Thoughts on Judaism

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Beit Shemesh

Whether or not this town figured in the Chanukah time battles, it has become the epicenter of a new push by various members of the Haredi community to grab power for themselves. They are often described in the press as "Ultra-Orthodox", but this is a misnomer in my opinion. They feel no kinship with other Orthodox Jews, nor do they adhere to standards based on standard Jewish law. They have their own government, their own tribunals, their own ideas about religion which deviate from Orthodoxy widely. They use standards formed inside the group only. They are more correctly called "minim", sectarians.

There are many in the Haredi community who are Orthodox, and they are just as baffled as the rest of us about what the political forces in their communities are after, and they are just as embarrassed if not far more so, by behavior that is so foreign to what they are taught and what they live.

One such min law is the at the center of the Beit Shemesh battle. According to the Jews, there are standards of modesty in behavior and in dress. For women, this includes covering ones legs to the knee, ones arms to the elbow, and not dressing in an overly alluring fashion. This custom of modesty, though not strictly legal, is universally accepted throughout the Jewish world to differing degrees. In the late 1950's, Orthodox Jewish women shunned wearing pants and traditionally male clothing, since it was associated with the beginning feminist movement. Many Orthodox still adhere to this custom today, as an established norm. Also, one is expected to avoid contact with women in a flirtatious or alluring manner. All contact between men and women that might be construed as flirtatious or alluring is forbidden. For instance, most men do not shake hands with women, even in a social or business setting, as this has become the custom.

However, in the min religion of Haredi, many consider the customs of modesty to be laws of the strictest importance. While Jewish law proscribes, for instance, that a man should not walk behind a woman going upstairs (or as a stringency, even on an equal surface), min law says that it is forbidden in Jewish law to sit on a bus behind a woman, to display a photo with a woman in it, even a child, or to allow a woman into a public job of any kind. This min law caused the fist storms of the fight, attracting even the attention of world leaders, like US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton.

Now, one might rightly argue that she criticizes the Haredim, while passing on the Egyptian, Saudi, Afghan, Iraqi etc customs, where women are not only shunned, but do not even have a legal structure to protect them. In Israel, women have equal rights under the law, and the law enforcement must protect those rights, even within the insular communities.

However, it is common that self appointed enforcers ride buses through various Haredi neighborhoods, and force woman to comply with min law, such as not riding in front of a man. Now, granted, if they want to create a private bus line that adheres to Haredi law, and practice their religion freely, I have no objection. Women and men may choose their business, and the business may choose their clientele. However, when the bus line is public, there can be no justification. The Rosenblit case was handled correctly. She was asked by police if she volunteered to comply with the min rule, she did not care to, and the police then enforced the law allowing her to ride as she chose, and protecting her from other threats.

Another case was that of the Orit school, which teaches girls to practice Orthodox Judaism. The Haredi enforcers intimidated the staff and even the students on the basis that they did not adhere to min laws created by the Haredim. There is no reason that a Jewish school should not be allowed to practice Judaism rather than min law, so they haven't a basis to object to the school.

However, this is just the political process in Israel. That is until your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. The Haredim did not respect that limit, even intimidating and harassing small children. Until now, I was not aware that min law allowed this, but apparently they have established this challenge to Judaism in Beit Shemesh. We join the Jews who stand together to defend freedom of religion, the freedom to practice Judaism rather than min law, the very right on which Israel was founded.

More cases:
An Israeli soldier was intimidated and forced to the back of the bus. There is evidence that this case was an organized provocation. I hope that Doron Matalon and anyone behind her understand that actions of this type do not help the cause. They only serve to drive more Orthodox to the Haredi side, and cause them to discount other cases of abuse.

An MK Tzipi Hotovely rode the front of a mehadrin bus and was insulted by an enforcer. She correctly remained in place without provoking or grandstanding. The difference in her case is that she is Orthodox and she did not seek to provoke an attack on herself that she could "cry" about.

In Beit Shemesh, it was reported that Haredi children harassed disabled Orthodox children in wheelchairs and one family claimed that they had been told to move out by "the rabbis of the community" because of "your daughter's dressing habits". The origin and veracity of the story, whether the letter actually came from Haredim in the community, or whether the harassment took place is not clear. I hope it has not descended to this, but the rabbis need to exert LEADERSHIP, if for no other reason, than to stop the PR disaster that is hangs like a fog over religious Jews everywhere. You are supposed to be extraordinary leaders, guardians of Torah, people who just KNOW deep things that we peons cannot understand with mere intellect. When will you start LEADING!!!!!!


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