As an Orthodox Jew and with many personal and professional connections to the chasidic community, the litany of scandalous stories emerging almost weekly upsets me much, and has led to analyzing why this is going on when most Torah education is opposed to criminality of any type.
I’d like to propose that the awful stories are all related, and to make them understandable by explaining the mindset that leads to them. This in no way is meant to condone or approve the actions, rather just promoting understanding of how the chasidic mind works.
Chasidut has its origins in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, where the Jewish peasants in agricultural settings were close to losing their connection to Judaism until chasidism changed the dynamics of the religion from pure intellectualism to a more emotional and attainable form of connection (or “d’veikut”) to God.
Rapidly, a form of chasidic mindset became the rule, established by the elite rebbes, and all “peasant” chasidim were expected to comply. The rules expanded with time, eventually expanding to almost all aspects of life, including even the most intimate details of home life among some groups. The new rules eventually became inviolate, even when they were counter to established halacha, or Jewish law.
Among the earliest polemics against chasidut was their custom of saying morning prayers at a later time than halacha permits. These types of rules were originally adopted for a reason — in the case of prayer, to allow for pre-prayer meditation, study and mikveh — yet even when not practiced, the late prayer became “the way we do it”, and that practice is continued to this day in many chasidic circles.
The acceptance of established custom over independent thinking, sometimes even over halacha, can also be viewed as the source of scandalous incidents. If custom demands that there be no secular study for the valid reason that it insulates the community from foreign influence, no such study will be allowed even though some will be harmed by this missed opportunity. Likewise, if “in the old country” certain behaviors were acceptable as necessary under tyrannical regimes, such things as smuggling or tax fraud for example, even here they retain a distinct scent of the allowable, leading to the embarrassment of rabbis being hauled off in handcuffs.
The challenge lies, my friends, in introducing constructive change.