A number of years ago the Agudath Ha-Rabonim, a relatively small group of right-wing Orthodox rabbis, declared that Conservative and Reform Judaism were “outside of Torah and outside of Judaism.” Much has been written to justify and rationalize their statement. I found it offensive, but for argument’s sake let’s say they are right — more importantly let’s say that in fact they are the true spokespeople for the application of halacha (Jewish law).
That being the starting premise I looked in vain for a similar statement regarding the haredi fanatics in Beit Shemesh, Israel, who verbally abuse little girls; who clearly have disturbing female fantasy issues; who call Israeli police “Nazis” and who riot and cause bodily harm and physical damage.
But the problem isn’t really the radical rabbis. Rather it is so-called Modern Orthodox Jews like me, from the movement’s left wing, open fringes to its more strictly observant black hatters, who have become enablers of the type of violent intolerance that is threatening the democratic foundation of the State of Israel as well as the credibility of our own religion.
What does it mean to be an enabler? For one it is the pretense that what the shocking behavior we have witnessed in Beit Shemesh or in settlement communities is new. These aberrations of our religious and social compact have been present and prevalent for many years.
Rocks have been thrown; curses have been hurled; Jewish law has been flouted for evil purpose — by fanatic elements of our community for way too many years. And for way too many years we have downplayed, swept under the rug, and “pretended” the problem away rather than confront our own ugly image in the mirror. Rather than repudiate them we have continued to support institutions that do not reflect values consistent with the Jewish and democratic values we claim to uphold; we send our children to such institutions for a year or more of study and we allow the rabbis of these institutions into our homes and synagogues for fundraisers and other outreach activity.
We marginalize or allow the marginalization of those whose religious practices aren’t like ours; we have allowed singularly stringent interpretations of observance to divide our community; we support religious leaders who promulgate hatred of others and excuse aberrant behavior when the perpetrators are “learned and observant.”
Reform and Conservative rabbis too often are excluded from Orthodox community events even at times when an entire neighborhood will come together around an act of chesed (kindness), like the communal recitation of Tehillim (Psalms), for those who are ill.
Orthodox rabbis give talks on whether one can desecrate the Shabbat to help save a non-Jewish life, and sadly, many conclude that it is permissible so as to avoid causing disfavor with the larger community — rather than assert that all human life is precious, that we are all created in the image of God.
No need to rehash the tales of child molesters who were let off scot-free because this or that beit din was convinced that a Torah scholar could not possibly be an abuser.
And then we cry crocodile tears when a little girl in Beit Shemesh is called a prostitute for dressing “improperly” on the way to a Religious Zionist school. We issue press releases condemning the protesters/attackers and we wring our hands.
As they say in the movies — “time to take back the streets.”
We need a new standard of behavioral acceptance. A new filter by which we — as a community — can better evaluate what we will and will not allow from each other and, yes. from our rabbis.
For example, an Orthodox rabbi who won’t walk into a room with a Reform rabbi has no right to our support. A rabbi who assails other Jews who make use of an eruv on Shabbat and creates an atmosphere of hatred and distrust has no right to our support. Rabbis and rabbinical courts allowing molesters to operate freely have no right to our support. The anti-Zionist yeshivot, as well as those that call themselves Zionist but foment against the state, have no right to our support.
Bottom line, there is room for all — there should be room for all. But think about how scary it is when the same behavior we tolerated for so long against those “outside of Judaism” boomerangs back on those who allowed it to happen — in this case “modern” observant Jews.
So this is the future. If you don’t speak up against injustice, when they come for you there will be no one left to speak up.
Speak up. Demand. Don’t allow your religious leaders to marginalize other Jews or anyone for that matter. Demand accountability for personal behavior and for community standards built on love of Jews and Judaism and not on stringency for the sake of stringency. How many of us criticized President Obama for not walking out on his religious leader when clear lines of decency were crossed? And how many of us have followed in his footsteps rather than have the courage to walk out in protest when our own leaders have crossed similar lines?
Do not support institutions that are happy to take your money but in reality have no use for you or your practice of Judaism. Understand the continuum of not recognizing Reform Jews, segregating buses by gender, calling Israeli soldiers “Nazis,” turning a blind eye to molestation, traumatizing a 7-year-old girl and throwing rocks and eggs at others. It all comes from the same place — an arrogant and twisted interpretation of our religion. And by not stopping each one we are only escalating the issue.
If you don’t take action, when the protesters hit you, don’t ask “why?”
David Sable, a member of board of directors of The Jewish Week, is an executive in the marketing and communications field.