When a young ultra-Orthodox man admits to biting and beating his handicapped infant to death, how is it possible that the greatest rabbis of our generation publicly declare that this is a blood libel on the part of the secular Israeli authorities and that the man is innocent, before any trial or complete investigation? This is what happened recently in Israel.
How can one not be totally ashamed of a religion whose leadership act in such a way? Is there any excuse? Any explanation?
I am really very reluctant to attack the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world for a variety of reasons. Firstly, they are my brothers and sisters, in that my lifestyle and spiritual values have more in common with theirs than any other religion or group in society, even though externally I look nothing like them. Extreme Orthodoxy in Judaism is devoted to the principle that Godliness, Torah study, and good deeds are the overwhelmingly important goals to be pursued in life. That can’t be bad, provided of course it is actually followed in practice. In this case, however, it seems that because the perpetrator is a brilliant scholarly student all else must be ignored.
I do not identify with fundamentalism in any way. I regard it as intellectually dishonest and counterproductive, if not dangerous. But I always admire people with the guts to stand up to society if it’s on a spiritual and moral basis, rather than a criminal or excessively self-indulgent one. I do not think history repeats itself exactly but there do seem to be cycles of extreme permissiveness followed by waves of strict Puritanism; fundamentalism is often a response to extremes of permissiveness. In general they are making a stand against the values of society as a whole at a time when it might well be argued we are reliving the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
But one of the problems with being a minority and on the defensive is the paranoia it engenders that leads its members to believe that everyone else is against them and that all other value systems are evil and corrupt.
I also feel very hesitant to criticize the rabbinical leadership of the ultra-Orthodox world. Its outstanding rabbis are exceptional men, intellectually and morally. But, precisely because they are scholars and men of spirit who find themselves constantly dragged into politics and mundane affairs, they are surrounded by hangers-on and assistants and filters and minders and holy-rollers and politicos with their own agendas which they often disguise. And these busybodies act as a barrier between them and the world of normal people. A curtain between a man and the world distorts the view of even the holiest of saints.
Men who achieve the pinnacle of religious leadership in Lithuanian (that is, non-Chassidic) Torah Judaism are never appointed. They emerge on the basis of their own qualities. In this meritocratic situation they certainly hold a morally higher ground to appointees. But they live such rarefied lives. In pursuing excellence in some areas, they are sometimes in danger of failing to cover all bases. Living in a hothouse can make you hot, but sometimes you need to be cool.
Wiser counsel would have added something to the expression of horror about how society in general does not prepare young people sufficiently for the pressures of marriage and parenthood. Particularly where there are children with difficulties the strains are enormous and we should be concerned etc. But simply to try to sweep the whole thing under the mat, to declare that the young man is “holy” and blame the outside world, is a sign that someone badly needs a reality check.
It is true that tension between religious and secular has been a running sore in Israel throughout its existence, on all sorts of issues such as mixed bathing, modest dress, autopsies, travel on the Sabbath, kosher food and civil rights. And it’s true that Israeli civil society is not the most sensitive in the way it deals with its minorities, be they immigrant, Arab, Black or Black Hat. And, of course, now according to secular hatred all ultra-Orthodox are wife- and child-beaters. Perhaps another system might have bailed the offender or put him in a psychiatric hospital rather than keep him immured in a common jail for a week.
But the response of the ultras was to demonstrate, to destroy property, and to behave in such a loutish, unreligious way that no normal, objective human being could possibly find anything praiseworthy in such a religious group.
(Coincidentally, a similar thing happened thousands of miles away the previous week in Borough Park, New York when a religious man was arrested for traffic offences and the area erupted in an orgy of ultra-Orthodox violence. In America at least the rabbinic leadership condemned the excesses. But in Israel they praised them.)
Tensions have been higher than normal since Netanyahu reduced the social benefits to large families, both Orthodox and Arab (interesting that these anti-Zionists who decry a social state so depend on social support). But in truth the Ultras have been spoiling for a fight as long as I’ve known them, and I‘ve lived amongst them on and off and joined in their demonstrations since 1957. So I know a thing or two, and I know that it’s usually in vacation time that the riots take place, and it starts as fun and ends in tragedy, and there is a tendency to say, “Let them let off steam,” and it’s only that.
But when great rabbis declare there is no crime and follow a consistent pattern of refusing to face up to the abuses that take place in their society we see a pattern of immorality I find so dangerous that I believe it threatens the very core of Judaism. It implies that it matters not what one does, so long as you belong and conform to the God Squad. If that is what Judaism has come to mean, then frankly we have lost it and it’s time for an Ezra to come and drive the false priests out of the Temple. Many non-Orthodox Jews support ultra-Orthodox institutions because they believe they are helping the Jewish people survive. But what is the point of survival if we have lost our God?