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    Extremists & Charedim – examining Bet Shemesh & the secular/charedi divide

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the website, The Jewish Thinker, on 23 April, 2012.

    The Love-Hate Dichotomy

    Recent reports from Israel have drawn attention to charedi (ultra-orthodox) men insulting, spitting on or threatening other people, ranging from little “national-religious” girls going to school in Bet Shemesh to women choosing to sit in “men’s” sections of the buses.

    How to deal with people you don’t agree with is spelled out in Jewish ethical literature in two opposing ways – loving them, and hating them.

    On the one hand, love must be exercised towards both your own people and outsiders. “Love your fellow as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) is acclaimed as the leading principle of Judaism. “Love the stranger” is stated 36 times in the Torah (e.g. Lev. 19:34). You must not “hate your fellow in your heart” (Lev. 19:17). Yet at the same time Biblical teaching apparently authorises hatred, for example when another person defies God or acts unethically (Psalm 139:21, Prov. 8:13). The Mishnah (Sanh. 9:6) warns that if a person acts wrongly, kana’im pog’im bo – “zealots may attack him”. The Talmud agrees that there are times when hatred is legitimate (Pes. 113b). Maimonides says that if a person is warned not to sin but ignores the warning, one may hate him until he repents (Hilchot Rotze’ach 13:10).

    It is not just a question of how to react to the hatred Jews have suffered from displays of hatred by others. There is probably a temptation to respond in kind, but JH Hertz acknowledges in a note on Lev. 19:17 that “the Jew is not a good hater”. This may be because Jews prefer to love than to hate. But what we face today is not merely whether it is permissible to hate a gentile or gentiles, but whether one may hate a fellow Jew or Jewish group, in particular one that does not meet up to a given standard or style of ideology or observance. When one sees another Jew who appears to be sinning, it is not permitted to sit back and condone their action: “If he does not utter it he bears his iniquity” (Lev. 5:1). But on the other hand if we employ the wrong tactics we may simply reinforce the other’s defiance of the law.

    The love-hate dichotomy is a recurrent theme of rabbinic discussion. One view is that as long as the issue remains in the realm of ideas (hating “in your heart” but not in your actions), it is just academic ethical theory, to be debated around the table in the Bet Midrash (the house of study). Another view says that Judaism does not know any such thing as pure ethics, divorced from the actual situation of real human beings. According to this view, not only acts, but attitudes too, are the concern of halachah (Jewish law). It asks whether allowed to have negative feelings towards another person or group. An analogy is found in the Ten Commandments. After nine commandments that deal with actions (for our purposes let us presume the first commandment falls within this category), the tenth apparently moves to the realm of theoretical ethics. It does not seem to mandate any particular act of commission or omission but says simply, “Do not covet” (Ex. 20:14) – an attitude, not an act.

    Acts & Consequences

    The problem is that attitudes, like acts, have consequences. If, say, a person covets his neighbour’s wife (breaking the 10th Commandment), he may tell lies about it (9th Commandment), commit adultery with her (8th), steal her from her husband (7th), and even kill the husband (6th). Our fear about a wrongful attitude is what it may lead to. If negative thoughts are allowed, will they turn into deeds? Is negative thinking the first step on the slippery slope that leads to offensive words and then violent action?

    Offensive Words

    The gift of speech can both help and harm. The Bible says, “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21), therefore there is a duty to “keep away from a false word” (Ex. 23:7) and “keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile” (Psalm 34:14). The Mishnah says, “Wise people, be careful with your words” (Avot 1:11). The ethicists all believe it is better to remain silent than to say the wrong thing. Chai Ga’on said, “keep your tongue a prisoner in your mouth”. As sins of speech figure so largely in the Yom Kippur confessions, a “fast of speech” is recommended for the weeks leading up to the High Holydays.

    There can be no approval for verbal insults such as “goy”, “shegetz”, “slut” and “heretic”, which were reportedly recently hurled at other people in recent rounds of charedi extremism. It is irrelevant whether or not it was the other person who cast the first verbal stone, and even whether – hypothetically – the accusations contain any truth. It is a sin to use inappropriate language to show disapproval of another’s views, actions or appearance, including their style of dress. It is certainly inappropriate to speak offensively to another person because of their gender: if one insults a woman because she is a woman she can rightly say, “if you don’t like my gender, go and complain to the God who made me!” The Talmud says, “to shame another person in public is like shedding their blood” (BM 58b), and “God grant that you neither shame or be shamed” (MK 9b).

    The Torah says, “you shall surely rebuke your neighbour” (Lev. 19:17), but the commentators explain that this must be with sensitivity and tact, and if I know that my words will bear no fruit I must desist (BM 31a, Yev. 65b). Since wounding by words is a sin, one must apologise to the other party and seek their forgiveness; the Talmud says, “He who offends another, even if it is only in words, must appease the other person” (Yoma 87a).

    Offensive Acts

    The zealotry of Pinchas (Num. 25; cf. Mishnah Sanh. 9:6) is the leading example of acting on one’s own initiative against a trouble-maker. When he saw an Israelite prince committing an immoral act with a Midianite woman, Pinchas slew them both. He was not the first person in the Bible to take the law into his own hands and act boldly against another person: the sons of Jacob punished Shekhem for mistreating their sister Dinah (Gen. 34); Moses attacked an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite (Ex. 2:11-12).

    Some admire the courage of these Biblical figures, but the rabbinic commentators had strong reservations. According to many of the rabbis (Sanh. 82a; cf. Jerusalem Talmud Sanh. 10:2), Pinchas had no automatic right to behave aggressively: he “acted without the consent of the sages”. What saved him from excommunication was that God gave him a “covenant of peace”.

    Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein says in his Torah Temimah that not everybody has the right to behave like a zealot, even though their intentions may be for the best. Zealotry, as an attitude, a policy or an act, is only permitted to a person motivated by the highest and purest purpose. Someone who claims to be worthy of being a zealot in God’s cause has probably disqualified himself because of the sin of pride. Further, one may not rely on his own judgment before taking the law into his own hands; the elders and judges have to approve his plan, and in fact the duty of consulting others may well take time and calm his impetuosity.

    Media & the Charedim

    One of the saddest aspects of the current problem is that an instance or episode is sometimes created by the media or turned from a molehill into a mountain in order to stigmatise the charedi community.

    Whether the charedim are as self-righteous and insensitive as the media suggest is a matter of doubt, though some chassidic groups have a fighting spirit which may have been bred by the fierce opposition of the mit’nagg’dim (“opponents”) in the early days of the movement. The fact is that there is a perception that all charedim – not just certain sects of chassidim – are by definition extremist, intolerant and authoritarian. Other camps complain that the haredi rabbis, rebbes and roshei yeshivot do not speak out against the attitudes and acts attributed to their adherents. These leaders are aware of the problem but they generally shy away from contact with the media and do not welcome the spotlight. When challenged they reply that they deal with any problems in their own way and without publicity.

    Nonetheless the facts seem to be that they do speak out and when necessary they do make their criticisms known within their own groups, often in the rabbinic “language of learning” that is customary in those circles. They will sometimes privately admit that there are small numbers of firebrands in their groups who are difficult to rein in, and these are the ones whose actions bring upon the whole haredi world a reputation of extreme fanaticism.

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