Why Did God Create Atheists?

There is a famous story told in Chassidic literature that addresses this very question. The Master teaches the student that God created everything in the world to be appreciated, since everything is here to teach us a lesson. 

One clever student asks “What lesson can we learn from atheists? Why did God create them?”

The Master responds “God created atheists to teach us the most important lesson of them all – the lesson of true compassion. You see, when an atheist performs and act of charity, visits someone who is sick, helps someone in need, and cares for the world, he is not doing so because of some religious teaching. He does not believe that god commanded him to perform this act. In fact, he does not believe in God at all, so his acts are based on an inner sense of morality. And look at the kindness he can bestow upon others simply because he feels it to be right.”

“This means,” the Master continued “that when someone reaches out to you for help, you should never say ‘I pray that God will help you.’ Instead for the moment, you should become an atheist, imagine that there is no God who can help, and say 'I will help you.’”

ETA source: Tales of Hasidim Vol. 2 by Mar



Head southwest across aptly-named Division Avenue on the Southside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and you enter what is, in some respects, another nation. While still technically part of greater Williamsburg—painfully reduced to a land of PBR and fixies in current neighborhood stereotyping—this area is much better known simply as Hasidic Williamsburg. The sub-neighborhood is roughly bounded by Division Ave., Broadway, Heyward St., and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It is home to the largest Hasidic Jewish sect in the world, the Satmars, and almost no one else. Pass through, as I often do by bike, and you will know you are no longer in the Brooklyn of contemporary fame: the hodgepodge of brownstones and brick apartment buildings may look familiar, but the Yiddish-plastered school buses likely do not.

Beyond the language, the side curls, furry hats, and long, black coats worn no matter the season, I find the adaptations the Hasidim enact on the built environment—housing often constructed prior to their settlement in the area following World War II—to be far more curious.

These are most conspicuous during Sukkot, the Jewish holiday which takes its name from the sukkah, a temporary dwelling with a thatched roof that, according to biblical history, is erected in honor of the “booths” that provided shelter for the Israelites following their escape from Egypt. The true origin of the celebration likely stretches farther back than the Exodus: Sukkot incorporates many aspects of an ancient harvest festival. For eight days and seven nights (this year beginning on sundown of Sept. 18th and ending at nightfall on the 25th), those who observe the holiday eat and sometimes sleep in the sukkah, celebrating through song, storytelling, and satiation.

I always know when Sukkot is on the horizon: a backyard I overlook from my fire escape is cleared of overgrowth for its only occupation of the year, and sukkah construction begins—power saws and drills sometimes whirring until 1 AM. A new layer of buildings is added across Hasidic Williamsburg, the density of the city causing plywood structures to spill into the street from the front of synagogues and yeshivas. The main markers of buildings constructed, or adapted, by the Hasidim are also put to their intended use: the large balconies that sprout haphazardly from often-dull facades become platforms for sukkahs. Where these balconies are in short supply, a long skinny hut occupies the iconic Brooklyn stoop.

While the orthodox enclave is firmly embedded in contemporary Brooklyn, a mainstay in its narrative of diversity and idiosyncrasy, it also operates apart and often by its own rules. Some of these structures may not fully comply with New York City building code, but as with many things in the community, the constructions are intended to abide by a higher law. And while a sukkah must abide by precise parameters—it must be a temporary structure, have at least two and a half walls, be big enough to fit a table, and have a roof of organic materials that provides shade but lets you see the stars—this code allows ample space for reinterpretation, producing a diverse array of sukkah styles. Some appear ready-made, others cobbled together from an array of materials, and a few stand out for their relative luxury. Whatever the style, the concentration of this ritualistic intervention in the urban fabric is a welcome site each year, as is the replacement of the noise of construction with the hubbub of ceremony wafting through my window.

* * *

Jonathan Tarleton is a State Guide to New York. He was schooled in Georgia and North Carolina before moving on to denser pastures in Brooklyn. He currently helps out at Urban Omnibus where he researches and writes about the policy, art, peculiarities, and movements that make New York City so enticingly combative. He likes to be outside and to make things, preferably concurrently. Follow him on Tumblr at jttarleton.tumblr.com and find more of his NYC field trips at Urban Omnibus.

