You may have heard this week about eight-year-old Naama Margolese, the daughter of American Modern Orthodox Jews who made aliyah and who now live in Beit Shemesh, an increasingly haredi or ultra-Orthodox enclave in Israel.
“...Naama had become terrified of walking to her elementary school … after ultra-Orthodox men spit on her, insulted her and called her a prostitute because her modest dress did not adhere exactly to their more rigorous dress code” (The New York Times, “Israeli Girl, 8, at Center of Tension Over Religious Extremism,” December 27, 2011). Their attack has escalated into riots, where hundreds of men and boys from the haredi community have demonstrated, at times violently, to defend gender separation and their rigorous definition of modesty.
Several hundred haredi residents of Beit Shemesh have now become sufficiently emboldened to consider it appropriate to bully a schoolgirl. They call themselves Sicarii after the so-called “dagger men” who used stealth tactics to assassinate not only Roman enemies during the Judean war of the first century CE but also their own Jewish compatriots who did not share their hardline rejection of Roman authority. I call these men Jewish extremists, because that’s what they are, as much today as they were 2,000 years ago.
This virulent strain of Jewish extremism does not incubate in a vacuum, nor does it represent a totally anomalous expression of Judaism in Israel today. Spitting on a schoolgirl represents only the latest and perhaps most offensive of a string of public behaviors that illustrate what happens when a group of anti-modern extremists bump up against a burgeoning modern, socially progressive society.
As reported in this week’s New York Times, in recent weeks and months, “Orthodox male soldiers walked out of a ceremony where female soldiers were singing, adhering to what they consider to be a religious prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice; women have been challenging the seating arrangements on strictly ‘kosher’ [that is to say, gender-segregated] buses serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and some inter-city routes, where female passengers are expected to sit at the back” (Ibid).
Adding fuel to the fire, there is the political reality, that Israel’s governments continue to empower extremist constituencies so that ultra-Orthodox parties end up influencing policy. In the Knesset, whose structure necessitates government by coalition, any ruling party needs to team up with a number of smaller parties representing various voting blocs in order to maintain an ever-tenuous hold on power. Should the ruling party fail to mollify its ultra-Orthodox partners, these smaller parties can and will bring down the government. The very threat of dissolution usually leads more mainstream Israeli leaders to bite their tongues, hold their noses, avert their eyes while haredi lawmakers assert their backward views and insert their draconian vision of Jewish law into the law of the land.
There is also the demographic reality. The haredi are growing well out of proportion to the rest of Israeli society and their rising voices reflect their multiplying numbers. Indeed, the only other demographic group reproducing at a similar rate in this part of the world is the Palestinians, a polarizing intensification of society’s extremes that sets up the Holy Land for aggravated conflict, even conflagration.
As the Beit Shemesh brouhaha unfolded, a congregant sent me an earnest, anguished, and probing e-mail that read, in part, “it is increasingly difficult to voice support for Israel.”
I pause here to acknowledge that there may well be among you joining us for Shabbat this evening a number who find my remarks uncomfortable. Israel, some would argue, does not need American rabbis exposing the seamiest underbelly of Israeli society. Reform Jewish communities in particular, some may argue, not inaccurately, already suffer from a debilitating malaise of Israel apathy, and what they do know about Israel is twisted and biased.
So--if you’re one of those people--just hang on. I’m not done.
So--if you’re one of those people--just hang on. I’m not done.
The news from Beit Shemesh this week is a snapshot of the real-world Israel. To me, Israel means more than history and hopes and dreams although it also means all of those things. The real-world Israel enfolds all its dualities--triumphs and tribulations, progress and its regress. The real-world Israel embraces signature paradoxes: hi-tech and backwards, brave and bellicose, altruistic and self-serving, tolerant and repressive. The Israel of the real world and the Israel of historic hopes and dreams: one does not exist without the other.
I know that discussing the paradoxical dualities of Israel carries risks, but this week’s news is about so much more than a man spitting on a girl. It’s about a self-righteous fanatical community spitting on the soul of Judaism. Therefore we stand up and speak out.
And now a word about this week’s Torah portion.
