on Friday, 25 September 2015.
Posted in Rabbi
In the summer of 1996, I spent a few weeks studying in Israel with about 100 other American Jews. The institute was part of a two-year study program of the Wexner Foundation, and we participants represented a broad spectrum of American Jewry – secular, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox. We studied mostly at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Founded by the late modern Orthodox rabbi David Hartman, the Hartman Institute educates lay and professional Jews of all denominations, believing that what unites us is far greater than what separates us.
One evening during our time in Israel, the Wexner Foundation arranged for a very different program: We American Jews were going to be addressed by a rabbi from the Israeli ultra-Orthodox – Haredi – community. I don’t recall his name. But I do remember two points that he made:
First, while he would not deny our status as Jews, he told us that many of his colleagues would. He, on the other hand, would simply call us “sinning” Jews. “You don’t keep the mitzvot as God has commanded,” he chastised.
Second, he gloated about his prediction for the future of Israel. “Do the math,” he said. People like you will have two children and maybe four grandchildren. People like me, on the other hand, will have 12 children and 144 grandchildren. Our Judaism will win.”
“Our Judaism will win.” His words have stayed with me for close to 20 years. I have often thought, “What would it mean for Israel if “his” Judaism wins?
Let me be clear: He does not represent mainstream Orthodoxy, even Chabad. He represents a small, but growing, minority within the Orthodox community. His Judaism would chastise other Jews, as well as ignore and even condone hateful and even violent measures in the name of creating an Israel which goes against the very Jewish values the rest of us embrace.
This is not new; nor was it new in 1996; back in the 1980s, for example, Haredi Israelis threw stones at cars being driven on Shabbat through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. They stopped only because during the first Intifada – Palestinian uprising – the police asked them to stop. But it empowered them. And one reason it did was because of Israel’s shameful double standard. Palestinians who throw rocks are routinely arrested – if not worse. When Jews throw rocks, the police look away.
Here are just a few examples of what has occurred in the name of Haredi Judaism in more recent years:
– An eight-year old modern Orthodox girl who lived in a mixed modern and ultra-Orthodox neighborhood was spat on and verbally abused, including being called a whore, by men who felt she dressed immodestly. She was eight years old.
– Public buses have had their windows shattered when female passengers have refused to sit in the back. Other buses have been damaged because they contained ads showing women. After so much destruction to their buses, Eged, Israel’s national bus company, now has a policy of no human beings depicted in bus ads.
– Haredi men’s refusal to sit next to women on airplanes has caused flight delays, missed connections, and safety concerns.
– An Israeli Army sergeant made a condolence call to the home of one of the rare Haredi soldiers in his unit after the soldier’s father died. The neighbors felt that the Friday afternoon visit was too close to Shabbat and badly damaged the sergeant’s vehicle, smashing windows and making it impossible for him to leave after his visit ended.
– An American Jewish family was in a park on a Shabbat afternoon. The young daughter approached Haredi boys, in that way that kids seek out other kids. Rather than simply walk away or say “no,” these boys chose to imitate the adults of their community. They threw rocks at the little girl.
– And of course there is the on-going struggle of Women of the Wall, whose members are berated, accosted, and arrested for trying to pray and read from the Torah at the Western Wall.
All of this is maddening. Crazy making. The word Haredi is a modern Hebrew adjective derived from a verse in the Book of Isaiah; it reads, chareid el d’vari, a reference to a person who “trembles at God’s word.” What kind of Jew, who claims to trem¬ble at God’s word, would spit on an eight year old girl, damage a bus because of a photo of a woman on the side or because a woman is sitting near the front, destroy the vehicle of an IDF officer making a condolence call, or stop women from engaging in prayer?
We are rightfully shocked by this behavior because Jews don’t do this – and we certainly don’t do it to other Jews. We are embarrassed – dare I even say – mortified – by these actions. We read about them and try to pretend it’s all a mistake. Then we try to excuse it and say, “well, it’s just a tiny minority of Jews” … and that excuse holds until yet another incident. We pray that our non-Jewish friends don’t read the stories and conclude that the worldwide growing anti-Semitism is somehow justified because of the horrible actions ofextremists acting perversely in the name of Judaism.
If property damage and human humiliation were the be all and end all – and those indignities are significant – I would not devote a Kol Nidrei sermon to the offenses committed by the ultra-Orthodox in Israel. But three events of this past summer demand that I no longer keep silent.
On June 18, suspected ultra-Orthodox arsonists torched the Church of the Multiplication in the Galilee. The church was gutted in part and arsonists left graffiti denouncing idol worship.This church is one of the holiest sites for Christians; it is where Christians believe that Jesus performed the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes. It is a traditional pilgrimage site for Christians who visit Israel. Two people suffered serious injuries from smoke inhalation.
