If we Jews are enjoined to emulate our patriarch Jacob who wrestled with an angel, then surely we must also respectfully challenge our spiritual leaders and reclaim our human voice.
Click the read more button
Click the read more button
Two forms of religious extremism confronted me last week, first when I lectured in the United Kingdom, then when I arrived in Jerusalem to launch my book Kosher Jesus.
In England, I attended Limmud, where a full 1 percent of all Jews in Britain gathered for a Jewish studies conference that has by now become the most successful Anglo-Jewish export in recent history. Every Jewish group was represented, with one glaring exception: the Orthodox rabbinate, who boycott the event because of the Reform and Conservative (Masorti) rabbis present.
This is in sharp contrast to Limmud NY where, for example, Yeshiva University – responsible for ordaining the vast majority of modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States – sends an official delegation.
The second and more insidious example of frightening religious intolerance hit me as I landed in Israel and discovered a country up in arms about a haredi man (poorly translated as ultra- Orthodox) who had spit on an Orthodox eightyear- old girl for immodest dress (ironically, the girl was wearing a skirt and elbow-length sleeves at the time of the attack) and another haredi man arrested for calling a female Jewish soldier a “whore” for refusing to move to the back of a bus.
On New Year’s eve haredi activists donned holocaust prison garb with yellow “Jude” stars in a vulgar attempt to allege Nazi-like persecution at the hands of Israeli society. In truth all they accomplished was to trivialize the gassing of six million Jews. The finishing touch was placing their own children in concentration camp garb before the world’s media which added the violation of innocence to the defamation of the Jewish state.
There is a common thread uniting these stories.
Religious extremism festers when decent lay people are cowed into submission by fanatics whom they falsely believe to be more religious than they are. There is nothing holy about rabbis refusing to teach young Jews who are pining for Jewish knowledge, just as it is an abomination of our faith for men to treat women abusively. A black coat will never redeem a dark heart. A long beard is poor compensation for a shriveled soul.
SOME DEFENDERS pointed out that these heinous acts are perpetrated by only a small number of haredim. True. But in the face of Islamic terror outrages we in the West rightly demand that mainstream Islamic leaders condemn the extremists, lest their silence make them complicit in the violence. The Jewish community must be judged by the same standard and rabbis of every stripe must condemn this abuse as sickening and contrary to the core of Judaism.
Other defenders maintained that while the extremists’ behavior was deplorable, secular women were also at fault for failing to display sensitivity to religious people and visiting haredi neighborhoods without appropriate modest clothing.
Sorry, but it doesn’t work. Judaism’s core value is freedom of choice and men calling themselves religious can choose to transcend even the most incendiary provocation. Violence in the name of God is never allowed, a point we have repeatedly made to some of our Muslim brothers who justify Palestinian suicide bombers with arguments that “Israeli humiliations” provoke the murders.
Jews suffered extermination at the hands of the Nazis, but it never led them to blow up nurseries and buses. Haredim who feel provoked must register their protests respectfully and lawfully.
The Talmud is clear: a religious man who humiliates a woman by calling her a whore in public has lost his place in eternity.
In the UK draconian standards have long governed what purports to be a modern Orthodox community. Travel to any college campus where Chabad and other Orthodox groups are active and you will see female students serving as presidents of Jewish student organizations and regularly delivering Torah speeches during services.
Yet, for Anglo-Jewry, the question of whether a woman can serve as an officer in an Orthodox synagogue or deliver a D’var Torah remains hotly contested.
There is something magical about England’s Jews. They proudly hold on to their Jewish identity, generously support an endless array of Jewish social welfare organizations, and have a higher percentage of children in Jewish education than we do in the United States. But British Jews are also curiously submissive to their rabbinic leadership, even when some rulings contravene the basic demands of Ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel) and human decency.
The Baal Shem Tov extolled the virtue of ordinary Jews who were not rabbis. Even non-scholars are aware of common courtesy and must pressure their spiritual leaders to work with non- Orthodox colleagues to increase Jewish learning and defend the State of Israel.
At Limmud I was peppered by journalists asking whether I was a candidate for British chief rabbi and the strange speculation reached a fever pitch when The Jerusalem Post published a long feature on the conference’s third day exploring that possibility.
I spent eleven years of my life building Jewish student life in Oxford and six of my ninechildren were born in Britain. I am deeply attached to the country and the community. But a chief rabbinate that muzzles its occupant and prevents him from reaching out to thousands of young Jews for fear of offending right-wing sensibilities cannot cater to anything but vanity and egotism. And while I am certainly not immune to those ills, I have never allowed myself to be silenced for any title and never will.
A chief rabbi is not an ambassador but a leader.
The office of chief rabbi must be expanded from its current focus on mesmerizing the BBC, thereby perpetuating a myth of Jewish subservience and the need for Jews to win non-Jewish approval, and focus instead on electrifying Jewish youth, before it can attract serious candidates.
The Jewish “homo religiosus” is not the submissive man of the spirit but rather Yisrael, the rebellious man of faith. And if we Jews are enjoined to emulate our patriarch Jacob who wrestled with an angel, then surely we must also respectfully challenge our spiritual leaders and reclaim our human voice.