Posted: Sun Jul 25, 2010 6:52 am Post subject: JUDAISM
Israel risks alienating Jewish diaspora over definition of a Jew Israel has been warned it risks alienating the Jewish diaspora with controversial proposals to redefine who has the right to be called a Jew.
By Adrian Blomfield in Jerusalem
Published: 11:47PM BST 23 Jul 2010
Israel has been warned it risks alienating the Jewish diaspora with controversial proposals to redefine who has the right to be called a Jew Photo: ALAMY
The row has left Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, as an unwilling arbitrator in a stand-off of potentially historic proportions between American Jewish leaders and senior figures in his own coalition.
There are growing fears that the dispute could lead to a major schism in world Jewry and the prime minister is facing a choice between further isolating his country or the possible collapse of his government. Mr Netanyahu said this week that the proposed law could “tear apart the Jewish people”. He has received tens of thousands of emails of protest from American Jews, who have been urged to contact him by their rabbis.
Matters came to a head earlier this month when a committee in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, narrowly approved legislation that could result in many foreign Jews being denied the right to settle in Israel. The so-called “conversion bill”, which still has to be passed by a full session of the Knesset before it becomes law, has caused fury in the United States.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a million Russian-speaking immigrants have moved to Israel. But, because they either had only a Jewish father or married into the faith, almost 350,000 of them are not recognised as Jews in their adopted homeland. That includes 90,000 who were born in Israel.
According to Orthodox doctrine, only those whose mothers are Jewish can be officially classed as Jews.
Rectifying this anomaly is vital to the future of Israel, according to Danny Ayalon, the deputy foreign minister and a senior figure in the Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose core constituency is Russian-speaking. “The 350,000 immigrants who are not considered Jews are a national strategic problem that must be solved now, because in another generation or two it could tear our society apart,” he said.
Yisrael Beiteinu’s original proposals were designed to make it easier for Russian-speakers to become Jewish by allowing a sympathetic local rabbi to convert them. But to have any hope of forcing the bill through the Knesset, it had to make a major concession to religious parties by proposing that the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate would have ultimate authority on conversions.
The bill prompted a storm of protest in the US, where more than 80 per cent of Jews are non-Orthodox. American Jewish leaders fear that the bill could mean conversions performed by American rabbis are not recognised in Israel – meaning that new converts might not be allowed to live in the country.
Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel, told the New York Times that Mr Netanyahu had told him that the controversy over the conversion bill was threatening to alienate American Jews, whose support he needed in his negotiations with President Barack Obama over peace with the Palestinians.
Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who is now the powerful chairman of Israel’s Jewish Agency, warned that many foreign Jews could end up feeling like second-class members of the faith.
Unable to forge a compromise, Mr Netanyahu this week succeeded in having a Knesset debate on the conversion legislation delayed for six months.
LONDON — I should not be writing this column on Yom Kippur, in a break from shul, on an empty stomach, but there we are. Let’s put it down to another inflection in the many inflections of being Jew-ish.
Jews are a practical people. They deal with this world not the next. They are an argumentative people. They know that truth may be a matter of disputation, or may be arrived at only through disputation. They tend to accept that being Jewish, one may have to be Jew-ish at times, fall a little short, be a little approximate.
I have a column to write. Deadlines are unforgiving. Less forgiving than this Day of Atonement, whose significance was expressed in a phrase of Maimonides: “We have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible.”
I love that “as far as possible.” Jews, as I said, are a practical people. Their interest is in the feasible not in magic wands.
This is a day of the inward gaze, of breaking from the world. It is a time for turning the mind and soul elsewhere, away from the ephemeral toward the eternal, away from multitasking toward mercy.
A column is very much of this world. Once published, it is debated in real time, commented on, bounced across social media, its clicks counted; and so publication, no longer a singular event, becomes a process that may be protracted and distracting. Life today is a battle against distraction. You start off intent on doing one thing and end up doing another. Or not doing anything at all.
It feels good, then, to set aside pretense of action for the fecund inaction of sitting still in synagogue, in my case the beautiful 175-year-old West London Synagogue, to listen to many things (including silence); and to reflect, arrested now and then by a phrase or just by the sunlight glinting through stained glass into a place of proportions that speak of harmony.
How inexhaustible are the words of the sage Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now when?”
A couple of millennia have not produced a better summation of realism allied to humanity allied to the urgency of the deed, nor a more powerful injunction against self-delusion, selfishness and procrastination.
I had arrived in London from the Greek island of Lesbos, where thousands of refugees who have fled the Syrian war are entering Europe every day on inflatable rafts. “Refugees Welcome,” said a banner at the entrance to the synagogue — scarcely the general view of Britain or its government. Jews, part of what Stefan Zweig called “the ever-recurring — since Egypt — community of expulsion,” cannot in good conscience turn their backs on the expelled.
