Two forms of religious extremism confronted me last week as lectured in the United Kingdom and launched my book Kosher Jesus at a press conference in Jerusalem. The first was at Limmud where a full one percent of all Jews in Britain gathered for a Jewish studies conference that has by now become the most successful Anglo-Jewish export in recent history. Every Jewish group was represented, that is, with the exception of the orthodox Rabbinate who boycott the event because of the Reform and Conservative (Masorti) Rabbis present. This is in sharp contrast to Limmud NY where, for example, Yeshiva University – responsible for ordaining the vast majority of modern orthodox Rabbis in the United States – sends an official delegation.
The second and more insidious example of frightening religious intolerance hit me as I landed in Israel and discovered a country up in arms about a Haredi (poorly translated as ultra-orthodox) man who had spit on an orthodox eight-year-old girl for immodest dress and another Haredi man arrested for calling a female Jewish soldier a ‘whore’ for refusing to move to the back of a bus. On New Year’s eve Haredi activists donned holocaust prison garb with yellow ‘Jude’ stars in a vulgar attempt to allege Nazi-like persecution at the hands of Israeli society when in truth all they accomplished was to trivialize the gassing of six million Jews. The finishing touch was placing their own children in concentration camp garb before the world’s media which added the violation of innocence to the defamation of the Jewish state.
There is a common thread uniting these stories. Religious extremism festers when decent lay people are cowed into submission by fanatics whom they falsely believe to be more religious than them. But there is nothing holy about Rabbis refusing to teach 2500 young Jews who are pining for Jewish knowledge. More importantly, it is an abomination to faith for men to treat women abusively. A black coat will never redeem a dark heart and a long beard is poor compensation for a shriveled soul.
Their defenders pointed out that these heinous acts are perpetrated by only a small number of Haredim. True. But in the face of Islamic terror outrages, we in the West rightly demand that mainstream Islamic leaders condemn the extremists, lest their silence make them complicit in the violence. The Jewish community must be judged by the same standard and Rabbis of every stripe must condemn this abuse as sickening and contrary to the core of Judaism.
Other defenders maintained that while the behavior was deplorable secular women were also at fault by insensitively visiting religious neighborhoods immodestly attired and inflaming local sensibilities. Sorry. Judaism’s core value is freedom of choice and men calling themselves religious can choose to transcend even the most incendiary 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” provoke the murders. The Jews suffered extermination at the hands of the Nazis. But that never led them to blow up nurseries and buses, and Haredim 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.
In the UK draconian standards have long governed what purports to be a modern orthodox community. Travel to any College campus where Chabad and other orthodox groups are active and you will see female students serving as presidents of Jewish student organizations and regularly delivering Torah speeches at prayers. Yet in Anglo-Jewry the question of whether a woman can serve as a mere officer of an orthodox Shul or deliver a Dvar Torah remains hotly contested.
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 then we do in the United States. But there are now only 250,000 Jews in all the United Kingdom and the community can ill afford any kind of internal, civil strife, especially given the rapid rise of anti-Semitism in the UK where Israel is regularly lambasted as being more wicked than North Korea.
But British Jews are curiously submissive to their Rabbinic leadership, even when they feel in their gut that some of the rulings contravene basic Ahavas Yisrael and basic decency. The Baal Shem Tov extolled the virtue of ordinary Jews who were not Rabbis. Even non-scholars are aware of common 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 and the strange speculation reached a fever pitch when The Jerusalem Post published a long feature on the conference’s third day exploring the possibility.
I spent eleven years of my life building Jewish student life in Oxford and six of my nine children were born in Britain. I am deeply attached to the country and the community. But the office of a Chief Rabbi which muzzles its occupant from reaching out to thousands of young Jews for fear of offending right-wing sensibilities cannot cater to anything but vanity and egotism. And while I am certainly not immune to those ills, I have never allowed myself to be silenced for any title and never will. A Chief Rabbi is not an Ambassador but a leader. The office must be expanded from its current focus on mesmerizing the BBC, thereby perpetuating a myth of Jewish subservience and the need for Jews to win non-Jewish approval, and focus instead on electrifying Jewish youth, before it can attract serious candidates.
The Jewish homo religiosus is not the submissive man of the spirit but rather Yisrael, the rebellious man of faith. And if we Jews are enjoined to emulate our patriarch Jacob who wrestled with an angel, then surely we must also respectfully challenge our spiritual leaders and reclaim our human voice.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was the London Times Preacher of the Year at the Millennium and will this month publish Kosher Jesus, a ten-year study of Jesus’ Jewishness and his life as a Rabbi, based on early Christian and Jewish sources. www.shmuley.com