Thursday, January 19, 2012

It Takes Two to Tango

There is an insightful article in the Jerusalem Post written by Ramat Bet Shemesh resident and prolific author on the subject of science and Torah, Rabbi Natan Slifkin. In essence it is a mild rebuke of the way secular Jews treat religious Jews – or perhaps more precisely Charedi Jews - in Israel.

He compares that to the way secular Jews treat religious Jews in America. And correctly finds that there is much more tolerance and respect for the sensitivities of religious Jews there. He cites some examples of that, such as the fact that sex segregated gyms in America are a fairly common occurrence (e.g. Women’s Workout World). Whereas in Israel when it was recently tried by Technion’s gym, it resulted in a massive protest that ended up with Technion reversing that policy.

Another thing he pointed out which I have noticed myself is that the manner of dress by many secular women in Israel is far less modest than it is generally in the US. He suggests that secular Israelis would do well to follow the American model of societal modesty. Even though American modesty standards are not on par with Halachic standards I agree that if secular Israeli women would just ‘upgrade’ to the American standard it might go a long way towards showing a little more tolerance and respect for the sensitivities of the religious Jew – and thereby lessen the enmity.

To be fair the two examples mentioned by Rabbi Slifkin may have different origins. Modesty standards in Israel may be the result of European influences whose standards are much lower than they are in the US. On the other hand the idea of a sex segregated gym might in fact be the result of pushback.

Be that as it may secular Jews in Israel should heed the advice of Rabbi Slifkin. Tolerance is always a good idea and something I promote here on this blog all the time. But as I have said in the past, it takes two to tango. Tolerance goes both ways.

The question is why is there so little tolerance now? It seems that there is more intolerance of Charedim than ever. Can it be as some Charedim say that there is an innate hatred of Charedim? I don’t think so. Although by now the hatred by some is so visceral it seems innate. (That goes both ways too!)

I do not believe there is an innate hatred of any Jew against any other Jew, no matter how far removed they are religiously from each other. Hatred is bred, not born. As Rabbi Slifkin said, any hatred on the part of secular Jews in Israel against Charedim is due to a fear they have of their lives being taken over by Charedim who they increasingly see as religious fanatics.

When they read about all the problems being caused in Bet Shemesh and Meah Shearim - and the reactions by many of the more mainstream Charedim who even while condemning extremists find excuses for them - and they combine that with the increased Charedi demographic - they see what they believe to be the ‘handwriting on the wall’. They fear Israel becoming a completely Charedi society. So they react by 'pushing back'. I think that is in many cases what is going on. I believe that was probably the reason that the protest against Technion was so strong.

So even though I agree with Rabbi Slifkin that seculars ought to cut Charedim more slack - as they do in the US - I think that Charedim ought to do their part to show more good will towards seculars. Instead of jumping on every perceived slight by the secular establishment as though they were dealing with Nazis.

Yes. Seculars should build tolerance for Charedim, But so too should Charedim build tolerance for seculars. It would not solve all of the societal problems between these two demographic groups, but I think it would help.

That tolerance goes both ways was recognized by one of the most venerated sages of the 20th century, the Chazon Ish. Shortly after the founding of the State the Chazon Ish wanted Charedim to be respected for their religious sensitivities. But he realized that he was living in the real world of a secular Zionist state.

That’s why both he and founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion compromised and reached a solution called ‘The Status Quo’. After gaining concession from Ben Gurion for things like army exemptions for both male Yeshiva students and religious women - religious life in the Jewish state would remain as is. Neither segment would try and ride roughshod over the other. The level of religiosity in the State that existed at that moment in time – a sort of balance between the secular and religious world would be preserved.

But then again the Chazon Ish was a real Gadol. As was Ben Gurion a secular ‘Gadol’. I’m not so sure about some who pass for religious or secular leaders today. The word compromise is not in their dictionary. Which is why I don’t really have any confidence that Rabbi Slifkin’s suggestions will be implemented by either side any time soon. I hope I am wrong.