdic (usually at 6 flags) I will not wonder anymore. Are you ok with communicating with a Palestinian Moslem American. Is that pushing it too?

I am okay with communicating with any human being in the world that has respect for difference. Kudos to you for being one of those!

Posted at 8:57am.

I am one of those Hasidic Jews who are suffering. I am so nervous asking you this that I am afraid to divulge too much about myself? #1 - Is there a way to get in touch with you? #2 - What is the 1st step? Thank you!

You just did! I believe the first step is education. It is your key to a different perspective, different community, and ultimately, a different life - no matter how far down the road you decide to go. Education changes EVERYTHING.

Posted at 8:55am.

I has told that according to rules of halacha I could not even have someone stand in for me and have them touch the letters of the Torah. So I was left out completely.

Well I apologize on behalf of all Jewish nuts who persist in “otherizing” people in order to make themselves feel more holy and special. It’s moronic and disappointing. If I had a Torah I would be honored if you touched it. (Please don’t take that the wrong way.)

Posted at 8:53am.

I have just come from a new torah celebration. First all of the men could write in the torah with the help of a scribe. The women had to ask the scribe to touch the letters.

That’s good old misogyny for you. What do you think would have happened if one of the women HAD touched the torah? Hint: disaster of epic proportions.

Posted at 8:52am.

Do you miss your family?

I miss my grandmother. I wish I had gotten the chance to get to know her outside of the restrictive context of the Satmar lifestyle. 

Posted at 8:51am.

do you think the lithuanian community is as oppressive as the hasidic community ? where do we buy your book in israel?

I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer this. A good place to get more information about the Lithuanian community would be to read Leah Vincent’s memoir “Cut me Loose.” I thought it was a particularly brave and important book, and will certainly give you more perspective on the differences between Hasidic Jewish tradition and Lithuanian Jewish tradition.

As for buying my book in Israel, it’s available in every bookshop under the Hebrew title “HaMoredet.” The second book has not yet been translated. 

Posted at 8:50am.

I read your article and I really feel sorry for your past and wish you good luck for the future. Even though I’m religious, ultra orthodox chadsiidish man and I disagre In some matters still I really understand you and your situation, when every body in our cumunity would be so bright and open minded and brave like you it would be a different world! When I was reading the artical I sticked like glue and tears running from my eyes. I read it over a couple of times I don’t remember in my life being so inspired imagining and crawling into your and all others like your situations feelings which where abused and still being abused in our community it took me apart the story of your childhood and abuse and the ongoing abuse! This is definitely wrong and sad what’s going on in our community the way of dealing with childrenand peoples feelings and needs this is not judiasim and this is royalty not what hashem wants from us.I read the article and it took me over and I have learned alot and its directed to your credit. As I started even though its painful for me I understand 100% and now I really understand the saying don’t judge your friends till you get to their place!!
just 1 little question I understood the main reason you made your decision because the tightnes extremity as you said ultra extreme community and nonsense and corruption what’s going on in the community. Now that you are out of the box and open minded don’t you see that its not the whole community its not the entire religious nation yes Satmar is big mejarity but not every thing and even in Satmar there is some nioce happy and helpful people I got the image maybe I’m wrong and hopefully I’m wrong that you are against the entire religious community and Jewish activity and now that your eyes are open for sure you can see that its not so. This is very Disturbing for me. It looks like you mean good so please get back to me. Thanks for raising your voice unfortunately in today’s time this is the only way to raise avoice. Again I wish you good luck till the rest of your life

Posted at 8:46am.

You are a brave woman.  You have what the attackers don’t have, the ability to look into the mirror and see the reflection of an honest soul.  

Thank you for the encouragement! - D

Posted at 8:44am.