Jewish Journal

When Tony Met Tevye

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

October 23, 2013 | 7:04 am

Tony – as in Tony Soprano.

Tevye – as in, well, Tevye (did he ever have a surname? Good research project).

That was my reaction when I first learned about the ring of ultra-Orthodox rabbis who have been involved in violently coercing recalcitrant husbands into giving their ex-wives gittin (Jewish divorces). Once upon a time, when husbands did not give their wives gittin, they could expect that their businesses might be picketed, or that they would be ostracized by the community. But now the ante has been upped to kidnappings, beatings, and even the use of electric cattle prods. “You put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute the guy will know,” Rabbi Mendel Epstein of Brooklyn explained – which inspired the Daily News to dub the crew The Prodfathers. 

Why did this make national news? Because it is the Jewish equivalent of “man bites dog.” We simply don’t expect pious Jews to be acting this way. 

The pre-modern Jewish man utterly rejected physical violence and the use of coercive power. To this day, haredi men have weak handshakes. Why? Someone once figured out that gentile knights originated the firm handshake, and so it became instantly treif. According to tradition, the tefilin were to be worn on the weaker arm – to say that spiritual power is more important than physical strength. Zionism was a critique of this mindset. The Maccabiah games celebrated Jewish physical prowress, and they were named for the Maccabees -- "real" men. Check out Bialik’s famous poem “City of Slaughter,” in which he castigates the yeshiva bochers in Kishinev who would not fight back against the anti-Semitic hoardes who had raped their women. They could only crawl out of the cellars to ask their rabbis if their wives, having been raped, would now be permitted to them.

No, said Bialik -- we must fight back against anti-Semitism, physically if necessary. But that is hardly the same thing as violence coercion of recalcitrant husbands -- simply to prop up a system which is itself coercive against women. 

But I see a hand raising in the back of the audience: “This is simply harediphobic Orthodox bashing!”

Actually, one of the most interesting dimensions of contemporary Judaism has been the eagerness on the part of the non-Orthodox to learn from the ultra-Orthodox and "their" texts. I’m thinking here of the sages whose work Art Green has recently made widely available to us through Jewish Lights -- Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from Around the Maggid's Table http://www.jewishlights.com/page/product/978-1-58023-668-3 Neither the Sefat Emet or Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, just to name two luminaries, would have eaten in my house (it’s vegetarian, so maybe…) I am a Jewish pluralist, studying most summers at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. 

I see another hand. “Why do you care about this? This is an Orthodox Jewish problem!”

In my experience, many non-Orthodox divorcing couples care about the get process and want to engage in it – this, despite the fact that Reform Judaism, from its very beginnings in Germany, affirmed that divorce solely according to civil law would be acceptable and appropriate. So, this is about all Jews. 

A religious system that needs coercion and violence for its maintenance needs serious, intensive soul-searching. That’s why, increasingly, Orthodox rabbis are discussing prenuptial agreements and creating annulments that would make this whole thing even more utterly unnecessary than it already is. 

Another hand from the side of the room: “This kind of news is not good for the Jews.”

Right. But it’s also not good for God. It’s called hillul ha-shem – the profanation of God’s reputation in the world. Surely, the rabbis with cattle prods studied Talmud, Yoma 86a -- a pious student who acts abominably causes people to say, “Woe to his teacher who taught him Torah! This man studied the Torah: look, how corrupt are his deeds, how ugly his ways.” Remember the Pew study and all those Jews who do not identify religiously as Jews? You think the specter of coercive violence helps? News flash: it is possible that violent religious extremism has contributed to making "none" the third largest religion in the world?We are God's PR department. 

One last thing. 

You’ve probably seen that viral video of the ultra-Orthodox rabbi brothers singing a flawless rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence.” http://elderofziyon.blogspot.com/2013/10/rabbi-brothers-singing-sounds-of.html#.UmfUDhb3A6U

Yes, their singing and guitar playing is exquisite.

But when it comes to violent rabbis, there are real sounds of silence emanating from the ultra-Orthodox world.

There are modern and moderate Orthodox rabbis who have correctly and courageously spoken out: Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the new president of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, Rabbi Seth Farber, and others. 

May their voices go viral as well.

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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