On July 30, an ultra-Orthodox man who had recently been released from prison after serving ten years for stabbing participants in the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade in 2005 struck again, stabbing six. Sixteen-year old Shira Banki, marching in solidarity with her LGBT friends, died three days later from her wounds. And Shira Banki’s death hits closer to home than you think. At the year two Kids4Peace camp this summer, TBJ campers Zach Barnes and Lola Ackerman comforted one of Shira’s friends, a fellow camper from Jerusalem.
Hours after Shira Banki died, on August 2, ultra-Orthodox settlers from an illegal outpost firebombed two Palestinian homes in Duma in the West Bank. The attackers left graffiti with the words “long live the king messiah” and “revenge.” Ali Dawabsha, 18-months old, died immediately.Ali’s four-year old brother, Ahmed, suffered burns over 60% of his body. Ahmed and his parents, Riham and Saad, were taken to Israeli hospitals. Saad died of his injuries on August 8. Riham died in early September. Ahmed survives, alone.
Harsh condemnations of the attacks at the Gay Pride Parade and against the Dawabsha family poured from the highest levels of government, beginning with the prime minister and the president. But condemnation is not enough.
It is our obligation to do something about these atrocities committed in the name of our religion, because this horrible violence cuts at the heart of what it means to be Jewish and what it means to be human. For us, Jewish values and human values go hand in hand. Tomorrow afternoon, our Torah portion contains passages expressing the values we embrace – to not hate another in your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself. These commandments are part of what we call the Holiness Code. Love is holy. Hate is not. Vio-lence is not.And yes, the Holiness Code tells us, reproving – correcting – another person is holy as well. We must make stopping the violence a priority and we must act.
Earlier in our service, before we prayed the Ashamnu, I read a passage from the Reconstruc¬tionist machzor: We confess in the plural in part to remind ourselves which sins we have failed to prevent others from committing. V’hirshanu: We have caused others to do evil. Zadnu: We have had evil in our hearts. Chamasnu: We have been violent. Rashanu: We have been lawless.
All confessions of sin on Yom Kippur are in the plural, not just the sins of Ashamnu. Al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha … For the sin WE have committed against you. No, we did not firebomb the house, stab the marchers, or commit any of the other tragic offenses. But, the Talmud teaches, kol yisrael arevim zeh, b’zeh; all Israel is responsible for one another. We are a part of the Jewish people and the Jewish family, whether we like all our relatives or not.
If we see another Jew about to sin, we are to step in and try to stop it in a peaceful manner, of course. If Jews have already sinned, we are to find ways to keep the sin from being repeated, again in a peaceful way. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away; it will only make it worse.
Those who torch churches and mosques, Yishai Schlissel, and the murderers of Ali, Saad and Riham Dawabsha are part of a growing circle of Jewish Israelis who are intolerant of anyone who does not live according to their warped view of Torah. Many speak out against their views, and yes, condemn them. But condemnation means nothing to those who hold such views. As President Reuven Rivlin said at a Jerusalem rally following the stabbings and the firebombing:
“We cannot continue to dismiss [the] flames, which are consuming the public in Israel, as an unfortunate set of coincidences. These flames, which consume us all, cannot be extinguished with weak condem¬nations. [They] cannot be extinguished with solidarity rallies.”
If anything, simple condemnation gives the extremists the green light to mock, ridicule, belittle, and otherwise speak hate about Arabs, Reform Jews, women, gays, secular Jews, Christians, Moslems, and everyone else unlike them. And when that hate speech is merely condemned, it too often morphs into violence.
About this, Rabbi Sharon Brous says: “The … attacks are … the logical outcome of the atmosphere of racism and intolerance that has been festering over the past many years: … Thousands of daily musings from pundits, rabbis and community leaders … fuel or … excuse a growing violence and intolerance. … And then [they] act with shock and disgust when incidents of violence occur. We must acknow¬ledge that a culture of racism, hatred, and indifference will inevitably become a culture of violence. It’s time for us to take responsibility for building a political and social reality that reflects Jewish values of tolerance, equality and humility, one that promotes civil discourse and fights, above all, for human dignity.[quote continues on next page] It’s time to … fight to change our social, political and religious reality so that such things never happen again.”
Rabbi Daniel Kirzane adds, “When Palestinians [commit] acts of terrorism, we … rightfully [call] for Palestinian leadership to take responsibility – … [to] teach peace to their children, to advocate for peace in their policies, and to work diligently and sincerely to pursue peace with the State of Israel. In the same vein, the govern¬ment of Israel, and in particular [ultra-Orthodox] politi¬cal parties and religious groups … must take responsibility for the language of hatred and violence ….”
