Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Beit Shemesh is a town of some 85,000 people at the foot of the Judean Mountains, about a 30 minute drive to Jerusalem. Beit Shemesh means “House of Sun” and it is, appropriately, very hot. But the recent violence and intolerance have turned Beit Shemesh into the House of Darkness. Reports of the assault of a little girl aired on Israeli TV this past Friday (http://www.jpost.com/Features/InThespotlight/Article.aspx?id=250917) have mushroomed and are the subject of a flood of e-mails, a Facebook group organizing a demonstration, and videos being shared to document this offense (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFm1tZkEuxI). Matters got worse this week when an Israeli TV news crew filming in Beit Shemesh was violently assaulted. Sadly, the ideology that has driven these violent assaults is one of fellow Jews, Haredim (ultra-orthodox), which makes the matter worse. Extremist Haredi communities throughout Israel have become increasingly isolationist, and increasingly arrogant in their behavior, not just with the strict interpretation of Jewish law for themselves, but in their imposing their standards on others. It has been long understood that someone driving through a Haredi neighborhood on Shabbat risks having his/her car stoned by men yelling “Shabbes” as if throwing rocks at a moving vehicle is less of a desecration of the sanctity of Shabbat than driving through a Haredi neighborhood, as insensitive as that may be. Sadly, even though we hold the saving of a life to be the highest value, some Haredim would just as soon stone an ambulance en route to saving someone’s life as an errant Mazda. According to Jewish law, in order to be able to throw rocks like this on Shabbat, the rocks have to be set aside before Shabbat in order that they have a purposeful use on Shabbat, and that the rock throwers (God forbid) not violate the sanctity of Shabbat by throwing rocks that have no purpose. Yogi Berra would have a field day with this! Depending on one’s perspective, this amounts to pre-meditated assault, or hyper-holiness. There are no shortage of other absurd examples of false Haredi piety such as segregating buses so men and women should not sit together and have impure thoughts or accidentally bump up against one another, segregating of shopping areas to men and women only areas, having separate sidewalks for men and women during holiday seasons, and more. It’s been said by contrast, that anyone who has such a risk of impure thoughts as a result of sitting next to or brushing up against a member of the opposite sex is a pervert anyway and has problems much deeper than perceived public piety. Given the dynamic of the Haredi community, all this could stop if their Rabbis had the sense and decency to tell their adherents that this behavior is not only NOT a sanctification, but rather a desecration, of God’s name. To their credit, some Haredi leaders have spoken out, and done so harshly, but unless the rabbis of the sects from where the offenders originate do so, not much is likely to change. Among recent accounts of the newest flare up that has garnered so much attention, some have noted that people would look the other way if these stringencies were not pushed on the rest of Israeli society. This is challenging in that it ought to be the right of people to live as they wish, but not to have their ideologies and stringencies imposed on others. In Israel, it is a fine line as to where one’s observance encroaches on the rights of others, not to observe, or to observe differently. There are many areas in which we defer to the “status quo” that has governed interaction among haredim in Israeli society for decades. However, in no case does spitting on and calling a little girl names fit and, at the risk of imposing my standards on others, has no place in our society. More than creating the environment in which gross behavior like this could even be considered acceptable, and the Haredi rabbis not speaking out against it, what’s worse is the overall tarnishing of the essence of Judaism. Liberal/secular inclined Israelis have long had gripes with the imposing of Haredi standards throughout so many facets of Israeli society. Israeli media is not known for its’ general respect for religion, and behavior like this ignites the embers of what, in any other country, could be deemed anti-Semitism. Writing this is challenging in its own right because so as not to be guilty of sinat hinam, baseless hatred, against fellow Jews, as much as their ideology may be distant from mine, and as much as the actions of some may be repugnant. I want to be careful not to project that all Haredim behave this way, or tolerate this behavior. That’s not true. Maybe, somehow, this gross progression of events by an extremist group of Haredim capped by the disgusting behavior that was reported in the Israeli media this week will somehow be a catalyst for their rabbis to take pause and at least stop their adherents from such behaviors if not because they are illegal, maybe because they will realize their behaviors are a desecration of God’s name and the Torah. And while they’re at it, maybe they’ll call upon their adherents to cease all actions that are, or might be, perceived as divisive by the majority of Israelis and, in turn, reach out to share with Israeli society the beauty of Judaism and it’s customs and rituals rather than the polarizing and repulsive behavior that will push Jews further away from Judaism. Maybe. But maybe I’m just spitting in the wind.