For the past few weeks we’ve been reading the story of Joseph but this week the spotlight illuminates Judah who emerges as the real hero of the story. Joseph, now vice-regent to Pharaoh, vizier of all Egypt, has imprisoned his kid brother Benjamin as a ransom, testing his brothers who long ago mistreated Joseph, selling him into servitude, leaving him for dead, bereaving their father Jacob of his beloved son. Now Joseph has the upper hand. He wishes to find out if his brothers have become honest men, stand-up guys who have repented, changed their ways. With Benjamin in custody the brothers face an existential test: stand up for their brother and risk coming away empty-handed, or grab their rations and hightail it to Canaan without him.
At that moment, Vayiggash--a verb meaning, “he stepped up” and the title of this week’s portion. Judah stood up. He, alone among his brothers, stepped forward, stood before Joseph, stood up for his vulnerable youngest brother. “The boy cannot leave his father,” Judah insisted, “for if he leaves his father, he will die.” He alone took responsibility. He knew that if he failed to bring him home, he would “have sinned against” his “father forever.” “So now, please let your servant stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord,” he pleaded, “and let the boy go back home with his brothers."
This is Judah’s finest moment, this moment of stepping forward and standing up, this moment of Vayiggash that gives our portion its name, and it is not only Judah’s defining moment it is a defining moment for the Jewish people. For who are we but Yehudim--a word meaning Jews but more literally, the people of Judah?
We are people of Judah, we Jews, because like Judah of the Bible we stand up for the little guy. What is the most repeated instruction in the Torah? “You shall not oppress the stranger--for you know the heart of the stranger, the vulnerable, the needy--having been slaves in the land of Egypt.” 36 times it finds expression in the Five Books of Moses. Judah’s essential moment foreshadows the Jew’s essential mission.
And this is also what we have seen this week--because in the wake of the repugnant behavior coming out of Beit Shemesh we have also seen tens of thousands of Israelis rallying in Beit Shemesh to protest ultra-Orthodox extremism. “We are fighting for the soul of the nation,” President Shimon Peres said.
A day after the protests, a leading Israeli rabbi--a haredi Jew by any standard, by the way--ruled that gender segregated buses violate Jewish law.
These voices also represent the real-world Israel, proof-positive that Israel is a thriving democracy, not a theocracy that will allow itself to be bullied into submission by its most fanatical fringes. This is an Israel worth celebrating, the Israel I love, an Israel with the soul of Judah--that is, a Jewish soul.
Meanwhile, reassuring condemnations continue to pour in from all parts of the Jewish world and from every denomination. On Wednesday, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and contributor to the Jerusalem Post did what Judah did--he stood up and spoke out. “Attacking and spitting on a child is wrong, wrong wrong,” wrote Rabbi Issamar Ginzberg. “We are meant to be a light unto the nations, and not in the headlines of the New York Times for such unbelievably appalling behavior.”
Noting that most haredi Jews do not read the secular media (and therefore their silence should not be mistaken for approval) Ginzberg added, “I am not the spokesmen for Charedi Jewry--but I am a member of that segment of society, and proudly so. That said--this turn of events does not represent me, nor 99.9% of the people I know.”
I for one am not so sure that 99.9% of the haredi world disavow this week’s ugliness, and I would not so blithely let the collective haredi community off the hook for their silence to which Rabbi Ginzberg’s remark is a notable and refreshing exception. Nor should we excuse the obstinate unscrupulousness of the Israeli government in furthering the politics of appeasement toward the most repellent elements of Jewish religious society.
At the same time, I would caution us about impugning Israel entire. The fact of the matter is, religious fundamentalism is ugly in any guise, and America is no less a host to fundamentalists, even violent fanatics, than Israel, or for that matter, Iran. The difference is, in Israel as in America, we the people stand up in protest like Judah. In Iran the fanatics are running the show and those who dare stand up find themselves facing down the pepper spray cans, batons, and the gunsights of the Basij, Iran’s notorious paramilitary group.
The Jewish response is never to abandon Israel. To do so is to become no better than the brothers who left Joseph for dead. The Jewish response is to be like Judah, Vayiggash, who stood up, put himself in the shoes of the little guy, and spoke truth to power.
Our tradition summons us to engage with Israel all the more deeply now, standing with the vast majority of Israelis who understand that there’s more than one way to be Jewish and that the haredim do not speak for us.
We are one people--we American Jews, we Israeli Jews--with one Jewish soul and one glorious heritage that impels us to pursue justice. We call that heritage Judaism, or, more to the point, Judah-ism.