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Fanaticism

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I have fond memories of the years I spent studying in Meah Shearim, in Jerusalem. That quaint quarter of Ottoman courtyards that housed ultra-Orthodox Jews was tucked away over a hill from the main city streets and down into a valley that once was the border between Jewish Jerusalem and Arab, by the border post known as the Mandelbaum Gate.

I recall it particularly fondly during Sucot. Not only because every balcony and every spare space is packed with Sucot of all sizes, shapes, and materials. Not only because of the way the markets and streets are full of tables of etrogim and lulavim, and the way they examine in great detail each leaf, frond, and fruit with microscopes and obsessive concern with the minutest of imperfections. But also because the weeklong celebration of Simchat Beit HaShoeva, which commemorates the processions in the Temple to pray for rain and pour out precious water over the altar in the hope that God would replenish it. The dancing and the amazing music one can hear there every night prove, more than anything else, that the image of Meah Shearim as a joyless black hole of fanaticism is far from reality. As is the myth that everyone there belongs to Neturei Karta, refuses to pay taxes and will not serve in the army.

In truth, I have met there some of the most spiritual, sensitive, and caring human beings anywhere, even the most tolerant. It is also true, as in any community, that there are its lunatics, louts, and lascivious criminals. Even in my day, gangs of overzealous young men with no other outlet for their hormones used to go wild at demonstrations against anything that offended them, from swimming pools to driving on the Sabbath. To be fair, it was a form of blood sport in the Jerusalem of my day for young secular bloods to provoke as much as they could in the hope of a good punch-up. But then all the religious authorities, to a man, publicly excoriated the aggression and condemned the violence. It didn’t stop it, but it kept it in reasonable bounds.

They didn’t call themselves Chareidi then, and the nuance is modern that distinguishes between genuinely saintly men and women who really do “tremble” before God (that’s where the word Chareidi comes from, trembling) and the bearded hooligans dressed in black, who masquerade as ultra-Orthodox and brutalize anyone–man, woman, or child—that they can gain power over.

I was terribly upset a few weeks ago to see the BBC report about the way ultra-Orthodox men attack religious girls simply because their skirts are not down to the ground or their sleeves end at the elbow instead of the wrist, throwing stones and feces at them on the way to school. I know full well that the media need to find stories and that they particularly love to find the odd story of Jewish fanaticism so that they can equivalize and say, “See, the Jews are just as bad as the others.” Nevertheless, I am convinced that what those bullies really need is a dose of military service and discipline. And I believe it would do the religious world a power of good if their underemployed and under-disciplined young fanatics were put to some hard physical work.

But then I realized the army is not a cure all. Amongst the National Religious fanatics there is a sort of movement called “Tag Mechir” (literally “Price Tag”). It seems to be made up of dysfunctional religious Zionist settler youth who simply attack, deface, slash, and burn any convenient Arab target every time something bad happens to Israelis, whether it comes from Palestinian sources or even the Israeli army taking down an illegal settlement.

This desire to take the law into one’s own hands, regardless, is a growing disease that undermines the rule of law, morality, and religion. Things are getting worse in God territory, wherever you look. I fear the whole culture of Israeli discourse, the aggression and the violence that was directed against the enemy outside is now being turned inwards. Once again I blame the leadership for not doing enough to stop it.

It is a sign of the times everywhere, of course. Less violent are the current battles going on in the Amish community, but similar to the rivalries between Chasidic courts. In both cases they cut off opponents’ beards, humiliate their women, vandalize each other’s property, and knock off hats in public. I really feel for the Copts in Egypt. Since there are no Jews left, they are the new scapegoat. The murderous political rivalry and pursuit of heresy between Shia and Sunni, indeed the campaigns against the Roma and vice versa in Europe are all part of a similar fundamentalist, primitivist way of thinking and behaving which lacks respect for difference and underpins all kinds of extremism.

We must put our own house in order and not take cold comfort from the fact that others are worse or more murderous than we are. In our world there is a false assumption that anyone wearing black is holy. That the outwardly pious ought always to be given the benefit of the doubt, for they are keeping tradition alive. In reality they are destroying tradition by causing alienation, and portraying a mutation of religion that is morally corrupt. If we really care about our religion, we must bring pressure to bear on its religious leaders to stop such extreme behavior instead of encouraging it for political ends. And we should withhold support if they do not. A bully only stops when he is bullied back and true leadership accepts responsibility.

6 thoughts on “Fanaticism

  1. I always found it disturbing although maybe in minor form that whenever BBC or other TV providers present Judaism they only show the Chareidi/Ultraorthodox. It puts everybody else of us in such a bad light. The worst is when they show films only about them and their way of thinking and acting. I do not know how much of it is true but I don't like it when this is representitive for Judaism. There is no understanding, love and compassion for each other. I am disgust. That is not the Judaism I learnt about and experienced in the UK.

    Sabine

  2. Sabine

    sorry to sound cynical but the UK is fast going the same way, if I dare utter a liberal sentiment in shul I can readily be shouted at and abused – many people have already voted with their feet and more will do so, leaving the orthodox shuls here entirely at the mercy of fanatics – ironically all happening under the watch of an allegedly liberal chief rabbi (who has re-introduced such liberal sentiments in his siddur as "shehem mishtachavim lahevel vorik …"

  3. Sabine:
    You are right. There are two currents of reportage that are fndamentally anti Semitic. One is political and it tries to suggest that if the Muslim world has murderous fanatics we must try to show the Jews are just as bad. The second is one that regards Judaism as a relic of the past and seeks to emphasize the barbaric nature of Judaism. No group of people is perfect of course but i just wish we didnt give our enemies such opportunities by shooting ourselves in the foot!
    J

  4. Fanaticism should be roundly rejected.

    The so-called 'Price Tag' element are not only a threat to the peace process in Israel, they also break Jewish Law. For example, harming an olive tree that belongs to an Palestinian farmer is strictly forbidden. (Deuteronomy 20: 19-12)

    Fanaticism takes many forms. In Brooklyn, Orthodox Jews are now trying to impose gender-segregated seating on busses.

    http://bit.ly/orlw8M

    Similarly, in Jerusalem it is reported that the Mayor fired a council member who complained about gender-segregated seating on busses in Mea Shearim.

    There is nothing in the Torah to suggest that men and women should be segregated on buses or as they walk along the street. It is merely a custom that in orthodox synagogues men and women sit separately while praying – but to suggest they should be segregated elsewhere is an invention.

    The problem is that many of the so-called 'rules' are actually man-made (and yes, it is men not women who have made these things up).

    Perhaps these inventors of new 'commandments' should be reminded of this:

    "Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish from it". (Deuteronomy 4:2)

  5. I'm not entirely convinced that your suggestion that some of these elements be press ganged is altogether wise. The last thing you'd want is a group of disciplined thugs trained in all manners of violent techniques.

    With respect to the Amish, in one regard they are worthy of admiration. They have a fierce sense of self-reliance. So much so that they have won special exemption from the US tax authorities from paying Social Security on the grounds that they don't claim support from the government. How different this is from Jews who adopt similar garb.

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