Much has already been written about the horrifying scenes of violence, extremism and chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) taking place in Israel these past weeks — indeed these past years; but something more needs to be said.
The images and reality of grown men, extremists, wrapped in tallit and kippah, black hats and beards; shouting, hitting, spitting at, chasing school girls because they wear skirts that do not cover their ankles, shirtsleeves that do not cover their wrists, because they dare to walk with their mothers on the same sidewalk as men, sicken me and tarnish Judaism for all of us.
These “religious men,” a small but not insignificant percentage of the ultra-Orthodox (or Charedi) community, are physically forcing women to the back of Israeli buses, engaging in vandalism against Israeli army bases, calling female soldiers “prostitutes,” all in the name of “true” Judaism. I want to make it clear that not all ultra-Orthodox Jews behave like this or believe like this, but a vocal and powerful minority certainly does. This vocal minority and their rabbis believe their religion demands they exclude women from public and religious life, that to even look at a picture of a woman on a billboard, or to hear a woman sing, let alone read Torah or sit beside them in synagogue, is a sin.
I say their religion, and not my religion, because the Judaism they promote is not my Judaism, nor is it any kind of Judaism that most modern Jews would ever associate with. Yet the majority of Jews in America and Israel have remained silent in the face of this fundamentalist wave sweeping through Judaism today.
We are silent because many liberal, progressive Jews are conditioned to think that Charedim are the “real Jews.” They look the most religious, the most committed, the most traditional. Our heads fill with visions of Tevye dancing down the streets of his shtetl, and we get a feeling the ultra-Orthodox are guaranteeing the Jewish future.
They are not guaranteeing the Jewish future. They are undermining it. Sure, by having very large families, they are producing more Jews. But the future they would create looks more like Islamist Iran than any future the vast majority of Jews should want for themselves or their children.
It is not enough to say, as most leaders of the Orthodox community have, that these people are radicals, a tiny bunch of fanatics who represent no one. Because they are not a small group, and they have support.
Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics is predicting that the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community will make up nearly one-third of the country’s population within 50 years. Other Israeli Jews are expected to become a minority in Israel, squeezed between the growing ultra-Orthodox and Arab populations. Even in America, Charedi Jews represent the fastest-growing sector of the Jewish population.
A serious if gradual integration of Charedim into the Israeli workforce, as well as a firmer separation of synagogue and state, would, as Gershom Gorenberg points out in his book “The Unmaking of Israel,” go a long way toward taming the extremist behavior and rhetoric.
But, in the meantime, we must not be silent. Now is the time to speak up, as progressive Jews, as modern Jews, as authentic Jews. Our tradition demands it of us: “When a person has the ability to protest and remains silent, his silence is similar to verbal consent. When you do not say something to disagree, it is as if you agree with what was said or done. Silence is assent!” (S’forno, Nedarim) We must speak out against fundamentalism and extremism everywhere, especially in our own Jewish community.
Moreover, we must go to Beit Shemesh, we must go to Jerusalem, and if we can’t go physically, then we must send money ahead to support progressive Jewish institutions in Israel. Institutions like the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) of Reform Judaism and Women of the Wall, the leader of which, Anat Hoffman, is even now visiting American synagogues seeking our support.
We must demand, through the purse strings of the American Jewish community, that our federations and organizations publicly withhold funding from these extremist groups that have turned a beautiful religious tradition into an ugly mob cloaked in religious garb, who spit on women, attack Israeli soldiers and policemen, and would just as soon send most modern Jews to the back of the bus, if not under it.
We must stop thinking of ourselves as inauthentic Jews. Our Judaism is real, it is vibrant, it is authentic, it is inclusive, and it is the future. Tevye was fiction. The real story is why our great-grandparents left the old country and its backward ways. We don’t need to apologize for being modern Jews, and we should give no license and no support to extremists of any ilk, Jewish or other, who demand we conform to their fundamentalist worldview.
If your interpretation of Judaism means that you don’t want to sit on a bus with a woman, then get off and walk. But if your Judaism teaches just the opposite — and Reform Judaism, progressive Judaism does — then stop apologizing and climb on board this movement. You can sit anywhere you like — you can even drive.
Dan Moscovitz is rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana.