Ultra-Orthodox Extremism Is Nothing Less Than War

Rabbis on the nationalist right are becoming more extreme to prove that they are not 'religious lite,' and their Haredi colleagues are afraid to appear lenient.

Avirama Golan
Avirama Golan
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Avirama Golan
Avirama Golan

Nine years ago, when my mother passed away, I made an unusual request of the official from the burial society. I told him that because I had no brothers, I wanted to say the mourner's prayer usually offered by the deceased's son. The man thought a bit, and finally asked if I thought that was what my mother would have wanted. "I understand it's important to you, but you have to think about what the deceased would want," he said.

I hesitated. My mother, the daughter of a very observant Hasidic rabbi, attributed great importance to mitzvoth. I finally responded that at first she would be startled, but then she would realize that the prayer in question was only a custom and there was no prohibition in Jewish law against a woman saying it. Maybe she would even understand that this was a compliment to her and her world. The man begged me to read a passage of Psalms instead and reminded me it was "not accepted," but when he saw that I was adamant, he acquiesced.

And so I said the mourner's prayer. My family, including the Orthodox and other thoroughly ultra-Orthodox people present, joined me in saying "Amen." Who was shocked? My secular friends. "What," they asked, "is this allowed?" I responded with a question - who prohibits them, these avowedly secular liberals, from anything, and why are they willing to accept prohibitions from anyone? But, they said, what do you need that Aramaic gibberish for?

Well, each and every letter of this beautiful Aramaic text, like many other texts from the huge treasury of Jewish tradition, speaks to me, despite its mystical-messianic context. Especially, of course, the last sentence, which combines prayer with promise: "He who makes peace in His heavens will make peace on us and on all of Israel," (and I very much like the addition in some circles of the phrase "and on all inhabitants of the earth" ). One can mourn without it, but why leave it to the ultra-Orthodox alone? What do secular liberals want to wage a culture war about if that culture is completely foreign to them? Over seating arrangements on the bus? Over political power in Beit Shemesh?

Last week Haaretz reporters wrote that Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has been asked to rule on a contentious issue. Officials in the Religious Services Ministry and the burial society are asking him to decide soon on whether a woman is allowed to eulogize at a funeral. What does "allowed" mean? Nowhere is it written that it is prohibited.

But in recent years, religious extremism has induced the leaders of various burial societies in Israel to eschew the openness the man at my mother's funeral showed. They are so afraid that they prefer to pass the responsibility on to Rabbi Amar. And since he is also afraid of the extremists, he certainly will rule on the strict side. Thus, women will not eulogize, will not say the mourner's prayer, will not mix with men at cemeteries, will not sing, and basically will not.

Religious women, and those who feel an affinity for tradition, suffer most from the extremism. For secular people who have the means there are the kibbutz cemeteries, and those who do not have the means have long since given in to extremism. So why does the "segregation of women" and the Sicari terror in Beit Shemesh, which have nothing at all to do with most secular people, drive them crazy?

Many leading ultra-Orthodox figures say the reason is not only the anti-Haredi political parties that are on the way, but what is spawning them - the fact that party activists have gone too far in their arrogant extremism and brutal abuse of the public purse. "I used to be afraid to sit on the bus among secular people," a prominent ultra-Orthodox journalist says. "But now I feel that the secular people are afraid of me and my friends." He says extremism becomes greater the more the ultra-Orthodox community splinters along sectoral and ethnic lines, and the weaker the rabbis are.

No less serious is the impact of the nationalist ultra-Orthodox community. The rabbis on the nationalist right are becoming more extreme to prove that they are not "religious lite," and their Haredi colleagues are afraid to appear lenient.

In light of this vicious circle, the secular-liberal community proposes a mixture of fear and hatred, instead of defining the face of Israeli society, its values and future. With all due respect, protest groups like Women Up Front or We Are All Na'ama are not an alternative. This isn't a culture war, it's just a war.



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