A number of years ago, I attended a rather large gathering of Jews. On Shabbat, I found myself sitting at a table with a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews, including some rabbis, who hailed from Brooklyn.
Right after motzi, some of them started talking about what we would now call the “hood.” They were complaining about their neighbors. And suddenly, one of them used a word that I had not heard in a very long time: “the shvartzers.”
Whoa, I said to myself. This was unlike any version of Orthodoxy that I had ever encountered before. It was not the Orthodoxy of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, nor of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, nor of the late, lamented Rabbi David Hartman, nor of Adin Steinsaltz, nor of former British chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I had heard the term “Torah true Judaism” that many ultra-Orthodox use to describe their practice. Was this Torah-true Judaism? Then what about Leviticus 19, the Holiness Code, which included “love your neighbor as yourself?" What about the thirty-six times that the Torah tells us to take care of the stranger? Isn't that also, or even chiefly, Torah?
I was brasher then than I am now, and so I turned to one of my offending neighbors at the table and I asked him, point-blank: “Do you davven with that mouth?” I could not conceive of a mouth that uttered the Sh’ma, or chanted Psalms, or sang Adon Olam, also using racial slurs.
They looked at me like I was crazy. Let’s just say that birchat ha-mazon (the blessing after the meal) could not have come any faster.
Fast forward to what happened earlier this week on Rosh Chodesh Av at the Western Wall – Women of the Wall, and numerous friends and supporters and fellow pray-ers, went to davven at the wall. Except they were met by busloads of ultra-Orthodox girls, who blocked their access to the Wall. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews who were there greeted them with Nazi salutes and “Heil Hitler!” Follow this link to the video created by my colleague, Rabbi Ned Soltz.
Ask yourself: Who are the more authentic representatives of “Torah-true Judaism” – the screaming hordes or the praying women?
And once again, I want to say: Do you davven with that mouth? Do you wrap tefillin on the arm that you raised in a Hitler salute?
How about the way that many of the ultra-Orthodox refer to their brethren who choose to serve in the Israel Defense Forces? They ostracize them, they ridicule them, they will even seek to make these citizen soldiers unmarriageable within the frum community. Some ultra-Orthodox residents of Meah Shearim in Jerusalem actually physically attacked an ultra-Orthodox soldier who was visiting his family.
Some ultra-Orthodox Jews have coined a new term that Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the founder of modern Hebrew, would never have imagined. Hardakim -- a combination of the term hareidim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) and the Hebrew words for insects (charakim) and germs (chaidakim). And then there are the comic-like caricatures of these soldiers, which portray them as fat, bearded monstrous kidnappers of children.
Imagining Jews as insects. Imagining Jews as germs. Caricatures of fat, bearded, evil Jews. Right out of Der Sturmer’s play book.
Tisha B’Av is coming. The ninth day of the month of Av is the traditional date of the destruction of both the first and second temples in Jerusalem, along with a few other historical tragedies that just happened to be lumped into that date. We can thank Jewish summer camps for rescuing the observance of Tisha B’Av.
But it might be that Tisha B’Av is no longer about mourning a devastated city. Perhaps now, Tisha b’Av is about mourning our devastated values.
Jerusalem was destroyed, the sages said, because: Because its people profaned Shabbat. Because they neglected saying the Sh’ma mornings and evenings. Because they stopped bringing their children to study with the sages. Because they lost their sense of shame. Because they did not admonish each other. Because people failed to settle disputes by compromise. Because of baseless hatred (sinat hinam).
Seven sins. How about synagogues instituting a seven year cycle of reflection – one year for each sin? We already have Yom Kippur, you are saying. But that’s for personal sin. Tisha B’Av should be about communal and national sins.
Every mitzvah that we do contributes to the re-building of the Temple, said the Hasidic teacher, Reb Naftali of Ropshitz.
It's time for us to start.