Wednesday, 4 January 2012

An Explosive Vacuum

It is not an accident that the Haredim who feel no shame literally spitting at school girls or metaphorically at Holocaust victims feel empowered to do so. While it is true that the Haredim depicted in the news reports do not represent all Haredim, the Haredim guilty of these actions did not emerge from a vacuum. Yes, their behaviour is facilitated in large part by their educational indoctrination. However, accommodations provided by the Israeli government also contribute significantly to the problem. These accommodations, in my view, reflect problematic broader conceptions of Jewry in the Jewish community as a whole. 

In an e-mail exchange with Rabbi Jeff Fallick, author of The Atheist Rabbi blog, I described my view of the Jewish community, influenced by Humanistic Judaism. In my mind, the Jewish community can be represented on a horizontal continuum, where all the denominations/members of the  community are on equal playing ground (i.e. equally Jewish) with varying practices. (This view of the community can also be represented in a circle as a set).  Something like this:

Note: The examples above are illustrative and do not attempt to comprehensively represent all Jews.

The typical perception across religious denominations is a vertical/hierarchical one, with a tacit understanding that those on the upper end of the hierarchy are "more Jewish", while those on the bottom are "less Jewish". 

In an Ultra Orthodox context, one could add a little cloud above the hierarchy that says "God", as devout Orthodox Jews believe that their practice brings them closer to God, and, we could add another level at the bottom  - i.e. farthest from God -  that reads "non-Jews".

The problem, as I see it, is that secular and non-Ultra-Orthodox Jews also often tacitly support this view, as evidenced, for example, every time someone who otherwise does not know or care about halacha, asks the common question: "Is his mother Jewish?".  Secular Jews rationalize this in their perception of Orthodox Jews to be "taking one for the team" as the guarantors of the future of Jewish people.  

Rabbi Fallick's take was as follows: "I do believe that a significant plurality of Jews are really in our camp [which I took to mean secular - CL], but they still look to the religious (of all kinds) to give meaning to Jewish identity. While this is true in North America, in Israel, most secular Jews are very comfortable with their world view and don't look to the religious to define their Jewish identity." And in another e-mail: "There is a tendency among non-Orthodox Jews to romanticize Orthodox Judaism...and the more old-fashioned it is, the better."

Rabbi Fallick may be correct in saying that Israelis tend to espouse a set/continuum view of being Jewish, while North Americans adopt the more hierarchical view. Israeli policy, however, reflects the hierarchical view. For example, while Israel recognizes Jewish marriages of all denominations from abroad, in Israel, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has a monopoly over marriage. As a result of this discrimination, non-Ultra-Orthodox Jews must leave the country if they desire a wedding that reflects their values. The exemption of army duty for Haredim, and financial support to Haredi Institutions that demonize the state and secular life, further feed the myth of Haredi power/superiority adopted by those who feel they are justified in accosting children and women.   

Jews  everywhere who buy into the vertical understanding of Jewry that places the Orthodox at the top of the hierarchy, dictating to the rest of us what it means to be Jewish,  do the entire Jewish people a disservice and devalue the colossal non-Ultra -Orthodox contribution to the identity of the community.

Update -  8 Jan 2011: Here's a link to an article on this topic.

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