Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti Defamation League, has recently published a call for American Jews to take action against ultra-Orthodox hate speech in Israel. He quotes memorable examples of such utterances: MK Israel Eichler has compared Reform Jews to mentally ill patients; Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay said Reform Jews just aren’t Jews; and Rabbi David Yosef has called Reform Jews idolaters.
To this Greenblatt could have added other pearls of wisdom from the ultra-Orthodox establishment on other topics: In a lovely interview in 2013, Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, then deputy minister of religious services, explained his hierarchy of human beings, in which gays are ranked way lower than heterosexuals, but still have higher souls than gentiles, who belong to an altogether lower grade.
In recent days, after he condoned the preventive killing of Palestinian terrorists, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef has just let us know that gentiles are actually not allowed to live in Israel at all, and that they only do because we (meaning the Orthodox establishment) are not strong enough to enforce this. He also added that the only reason some gentiles should be allowed to live here is to serve Jewish needs.
I can only feel the deepest disdain for such statements, which seem to be taken from the darkest middle ages, and share Jonathan Greenblatt’s outrage about them. But we differ on the tactic that needs to be applied.
Greenblatt’s call will not have any more effect than protestations by Jewish Americans have yielded so far. The Orthodox stranglehold on Israeli religious affairs is not going to be broken in the foreseeable future for the simple reason that on demographic grounds, no stable government without the support of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, parties can be formed, which means that even a government more committed to liberal democracy and the separation of state and religion than the present one would not interfere with the Orthodox monopoly.
I therefore suggest a different strategy for non-orthodox Jews in the United States: simply declare the Orthodox establishment as irrelevant for your religion. This is what happened during the Reformation in Europe: After initial struggles with Rome, the pope and the Curia, Protestantism declared itself as completely independent of the Catholic Church. It no longer sought its approval, developed its own institutions and has flourished ever since. The pope’s pronunciations are as irrelevant for Protestant denominations as are those of an imam or an Israeli chief rabbi, for that matter.
Reform Jews should do the same. Why on earth should you care about what rabbis like Azoulay, Yosef or Eichler, or Chief Rabbi Yosef say? Why should you care about the pronunciations of the leaders of a religion that declares gays to be an inferior species and excludes women from the public sphere? After all, you are not personally offended by papal rulings that you disagree with – for example, the previous two popes’ insistence that the use of condoms in AIDS-ridden areas in Africa continue to be forbidden. For good reasons you are likely to think that such rulings are backward, primitive and inhuman, and you may deplore them, but no pope is a religious authority for you.
Non-Orthodox Jews should relate to the more bigoted parts of ultra-Orthodoxy in the same way. They share nothing with your open, humanistic and universalist worldview. You simply should declare that you no longer consider yourself part of the same religion as theirs.
I want to make clear that I feel neither hatred or disdain for Orthodoxy per se any more than I feel hatred or disdain for Catholicism: I just happen not to believe in either of them – or in any other religion, for that matter – and sometimes think that some of their positions are outrageous and backward. This doesn’t prevent me from deeply loving a lot of Catholic art, from music and painting to architecture, or cherishing many aspects of Haredi life, which I know intimately because of my biography.
I do genuinely believe in pluralism and the right of every human being to live according to his or her best knowledge, conscience and/or belief, as long as they do not harm others, and ultra-Orthodoxy is as legitimate a religion as any other. But I think the chasm between modern forms of Judaism and ultra-Orthodoxy as represented by the rabbis quoted (I could have added countless other examples) has become far greater than that between Catholics and the variety of Protestants.
Hence, my advice to non-Orthodox Jews: Simply stop feeling offended by ultra-Orthodox leaders of the type of David and Yosef, Azoulay or Eichler. Stop caring about their claims that you are not good enough Jews or not Jews at all, any more than a Protestant would feel offended by a papal injunction or a Shiite by a Sunni fatwa.
It matters to me greatly to address a few words to the many Haredim who are profoundly opposed to the primitive utterances of some of their leaders. They feel profoundly uncomfortable with bigoted statements by their leadership and do not identify with them. I know many such Haredim personally, and they express their discomfort in private conversations under condition of anonymity, and they never go public with their statements.
To them I have a simple message: You have to fight your own battle. If you want to distance yourselves from statements you deplore, do it publicly. I genuinely wish you would, because the likes of Azoulay, David and Yosef and Eichler don’t represent you. But only you can do the job of creating open Haredi opposition to some of these leaders – and I think the Jewish world would be better off with such open Haredi dissent.
I hope the time will come when the actual diversity within ultra-Orthodoxy will be expressed openly, and possibly create genuine change in the Haredi world – but we can’t wait for that: It may take a very long time, or not happen at all.
For the time being I simply suggest that non-Orthodox Jews let those ultra-Orthodox leaders who have never made it to modernity, fade into irrelevance by ignoring them.
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