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September 9, 2013 6:43 am

The Extremists Among Us: A Prayer for the Jewish New Year

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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A Women of the Wall prayer service. Photo: Women of the Wall.

I was in South Africa, celebrating the Rabbinic ordination of our eldest son, Mendy, when a journalist contacted me from the States asking me to comment on a threat made against me in 2009. I was incredulous, and asked how he came across his information. He told me that the NYPD had monitored an assassination threat against me, as well as the individuals who made the threat.

What instantly went through my mind was that it must have been Muammar Gaddafi – whose entry into our town in Englewood I had strenuously opposed. Or perhaps it was one of the radical Islamists that I debate on TV, which friends have always told me is a bad idea.

You can imagine how shocked I was, therefore, when I learned that the threat had allegedly come from members of Kahana Chai and the Jewish Defense Organization. Really? Fellow Jews wanted to kill me?

I had been accustomed to fierce criticism from sectors of the Jewish community for publishing

Kosher Sex, or making Cory Booker my President and having thousands of non-Jewish student members at Oxford, or taking Al Sharpton on a solidarity mission to Israel, or serving as Michael Jackson’s Rabbi. Censure came with the territory and though I had never enjoyed being attacked, I had learned to live with it.

But an assassination scheme from fellow Jews is something I would have never believed.

As the Jewish new year dawns upon us, there is no question in my mind that the foremost challenge to religion and Judaism is transcending the extremist elements who make spiritual life a drag and a bummer, a judgmental experience of condemnation rather than a joyous celebration of life.

I’m tired of a religion that makes us feel permanently inadequate, that focuses more on what we omit than what we observe, that makes us feel guilty for our spiritual failures rather than proud of our moral accomplishments. I’m tired of reading of religion existing to primarily condemn gays or obsess over abortion, rather than giving guidance to the living as to how they can be loving spouses and inspired parents. I’m weary of a religion that is more interested in condemning the infidel than loving our neighbor, that is more focused on God as punisher-in-chief rather than a fountain of life and blessing.

In the coming year, I want to see a Judaism that inspires gay men to put on tefillin and observe the Sabbath, rather than telling them that their sexuality bars them from any meaningful place in Jewish life. I want to see a Judaism that reaches out to Jewish men and women who have married outside the faith, exposing both them and their non-Jewish spouses to the beauty of our tradition – with a view towards the non-Jewish partner of seriously considering Halakhic conversion.

Even if we do not give women who want to wear a talis a place to pray at the Wall – and the difficulty in doing so is that it opens the door to every group demanding a special place at this holiest of sites – let us still condemn even more strongly the disgusting religious displays of intolerance that would have women attacked in public spaces.

I want to see a religion that is not superstition, that treats God as a loving parent rather than a furry rabbit’s foot that wards off evil spirits. When children die, God forbid, I want to hear Rabbis who demand that God be a protector of life rather than blaming the tragedy on human sin.

In the coming year, I want to bear witness to a Judaism that welcomes rational inquiry as an aid to true faith, rather than a religion that is anti-intellectual, unreasonable, and unscholarly. Yes, I love Kabbala, and many spiritual truths transcend human understanding. But there is a difference between faith being mystical versus religion being ridiculous.

More than anything else, I want to see religion rejecting hatred and violence. The amount of evil perpetrated in the name of religion is far too great. Let us reject the extremists loudly and vocally as a Hillul Hashem. Religious men in long coats who send female soldiers to the back of the bus are ingrates and fanatics. And Jews who plot the assassination of a fellow Jew are criminals and an abomination to belief.

Above all, I want to see a Judaism that has not just soul, but heart – that preaches not just laws, but love – that replaces condemnation with compassion – and that is never about incitement but inspiration.

Recently in the Torah we read of how Moses commands the Jews, just before he dies, to choose life over death. It’s time that religion itself heed that call.

Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books and will shortly publish “Kosher Lust”. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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  • BH in Iowa

    Sadly celebrities are frequently targets for the deranged.

    But if a Jewish nationalist group would make a violent threat against anyone, wouldn’t the media and the Left exploit it without end? The propaganda machine is ready to spring into action on a moments notice, in total lockstep – al-dura hoax, flotilla ambush. They’re dreaming of the day they can put the words ‘Jewish’ and ‘terrorist’ together.

    It simply doesn’t smell right.

  • Degel

    To Lawrence Kulak (“a Fist”) and nest to her…
    You misinterpret this article and act in a way that serves as a perfect illustration as Jewish extremists to which the author opposes.
    Star to think out of the box in this year, be tolerant to another fellow Jew, he is YOUR BROTHER…isn’t he?

    • Lawrence Kulak

      today the kind of narrowminded ignorance spouted by Degel is our worst enemy. Just because I vehemently disagree with Boteach does not mean that I regaerd him as my enemy. Rather, and however, Degel may regard me as his enemy.

  • Lawrence Kulak

    I want to ask Rabbi Boteach, “why do you believe the NYPD?” Do you really believe that Kahane Chai would murder you just because you had lacked the saichel to avoid accompanying the hateful Sharpton to the Holy Land? Believe me, if the Ribono Shel Olam wanted to punish you, you would have taken a rock meant for Sharpton smack in the temple (not the holy one) for being side by side with a racist hatemonger. Oh, but Sharptons’s “charm and charisma” – that you could not resist apparently.
    Before you, Rabbi Shmuely who perhaps is somewhat over idealistic and naïve believe the NYPD on this hook line and sinker, just know that this police force goes out of their way to protect the neturei karta at every protest they show up for. The reason? simple. Good old fashioned anti-Semitism. They know these idiots are dead wrong and are trying to undermine the Jewish State. That is fine with them.
    Lastly, Rabbi Shmuely,unless these so call queers (or gays if you like) that you are encouraging to put on teffillin are in some type of full time Yeshiva program, what exactly do you think that the Tefillim are going to do for them? The Torah can also increase somebody’s evil inclination if it is misused or pursued in the wrong way. Using Tefillin to try to kasher a rampant sinner who needs to be constantly pursued to repent, as Rav Moshe Feinstein z’tl, referred to homosexuals as, is only contaminating the holy parchment. First, they must give up their abominable deeds. (I’m talking specifically about what the Torah forbids in Parashas Vayikra). That is, unless perhaps if you are putting Tefillin on this person for the last time before he is executed pursuant to the judgment of a Bais Din. By then, however, he would have likely repented.
    And by the way, if you actually approve of the picture you have encaptioned above of women donning Tefillin, then you are an outright apikoris in addition because that picture is downright disgusting.

  • Claude Idel

    Thank you, rabbi, for this article. In my opinion, extremists know very little about spirituality. Their extremism is a substitute for real faith.



    • Jon kurowsky

      Thank you, you are right on the money. Another touchy feely Rabbi, who wants to hold HaShem responsible for things he doesn’t like, yet make the Law’s optional??? Sounds very Christian to me.