Jan 13, 2012

The Hasid kid is a genius!

Fundamentalists aren't particularly known for producing geniuses. Except Hasidic Jews.

Isolationist, anti-intellectual religious traditions distrustful of "knowledge" -- science, famously, literary theory, often more acutely -- are common enough. Generally, these are portrayed as producing children who are backwards and weirdly cut-off from the world, something like the banjo boy in Deliverance. Except maybe more sad than freakish, or just kind of awkward and odd, like kids at "Jesus camp" or a Bible bee.

Of course (to steal a bunch of sociological terms from Peter Berger), this negative characterization of communities of "deviant knowledge" integrates them into the general, widely held understanding of normal knowledge and the "real" world, which is the world socially constructed so as to be taken for granted as natural by the "cognitive majority." The integration allows the alternative knowledge to exist without that being a problem for what is taken for granted, explaining the alternative away and re-establishing the dominant, accepted social reality.

In non-sociology of knowledge terms, the fact fundamentalist kids exist in a world that has it's own kind of knowledge freaks us out. Ridicule makes us feel OK again.

When isolated, anti-intellectual religious sects do produce smart, creative people, it's sometimes thought about and understood as having set them off-kilter in an interesting way. Ex.: Lester Bangs, who grew up Jehovah's Witness, or Brad Pitt, who was raised pentecostal. This being best case scenario for those raised fundamentalists. The implicit assumption is one of exception, I think.

Except with Hasids. For some reason. I'm not sure why.

I'm about half-way through Rebecca Goldstein's novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. There's a genius Hasidic boy. He's discovered the prime number for himself at 6, along with squares, cubes, and so on. He calls numbers maloychim. Angels. The rebbe says,
"Who taught him? The angels! Min ha-shamoyim -- from the heavens. This is nothing. He likes to play with numbers. For him they're toys, and we let him play. He can learn a page of Torah or Talmud like lamdin -- like scholars -- three, four, five times his age."
In a book about religion and genius and the intellect, it appears the boy is going to turn out to be important, and maybe a metaphor for a main kind of religious experience.

He's also pretty immediately reminiscent of Danny Saunders, from Chaim Potok's The Chosen. Also Hasidic, also the son of the fundamentalist leader, the strict, authoritarian father who hopes his son will be his successor, a hope that's both bolstered and threatened by the preternatural intelligence. Saunders, rather than math, has a "photographic memory," an amazing ability to really read and make connections.

Potok's book is popular with some Christian homeschoolers. Which seems both obvious and strange.

I can think, though, of any equivalent work of fiction where a Christian fundamentalist child -- of the sort who might be homeschooled, who might, while homeschooled, read about genius boy growing up Hasidic -- is discovered to be a genius, though a genius who hasn't gone to school and has worked that genius out in, only, specifically, those ways available in the fundamentalist community.

Why not, though?

One of Goldstein's characters makes the point the genius Hasidic boy "belongs to a sect that thinks it reveres education, but their idea of education has nothing to do with real knowledge!"

That doesn't seem unique to fundamentalist Jews, though. Most (if not all) supposedly anti-intellectualist sects actually hold a certain sort of education in high, high esteem, holding it up as actually true knowledge, though it's "deviant" knowledge not accepted as real knowledge. Scripture memorization and recitation, for example. That's a lot of what makes them what they are, and could even be thought to be definitional of fundamentalists.

Why, then, is it the case that this character, the genius fundamentalist child, comes up in literature as a Hasid, but not as from one of the many sects of Christian or Islamic fundamentalism?

Or maybe it does and I've just not found it?