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I don’t know what it is about religious leaders, in fact anyone put into a position of leadership and authority, that they end up betraying the very values they are supposed to uphold.

This piece is not in response to the Catholic Church’s reluctance to take swift unequivocal action to remove and defrock sexually predatory priests. Of course they would all condemn abusing little boys or girls, or Jews for that matter. It’s this naturally defensive and protective kneejerk response I detest. We have to think of the wider issues, of the Mother Church, etc., and our obligations to the faithful. (Don’t get me wrong. As a headmaster I, too, did on occasion fall prey to the “it’s in the best interests of the organization/the community/the teacher” argument to act in a way I later regretted.) At least they now seem to be getting their act together.

Nor have I written this piece as a response to the news this week that when a Chareidi Chasid in the USA was found guilty of sexual abuse and sentenced to years in jail, one of the victims was thrown out of a synagogue, no less, and the local rebbes who are relatives and friends of the perpetrator have remained silent. The Hassidic enclave of Square Town in the USA has now established a task force to deal with its sexual abuse issues. I only pray the task force will attack the perpetrators rather than the victims.

No, in one way what I am responding to is much less serious; but it is something morally corrosive.

Last week the Zionist Federation of South Africa, with the tacit approval of the Orthodox leadership, negotiated a deal with the family of Judge Goldstone (he of the infamous report on the Gaza Campaign). The deal was that he would not attend the synagogue in Sandton, the heavily Jewish suburb of Johannesburg, where his grandson was celebrating his bar mitzvah. Their argument was identical to those of craven university heads or society officers around the world who cooperate with the enemies of free speech and agree to ban pro-Israel speakers in order to avoid unpleasantness or confrontation. But it is also the way our own right-wingers try to silence critics, whether of Judaism or Israel. Reasoned, calm, gentlemanly disagreement seems to be a thing of the past.

If this was a public meeting on the issues of the day, then certainly demonstrate and exercise the right of disagreement and protest. But this is a private affair in which a man simply wants to go to synagogue, for God’s sake! By scaring someone from synagogue for his political opinions, politicizes the synagogue. It attacks the idea of freedom of thought and expression and makes one’s religion appear closed-minded, petty, vindictive. One embarrasses a fellow Jew and demeans Judaism in the eyes of the non-Jewish world. Religious leadership is supposed to represent and uphold those values, to stand up to pressure the way the late Chief Rabbis Joseph Hertz or Immanuel Jackobovits did in the UK. Not capitulate to mind bullies and fascists. This is a betrayal of moral leadership.

Judge Goldstone may (or may not) have been guilty of all sorts of errors of judgment and association. He might have been used as a tool by the enemies of objectivity and Israel’s right to exist to mount yet more campaigns of hatred. He may have allowed himself to be used by the UN Committee on Animal Rights (no that wasn’t a mistake, because they are certainly not interested in human rights) in a situation where open, free, and honest discussion about Israel, pro and con, is simply no longer possible. But let us assume he acted out of a sense of duty and noblesse oblige, nevertheless. Besides, for all the hatred his report has caused, it never does any harm to have one’s faults and errors pointed out, hopefully leading to repentance and rectification. This reaction is no different than that of the synagogue in London which banned the weird Sir Gerald Kaufman, from attending its services on similar grounds.

I know what happens in these cases because it has happened to me often enough. The organizations who object to other points of view will call you and tell you how, as leader, you owe it to the State of Israel or the Community to take a stand. Your Honorary Officers will call you and tell you that if you don’t act the way they want you to your position will be compromised, and then the big funders will call and say they will withdraw their money and you will be responsible for the consequences. Other rabbis will tell you that if you do not do as they wish they will split the community, undermine your authority, publicize a humiliating assessment of your scholarship and competence, and make sure that great and important rabbis around the world will issue declarations saying you must be repudiated.

It would take a very strong, self-confident (yes, perhaps arrogant) man to stand up to these pressures. Sadly, the sort of men who get to be appointed to these positions, whatever other great qualities they may have, know that they owe their positions to some sort of consensus and are afraid to hazard it. But, dear readers, what defines a genuine leader is someone prepared to stand up for what he knows is right.

This reminds me of the way the Orthodox establishment in the UK humiliated the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs by refusing him an honor in synagogue on his grandson’s bar mitzvah. There, too, the Orthodox leadership should have known better but failed to give a moral lead. And silence can also be a failure.