In different renderings, throughout the day, a cornerstone of Jewish ethics was expressed: “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Recall what it is to be driven out of your land with no land to go to.
At no time did I hear of the God of dangerous certainties endemic to every form of fundamentalism. I did not hear of a God of revealed truths used to stoke the fires of confrontation between peoples, nor of an unforgiving God invoked by believers to justify zealotry or beheadings or discrimination or exclusive claims to land. No, this was the God of “whoever saves one soul, it counts as if he saved the whole world.”
Jews came up with the idea of a faceless God with whom they had a covenant, and that covenant — binding over thousands of years of uprooted wandering — was in essence a covenant of ethics. For a long time it was a covenant of the powerless. It would be a terrible outcome if it proved irreconcilable with the exercise of power, now that the long-awaited return to Jerusalem has occurred, and a strong and vibrant modern Israel exists whose founding charter of 1948 says the state will be based on “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”
Those prophets’ word was present in the synagogue. Zealotry is not the answer to zealotry. Being a practical people who have learned through the ultimate trial that without power survival itself is at risk cannot mean Jewish acquiescence to the injustice of dominion over another displaced people, the Palestinians. The teachings of the “community of expulsion” demand ever-renewed commitment to inclusion, even when it seems hopeless. Justice and peace are incompatible with the status quo in the Holy Land.
Perhaps such ideas are Jew-ish, the delusions of which “real Jews” in their absolutist certainties have rid themselves. But I will take the “as far as possible” of the Jewish philosopher over the all-or-nothing conviction of the Messianic Jewish settler.
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis ban women from going to university in case they get ‘dangerous’ secular knowledge
Board of Deputies of British Jews estimates that there are around 30,000 strictly orthodox Jews living in the UK, of which Satmar is the largest sect (file photo) Getty Ultra-Orthodox Jewish rabbis have banned women from going to university, The Independent has learned.
The strict Satmar sect issued the decree, seen by The Independent, warning that university education for women is “dangerous”. Written in Yiddish, the decree warns: “It has lately become the new trend that girls and married women are pursuing degrees in special education. Some attend classes and others online. And so we’d like to let their parents know that it is against the Torah.
“We will be very strict about this. No girls attending our school are allowed to study and get a degree. It is dangerous. Girls who will not abide will be forced to leave our school. Also, we will not give any jobs or teaching position in the school to girls who’ve been to college or have a degree.
"We have to keep our school safe and we can’t allow any secular influences in our holy environment. It is against the base upon which our Mosed was built.”
The decree was issued from the sect’s base in New York and will apply to followers of the faith group around the world.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews follow a pre-enlightenment interpretation of traditional Judaism and discourage interaction with the modern or secular world. Men wear 19th century Eastern European dress including long black coats and black hats, while married women must dress modestly and cover their hair.
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The Board of Deputies of British Jews estimates that there are around 30,000 strictly Orthodox Jews living in the UK, of which Satmar is the largest sect.
Last year, it emerged that some ultra-Orthodox Jews in north London had banned women from driving, citing concerns that it was immodest for them to do so.
It was condemned by Dr Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, Executive Director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, who told The Independent the decree would “force” people to stay in their communities. “The Satmar community chooses to live in an isolationist enclave. They believe that the secular elements of the world would tarnish the lives and beliefs of those who consider themselves to be religious.
“There are probably other factors at play, but, ultimately, the results are devastating. Because people from similar communities are not provided with a foundational primary education, they cannot pursue higher education nor careers. When one does not have access to education, career opportunities are out of reach. It forces one to stay within the community as everyone's personal lives are tied up with their professional lives as well.”
Israel Joins Bikini Fray, Ordering Concert Singer to Cover Up
But if the French local bans on the head-to-ankle burkinis illustrated an often libertine country’s discomfort with conservative Muslim traditions, the decision by the Israeli authorities to weigh in on the side of more clothing reflected a different kind of cultural debate. With the influence of Orthodox Judaism having grown in the current government in Israel, a country whose culture was long dominated by secular elites, is struggling with its identity and values.
The culture minister, Miri Regev, has been a driving force behind the debate, seeking to deny state money for institutions that do not express loyalty to the state and proposing to vet the music played by the army’s radio station for its patriotism. Her ministry said Sunday that it was now acting to respect the sensibilities of those who might be offended by immodest attire at shows financed by the state.
El Al can no longer ask women to move seats on religious grounds
A court rules on a case of airline discrimination in Israel
ONE of the more unsavoury airline practices has now been outlawed. In 2015 flight attendants on El Al, Israel’s national carrier, asked Renee Rabinowitz, an 81-year-old holocaust survivor, to move seats after she boarded her flight in New Jersey. An ultra-orthodox Jewish male passenger had objected to having to sit next to her. Haredim, it was explained, are forbidden from close contact with females who are not relatives.
