Three forms of religious extremism confronted me recently. The first occured in England, when I lectured at Limmud, a studies conference attended by fully one percent of all Jews in Britain. Every Jewish group was represented – except for the Orthodox rabbinate, which boycotted the event because of the presence of Reform and Conservative (Masorti) rabbis.
The second and more insidious example of frightening religious intolerance hit me as I landed in Israel a few days later for the press launch of my book “Kosher Jesus.” I discovered a country up in arms because a small group of charedim spat at and cursed an Orthodox eight-year-old girl for her “immodest” dress (she was wearing a knee-length skirt with shoulders and elbows covered), and because a charedi man called a female Israeli soldier a “whore” for refusing to move to the back of a bus (he was arrested).
Truth regardless of consequences To make things worse, as 2012 began, charedi activists donned Holocaust prison garb with yellow “Jude” stars in a vulgar attempt to allege Nazi-like persecution at the hands of Israeli society. In truth, all they did was trivialize the slaughter of six million Jews (see Abraham Foxman’s article on the next page). The finishing touch was placing their own children in concentration camp garb before the world’s media, thus adding the violation of innocence to the defamation of the Jewish state and the trivialization of the Shoah.
The third example came on my arrival back in the United States to discover that a noted rabbi, aided by hundreds of incendiary on-line rabble-rousers, publicly demanded that I be cast out of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement for penning “Kosher Jesus.” The book, based on Christian and Jewish sources, presents what I believe is the true story of the Jewish Jesus; refutes the idea that the Jews were involved with his murder; and encourages Christians to trace Jesus’ teachings back to their original source in the Torah and other Jewish texts. Some of the rabbi’s supporters went so far as to demand that I be “burned out” of the community, whatever that means. The rabbi admitted he had not even seen the book, much less read it; his knowledge of it was based solely on a few quotes taken out of context found in an Israeli newspaper.
There is a common thread uniting these stories. Religious extremism festers when decent people are cowed into submission by fanatics whom they falsely believe to be more religious than they.
There is nothing holy about rabbis refusing to teach 2,500 young Jews who came to Limmud pining for Jewish knowledge because the rabbis fear that by appearing with non-Orthodox rabbis they might legitimize them in some way.
It is an abomination to faith for men to treat women abusively.
Character assassination based on ignorance and hearsay is an affront to Jewish laws of slander.
A black coat will never redeem a dark heart and a long beard is poor compensation for a shriveled soul.
In Israel, the fanatics’ defenders pointed out that these heinous acts are perpetrated by only a small number of extremists. This is true. In the face of Islamic terror outrages, however, we in the West rightly demand that mainstream Islamic leaders condemn the fundamentalists, lest their silence make them complicit in the violence. The Jewish community must be judged by the same standard. Rabbis of every stripe must condemn these abuses as a sickening betrayal of the core of Judaism.
Other defenders maintained that while the behavior was deplorable, secular women were also at fault by insensitively visiting religious neighborhoods wearing immodest attire and inflaming local sensibilities. Such apologetics are a disgrace. Judaism’s central value is freedom of choice, and men calling themselves religious must choose to transcend even the most rousing provocation.
Violence in the name of God is never allowed, a point we have repeatedly made to some of our Muslim brothers who justify Palestinian suicide bombers with arguments that “Israeli humiliations” incite the murders.
Charedim who feel provoked must register their protests respectfully and lawfully. The Talmud is clear: A religious man who humiliates a woman by calling her a whore in public has lost his place in eternity.
There is something magical about England’s Jews. They proudly hold on to their Jewish identity, generously support an endless array of Jewish social welfare organizations, and have a higher percentage of children in Jewish education than we in the United States. There are now only 250,000 Jews in all the United Kingdom, however, and the community can ill afford civil war between Judaism’s streams, especially given the rapid rise of anti-Semitism there.
British Jews, however, are curiously submissive to their rabbinic leadership, even when they feel in their gut that some of the rulings contravene basic Ahavat Yisrael (love of one Jew for another) and common decency. The great founder of chasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, extolled the virtue of ordinary Jews who were not rabbis. Even non-scholars are aware of simple courtesy and must pressure their spiritual leaders to work with non-Orthodox colleagues to increase Jewish learning and defend the State of Israel.
At Limmud, I was peppered by journalists asking whether I was a candidate for British chief rabbi, a question raised to fever pitch after The Jerusalem Post published an article exploring the possibility.
I spent 11 years building Jewish student life at Oxford University and six of my nine children were born in Britain. I am deeply attached to the country and the community. The office of a chief rabbi that muzzles its occupant from reaching out to thousands of young Jews for fear of offending right-wing sensibilities, however, cannot cater to anything but vanity and egotism. While I am not immune to those ills, I have never allowed myself to be silenced for any title and no self-respecting person ever would. A chief rabbi is not an ambassador; he is a leader. The office must be expanded from its current focus on the need for Jews to win non-Jewish approval, and focus instead on electrifying Jewish youth, before it can attract serious candidates.