Even if the synagogue and authorities in South Africa are now backtracking, the damage has been done and we have shown to the world what a pretty religious leadership we have.

12 thoughts on “Intolerance

  1. As always, Jeremy, an interesting and thought-provoking piece.

    There are many other examples of the attitude you condemn, the most egregious (to me) being the way in which the current Chief Rabbi was forced to withdraw a piece in his book which dared to suggest that Judaism did not necessarily have a monopoly on the truth. The right-wing dayanim came across with exactly the same threats as you describe, and unfortunately, and sadly, Jonathan Sacks caved. I can't imagine the dayanim doing the same to the late Imanuel Jacobovitz. I guess Sacks was just too new, and hadn't established enough authority to stand up to the tyrants, but isn't that always the problem? Shabbat shalom.

  2. Could you explain to me, Jeremy, how it is that the Charedi community seems to fly in the face of Jewish law, humanitarian law and national law? This is a rhetorical question, I suppose but I'd like to hear your reasoning of their disgusting mores. Why are they allowed to continue worshipping in the synagogue and their victims thrown out? Religious (sic) fundamentalism is a blight wherever it occurs.

    You're right of course, we need leaders of stature to lay on the line what is right and what wrong and I well recall the foul treatment of Louis Jacobs because he would not tow the line. I cannot condone Judge Goldstone's report because of its onesidedness. I no longer respect his judgment but would not bar him from synagogue.

  3. Rob:

    I've read the piece. The 'Ban' (not really 'excommunication'), Cherem or Nidui, was never used for political purposes. It was a specific tool in cases of religious disagreement where a minority opinion refused to accept the majority and not just privately but publicly teaching in opposition to the winning vote.

    In Medieval Europe it was used against those who refused to tow the behavioral line or behave in a way that threatened the community. But again, not for opinions, only actions. The bans against Chasidism and rogue Kabbalists were for actions, not thoughts

    If we are going to use the tool nowadays against people we disapprove of amongst us, we should use it against crooks, abusers, and adulterers. I wonder how many of these have ever been asked to stay away from synagogue.


  4. Leila:
    I have never, I hope, lumped all the Chareidi community together. I know no other community where there as many people I admire for their honesty, charity, good deeds, learning, piety, and saintliness.
    But every closed community, even the best, is a hot house in which weeds grow too, and I simply believe in trying weed them out, not kill the flowers too.

  5. Grammar police says:

    You don't tow a line, you toe it!

    (In the Army they drew a a line on the ground and the men had to stand with their toes on it to be in a straight line.)

  6. Jeremy

    I would like to agree with you but I don't think I can. Goldstone's report was not an academic paper that only his close colleagues were likely to read. If it had been he could have written whatever he liked and assumed impunity from community comment. Instead, his report put him in the Jewish spotlight. He said, 'there is something rotten in the state of Israel' which is probably quite right (although tangential) but how can he then be defended for wanting to attend the wedding feast (or barmitzvah in this case)?

    Is it really true or even ideal for what goes on outside shul to have no impact on what goes on inside? There are times when I think you have argued the opposite, when you wanted rabbis to criticise what they should not find acceptable. Now, when the South African ones have done, you seem to be saying they should have remained removed. Are they only allowed to criticise local tax evaders or insurance claim fraudsters but not anyone (in)famous?

    Supposing Goldstone were a mere barrister and a wanted Nazi was found holed up in Johannesburg and Goldstone acted for him and won the case. Could Goldstone then go to shul and expect nothing to be said? Lawyers uphold the law rather than defend criminals so Goldstone would, after all, only have been doing his job, as he was when he even-handedly sought to give as much (or more?) credence to the claims of Hamas as to those of the IDF. At what point is 'meaning well' or even 'not meaning any harm' not good enough?

  7. Anonymous:
    Of course one could and should protest at Goldstone's report and to his face and say whatever is on ones mind if that is what one believes, but the synagogue during service time is not the place. I have no objectioin to protesting peacefully outside. It is the selection of a man for his opinions however unpalatable to be excluded from a synagogue when adulkteres, swindlers and thieves are accepted that I find so offensive in addition to the free speech and free thought issue.

  8. Was he selected for his opinions or had the broadcast of his opinions already selected him?

  9. Infamy:
    Even if someone is objectionable and courts controversy, the synagogue is not the place to deal with it during prayer time unless his campaign is waged against the religion itself.

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