Ms Rabinowitz is not alone. As this blog has reported on several occasions in recent years, haredi men flying El Al regularly refuse to take their seats next to female passengers. And El Al staff, if the men cannot be accommodated elsewhere on the plane, will sometimes ask the “offending” woman to vacate her seat.
I am an Orthodox rabbi dedicating my life to breaking the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over Jewish life in Israel.
RA’ANANA, Israel — I have not been detained by the Israeli police on my way to morning prayers, but I am preparing for that eventuality. That’s the new reality of life in the Jewish state for those of us who publicly oppose Jewish fundamentalism.
Just ask my colleague Rabbi Dov Hayoun.
On July 20, Rabbi Hayoun, a prominent Conservative rabbi, was awakened at 5:30 a.m. by the police at his home in Haifa and taken to a station for questioning. What was his alleged crime? Performing a Jewish wedding in the Jewish state.
In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate is legally responsible for sanctioning all Jewish weddings and divorces. But Rabbi Hayoun, like hundreds of other rabbis, isn’t recognized by the rabbinate. And so he performs weddings without its blessing.
Technically, this makes him a criminal. Under Section 7 of Israel’s Marriage and Divorce Ordinance, any marriage or divorce that isn’t registered with the rabbinate is illegal. The potential punishment: two years in prison.
Orthodoxy should be respected, but we cannot allow the politics of a radical minority to alienate millions of Jews worldwide.
For many Israelis, Jews and supporters of Israel, the last year has been a challenging one. In the summer of 2017, Israel’s government withdrew from an agreement that would have created an egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall and proposed a strict conversion law that impinges on the rights of non-Orthodox Jews. This summer the Knesset passed a law that denies equal rights to same-sex couples. A day later came the nation-state law, which correctly reaffirms that Israel is a Jewish state, but also damages the sense of equality and belonging of Israel’s Druze, Christian and Muslim citizens.
Last month, a Conservative rabbi was detained for the alleged crime of performing a non-Orthodox wedding ceremony in Israel. In several municipalities, attempts were made to disrupt secular life by closing convenience stores on the Sabbath.
These events are creating the impression that the democratic and egalitarian dimensions of the Jewish democratic state are being tested.
Israel is a miracle. The Jews of the diaspora look up to Israel, admire its astonishing achievements and view it as their second home. However, today some wonder if the nation they cherish is losing its way.
Some critics believe that a law defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people is a threat to the Jewish people. This is audacious and preposterous.
But at the same time, there is no denying that Israel is a Jewish state. This is why last month our government passed the Nation State Law, which reaffirms the centrality of the Jewish identity and nature of the state of Israel. This law now sits proudly alongside Israel’s other Basic Laws (which carry quasi-constitutional power) that reinforce the freedom of expression and equality for all citizens of Israel. Our self-identification as a Jewish homeland will never change. It is a central tenet of Zionism.
Of course, we still recognize the important contribution of our minority communities. The Druze, many of whom serve in the Israeli military, want to see their community officially recognized by Israel and to have the special relationship with the Jewish state affirmed. They are right to point out that this relationship was not referenced by the Nation State Law. I am proud to have led the calls for this to be rectified — by means other than changing the law passed.
The answer lies in the 19th century, when Judaism became a distinctively American religion.
That explanation lies specifically in Jewish-American history rooted in the 19th century, when Judaism became a distinctively American religion, substantially changed from what it had been for more than two millenniums.
One factor in the rise of an American Judaism was practical. To assimilate and work in their adopted land, many Jews abandoned some of their ancient practices, from observing the Sabbath to keeping kosher and wearing distinctive clothing. Discarding these practices forced Jews to turn their faith into a devotion to core beliefs, rather than customs and practices.
More broadly, Jews sought to “Americanize” their rituals, making them look more like the church ceremonies of their neighbors. The largely German immigrants of the 19th century started Sunday schools, mixed men and women in family pews and incorporated choirs, organ music and sermons in their services while rejecting or shortening some obscure prayers. These changes provoked debates, division and lawsuits. But they took hold, even among traditionalists, and continued even after the influx of two million Jews from Russia at the turn of the 20th century.
The nation-state of the Jews must recognize Conservative and Reform Judaism.
JERUSALEM — The massacre of 11 worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue has profoundly shocked Israelis. Though seemingly desensitized by years of terror on our buses and streets, much of this voluble country has been left speechless by the news of Jews being gunned down during Shabbat prayers by a ranting anti-Semite.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuben Rivlin fiercely condemned the massacre and expressed full solidarity with our American brothers and sisters. Naftali Bennet, the minister for diaspora affairs, flew immediately to Pennsylvania. And yet, for all these expressions of sympathy, Israel still refuses to recognize the Conservative movement to which all 11 victims belonged.
