February 14, 2012
Leon Wieseltier on the Dangers of Radical Jews
“In Judaism,” writes Leon Wieseltier in the February 16, 2012, issue of The New Republic, “commentary has always been the most common expression of originality.”
I have been reading Wieseltier’s commentary in The New Republic for more years than either of us would be happy to acknowledge in public. He is the literary editor of TNR, which explains why the so-called “back of the book” is always so rich and compelling. (I have a vested interest here, of course; my son, Adam, is a senior editor of TNR, and that’s where his own literary commentary can be found.) But Wieseltier himself holds forth on cultural, political and diplomatic matters in the “Washington Diarist” column that appears on the last page of each issue, and that’s the first place I go when each new issue arrives at our house.
His latest piece, titled “Fevers,” addresses the latest scandals among the haredim in Israel, where an eight-year-old girl was spat upon by a gang of ultra-Orthodox men because her Modern Orthodox garb was insufficiently modest, and where a distinguished doctor whose book was being honored by the Ministry of Health was not allowed to participate in the ceremony because she is a woman: “[S]he was instructed that she could not sit with her husband,” he reminds us, “and a male colleague would accept her prize for her because women were forbidden from the stage.”
It is not only scandalous but downright heartbreaking that such things happen in a country where Golda Meier served as prime minister during the Yom Kippur War and, perhaps more to the point, where women are called upon every day to serve in the armed forces. Wieseltier blames the “odious misogyny of the ultra-Orthodox” for the shanda we now behold; he faults the “excrescences of Benjamin Netanyahu’s base” for injecting them into Israeli politics; and he calls Netanyahu to account because “the prime minister has not translated personal disgust into political disgust.”
The same sense of outrage can be found in several books that I recently reviewed in The Jewish Journal, including Gershom Gorenberg’s “The Unmaking of Israel” and Hirsh Goodman’s “The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival.” But Wieseltier makes the point with both wit and punch. He points out, for example, that one haredi propagandist puts the Jewish population of the world at one million because he is willing to count only those Jews who share his rigid beliefs and practices. “Our worst enemies,” writes Wieseltier, “never eliminated so many of us.”
Wieseltier is a knowledgeable and even a scholarly Jew, but he insists, along with Gorenberg and Goodman, that nothing less than the survival of democracy in Israel is at stake.
“The debate must not be about the place of women, or unbelievers, in Judaism,” he concludes. “The debate must be about the place of Judaism in Israel. No rabbis have the authority to settle that question. The secular space that defines a democratic polity exceeds their hoary reach. That is the blessed rupture that they will never undo. It cannot be argued or spat away.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.