Rabbis Brous and Kirzane call out for social changes.
There are legal changes, as well, that the government can make. Some are quite harsh and controversial, and arguably might violate a person’s civil rights. I don’t endorse these. Social changes are necessary, too. The Israeli government has tried, with a program called Hebrew Shepherd, which would offer vocational training, carpentry course and lessons in goat shepherding for Haredi young men. No one has signed up.I believe that Israel needs to go to the heart of the matter and address Haredi society altogether, a society that has given rise to many different expressions of hate and intolerance – and terrorism.
As the Haredi rabbi who addressed my group nearly 20 years ago predicted, the Haredi population in Israel has steadily grown. Haredi Jews made up just about 5% of the Israel population back in 1996. Today, they are over 10% of the entire population of Israel with a very high birthrate. It is estimated that their total population will reach 20% by 2034. They live insular lives. They do not watch television, go to the movies, read secular books or newspapers, or use computers. The study of math, science, and English is forbidden. Most refuse to serve in the military.
Only 45% of the men work for a living. Instead, they study Talmud for as much as 18 hours per day, receive government stipends, and live off of their wives’ incomes – 71% of Haredi women work. More than 60% of Haredi families live below the poverty level.
The coalition government that ruled prior to the current one included no ultra-Orthodox parties. So the secular Yesh Atid party, part of that coalition, was able to push through laws criminalizing ultra-Orthodox men who refused to serve in the army and cutting benefits to Talmud students. But Prime Minister Netanyahu’s current government includes two Haredi parties. They have repealed the military service law and restored benefits to the students. The current Minister of the Economy, Aryeh Deri, is the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. He insists that he will block any attempt to cut benefits.
For many religious Jews, studying Talmud in Israel is a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy in Isaiah – “for the land will be filled with the knowledge of God.” But this doesn’t add to the Israeli economy; rather, it is a burden on it. And, perhaps worse, it keeps the Haredim isolated from the rest of society, ill equipped to interact with others or to accept any way of life that differs from their own.
I am reminded of Los Angeles, 1992 – the Rodney King riots. These occurred after white police officers abused King, a black man, after he had been in a high-speed chase with officers who had attempted to stop him for a traffic violation. After the police were acquitted, activists rioted across Los Angeles for two weeks. What does this have to do with the Haredim in Israel? An analyst remarked that widespread and long-term rioting took place because Los Angeles is such a segregated community – blacks, whites, and Hispanics live completely separate lives. In New York, by contrast, where every walk of life rides the subways and buses and traverses the streets together, widespread riots like this have not happened since 1965.
The analogy with Israel is clear. The Haredi live even more isolated from the rest of Israeli society than blacks, whites, and Hispanics live isolated from each other in L.A. And that religious isolation has a price. A recent Pew study on religion concluded:
“Religious isolation does not lead to happiness. Nor does it foster a desire to serve others or make one a more ‘spiritual’ person. … [Only] when individuals stretch themselves and reach out to others, allowing their lives to become influenced by those who are different from themselves, that they grow and thus become happier, more inclined to serve others, and more spiritually committed.” Sadly, the opposite is true in the ultra-Orthodox world in Israel. Far from serving others, they seek to harm others.
Members of the Haredi community in Israel cannot continue to remain isolated. If they will not freely join the larger society then the government must take radical steps to require that they serve in the military or in some other capacity for their country; that they receive secular educations; that they work for a living while they study, as did the all of the ancient Rabbis – and those who didn’t were condemned by their peers; and that they contribute to the economy, not just take from it.
Is there anything that we liberal American Jews can do? First, I urge each one of us to support the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. IRAC works to promote pluralism and the growth of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel. They mobilize and push for change, for t’shuvah. IRAC, together with the Coalition Against Racism in Israel, need funds in their effort to have Israel’s Attorney General launch a criminal investigation into a group called Lehava and others who members commit violent acts in the name of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
Second, if you are not a member of ARZA – the Association of Reform Zionists of America ¬– please join. Its work is of utter importance, and right now ARZA is in a position to make a substantial impact in Israel. Every four years, Jews around the world vote in a World Zionist Congress election. The U.S. holds 145 seats in the Congress, and ARZA won 40% of the American seats in the most recent election. The Congress controls the assets and helps set policy for three organizations in Israel whose activities directly or indirectly connect with ultra-Orthodox communities.
We must do what we can to help the progressive forces in Israel who are working to turn the society back to the righteous path of Jewish values enshrined in its Declaration of Independence, away from the extremism, isolationism, and intolerance of the Haredim. Let us move from our own sins of omission – our failure to recognize the sins being committed in our name ¬– toward the mitzvah of creating an Israel and a Jerusalem that our prophets urged upon us – one that will more fervently promote understanding and peace.
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