Conservative as well as Reform weddings and conversions performed in Israel are not accepted by the country’s chief rabbinate. The Tree of Life synagogue where the massacre took place was not even a real synagogue according to Israel’s chief rabbis. The victims, murdered solely for being Jewish, practiced a brand of Judaism that, along with all other liberal streams of Judaism, is not deemed sufficiently Jewish for the Jewish state.
Such disrespect contrasts starkly with American Jewish contributions to Israel. The record is everywhere: The names of American Jewish philanthropists are emblazoned on our ambulances, university dorms, homes for the elderly and centers for disabled veterans. American Jews have helped forest our hills and raise up our poor, unearth our past and forge our technological future. According to Israeli government statistics, investments and contributions from Jews living overseas — the bulk of them Americans — accounted for 6.35 percent of our gross domestic product, the equivalent of Israel’s defense budget.
Indispensable to the Jewish worldview is the idea that humans are unique, that we possess a spiritual component and that our actions are freely chosen.
To the Talmud-era rabbis who established Hanukkah, an even greater enemy than the flesh-and-blood soldiers who had defiled the Temple was some Jews’ adoption of Hellenistic ideals, a fundamental part of which was what we today call materialism.
No, not the luxuriating in physical pleasures, though that, too, was part of the ancient Greek world. The words “cynic,” “epicurean” and “hedonist,” after all, are rooted in Greek philosophical schools. But rather the more rarefied philosophical concept called materialism, which contends that everything can be reduced to the physical, that there is no real entity called a soul.
“Dualism,” by contrast, is the belief that we humans are both physical and … something more.
Many contemporary scientists, delighted by their advances in understanding how the brain functions, have embraced a modern version of materialism. The conviction that we have souls, they patiently explain to lesser folks, is nothing in the end but a misleading product of the electrical activity within our craniums. Our every thought and action, moreover, is predetermined. Just as other physical processes can be predicted on the basis of the array of circumstances at their origin, if we had sufficient knowledge about any individual’s brain, we could predict his or her every action. Free will, to a materialist, is just a persistent illusion.
“The qualities of mental life that we associate with souls are purely corporeal,” Prof. Paul Bloom of Yale, for example, has averred. “They emerge from biochemical processes in the brain.”
A Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, advises us to set aside “childlike intuitions and traditional dogmas” and recognize that what we conceive of as the soul is nothing more than “the activity of the brain.” Nothing but brain cells are evident, after all, in a brain.
But finding no evidence of the soul in a brain is like finding no trace of Yo-Yo Ma in a stereo speaker and concluding that the cello concerto that just ended, and Mr. Ma for that matter, are only imaginary.
Anti-Zionism Isn’t the Same as Anti-Semitism
American Jews have nothing to fear from the new congressional critics of Israel.
Netanyahu, then, seems to understand that being pro-Israel and pro-Jewish are not the same thing. Liberal American Jews, particularly younger ones, are learning that lesson as well. Some staunch Zionists are bad for the Jews — witness Steve King, the Republican congressman from Iowa who invokes his support for Israel when he’s called out for his blatant white nationalism.
At the same time, people with an uncompromising commitment to pluralistic democracy will necessarily be critics of contemporary Israel. That commitment, however, makes them the natural allies of Jews everywhere else.
The fight against religious fundamentalism sometimes means getting spit on.
JERUSALEM — It is a strange experience to have another person spit on you. To have an ultra-Orthodox teenager look you dead in the eye and mutter “shiksa” or “kalba” — the Hebrew word for bitch — and then decide you deserve a little something more than a slur because he knows you are a liberal Jew.
That this happened several times here Friday morning, on International Women’s Day at the Western Wall, tells you a lot about the state of religious liberty in a country that prides itself on being the Middle East’s only free nation — and about the resilience of activists who refuse to allow fundamentalists to control public Jewish life.
The Women of the Wall are used to getting spit on, not to mention shoved, scratched, kicked and pelted with dirty diapers. For the past 30 years, the feminist prayer group has held a monthly service in the women’s section of the Western Wall, where they wear prayer shawls and read from the Torah. Walk into any Reform or Conservative synagogue in the world and women will be doing exactly that, without fanfare, often in synagogues helmed by female rabbis. But at the Western Wall, which, like other holy sites in Israel, is controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, such egalitarian displays inspire angry protests. Ultra-Orthodox Jews see such behavior at the holy site as sacrilege, and various members of Women of the Wall have been arrested for “disturbing the public order.”
The Conflation of Antisemitism and Israel Criticism Isn’t Unique, But It Is a Problem
As a scholar of politics and religion I’ve been frustrated by the public discussion of Israel, Rep. Ilhan Omar and anti-Semitism. We are asked to take sides for or against Israel, for or against Ilhan Omar, and worst of all, for or against the Jewish people. How do we know if a sentiment or act is truly anti-Semitic or merely a critique of Israeli policy? Or the result of ignorance? It is difficult to know with certainty, and recognizing why is the first step in getting out of the dilemma.
