On the eve of Yom Kippur, Haaretz reported a 50-percent increase in the number of prison inmates who have found religion. The figure does not illustrate a phenomenon of contrition and a return to the straight and narrow, but, instead, the process of becoming ultra-Orthodox. The Even Shoshan dictionary defines hazar b'tshuva as "reverted to good, regretted his actions," and ba'al tshuva as "someone who leaves the path of evil and returns to good, someone who is remorseful over his bad actions." But this dictionary has not been updated for some time. In contemporary Israel, when one speaks about hazara b'tshuva, it means only a finding of religion.
Anyone who visits the courts in Israel is familiar with the phenomenon: The number of skullcap-wearers among the criminals is steadily rising. Rapists and murderers, thieves and suspects - from Ami Popper to the Perinyan brothers - are quick to grow beards and kiss the mezuzah. Over the past 10 years, according to Yuval Azoulay's report in Haaretz, the murderer, Popper, "grew stronger [in his faith]. It is difficult to know whether this strengthening of faith also includes remorse for his abject actions - the murder of seven innocent Arab laborers. He entered prison a secular individual, but he is now serving his sentence in Wing 8, the section of Ma'asiyahu Prison reserved for observant Jews.
The inmates of Wing 8 must conform to strict rules of behavior, and are required to wake up for the morning prayer service, to observe the Sabbath, to give up television and newspapers, and to study Torah. But remorse, the true meaning of hazara b'tshuva, is not one of the conditions. "Becoming stronger," "spiritual awakening," "spiritual thirst" - the process of becoming ultra-Orthodox is accompanied by a slew of positive and unsubstantiated terms.
There is a long waiting list for Wing 8 and similar sections of other prisons. Some 30 religious academies, with around 550 students, have sprouted between the prison walls. The Prisons Service is speaking of a "dramatic upswing" and about a need for opening an additional religious wing. Hazara b'tshuva, in its religious context, does indeed serve as an argument for leniency or early release, but this is not enough to explain the scope of the phenomenon. From the perspective of many prisoners, the ultra-Orthodox transformation turns them into more ethical and value-oriented people in an instant - both in their own eyes, and in the eyes of society.
There is nothing wrong with turning to religion. But does this phenomenon ensure a higher level of morality?
Prisons Service figures do indeed show that the percentage of religious prisoners who return to prison after their release is low (8.5 percent), but this figure does not yet include the recent wave of hazara b'tshuva. Time will tell if the kissing of mezuzahs and the abstaining from cigarettes on the Sabbath will also lead to a change in morality among the current wave.
Among other reasons, the Prisons Service explains the en-masse finding of religion by prisoners as a reflection of the general "strengthening" processes in society. Indeed, another informative fact was published on the eve of Yom Kippur: A New Wave survey published in Yedioth Ahronoth showed that 70 percent of the Jews in Israel fast on Yom Kippur. And Another important bit of information must be added to this quite astonishing fact: The percentage of respondents who said they fasted was inversely proportionate to their age. For example, 77 percent of individuals aged 18-24 said they fasted on Yom Kippur, compared to only 49 percent among those 65 or older. For at least one day a year, secular Israel becomes a halakhic state.
Alongside many secular and liberal phenomena, from the widespread opening of businesses on Saturdays, to the relatively enlightened attitude toward homosexuals, an opposite process is also underway - a turning to religion and a strengthening of the connection between religion and state. The rabbis have become the principal "spiritual leaders" in society. Something mumbled by any rabbi receives much more media attention than a statement by a secular intellectual.
And the same society that is fasting more and more in recent years is also a society that is becoming more violent from day to day. Among the same youth, so many of whom fast, there are more and more incidents of knifings, rape and indiscriminate shootings, abuse of Palestinians, recklessness on the roads and maltreatment of the weak. Each year heralds an increase in crime. With more heads covered with a skullcap on Yom Kippur, perhaps the relations between man and God are improving here, but not the relations between man and his fellow man.
A skullcap is not a guarantee of any moral superiority. It is enough to take a look at the least ethical community in Israeli society, the settlers, most of whom, despite their behavior and the extremist groups among them, wear a skullcap. There is no other group in Israeli society that tramples justice more. The fact that the leaders of the religious community almost never speak out on issues that are not religious or nationalist is serious cause for concern. Equality and human rights are not considered a value, and most of these leaders actually incite toward violating these rights. It has been a long time since a rabbi here spoke out about morality. The ultra-Orthodox society tramples the rights of women; the settlers trample the rights of the Palestinians; and violence is spreading in both the ultra-Orthodox and settler populations. Among the true guardians of the stamp of morality, the human rights activists, there is a very sparse religious presence.
Things could have been different, and they were once. In his book "1967," Tom Segev tells how the leaders of the national-religious community were the most moderate, and hence the most moral, of the ministers in the government that waged the Six-Day War. Today, religiosity is almost synonymous with nationalistic chauvinism, if not racism. The society that fasts on the day when one is supposed to atone for one's sins against one's fellow man is not, unfortunately, harbingering any signs of establishing a more ethical or just society - even if a large sukkah was built at Ma'asiyahu Prison at the end of the week.
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