Nowadays, aggression seems to be the norm rather than the exception. Especially when it comes to political issues and identities. The aspect of aggression I dislike most is zealotry. It is often excused as simply the result of passionate commitment. And commitment sometimes is very necessary. But in practice, it is too often no more than thuggery.
There is just one case of zealotry in the Torah, that of Pinchas the grandson of Aaron ( Numbers 25). The Midianites had resorted to temple prostitution to seduce the Israelites, rather than face them militarily. Even amongst the tribal princes, many were attracted to the Baal Peor pagan rites of fornication in public. Sex, it seems, was the Achilles Heel of the Israelites. One of them, Zimri, defied Moses, and Aaron by publicly having sex in front of them. They stood helpless until Pinchas took the law into his own hands and speared the couple in flagrante delicto.
The Talmud says that the Israelite tribal princes were furious at this act of zealotry, an extra-judicial execution without due process. They demanded he should be punished. But then God intervened as if to say that there may be circumstances under which zealotry might be justified. And although killing someone bars a priest from serving, an exception was made for him.
The obvious conclusion is that however dangerous zealotry is and open to abuse, there could be extenuating circumstances. And the priesthood, according to Talmudic tradition, often descended into violence. Young trainee priests were the forerunners of the current blot on all religions of violent fanatics and morality police. I had hoped Judaism, having suffered so long from violence, would not be so infected. Sadly, this is not the case.
The Charedi or Ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, while overwhelmingly peaceful, even pacifist, has always contained elements of violent, aggressive protesters. The same can be said for Chasidic communities in New York often leading to street fights between rival sects. And it is excused because Orthodoxy has only made its dramatic comeback from near extinction, precisely because it has fought so passionately and been so zealous in protecting itself and its ideology. But this is not a spontaneous expression of anger but a reflection of an attitude at the top. It could not happen in such socially disciplined societies without the tacit approval of religious leadership.
Last month the Gerer Chassidic community ( known amongst other things for its posturing), one of the largest and most powerful in Israel, witnessed an explosion of organized violence. There has for a while been an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the current Rebbe over his increasingly strict and oppressive measures of control and religious refinements. A group of his followers led by a more approachable, and amenable leader of impeccable credentials and charisma had set up alternative communities within the movement without any intention of challenging authority. A few weeks ago, an orchestrated series of violent attacks on these alternative communities in four different locations in Israel, led by gangs of outwardly religious thugs, smashed synagogues, and gravely injured innocent people causing others to barricade themselves in until the police could rescue them. There was no outcry in the Charedi press. And it took two weeks before any, and then only a few, other Chassidic Rebbes protested.
Another example is the violence at the Western Wall to disrupt non-orthodox Jews holding their own non-traditional services there, again carried out by juvenile thugs and bullies. All of this is an embarrassment to orthodox Jews who are disgusted at this zealous abuse of Jewish values, not to mention Jewish law. It is about time that the religious leadership banned such behavior and imposed restrictions on such pathetic religious hooligans. And yet many of them praise such zealotry and bring Pinchas as a justification.
We cannot condone this, but how do we explain it? We can say Israel is a very tense country with many different voices and interests. There has been confrontation between the religious and the secular in Israel going back over a hundred years. Israel remains in a technical state of war and its population is constantly on edge. Either from fear of a direct attack on civilians or from the anxiety of having one’s child in the army and not knowing whether he or she will return home. And in every society, there are extreme and unstable individuals who wreak horrific damage on innocent and peace-loving people. Whether the USA or Japan, let alone Russia and China. Not to mention Jihadism, in comparison with which our religious extremists are positive babes in arms.
As the Charedi world has grown in numbers and power it has more reason to fight over demarcation, property, and bragging rights ( as well as politics of course). And its aggression can also be seen on the streets of New York in the regular lashes between Chassidic sects and Rebbes let alone in Israel. This has been going on for quite a while. Even in the Lithuanian world of Ponevez Yeshiva, rival followers of competing authorities have rioted violently.
At last, there has been a reaction. Some Charedi leaders actually came out in public and condemned the violence, or at least the internecine violence. This is another small sign that changes are in the air in other areas too.
The Rebbes of Vizhnitz, Karlin-Stolin, and Pshevarsk sharply criticized the behavior of the rioters. The KarlinerRebbe said, “There is a lot of talk about our desire to be respected and the importance of Shabbos, but suddenly because of foolish nonsense they desecrate Shabbos and hurt others, what kind of image do we show the outside world, while we have such behavior happening within our community?” And Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch of the Kotel publicly condemned the behavior of religious hooligans. Sadly, these are lone voices. But just maybe we will see a change even if it takes time to turn the boat around.
Isolation breeds paranoia and paranoia breeds violence. When violence begins against outsiders it soon turns inwards. There is much debate as to whether humans are inherently good or bad. I believe we are neither intrinsically one nor the other. But we have the capacity to do good and bad. And too often people make the wrong choices. If religion has any claim to be a moral guide, when its followers sink to violence, and the leadership remains silent, they betray themselves and their values.