Beyond Beit Shemesh


It’s more than embarrassing to have to speak out on how frightening, immoral and tragic it is for a group of adults to yell and spit at little girls on their way to school, calling them “prostitutes” and throwing dirty diapers at them. Even more so that such incidents take place in Israel — and especially that those causing the trouble consider themselves pious Jews.

Talk about “chillul HaShem,” the
desecration of God’s name … What has taken place in Beit Shemesh, a city of some 80,000 between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, as the eyes of the world have watched, is a blow to Jews everywhere, and one that calls for deep reflection and introspection on just what it means to call one’s self Orthodox — or to be part of the Jewish people, and the limits of that holy contract.

The immediate issue is the attacks on young children attending a new Modern Orthodox school by members of the Sicarii (dagger men), a small fringe group of radical haredim. The insults and threats have gone on since the school opened in September, escalating to the point where parents of the children contacted the media after failing to convince local haredi leaders to pressure the Sicarii to stop.

The children are accused of dressing immodestly, which is not the case by any normal standard of religious attire and a perversion of the concept of tzniut, commonly translated as modesty.

For the most part today, tzniut focuses on issues of dress, almost exclusively regarding women, and the requirement that their bodies and hair (if married) be covered. But the true meaning of tzniut that has been lost in the angry rhetoric applies to one’s character, of being modest, temperate and God-fearing.

The emboldened haredim who attack other Jews for not being sufficiently observant and who have been increasingly confrontational in imposing their own standards on public spaces and services — women to the back of the bus, no women on billboard advertising, etc. — are turning the concept of tzniut on its head, not to mention the biblical command to respect each man and woman as created in God’s image.

It is true that many Israelis view the haredi community in a negative light, resentful of their attempts at religious coercion, their political power, narrow interests and a culture that calls for long years of Torah study rather than army service or joining the work force, placing an additional financial burden on society.

But if the majority of haredi young men were true Torah scholars, spiritually infused and praying for the welfare of their fellow countrymen, we suspect religious tensions would be minimal. That, however, is not the case.

The current conflict sharpened when thousands of Israelis, encouraged by President Shimon Peres and other government officials, staged a protest last Tuesday evening in Beit Shemesh against fanaticism and violence in the name of the Torah. A few days later, several hundred haredim took to the streets of Jerusalem, claiming they were becoming targets of incitement. The fact that some wore yellow stars or concentration camp-like striped prison uniforms invoked a new wave of criticism of the haredim for profound insensitivity and insulting the memory of Nazi victims.

Clearly, the haredim see themselves as the victims here. But while it is true that the number of ultra-Orthodox militants is small, the deeper concern is the passive behavior toward them by fellow haredim and the relative silence of the leaders of their communities.

Yes, in recent days there have been statements from the Agudath Israel of America decrying the violence, but little is heard from the revered Torah sages, here and especially in Israel, whose followers heed their every instruction.

If those rabbis who on occasion put others in cherem — a form of religious shunning — publicly banned the militant protesters from being called to the Torah or counted in a minyan, or withdrew support for their businesses, we suspect the impact would be swift and highly effective.

Rabbi Shaul Robinson of the Modern Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, who sympathizes with much about right-wing Orthodoxy, preached a blistering attack last Shabbat, calling on the Agudath Israel to judge the militant haredim by the standards of Jewish law.

“Will the Aguda please say what they said about Reform [Judaism], that these extreme sects of chasidim are not practicing a recognizable form of Judaism?” he asked.

He charged that the violent demonstrations were the result of “a rising tide of extremism” that is “taking over the Jewish world,” and urged Torah sages to show their love for all Jews by going to Beit Shemesh and escorting the second graders to their targeted school as an effective form of condemnation of and rebuke to the protesters.

It may well be hyperbole to suggest that the fate of Israeli society and the bond of peoplehood among Jews are on the line in Beit Shemesh today. But there is a powerful sense that invisible lines of tolerance and decency have been crossed in recent days — including the recent attack on an Israel Defense Forces army base, presumably by young Zionist Jews — and that moderation is losing ground to extremism as the stakes over Israel’s future grow higher.

This week a very small percentage of world Jewry will mark the 10th day of the month of Tevet by fasting in commemoration of the siege of Jerusalem leading to the destruction of the Temple in ancient times. It’s a fitting time for all Jews to reflect on what the rabbis tell us led to the fall of Judaism’s holiest site — sinat chinam, or hatred between Jews.

Have we not learned anything over the centuries?