Ultra-Orthodox Judaism Need Not Be Close-Minded


The spectacle of haredi, that is, ultra-Orthodox, thugs spitting on Naama Margolis, an 8-year old schoolgirl in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, has exacerbated the already frayed relations between the fundamentalist religious sector of the Jewish community, in Israel and elsewhere — and the rest of us, that is, Conservative, Reform, Modern Orthodox, and secular Jews.

The Beit Shemesh incident was triggered not only by the zealots’ belief that the child, a religious girl from an observant family, was immodestly dressed — she was wearing a regulation school uniform — but by their conviction that they have the right to physically and verbally abuse women and girls of whose attire, demeanor or behavior meets their disapproval.

A few days ago, a haredi man called Doron Matalon, a female Israeli soldier returning to her base, a “slut” on a public bus in Jerusalem. When the soldier pointed out accurately that she protects him and his way of life, Fuchs responded by saying, “She protects me? I sit at shul from eight in the morning till midnight and study, and she’s protecting me? I protect her.”

While one must not generalize and tar all ultra-Orthodox Jews with the brush of intolerance, it appears that the antagonism displayed by haredim toward other Jews is becoming ever more extreme.  Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, one of the most prominent ultra-Orthodox personalities in Israel, has called for increased isolationism on the part of his community. According to Rabbi Elyashiv, haredi Jews should not engage in any educational process other than Torah study. No university. No law school or medical school. Not even vocational school. “We must protest and warn of all sorts of trends from outside to strike at the cruse of pure oil, to alter the spirit and the essence of the ultra-Orthodox public,” exhorted the haredi newspaper Yated Neeman. 

It was not always thus. One of the greatest chasidic masters of the 19th Century, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Prszysucha (in Yiddish, Pshyskhe), worked as a bookkeeper, then in the timber trade, and ultimately as a licensed pharmacist before devoting himself full-time to his religious and communal pursuits. As far as he was concerned, “no Jew, however learned and pious, may consider himself an iota better than a fellow Jew, however ignorant or irreligious the latter may be. This is confirmed by the law that if a learned and pious Jew were commanded to slay the ignorant or impious one, or be himself slain, he must accept death rather than kill the other. No one can tell whose blood is redder, and whose life is more important in the eyes of God. If a man in this crucial moment has no right to deem himself superior to another, what right can he possibly have to do so on less critical occasions?”

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the widely revered Lubavitcher Rebbe, who in his youth had studied at the University of Berlin and the Sorbonne in Paris, was adamant that science and faith could be reconciled.

My own grandparents were all members of the chasidic community in their respective Polish hometowns. All four were devoutly observant, and yet my two grandfathers treated the women in their families with respect, even when this required a deviation or departure from tradition.

Before her parents married, my mother told me, her mother told her future husband that she would not wear a sheitel, the wig traditionally worn by married Orthodox Jewish women to cover their hair, and my grandfather accepted her decision without argument. In her memoir, my mother wrote that when she left to attend the University of Nancy in France to study medicine — she eventually became a dentist — her father told her, “We are sending you off with all our love and may God watch over you.  Remember, whatever times may come, you may lose all your possessions, but nobody can take away your education.”

My father’s father was equally tolerant. My grandmother died in 1919 in a typhus epidemic that also took the life of the husband of my father’s sister, Lea’le. My grandfather, Reb Mendl Rosensaft, was a prominent and highly respected disciple of the Gerer Rebbe, who was a member of the largest and most prominent chasidic dynasty in pre-World War II Poland. A few years after my grandmother’s and uncle’s deaths, an emissary of the Gerer Rebbe came to my grandfather and told him that the Rebbe wanted to marry Lea’le. Rather than making a decision on his daughter’s behalf, as would have been expected in chasidic circles, my grandfather said that he needed to consult her. A little while later, my grandfather returned to tell his guest that he was sorry, but Lea’le did not want to marry the Rebbe. For my grandfather, his daughter’s feelings and wishes were of paramount importance.

The fact that the obscurantism that has taken hold in the haredi world was not inevitable makes it all the more tragic. Before this schism becomes irreparable, those ultra-Orthodox rabbis and leaders who still adhere to the concept of Jewish peoplehood would do well to ponder the words of another chasidic master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, as taught by Elie Wiesel: “We are going farther and farther away from the light at Sinai, yet we do not come any closer to the light of the Messiah.”

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and the immediate past president of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.