When one can justify terrorizing little girls in the name of “tznius” (modesty of dress), when what goes into one’s mouth is more important than what comes out of it, when we care more about preserving our own spirituality than ruining the spirituality of others, then we have distorted Judaism beyond recognition.
It’s not our brightest hour. The events unfolding in Israel today should be terribly upsetting to any Jew who cares about his or her faith and nationhood. Whenever Jews rise against each other, as is occurring today in the quiet town of Beit Shemesh between Haredi extremists and the rest of the country – religious and secular Jews alike – no one wins.
The recent events revolve around a cadre of religious extremists who view other Orthodox Jews in their neighborhood as being insufficiently Orthodox. When 8-year old Na’ama Margolese was walking to school one day, she was spat at and called “shiksa.” Na’ama’s school espouses a religious Zionist ideology, and the girls who attend, while modestly dressed, are deemed too modern in their appearance. Even an 8-year old girl, apparently, can be a temptation to a “healthy” Jewish man who has too much time on his hands.
This ideological battle taking place thousands of miles away from Toronto is deeply personal. Na’ama’s grandparents are proud members of the Thornhill Jewish community, and her father, Benjy Margolese, grew up here before living the dream of making aliyah. Na’ama could therefore be the daughter or granddaughter of any of us, and we should connect to her accordingly.
Sadly, this is not the first time that religious extremists have distorted and misappropriated the beautiful teachings of our Torah. The Babylonian Talmud records a frightening story of a religion gone haywire, right around the beginning of the Common Era, just a generation or two before the destruction of the Herodian Temple in Jerusalem. By that time, religious anarchy prevailed even in the holiest of places. Two overly zealous Kohanim (priests in charge of the Temple service) were vying to perform a certain sacrificial service. They both ran up the ramp of the altar at the same time, each hoping to reach the top first. When one Kohen noted that the other was about to overtake him, he withdrew a dagger from his cloak and stabbed the other Kohen in the chest. The victim crumpled to the floor and the onlookers were aghast at the depravity that their religion had reached.
But the story doesn’t end there. The poor stabbed Kohen had been joined that day by his father for Temple service. After witnessing what had happened, the father then noticed that his son’s body was still quivering. “Quick!” he shouted. “Remove the dagger from my son’s body while he’s still alive, lest it become ritually defiled from being in contact with a corpse!” This, the Talmud concludes, indicates that the religious sensibilities of that generation were more focused on ritual impurity than murder.
Sadly, Jewish history is rich with similar lessons. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the subsequent destruction of the Temple, it’s that whenever our religion cares more about ritual than it does about our fellow Jews, destruction can’t be far behind. When one can justify terrorizing little girls in the name of “tznius” (modesty of dress), when what goes into one’s mouth is more important than what comes out of it, when we care more about preserving our own spirituality than ruining the spirituality of others, then we have distorted Judaism beyond recognition. That we haven’t learned from our past mistakes makes the events of the past few days doubly tragic.
Two more aspects of the events currently unfolding must be underscored. One is the horrible distortion of misogyny and gender discrimination that is being justified under the pretense of religion. Many communities have advocated for separate seating on their bus lines. I feel that every religious community has rights of religious self-determination, provided that they are not at others’ expense. If the Haredi men of Beit Shemesh or any other community feel that sitting next to women on a public bus may lead them to sin, then it is their prerogative to institute separate seating. But they should sit at the back of the bus. Our tradition has always stressed the importance of placing the Jewish woman on a pedestal. The Talmud states that a man has the duty to show more honor to his wife than to himself. It’s time our brethren in Israel are taught a lesson or two about Jewish chivalry. Hold the door open for your wife, and give your seat at the front of the bus to a Jewish lady.
Secondly, religious extremists are starting to feel the heat of their unpopular radicalism. While the wiser among them are retreating, some truly foolish individuals have chosen to stage demonstrations, portraying themselves as abused and misunderstood victims of the evil government of Israel which seeks to strip them of their rights to religious expression. Some have gone so far as to dress their children in Holocaust victim regalia at these demonstrations, yellow star and all. To desecrate the sacred icon of our parents’ and grandparents’ suffering by exploiting it for political gain is what we would expect of Palestinians and other enemies of the Jewish people. I have no doubt that the grandparents of these very same “pious” Haredim are rolling over in their graves.
So what is there for us to do? Wring our hands and blow off steam? No. This culture of religious distortion was not created in a vacuum. Religious observance has been gauged by certain communities and individuals for decades by how strict one is in the minutiae of ritual observance instead of how one accords dignity and kindness to one’s fellow human being. All of us, both in Israel and abroad, have the religious duty to counteract this horrible distortion by proclaiming loudly, “I am proud to be a religious Jew. I choose to lead my life following the traditions and laws of the Torah. But my real religiosity lies not in how long my or my wife’s hem line is, but rather how I emulate my Creator in showing love and kindness to all of God’s creatures.” Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name, is the only remedy for Hillul Hashem, a desecration of God and what His religion represents.
If our message is loud enough, perhaps we can drown out the extremists’ distorted message. We’ll truly have something to be proud of when that day comes.