Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Defending the Zealots

There is a war going on, although many will either deny it - or say it is all in my mind. But there is no denying it as an article in the Jerusalem Post indicates. It is an ideological war between the forces of moderation and the forces of extremism in Orthodoxy.

I’m not just talking about extremist zealots that burn garbage dumpsters on the slightest pre-text. I’m talking mainstream - Those who sympathize with them – the ideological extremists who endorse the motives if not the actions of those dumpster burning – rock throwing criminals:

An unofficial zealot spokesman, Eli Tombeck, married and in his thirties, defends the attitude of his group. He tells The Jerusalem Report in an interview by telephone, "We are merely trying to preserve our way of life." He denies belonging to the Eida Haredit, which is thought to have only 15,000 adherents across the nation, saying he's of Litvak orientation (i.e. more mainstream) and serves as a beadle at a large, normative ultra-Orthodox Beit Shemesh synagogue known as Kehillat Yaakov, led by Rabbi Mordechai Goldstein.

This is a war. And he just defended the warriors and their motives.

He blames the Modern Orthodox residents there. He says that demonstrations, using political muscle, and speaking to the media is what escalates the war. But what he doesn’t say is that all that was to counter the on-going violence by the vigilantes that has put people in the hospital.

Mainstream Charedim defending an attitude is exactly why there is a war. Once you agree with the motives, it is just a matter of degree as to how you respond. Here are some of those responses from the Jerusalem Post article:

"Rocks, dirty diapers and tomatoes have been pelted at and damaged our hospital van," says Judy Lev, an emergency room nurse, who works at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem.

…"on a Tuesday" a friend's car was stoned as she drove through an adjoining zealot's neighborhood, Ramat Beit Shemesh
Bet. A burning baby carriage was placed in the road. …When her friend stopped her car to remove it, a brick was thrown into her back window narrowly missing her son…

…She also knows of a doctor whose arm was broken "by hooligans" but could not elaborate on specific details and another modern Orthodox man who was roughed up by zealots.

…She also cites the case of a woman who had been harassed after she chose to sit in the forward "men's section" seating area of a neighborhood bus.

I am not here to talk about the relative merits of the Charedi mindset. I am fully comfortable with the principle of ‘live and let live’. It is the Charedim who apparently are not comfortable with it.

As far as I am concerned, if someone wants to sacrifice material comfort so as to live his life ‘Al Taharas Hakodesh’; or if someone wants to be religiously stringent in all areas of his life - that is his right. Just as it is to raise his family that way. It is in fact admirable to see people who sacrifice in order to achieve a higher spiritual existence.

I have no problem with the Charedi philosophy of devout belief, focus on learning Torah, or the attention to the minutia of Halacha. I even understand their desire to avoid all outside influences.

But when war is declared and perpetuated on behalf of that lifestyle so as to purge other religious Jews from their midst - I part company with them. Big time.

When a mainstream Charedi like Eli Tombeck approves of motive - he is approving of war. Condemning actions is an almost meaningless gesture. Zealots don’t hear anything but the approval. They are deaf to condemnations.

Recently a Chasisdic Rebbe came out with a condemnation of the zealots in his community. The condemnation was strong. But this is not the first time such behavior was condemned by a rabbinic leader. And it probably won’t be the last. The problem is that it they are just words. And the Zealots know it. The Zealots see themselves as soldiers in the front line in the war against modernity.

Instead of mainstream Charedim sympathizing with the motives of these zealots, they ought to join forces with the mainstream Modern Orthodox who often the targets of the violence. They ought to be standing side by side joining together in the demonstrations, use of political muscle and use of the media to condemn the violence; demanding the arrest, trial an conviction and incarceration of these hoodlums.

Instead of a goal of an all Charedi neighborhood, there ought to be an accpetnace of the lifestyles of others even if it doesn’t ‘look’ Charedi. There ought to be tolerance of the style of dress or the mode of behavior. There ought to be tolerance of the Israeli flag on someone elses house or car on Yom Ha’Atzmaut. If a secular Jewish woman violates the Tznius standards by wearing pants or a short sleeve blouse into a store in their community, or sitting in the front of a bus - they have to learn tolerance for that too. Because the alternative is war. And who knows where that will end.