It’s easy to assume that criticizing a “Jewish state” is anti-Semitic. But this is, of course, a mistake. It reduces a broad and immensely diverse set of political and theological traditions to a single set of state institutions and practices.
This problem is familiar to students of religion and politics. There is a tendency, and not only in the case of Israel, to collapse the distinction between a broad and shifting religious tradition and its state-sponsored (and always partial) realization. The potential for such reductionism is endemic to all traditions and all modern states. In his excellent new book, Constituting Religion, Tamir Moustafa has described the collapse of the distinction between Islam and projects of state Islamization and Islamic law in Malaysia.
The conflation in the Malaysian legal imaginary of a state-centric, racialized and ethnicized set of legal interpretations of Islam with Islam in all of its complexity and diversity, haunts the Malaysian legal system and society as a whole. It renders certain forms of solidarity unimaginable, certain ways of being and relating unfathomable, and certain understandings of both Islam and liberalism unthinkable.
My Fellow Hasidic Jews Are Making a Terrible Mistake About Vaccinations
We should stop dismissing scientific evidence and endangering the lives of our children.
My community faces a grave threat. I am not talking about the measles spreading throughout our Hasidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn. I am referring to the scientific denialism that has infected our community and has put the lives of children here and elsewhere at risk.
In October, an unvaccinated child from our community contracted measles while on a visit to Israel. In New York City, more than 350 people have since become ill, an outbreak that health officials have linked directly to that first child’s case. Most of the cases are in the Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Borough Park.
According to health officials, the most recent outbreak is a direct result of disinformation efforts: Like tens of thousands of Americans, many Hasidic Jews have fallen under the sway of anti-vaccination propaganda — spread by people within our community — and have refused to inoculate their children against measles and other diseases.
As infections linked to this outbreak spread as far as Michigan, I can’t help wondering what has made some of us dismiss basic science, embrace quackery and treat objective truths as if they are no more than suggestions.
In the not-too-distant past, the ultra-Orthodox community was a champion of scientific knowledge and innovation. Ours was a community with the ability to welcome science, value research and be a forward-thinking force for good. Where did we go wrong?
Gay and Once Divorced, a Canadian Rabbi Broadens Judaism’s Tent
MONTREAL — When Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, the first openly gay rabbi of a large synagogue in Canada, was preparing to begin rabbinical school, she faced a daunting choice: love or serving God.
Her world was suddenly turned upside down in the late 1990s while she was studying religion at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, and fell in love with a woman she met at a conference. This posed a problem: The Conservative rabbinical school she planned to attend did not ordain openly gay rabbis.
Rather than abandoning her vocation, she opted instead to join the Jewish Reform movement — a liberal progressive denomination that accepts gay rabbis and gay marriage. “Coming out,” she added, “brought me closer to God.”
“It was the first time in my life when being good at something and working hard weren’t enough to open the door,” said the bookish 44-year-old rabbi, who speaks with the soothing voice of someone used to softening life’s upheavals. “By following my calling and being true to myself, I was embracing both essential parts of my identity.”
Now divorced, and remarried with two daughters and a third child on the way, she said her struggles had helped shape her inclusive approach to Judaism during posts in Manhattan and in her current role as the first female senior rabbi at the 137-year-old Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, a sprawling Reform synagogue in Montreal’s affluent Westmount neighborhood.
Named one of “America’s most inspiring rabbis” by the influential Jewish publication The Forward, she has edited a seminal book on Judaism and sexuality, works to improve ties between Canadian Jews and Muslims; and counsels lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews from Newfoundland to Mexico.
The recent uptick in anti-Semitic crimes has made me appreciate my mother’s concerns in unexpected ways.
Growing up, my brothers and I often teased my mom for having what we thought was an irrational fear of being a Jew.
She said she painted over the Star of David on a duffle bag because when we were traveling, she didn’t want people “to know.” She warned my dad not to drive fast to my aunt’s house on Yom Kippur because she thought more speed traps were set during the Jewish holidays.
If we said a word like “Shabbat” in a department store, she seemed to hear it from aisles away. We were not to say Jewish things too loudly in public, she taught us. Better to be safe.
These things did not make sense to us, three brothers extraordinarily lucky to have grown up in a New York suburb where safety was hardly a worry at all, where any kind of violent crime — let alone violence against Jews — was so rare it was almost unfathomable. But my mother had her own reasons, and they were valid, for she grew up not in the United States but in Baghdad, Iraq — watching, through the wide and curious eyes of a 6-year-old in the early 1970s, as 2,000 years of peaceful Jewish life there came crashing down around her.
“Ultra-Orthodox” is a label that should be retired.
