I want to address the terrible scenes we have seen in Israel this past week – indeed these past years. Horrifying scenes of violence, of extremism. The nauseating sight of grown men, extremists, shouting, hitting, spitting at and chasing school girls. And all of the other problems that we have become so used to – of violence, and extremism, from a small (very small) section of the Ultra Orthodox community.
I want to make a few things clear.
First of all, I have huge sympathies, and personally identify with, what is known as the “Charedi world”. Thank G-d, I find myself quite able to live without labels, but I am just as at home – sometimes more at home – in what we might call right wing orthodoxy, than many other parts of the Orthodox world.
Secondly, more to the point, I have tremendous sympathy for the Charedi world and its feeling of being embattled and attacked. The Ultra Orthodox community has tremendous pluses to it, and is often the victim of terrible prejudice.
I was once in the car of a Kol Yisrael reporter. He was someone I had made the acquaintance of when I was a student leader in the UK. This was well over 20 years ago, but we were driving through the streets of Jerusalem, through an Ultra Orthodox area one Friday morning. As we were stuck in traffic and surrounded by black coated, hatted, bearded men, he began gripping the steering wheel with immense pressure and he started saying “these people – ani soneh otam, I detest them…” over and over again. I was appalled.
A few years later, when I was the rabbi at Cambridge University, a well known secular Israeli politician came to address the students. At question time, I asked about the issues of religious and secular politics. He addressed the issue for a few moments, and concluded by saying “… and as for the Charedim, I don’t hate them, they just have to remember that it’s our country not theirs.”
So I understand that, with all of the recent negative publicity (especially as many have used recent events as an opportunity to attack the entire Charedi community), what many Charedim are feeling. They are feeling what we feel when we see Israel or Jews being attacked by the media – angry, outraged, discriminated against, and with a tendency to circle the wagons.
I understand. But I don’t agree.
Because I don’t believe that the Orthodox world can say “these people are nothing to do with us”.
It’s not credible any longer.
The recent events concern the opening of Orot, a Dati Leumi (Modern Orthodox) girls school in Bet Shemesh. Bet Shemesh used to be a poor, mainly Sephardic town in Israel. Over the years it has greatly expanded, attracting many Anglo immigrants, to the town itself and to the surrounding area of Ramat Bet Shemesh. Parts of the new neighborhoods are designated Charedi, and many people from Jerusalem, some of them members of extreme, anti-zionist Chasidic sects have moved to Bet Shemesh. And they have sought to impose their standards and way of life on the surrounding neighborhoods.
For years now we have been reading about violence by members of this community – attacking a Yom Haatzamaut (Independence Day) concert in a park, pelting eggs at the participants, threatening people with violence, and so on.
The new school is situated not in, but close to, a Charedi neighborhood. When it opened in September violent demonstrations began. These have continued, on and off, through this week, which have seen young girls afraid to walk to school. There have been shouts of “pritzus” (immodesty) and “prostitute” at girls.
The Modern Orthodox community – many of them olim (immigrants), many of them people like us, who have followed the dream of going to live in Israel to live religious lives – has, quite simply, had enough of this. The issue has now attracted major media attention, not just in Israel, but also throughout the world.
It is a Chilul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name) of major proportions.
Much hostility has been addressed at the fanatics, but some also at of the wider Charedi population.
But that is a problem that the leaders of that community have to address. Yes, of course, it is true that, at least in America, rabbinic organizations, including the Ultra-Orthodox Agudah have condemned these violent thugs – not to do so is unthinkable. We are talking about the worst sort of violence, in the name of religion, directed at little girls. It’s inexcusable.
But press releases in America – and in Israel, where, sadly, it has been more muted – don’t begin to address the real problem.
These people are fanatics, they are extremists, criminals – call them what you like – but they are a product of Orthodox Judaism and we have to take ownership of the problem. As well as the fact that parts of the Orthodox world are spinning out of control – growing more extreme, more insane, day by day.
It’s happening in the Modern Orthodox, religious Zionist community in Israel, with the so-called “price tag attacks” on mosques and army bases, and it’s happening in the Charedi community with more and more violent demonstrations, more and more attempts to coerce people into following a way of life that they do not want to.
When did violence become acceptable in Judaism?
When did the admirable concern for Halachic high personal standards become an excuse for intolerance of others?
When did the concept (as my friend Rabbi Adlerstein of Los Angeles so eloquently puts it) that every human being was created in the image of G-d, the concept of ahavas yisrael (love of Israel) and the concept of bein adam lachavero (mitzvahs of interpersonal relationships) all get forgotten?