Crown Heights is becoming the Hasidic SoHo. The neighborhood now has a spanking-new gallery of Jewish art with $175,000 paintings; a female rock band whose members are frum (religiously observant); and a kosher pizzeria that’s a hangout for chic moms with Louis Vuitton handbags.
One nation, many cultures

He and his son, no older than five, sat down next to me.  This was really quite unexpected. I always assume black hats will stay away from women. Shomer negiah, kol isha, yichud, I could make a list that goes on forever of why.

“What’s your name?” I asked the little boy, attempting to make friendly conversation.

“He only speaks Yiddish,” answered his father in a thick Yiddish accent. I nodded, understandingly.  I was used to this, oddly enough.  And the boy, he stared at me with eyes wide as a full moon, taking in the whole situation. He was not used to this, he had probably never seen anyone secular before. 

“How many kids do you have?” I asked the man.

“Fifteen children, fifteen grandchildren, and four more on the way, baruch hashem,” he answered. I was comforted by his use of Hebrew. It meant two things: 1) he was attempting to make friendly conversation with me; 2) he was not Satmar.

“My mother is from a family of nine,” I told him.

“That’s what I like to hear,” he said “I am too.” I smiled politely. “How many cousins do you have?” he asked.

“Thirty or so, I lost count,” I admited.

“I lost count too, I had nearly two hundred cousins growing up. It’s different with your own family though,” he said, adjusting his hat as he watched his son squirm in his chair. 

“What’s your son’s name?” I asked, pointing to the little squirmy black hat.

“Mendel-Meyer,” answers his father, the big black hat.

“Mendy,” I called to the boy. Recognition appeared in his shy eyes before he looked at his father for assurance.

“Do you know any Yiddish?” the man asked me.

“Not really,” I confessed. On my mother’s side I’m Moroccan and Tunisian, aside from “schmuk,” and “alte mobel” which means old furniture, I’ve got nothing.

“What language are you going to speak when the Massiah comes?” he asked me.

“Judeo-Arabic,” I tell him.

“Okay,” he says, watching his son squirm in his chair some more. I gave him an answer he didn’t want, and in response, he could do nothing but wait beside me. 


A multimedia story about Shulem Deen, Hasidic rebel and creator of unpious.com

Today: Went to watch “Fill the Void” directed by Rama Burshtein with Martina. Good storyline about a girl dealing with death and marriage that’s backed up with some really unique documenting shots of the ultra-orthodox lifestyle. I think I want to watch it twice just to pick up on anything I miss and get a better sense of the story. Not sure why but I find Hasidic Jews super interesting, something about how insular and ritualized they are.

Oh yeah, Yiftach Klein, take me.

I'm seriously going to bomb you guys with this stuff forever... sorry

Blah blah blah, still thinking about my project about working for Chasidic Jews for three years.

This is going to be a super slow blog, but I’m working on an FAQ right now, and hopefully that will provide me with some inspiration in the future.  I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to write this - memoir?  Talking about specific issues?  Eh…

Problem is, I’m drawing a bit of a blank on the FAQ stuff.  Overwhelmingly, the number one question I’m asked about my job is, “Aren’t Chasidic Jews sexist/misogynistic?”

My answer to that is still in the works, because it’s a tough question.  By Western standards, I think that it would be easy to slap the “sexist” sticker on ultra orthodox Jews, but I don’t think that would be fair.  As we’ve seen with the criticism of Slut Walk, Western ideas about feminism are not universally applicable.  Many Frum women argue that, while a woman’s role in Chasidus is distinct from a man’s, it’s equally as important, and that the feminine is treated with no small amount of reverence within the culture.

And of course, traditions and practices vary greatly between different Chasidic sects.

Does that get any wheels turning?  I’m kind of having a brain fart.  Not that I’m on a schedule or anything, I’m just looking for a project.  :)

So yup!  Still soliciting questions about Chasidic Judaism, or my experience working for Chasidic Jews.  Anyone?