In the spring of 2016, President Barack Obama signed a bill eliminating dated references to racial or ethnic minorities that had remained in parts of federal regulations. “Negro” would be replaced with “African American,” “Oriental” with “Asian American or Pacific Islander” and so on. It was a long-overdue recognition that the meanings words carry matter — especially when applied to minority groups.
It’s now generally accepted that racial, ethnic and religious groups determine how they wish others to refer to them. This is true not only in government documents but also in popular media and polite conversation.
There’s an exception, though, applied to my group — a different standard. We’re constantly labeled “ultra-Orthodox,” against our wishes.
We’re your neighbors, recognizable by our men in dark suits and black hats (for the subset among us called Hasidim, fur hats on the Sabbath and holidays), our women in modest dress and wigs or with kerchief hair coverings.
We oppose the label “ultra” as anyone would. What does “ultra” bring to mind in, say, politics? Does “ultraconservative” conjure images of Ambassador Nikki Haley and John McCain, or Pat Buchanan and Steve Bannon? What do we mean when we call an investment “ultra-risky”? Or a race an “ultra-marathon”? We mean something that is extreme, beyond normal or beyond the mainstream.
Haredim (the Hebrew word we prefer, signifying religious devoutness) don’t buy into some elements of modern culture, and our value system places family, textual study and religious observance above certain material goals.
But that doesn’t make us extremists. We don’t rail against others and have no plans, as some religious extremists do, to harm or impose our will on anyone. We’re Orthodox, religiously observant Jews, but no more “ultra” than a typical observant Catholic, Mormon or Muslim.
Being tarred with the prefix “ultra” is only part of the problem. We’re demeaned in other ways, too. Enjoined by our faith to travel on the Sabbath only on foot, Haredi Jews tend to live near their synagogues, and what naturally results are Haredi neighborhoods and communities.
Why, when we buy homes in new communities, are we so often portrayed as invaders? We fully understand that the character of a neighborhood changes when members of a new ethnic or religious group arrive. We’ve been there ourselves. But no one should be able to discriminate against us in the home-buying process.
We also take our civic responsibility and legitimate self-interests seriously, so we vote in higher-than-average proportions. We embrace certain values and goals, and seek to promote them at the ballot box. That’s the American democratic process at work.
Yet, when we exercise our right to vote in local elections, where our small numbers can still have measurable impact, we are routinely described as a “bloc,” a term that carries a sinister whiff of creepiness. Think “Soviet bloc” or “Communist bloc.” There’s often nonjudgmental talk of “the black vote” and “the Hispanic vote.” Why are Haredim a “bloc”?
There are other subtly disparaging tropes about Haredim as well, telegraphed not necessarily by specific words like “ultra” and “bloc,” but by negative stereotyping and harmful canards. These, too, are as lamentable as they are misleading. Haredim may all seem to dress similarly, but we are individuals, with individual, independent characteristics, views and skills.
Anti-Semitism, which always lurks beneath the surface of societies, has of late reared its ugly head. It has manifested in the streets of Brooklyn and in racist corners of the internet. And the targets of this hatred are often Haredim, visibly distinguishable Jews.
While there’s no direct line between subtle “othering” and physical violence, disparagement, even only in words, adds moisture to the dark cloud of prejudice. And sufficiently saturated, that cloud can yield, as a famous Jewish poet once put it, a hard rain.
Avi Shafran is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, an author and a columnist for Hamodia.
A perplexing paradox lies at the heart of Purim, the holiday celebrated this week by Jews around the world. No day is more associated with Jewish joy; yet rightly understood the scriptural source of our celebration — the biblical book of Esther — proclaims a terrifying teaching.
Let us briefly review the plot. The Persian king Ahasuerus — the character in the Bible most akin to Henry VIII — is overcome by drunken rage and rids himself of his wife. In a contest eerily akin to reality shows today, he conducts a search for a new queen, ultimately choosing a beautiful Jewish woman named Esther, who is advised by her cousin Mordecai not to disclose her religious identity. Haman, the high-ranking minister to Ahasuerus, convinces the king to decree a genocide of the Jews. Urged into action by her cousin, Esther plays on the king’s paranoia, engaging in court intrigue to turn him against Haman, who is hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. At Esther’s initiative, and with Ahasuerus’ encouragement, Jews across the empire wage war against Haman’s allies, and Mordecai is given the political position once held by Haman. The central ritual of Purim is the reading of this biblical book aloud in synagogue as a celebration of Jewish salvation and the defeat of anti-Semitism.
Yet as the final words are read, and joyous song erupts in the sanctuary, the careful reader realizes that the security of Persian Jewry, and of Mordecai and Esther, is anything other than assured, and that even the swift nature of Haman’s fall is a reflection of terrifying political instability. In such a society, with such an unbalanced and capricious king, could not another Haman easily arise?