Years ago a spokesman for Agudas Yisrael created a fury when he wrote that Reform Jews are, of course, part of the Jewish people, Reform Judaism is not Judaism. Well let’s ask a question. The Rambam says that the Jewish people are defined, marked as being rachmanim, bayshanim, and gomlei chassadim (merciful, humble and kind. What then of these people? It may not be acceptable to call them non-Jews. But will the Agudah please say what they said about Reform, i.e., that these extreme sects of Chasidim are not practicing a recognizable form of Judaism.
And while they are at it, can we please address the wider issue – that these extremisms are growing and infecting the wider orthodox world?
A few weeks ago, in a terrible tragedy in Brooklyn, a Chasidic man was hit by a car and killed on a Friday night.
Days later, posters went up around his neighborhood, Williamsburg, entitled “michaleleh mot yamot”, those who desecrate it will die, announcing that the victim died (and deserved to die) because he used the local Eruv to carry on the sabbath.
Please, can we hear a statement that this is not a legitimate Jewish movement?
And that the people that dressed their children up in concentration camp clothes and claiming they are the victims of a new Holocaust (a sight that sickens us to the core) are not part of Orthodoxy?
These weeks, the rabbinic leadership of the Orthodox world has rushed to distance itself from these attacks. (I suppose we have to be grateful to the New York Times for ensuring that something was said.) However, the main response is that these people are but a tiny bunch of fanatics who represent no one.
But that is inadequate, because they have supporters.
In every online article or blog about these incidents, a significant percentage of people will write in support of the extremists, saying things like – “these Modern Orthodox girls dress like sluts – they have it coming to them.” Or “if they want to dress like this – let them move to Tel Aviv” – forgetting that Bet Shemesh is not a Charedi town and this school is not in a Charedi neighborhood. Why should they move?
Moreover, it’s not enough simply to disassociate from just the demonstrators. The violence may be limited – but what leads to the violence – a rising tide of extremism – is taking over the Jewish world.
When did separate seating on buses become an obsession?
Decades ago, Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote a teshuva (answer) about how there is no problem whatsoever in men and women travelling together in a subway car.
When did the laws of modesty (which are important laws) mean that you cannot print a picture of women in a newspaper? (It recently emerged that the Jerusalem municipality had adopted a policy of not printing pictures of women in any advertisements for fear of offending the Ultra-Orthodox community.)
Jewish life in this day is undergoing a tragic disfigurement – more extreme, more strict. All sense of moderation, of tradition, is being pushed out.
Chumras, stringencies, are supposed to be just that – stringencies that you take on as an individual, not something to be pushed onto other people.
If your interpretation of the laws of modesty mean that you don’t want to sit on a bus with a women, then get off and walk.
Don’t push an entire gender to the back – and don’t impose that with threats of violence and spitting (as has been happening recently).
There is a beautiful story about the late great Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Issur Zalman Meltzer. One day, he was walking home with some of his students. As he climbed the steps to his front door, he stopped suddenly, turned around, and began strolling up and down outside of his house. The Rabbi was famous for never wasting time so his puzzled students asked him why he wasn’t entering his house?
He explained: “As I walked up the steps, I heard my maid singing. The prohibition of Kol Isha (voice of a woman) applies to me, not to her. She is allowed to sing, but I am not allowed to listen. If I walked into the house she would immediately stop singing out fo respect for me. But she loves to sing, so I will wait here a while until she finishes work.’’
That’s a true understanding of the laws of modesty.
But, as well as extremism, there is a root of intolerance and superiority that enables, and tolerates, this violence. It’s not just the few hundred protesters who think that the Orot School isn’t really Orthodox, that the Dati Leumi community isn’t really religious. There are yeshivot in Israel (where our own children study) where rebbeim say about the secular Israelis, Zionists, Modern Orthodox Jews, that we are the “Eirev Rav” – Non-Jews.
The fact is that the Orthodox world is being overtaken by extremism. And that the leaders of that world are reluctant, or unable, to speak up.
But speak up they must. For too much is at stake.
First of all, we are all, all of us, horribly threatened by this violence and extremism. We may not think of ourselves as anything like these people – but others do.
A member of the shul – and I mean no disrespect when I say he probably wouldn’t define himself as Ultra- Orthodox – called me the other day. As he had been calling round friends and relatives to wish them a happy year ahead, many of his cousins – secular, barely affiliated Jews – had asked him how he could possibly justify these goings on in Bet Shemesh, and how could he practice such a religion?
We are all tarnished by this. And Israel and Judaism are weakened by this.
