Patronizing - and Demonizing - the Newly Religious

There's a far more benign reception in wider society for Jews who decide to 'return' to their faith than that experienced by newly-religious Muslim. But both face hostility from secular liberals.

A few weeks ago, a curious column appeared in Maariv, chronicling a Facebook feud between former Yisrael Beiteinu MK Anastasia Michaeli and Orthodox rabbi Avi Zarki over her apparent "return" to the faith and her decision to cover her hair in accordance with Jewish Orthodox tradition.

Neither is a stranger to controversy. Michaeli’s improbable path from Russian-born supermodel to media personality and then to politician, all while being mother to eight children, has not been without contention (not the least was the culmination of her Knesset career when she hurled water at Labor MK Raleb Majadale during a committee meeting). Rabbi Zaki’s spiritual leadership as a kind of the rabbi-mohel to the stars has also had its detractors, especially in the wake of his impolitic remarks at a circumcision last year.

Yet, the personal attacks on Michaeli for her unforeseen journey toward greater Jewish observance is only one manifestation of a larger debate taking place: Once solely a personal act of piety, has “becoming frum” now become a matter for the public sphere? What are the differences and similarities in how these issues are treated in the Jewish and Muslim communities? And how can we understand the legal and moral responses of secular liberal societies toward this phenomenon in today’s political climate?

As a current resident of Boston, Massachusetts, the question has been on my mind since the terrible terrorist attacks here last month. Reports now indicate that in regards to the elder of the two brothers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, those living in his neighborhood had at least taken note of his superficial transformation in religious practice in the months and years before the bombings – whether his brief adoption of traditional Islamic dress, his wife’s conversion to Islam and her cloaking in hijab and abaya, his growing detachment from friends in his athletic and educational pursuits, or his sporadic encounters with the imam and parishioners at a local mosque (where he was thrown out on at least one occasion for interrupting a sermon.) While few seemed to intuit the depths of his radicalization in Dagestan, nor his capacity for violence beyond firebrand rhetoric, it is clear that at least his pastoral community considered that his faith had moved from the personal to the political, and felt the need to police his behavior.

Certainly, there have been far too many cases – including this week’s horrifying slaughter in broad daylight of a British soldier by two converts to Islam, the children of Nigerian immigrants, in the U.K. (my future home) – that have cast suspicion upon the purely devotional aspects of increased religiosity amongst Muslims and demand the public’s scrutiny and surveillance. There are also no shortage of clerics who have either condoned or encouraged a return to the faith in the interest of religio-political radicalism. However, as real as threats of Islamic-inspired terrorism are across the world, it seems to be an unfortunate new reality that Muslim piety has become a matter for the public domain and this community will continue to be subject to collective blame and punishment for each radical it intentionally – or unknowingly – produces.

In contrast, the phenomenon of returning to the faith – of becoming a baal(at) teshuva – within the Jewish community is typically viewed in more benign terms. Those who commit to a life of observance – especially those who enter the world of ultra-Orthodoxy – are perhaps considered odd by their peers and may encounter concern or hostility from family and friends, but are rarely considered threats to public safety. Even those who embrace radical right-wing views on both Jewish doctrinal and political matters are rarely condemned or excommunicated from their communities. In fact, to quote the title of Sarah Bunin Benor’s fascinating new book,  “Becoming Frum” has become a kind of cultural phenomenon in the Jewish community, where the largest danger comes in the form of the deli roll (the calorie-defying cold cuts wrapped in puff pastry concoction which is an East Coast Shabbat standard). Recent history has taught that various Jewish groups have produced their own fair share of dangerous radicals, most famously Yigal Amir, Baruch Goldstein, and the Jewish Underground, yet the community as a whole is not as exposed to the public eye as is their fellow Muslim minority.

Yet, beyond pointing out these distinctions in how we view “the other,” the larger differentiation lies in how secular societies distinguish themselves from religious communities. Legitimate fears of radicalization, terrorism, and theocracy notwithstanding, it often seems that the issue runs deeper, sustained by a century centuries long debate over reconciling religion and rational, secular reason. (See for example, British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s new book on the subject.)

Many corners of civil society still consider the notion of a pious intellectual as a kind of oxymoron – as if the kippah or hijab cuts off bloodflow to the brain and makes engagement with modernity not only impossible, but antithetical. As a holdover from leftist atheist dogma, if not murderers, observant people must be some kind of imbeciles brainwashed by the opiate of the masses. Religiosity, in many cases, just can’t be taken seriously by secular liberal society.

Perhaps even more troublingly, democracies refuse to accept the reality that radicals are just as likely to emerge from the heart of open societies as from the closed, backward principalities of authoritarianism or from failed states of lawlessness. In fact, it often seems that the limits of tolerance draw the line at accepting the complexity of human behavior that allows for liberalism and fanaticism to co-exist in the same individual.

Both Jewish and Muslim societies are built upon the principle of the “Am” or “Umma” (nation), which constitute a kind of mutually-responsible moral community. Clearly, in today’s political climate, the need to speak out against radicalism within religious communities has become both a legal and ethical imperative. However, while surveillance and scrutiny may be an unfortunate necessity of the 21st century, secular societies also need to look within to better accommodate devotional life within the liberal world-view. While terrorists will inevitably continue to pervert both liberal and religious values in pursuit of violence, a larger space for the co-existence of religion and reason in secular society may allow us all to have a greater faith in the future. 

Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, researching the Israeli settler movement, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the relationship between American Jewry and Israel. She will soon be joining the faculty at the University of Oxford (UK) as the new University Research Lecturer/Sidney Brichto fellow in Israel Studies. 

Reuters