The disquieting conclusion of Esther’s tale was eloquently described by my great-uncle, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. “If a prime minister who just yesterday enjoyed the full confidence and trust of the king was suddenly convicted and executed,” he reflected, “then who is wise and clairvoyant enough to assure us that the same unreasonable, absurd, neurotic change of mood and mind will not repeat itself?” The Purim tale reminds us that a government, and the society it oversees, can turn against its most vulnerable in a matter of moments. This is why, he argued, Esther’s story is no triumphal tale; on the contrary, it is “the book of the vulnerability of man in general and specifically of the vulnerability of the Jew.”
That it was Rabbi Soloveitchik who understood this isn’t a coincidence. As a young man in the 1920s, he had traveled from Eastern Europe to study philosophy in the University of Berlin. The city was then a center of Jewish intellectual and cultural achievement; Rabbi Soloveitchik would have met coreligionists who saw themselves as both German and Jewish, who had served the kaiser in the First World War and were patriotically committed to their country’s future. They would have spoken of the Enlightenment, and progress, and religious acceptance in their society. Then that very same society embraced a Haman-figure, and the lives Jews knew in Europe disappeared forever. Small wonder, then, that a rabbi who escaped this inferno would recognize the frightening implications of Jewish vulnerability inherent in Esther’s tale.
Why, then, is Purim marked as a holiday? If the conclusion of Esther is more nerve-racking than is often thought, what is the source of our joy? The answer, in part, is that it is this very vulnerability that makes Jewish heroism possible, and that is why, on Purim, we focus on the woman that gave this biblical book her name: it is Esther whom we celebrate. Precisely because of the constancy of Jewish vulnerability, we glorify Esther’s initiative, courage, and wisdom to inculcate these same virtues in our posterity.
Here we must understand how different the Book of Esther is from every other book in the Hebrew Bible. In this tale no mention is made of the divine; the Jews inhabit a world devoid of revelation. Whereas in every other scriptural tale political engagements are under prophetic instruction, in the Persian court God gives no guidance to the Jews facing a terrible danger. Esther, Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote, faced an unprecedented question: “How can the Jew triumph over his adversaries and enemies if God has stopped speaking to him, if the cryptic messages he receives remain unintelligible and incomprehensible?”
In this sense, Esther is the first biblical figure, male or female, to engage in statesmanship. Previous heroes — Moses and Elijah, Samuel and Deborah — are prophets who are guided and guarded by the Divine, but Esther operates on instinct, reflecting a mastery of realpolitik. As Isaiah Berlin wrote in his essay “On Political Judgment,” great leaders practice affairs of state not as a science but an art; they are, more akin to orchestra conductors than chemists. Facing a crisis, they “grasp the unique combination of characteristics that constitute this particular situation — this and no other.” Esther is the first scriptural figure to embody this description, emerging as a woman for all seasons, a hero celebrated year after year.
Purim thus marks the fragility of Jewish security, but also the possibility of heroism in the face of this vulnerability. It is therefore a holiday for our time. Around the world, and especially in a Europe that should know better, anti-Semitism has made itself manifest once again. As Esther’s example is celebrated, and Jews gather in synagogue to study her terrifying tale, we are reminded why, in the face of hate, we remain vigilant — and why we continue to joyously celebrate all the same.
Meir Soloveichik, the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, is the director of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.
Most Jews in history have not been free, whether from murderous regimes, famines or pandemics like this one. What we have been is devoted to the idea that we deserve to be.
This year, Passover falls at the beginning of April — smack in the middle of what some experts estimate will be the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in America. It’s not just the timing of the holiday — built around a retelling of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt — that feels off. It’s that every aspect of its story and rituals now seems almost cruelly ironic.
The Passover Seder centers on the experience of being thrust out of our homes, but these days we feel trapped inside of them. The story involves miraculous plagues that saved us; today we pray for the end of one. There’s the commandment to clean our homes of all non-Passover food, which we just spent innumerable hours and dollars hoarding.
Then there’s the real heartbreaker: The Seder is when we traditionally gather with family, friends and even strangers. “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” we say. These days, many of us can’t even be in the same house as our own parents or children. We don’t come within six feet of strangers.
And yet, there will still be Passover. Indeed, I’ve come to think of Passover as the stem cell of the Jewish people, a reserve of core source material with the proven ability to generate new meaning and solace in circumstances even more extreme than what we are living through now.
Virus Soars Among Ultra-Orthodox Jews as Many Flout Israel’s Rules
Failure to comply with government restrictions is causing the coronavirus to spread in ultra-Orthodox communities up to eight times faster than elsewhere in Israel.
BNEI BRAK, Israel — Ultra-Orthodox Jews failing to comply with government instructions to contain the coronavirus are causing it to spread so quickly that Israeli officials are considering blockading entire communities to protect the wider population.
The virus is mushrooming in ultra-Orthodox communities as much as four to eight times faster than elsewhere in Israel.