We used to be able to say: Judaism is not like Islam, and Israel is not like Afghanistan, and there is no Jewish Taliban. When we cannot say that any longer, we are all incredibly weakened.
So what must be done?
First of all, we must ask for those who proclaim themselves the leaders of the religious world, here and in Israel, to condemn this. The rabbis, the roshei yeshiva, the rebbes.
Condemnation is not a press release.
A few weeks ago Rabbi Riskin wrote a powerful op-ed piece in Haaretz condemning the extremists in the settler movement who had attacked an army base. He wrote “You did not throw stones at me, and still you have mortally wounded me.” Let one Rebbe, one Gadol, write such an article, in Haaretz.
People will say: “It’s beneath their dignity”. But the Gemara tells us: Kol makom she’yesh chilul Hashem, ein cholkin kavod l’rav - there is no kavod (honor) when chilul Hashem is in question.
For decades, we in the Modern Orthodox world have been challenged: “where are your Gedolim, where are your leaders? After all, we Ultra Orthodox do nothing without our Torah leaders.”
Now is the time for leadership.
Let the greatest Rabbis in the Jewish world go to Bet Shemesh. Let each walk a little second grader to school. Let their rebbetzins hold a girl’s hand and say, “Come my dear, don’t be afraid, I will walk you to school.” Let them, our Gedolim, our Torah giants, look in the face of the Chasidim yelling “Nazi” at little girls and Jewish policemen and tell them to be silent.
Show your love for kal yisarel! (The people of Israel)
That’s condemnation – not a press release – but tochacha, rebuke.
But that’s not all we need.
Let the voice of moderation be heard again. Anyone who has ever studied one page of Talmud knows about the value of debate, diversity, disagreement, respect – “Elu v’elu“, “these and these” are the words of the living G-d.
And let them clarify the difference between halacha and extremism.
And for all the rebuke (much of it deserved) at modern innovations that depart from accepted traditions, which has been directed at Modern Orthodoxy, let us now hear a word against the craziness of modern chumras, unknown in previous generations, that are just as new, just as damaging.
Let us hear again Torah leaders, like the Gedolim of recent generations – the Rav Moshe Feinsteins, the Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbachs - who hated extremism and insisted that Judaism was a perfectly normal, peace loving religion. Let’s hear those voices again.
And lastly, we demand action, of the most draconian kind. Because the future of Israel is at stake.
When all is said and done, we are one people. Secular and modern Jews have a deal with the Ultra Orthodox world. I’ts unstated but we sense it. It’s the basis of the status quo arrangement between the Chazon Ish and David Be-Gurion:
You are our shaliach (representative). We help pay your way – taxes in Israel, charity dollars in the US. And you keep Israel spiritual. (Should there be others models? Perhaps, yes – but that’s the way it works.) And that’s the reason for the army exemption. That Torah is pure, and it’s a shemirah, it protects all of us. As a nation we have a collective interest in people devoting themselves to Torah. I firmly believe that.
But theres a limit.
Because this violent extremism is not part of the deal.
And silence isn’t part of the deal.
If the religious world is serious about stopping this extremism, then let the religious parties in Israel (who are seemingly obsessed with power and money) let them make a kiddush Hashem (honor of Hashem).
Let them write a bill, and lobby to pass it, that says that every single violent demonstrator, every single person who intimidates, spits, shouts at little girls, who yells “Nazi” at soldiers should be sent to the army.
Not because to serve in the army is a punishment – quite the opposite – and not because the army necessarily wants these thugs, but rather to make it clear that they are not considered part of the frum (religious) world. They don’t have the privilege of being considered Torah scholars. That all of the arrangements between secular and charedi societies simply don’t apply to these groups who have placed themselves beyond the pale.
Because, if we love the Torah, and we believe in its purity (and we do) then we have to protect it – all of us – from the insanity of extremism.
This coming week will see Asarah B’tevet (10th of Tevet), one of the fast days for the Temple, the day the siege of Jerusalem began.
Rav Baruch Simons writes of an ancient tradition: The 10th of Tevet commemorates the first tragedy of sinas chinam (baseless hatred) to affect the Jewish people – the sale of Yosef (Joseph) which happened on that day. From that day to this, the Jewish people will never be whole, never repaired. The Moshiach (Messiah) cannot possibly come while we are plagued by hatred.
May the Ribono Shel Olam (Hashem) give us, and our leaders, courage to eradicate the hatred and evil that is threatening to destroy the country we love, and the religion we hold dear. May we merit to see the coming of the Moshiach, bimheyra biyameynu (soon, in our lifetime).