The Jewish People? I don’t think so

Rabbi Ben Goldstein
July 1, 2014
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While I stand by the content of this article, I recognize that people may have drawn some incorrect correlations between what I wrote, and the events that unfolded on June 30th (the day the article was published). When we experience a tragedy like the murder of three of teenagers, we feel the import of the ideal of being a Jewish people.

Unfortunately, because of the behavior of extremists in our midst, we are prevented from feeling this unity under normal circumstances. As someone who was raised in the Orthodox world, I was trying to draw a distinction between modern orthodoxy and charedim. The threat identified in the article are those who believe that their expression of Judaism is the only acceptable explanation, and all others should be suppressed.

עם אחד לב אחד

 “One nation, one heart.”

Normally, I try to write an article from an intellectual[1], if someone humorous perspective. I try to be calm and rational[2] in my approach. I try not to let my emotions get the better of me. I try not to let my feelings dictate where an article or essay will go.

I’m done.

I cannot calm myself or talk myself down on this topic. I cannot pretend that my view is a purely rational or intellectual one. I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.

Often, we talk about this body politic known as “The Jewish People.” We speak about it as if it were a single entity whose history, narrative and future are intrinsically tied together. The common refrain is that The Jewish People are one people and one heart. As if to say that we have shared values, shared goals, and even shared feelings.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

We are not a “Jewish People.” We are not one nation and we are certainly not one heart.  I look to the East, to the Holy Land, and I see two nations. I see a people who have fought and died for a Jewish homeland, a people whose courageous vision of Zion inspired them to build a flesh and blood country.

And then I see the interlopers. I see an entire segment of the population willing and eager to leach off the hard work of their “brothers” and “sisters.”[3] I see a collection of cults that are unwilling and unable to see past their own narrow definition of Torah and look to the greater good of “The Jewish People.” I see tzitzis-wearing terrorists who harass, abuse, and negate anyone who seeks to express their Judaism differently.  We all see these men[4] who will spit on children walking to school, who will force women to cross the street so as not to have to look at them. These men, who pretend to tremble before God[5], throw rocks at ambulances filled with emergency workers who deign to fulfill the mitzvah of saving a life on Shabbat.

The Talmud tells us that “All of Israel is responsible for one another.” Well, I’m done. I am done being responsible for people who do not believe that my expression of Judaism is authentic. I can no longer think of them as “family,” or even people who are a part of my same nation. I refuse to support or tolerate those who call me a heretic, those who would disrupt and harass my[6] sisters whose only objective is to pray as they see fit, and who long to live a Jewish life that is meaningful and fulfilling to them.

A few years ago[7] there was a righteous outcry when schoolgirls in Beit Shemesh were assaulted on their way to school. They were called “sluts” and spat upon because their skirts weren’t long enough, and because they were thought to be trespassing on Haredi territory. The outcry from those who consider themselves to be Modern Orthodox was immediate and profound. I and all of my non-Orthodox colleagues supported their efforts to ensure the safety of their daughters. It was abhorrent to us that someone would be prevented from observing and enriching Judaism as they understood it. But where are my Orthodox colleagues when non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism are suppressed?

As Jay Michaelson wrote almost exactly one year ago, “Jewish fundamentalism is not good for the Jews.”[8] That understatement should have been enough to warn us about the extremists in our midst, but we haven’t followed through. Jewish fundamentalism is a threat not only to our Israeli brothers and sisters, but to those of us who are proud American Jews. Whether the assaults are verbal, or physical, there is a growing segment of the Jewish population who feel as if they have a monopoly on truth, and who are threatened by those who choose to worship our Creator differently than they do.

The insidiousness of fundamentalism is not just an Israeli problem. Just last week in New York City, the head of the right-wing Orthodox organization Agudath Israel, launched yet another attack on anyone he considers to be a threat to his myopic views on Judaism. In addition to decrying the Reform and Conservative movements whom he says, “will be relegated to the dustbins of Jewish history,” he also referred to all streams of more liberal orthodoxy as “heresy.”

We have a Taliban in our midst. We have Jewish fundamentalists who joyfully serve God by persecuting women and homosexuals. We have extremists disguised as scholars who would rather spit on us than engage us in conversation.

To anyone who has ever criticized moderate Muslims for their lack of outcry at radical Islam, I ask this: Where were you when the Women of the Wall were being pelted by rocks? What did you do when the chief rabbi of Ramat Gan warned against the dangers of renting to gays and lesbians? Where was your voice when people were turned away from being a part of “The Jewish People” because their conversion was at the hand of a non-Orthodox rabbi?

This silent acceptance of extremism must end. It is not only the “liberal” movements of Judaism who are threatened by this extremism. To all of my Orthodox friends, family, and colleagues, I say this. The oppression of non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism will not end if progressive voices are alone in their outrage. It will be only a matter of time before all heterogeneous expressions of Judaism are targeted for eradication.  I beg you to heed the words of Martin Niemöller[9], and to realize that although they haven’t come for you yet, they will. [10]

Unless and until all Jews are free to express their Judaism without fear from attack from their “brothers,” we are not one nation. Until the day when all Jews seek to better society by allowing for multiple interpretations of our rich tradition, we are not one heart. I pray and hope that day will come, but until then, I am done waiting patiently and pretending that we are one people.

 

 

[1] Well, as intellectual as I can be.

[2] Again, as calm and rational as I am able to be.

[3] Whom they will stone for wearing the wrong clothing.

[4] And I use that term incredibly loosely.

[5] The Hebrew word “Haredi” literally means to fear God to the point of trembling.

[6] Yes, my sisters, for these brave women are clearly not their sisters.

[7] 2011, to be exact.

[8] http://forward.com/articles/177405/the-creeping-jewish-fundamentalism-in-our-midst/?p=all

[9] Martin Niemöller was a Luthern Minister who lived in Germany under the Nazi regime. He famously wrote a poem that speaks to the silence of those who themselves were not targets of the Nazis. In the end, he wrote, “Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” The point being that even if you are not the target of oppression now, your silence makes you culpable, and you are very likely to end up a target as well.

[10] This is the second time I have used Martin Niemöller’s poem to highlight the fanaticism in our midst. Some might be offended by this comparison, but them, I say this; what bothers me more than the comparison of Haredim to Nazis (by the way, this is a group who frequently compares their enemies to Nazis), is your lack of outrage at the actions of the Haredi Fanatics.

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Rabbi Ben Goldstein was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in May of 2010. Since that time he has been working as the rabbi for a congregation in suburban New Jersey (yes, that’s right, I said New Jersey). He has been watching television and movies ever since he was old enough to have the core strength to sit up without falling over. Goldstein's love for the performing arts led him to pursue it as a career and he even managed to star in such cinematic triumphs as Jewz N The Hood. After a number of Signs from our Creator (and more than a few casting directors) he realized that actors don’t take themselves nearly serious enough so he needed to find something else to do. Taking a look at the job description of a rabbi (writer, counselor, teacher, performer, student) he thought it sounded like a really great way to spend his life. In addition to being trained as a rabbi, Goldstein has an encyclopedic knowledge of television and movies from the mid-80s to today. That makes him either a fantastic Jeopardy contestant or the world’s most boring cocktail party guest. You can reach Rabbi Goldstein at rabbi@tbemc.org.

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