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January 1, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Beit Shemesh

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/fear_and_loathing_in_beit_shemesh/

Rape is not about sex, it’s about violence.  So too Orthodox Jewish men attacking little Orthodox Jewish girls in Beit Shemesh because they were wearing short sleeves this past week was not, God forbid about tzniut, the Jewish notion of modesty (the perpetrated acts were of course anything but modest), but about power.

In Israel religion is inextricably interwoven with politics and politics is about power.  It would be nice if this were a symbiotic relationship, resulting in a Jewish democratic state in which politics could be informed by the spiritual and the religious, but unfortunately it has resulted in a parasitic relationship in which religion is all too often colored by, and utilized in, the service of power. 

I am not grouping all Orthodox Jews together and I am not stereotyping all Charedi (anti-Zionist, strongly insular) Jews together.  I well realize that though there are hundreds of Charedim who have been involved in violence over the past few years, in protest to co-gender public busses, in response to state involvement in the welfare of children in parts of Jerusalem, or in this recent episode in Beit Shemesh, it is hundreds of Charedim, not thousands or tens of thousands.  Why do they do it?  Several reasons I think. 

Though some have political power due to Israel’s parliamentary system, the majority feel powerless.  Just as haughtiness is perpetrated by individuals to counteract strong feelings of insecurity, violence does the same for feelings of powerlessness.  Indeed, religion is a perfect guise for such violence since it paints violence as indignant and vindicated, righteous and productive. 

Why do some Charedim in Israel feel powerless?  Among several causes that loom large are that they do not serve in the army, something that in the state of Israel is considered the badge of honor, and an important factor in securing latter employment in the civil sector.  Recently, due to a rabbinical edict, they are not permitted to study secular subjects even if it will assist them in finding a job, rendering the job search incredibly difficult.

Many live below the poverty line, subsisting on government handouts in order to study for many years and thus avoid army service, considered spiritually dangerous by Charedi Orthodox communities.  Without serving in the army in Israel and without secular academic education, theirs is a poor sub-culture seen as backward by Israel’s general society, and even by Zionist Orthodox co-religionists. 

The second reason for the violence is that Orthodox Jews who live in insular communities in Israel often have no real sense of others.  If one lives in an enclosed enough community and is taught that only one’s own way of seeing every detail in life, religion, and the world is right, soon there is no vision, soon such preaching becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.  To not know or value those who are different from oneself breeds fear of the other and disregard, or worse, toward them. 

I am told that in many communities Charedi women are forbidden from wearing ankle length skirts and are only allowed calf length skirts.  Why?  Because the Zionist orthodox women often wear ankle length skirts.  This is to me a fear and loathing of the other that is so strong it has led to the absurdly xenophobic.

The third reason I would suggest for the violence is that those perpetrating it have mistakenly done what many fringe groups and sects in Jewish history have done, harped on one Jewish idea or element to the (partial) exclusion of the colorful range of important ideas and commandments in Judaism.  Whether Reform Judaism which stressed the commandments between people, minimizing the ritual commandments, or some Charedim who stress the ritual commandments to the detriment of those between humans outside of their close knit communities.

Judaism deeply values seeing different Jewish points of view even when they differ from our own.  This is the great lesson we learn from Hillel and Shamai, who disagreed about most of Jewish law and yet married their children off to each other.  Let us speak out against the violence and against the teachers of the who perpetrate it and do not take their followers to task, and let us bring back the true Jewish perspective of Hillel and Shamai, that, “Both these and those are the word of God” and erase the false outlook that seems to dominate in our day of, “Its my way or the highway.”

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