In the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, where 95 percent of the residents are ultra-Orthodox, the number of confirmed cases spiked from 267 on Friday to 571 on Tuesday. The total was nearly that of Jerusalem, whose population is four times bigger.
Although they make up only 12 percent of Israel’s population, the ultra-Orthodox account for 40 to 60 percent of the coronavirus patients at four major hospitals, hospital officials told Israeli news media. The true dimensions of the epidemic among the ultra-Orthodox can only be estimated because testing is rare.
Experts attribute the proliferation among the ultra-Orthodox to overcrowding and large families, deep distrust of state authority, ignorance of the health risks among religious leaders, an aversion to electronic and secular media that they believe is mandated by religious law, and a zealous devotion to a way of life centered on communal activity.
All of which add up to stiff resistance to heeding social distancing orders that require people to stay home except for vital errands and prohibit meeting in groups, including for prayer. These rules threaten fundamental activities for the ultra-Orthodox including worship, religious study and the observance of life-cycle events like funerals and weddings.
The Challenge of Social Distancing in Hasidic Communities
The very things that make the place I grew up in unique and beautiful may contribute to the spread of the coronavirus.
My mother is a Hasidic woman with 12 children, close to a hundred grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren. Passover 2020 will be the first time she will recite the Ma Nishtana — the four questions of the Haggadah, traditionally asked by the youngest child at the table — herself. She will serve her incomparable chicken soup and egg noodles, fermented borscht with warm potatoes, and falsche fish made of a mixture of ground chicken and turkey only to my father. While the coronavirus sweeps through the world, her dining-room table that seats 12 and extends for 14 or more will host a party of two.
Early on in this pandemic, when I spoke to family members in the Hasidic Kiryas Joel community where she lives — a place I left with my husband and children 11 years ago — I was met with disbelief: Could this coronavirus really upset our Passover plans?
Hasidic communities are facing a unique challenge when it comes to controlling the spread of the coronavirus. I fear that in these places, highly communal lifestyles combined by skepticism about the need for social distancing — at times promoted by religious leaders — are going to cost more lives. One rabbi I know of mocks the “hysteria” around the virus and still holds services in his sanctuary.
The main ZIP code in the ultra-Orthodox hub of Borough Park in Brooklyn has the second-highest number of reported positive cases in New York City. Rockland County, N.Y., has the state’s highest rate of Covid-19 infection per capita, and the second-highest in the country. Authorities say the numbers are partly explained by the communities there where Orthodox residents haven’t conformed to social distancing.
Last week, I lost three close Hasidic relatives in three days to the virus.
I believe a lack of information about this unprecedented threat — and what it will take to survive it — is part of the problem. In my former hometown, television, the internet and secular newspapers are verboten. Smartphones are banned for personal use. Loopholes abound, and a good chunk of residents own two devices: a flip phone for outward use and a smartphone buried on the underside of a man’s suit or within the deepest pocket of a woman’s purse. But still, the restrictions mean news trickles in with a delay.
There is also a general mistrust of science and a solid distrust of secular authorities in Hasidic communities, based partly on historical suffering at the hands of non-Jews and partly on a sense of divine protection.
Ultra-Orthodox Enclave in Israel Opens to Outsiders to Fight a Virus
When an insular religious community became an epicenter for the coronavirus, its leaders did the unthinkable, calling on the military to help turn things around.
BNEI BRAK, Israel — By the time the mayor of Bnei Brak grasped the deadly seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, his city had already become Israel’s biggest center of contagion.
An ultra-Orthodox enclave in the shadow of Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak had one in seven of Israel’s cases, and as many as a third of its 210,000 residents were expected to get sick.
The very customs that have protected its venerable traditions from change — strict limits on modern technology, an aversion to secular media, a deep suspicion of state institutions — had deafened Bnei Brak’s residents to urgent public health warnings. Densely packed with sprawling families in shoe-box apartments whose lives revolved around shoulder-to-shoulder worship and study, it was fertile ground for the rapid spread of Covid-19.
In desperation, Mayor Avraham Rubinstein reached outside his community for help from people the ultra-Orthodox have long seen as a threat to their way of life: the army.
Two weeks later, Bnei Brak still holds Israel’s biggest concentration of known virus cases, but the crisis is rapidly coming under control. The rate of new infections has been cut by more than half, the number tested per week has tripled, and only 2,109 residents have tested positive. Synagogues and yeshivas are locked, the streets nearly empty. The sounds of prayer can still be heard at regular intervals, but from balconies and rooftops.
The story of Bnei Brak’s rapid reversal is not just one of coolheaded military leadership under a different kind of enemy fire, but also of the uneasy bridging of one of Israel’s most acrimonious divides: between a cloistered community that treats outsiders as hostile and the army as a particular threat, fearing its reputation as a secular melting pot, and Israelis who view the ultra-Orthodox as backward and a burden, in part because most refuse military service.
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