Forward Thinking

Orthodox Divisions Over Extremism, Responsibility

By J.J. Goldberg

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Two very important articles in Haaretz this week that shed light on the violent extremism emerging from the two main streams of Israeli Orthodoxy.

One, a feature article in today’s weekend section by senior correspondent Yair Ettinger, focuses on the growing furor over Haredi extremism, assaults on women’s rights and the violence in the Haredi sections of Bet Shemesh. He cites a open letter published this week by the top leader of the “Lithuanian” (non-Hasidic Haredi) wing, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, urging Haredim to resist vocational education, military service and other efforts to integrate them into general society. Ettinger’s main point, though, is that Elyashiv’s letter, and the violent extremism of a few hundred fanatics, reflect the desperation of the losing side as pragmatism and economics drive more Haredim toward integration in the job market and the army.

Equally important is this news article from Wednesday’s paper, reporting that police have “discovered” the right-wing militants who attacked the Ephraim army base on the West Bank December 12 were mostly students at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem, brought up to the base by chartered bus following careful surveillance of the base by activist leaders. This punches a big hole in all the hand-wringing and whining by settler leaders and their apologists (see here, here and here) about the rioters being a rabble of alienated, out-of-control hilltop youth and “violent youth gangs” beyond the reach of the rabbis and responsible Religious Zionist leadership. Mercaz Harav is the Harvard of Religious Zionism and the birthplace of the settler movement. What happens there isn’t outside the mainstream. It is the mainstream.

Mercaz Harav is the birthplace of Gush Emunim and the settler movement. Founded by (and named for) Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the Yishuv and the ideological father of Religious Zionism, it was headed by Kook’s son Zvi Yehuda at the time of the Six-Day War. The settlers are Zvi Yehuda’s spiritual offspring. Now it’s looking like the next phase of the settler movement is taking shape there, too.

(I’m not sure how the police “discovered” the Mercaz Harav bus crew. Maybe somebody handed them an old copy of the December 16 Yediot supplement where Nahum Barnea first reported on it, when the hand-wringing had scarcely begun.)

As for the emerging shift in the Haredi community that Ettinger reports, it would be fun to complain about the failure of the Haredi rabbinic leadership to show some leadership and encourage this rather than fight it. This time, though, it’s more important to acknowledge the positive trend. Various secular journalists, including yours truly, have written quite a bit about the demographic danger to Israel’s economy and security when a rapidly growing proportion of the population remains defiantly outside the work force, doesn’t contribute to the tax base and doesn’t serve in the army. If that’s changing from within, that’s something to admire and celebrate.

At the same time, it’s worth contrasting the response of a Rabbi Elyashiv with the statement put out this week by the Haredi advocacy group Agudath Israel of America, “unconditionally” condemning the violence in Bet Shemesh as “beyond the bounds of decent, moral – Jewish! – behavior.” What’s striking about is the attempt to frame the issue not merely terms of a Haredi right to be left alone in its inviolate culture (though there’s an element of that), but even more as an issue of shared values of refinement and a larger goal of making a better society. The goal, they’re saying, is not to imprison women but to create a society that doesn’t objectify women. In other words, the disagreement is not over goals but tactics. That’s a civil dialogue worth having.

It doesn’t seem to be on the Web, so I’m quoting it in full:

December 28, 2011

Upon consultation with its rabbinic leadership, Agudath Israel of America issued the following statement today:

Violence of any sort, whether physical or verbal, by self-appointed “guardians” of modesty is reprehensible. Such conduct is beyond the bounds of decent, moral – Jewish! – behavior. We condemn these acts unconditionally.

Those who have taken pains to note that the small group of misguided individuals who have engaged in this conduct are not representative of the larger charedi community are to be commended. It is disturbing, though, that some Israeli politicians and secularists have been less responsible, portraying the actions of a very few as indicative of the feelings of the many. Quite the contrary, the extremist element is odious to, and rejected by, the vast majority of charedi Jews.

Lost in all the animus and ill will, unfortunately, is the concept ostensibly at the core of the controversy: the exalted nature of tzenius, or Jewish modesty.

Judaism considers human desires to constitute a sublime and important force, but one whose potential for harm is commensurate with its potential for holiness.

In a society like our own, where the mantra of many is, in effect, “anything goes,” many charedi Jews, men and women alike, see a need to take special steps – in their own lives and without seeking to coerce others – to counterbalance the pervasive atmosphere of licentiousness, so as to avoid the degradation of humanity to which it leads.

It would be tragic were the acts of violence to lead Jews to, G-d forbid, reject the culture of tzenius that has always been the hallmark of the Jewish nation, to regard Jewish modesty as something connected to violence and anger, rather than to refinement and holiness.


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