One of the main sources of power enabling Haredi Jews' extreme behavior is the Israeli public's widely held view that their way of life represents traditional Judaism, and that when it comes to Judaism, more radical means more authentic. This is among the most strongly held and unfounded myths in Israel society. And inasmuch as the Israeli public respects tradition, it is a great boon to Haredi representatives, who use it to their advantage in their political struggles, including that against drafting Haredi yeshiva students into national service.
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Representatives of the Haredi United Torah Judaism Party unabashedly declare that the study of Torah is the traditional Jewish lifestyle, hoping to grant social legitimacy to those who shirk both military service and paid work. However, this claim has no foundation.
In practice, the concept of an avrech, a married yeshiva student, was more the exception than the rule in the Diaspora. It became central to the Haredi way of life only in Israel, as a result of benefits provided by the Israeli welfare state. In traditional Jewish society, the heads of households sought to work and support their families as best as they could. In Israel, a new code was created in which gainful employment was a sign of inferior social status.
The most absurd example of this new extreme form of Judaism is glatt kosher food. The word kasher in Hebrew signifies something that is permissible and of a sound nature. Haredi extremism has created a new standard whereby only glatt kosher food is kosher and permitted for consumption. The result is that regular kosher food is for all intents and purposes no longer kosher.
It's not just kashrut that been redefined. Once upon a time, women were expected to be modest. This modesty was required, among other reasons, because men and women participated in every aspect of daily life together. The only separation of the sexes was in the synagogue. This is true no longer. The traditional concept of modesty has been replaced with complete gender segregation and the covering of the entire female body. Haredi men are no longer willing to sit on the same buses or use the same sidewalks as women. Even glimpsing a woman's ankles is too much. This distorted viewpoint is presented as the pure embodiment of traditional Judaism.
If anything can be considered clear-cut in Judaism it's the issue of conversion. From the moment someone converts they're considered a true Jew, through and through. But Rabbi Avraham Sherman's rabbinical court decided to invalidate thousands of conversions. And we aren't talking about – heaven forbid – conversions conducted by Reform or Conservative rabbis, but those done under the auspices of Rabbi Haim Druckman, then the head of the state Conversion Authority and an Orthodox rabbi no less prominent than Sherman.
A large portion of the Haredi public continues to go to further extremes until it resembles nothing as much as a Taliban-like cult. This extremism has found willing supporters within the Hasidic community – which is responsible for the recent plague of gender segregation – and the Lithuanian branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism – which stands behind the recent invalidation of thousands of Jewish conversions. That our illustrious forefathers would never have envisioned these religious innovations doesn't prevent these Haredim from claiming that theirs is the truth path of Judaism – and therefore that they can't compromise.
The radical stream of Haredi Judaism is a reform movement, but its reforms aren't progressive or moderate. Rather, they are newly created bans and prohibitions. And yet Haredi Judaism seeks to present itself as the true representative of authentic Judaism, even after excommunicating and persecuting MK Rabbi Chaim Amsellem (Whole Nation), who in word and deed seeks to follow the true path of traditional Judaism.
The time has come to shatter the deceptive myth that the lifestyle of "be as extreme as possible" or "view the world through through your own extremism" is the path of Judaism. It is essential that it be made clear to the public this approach has nothing to do with the traditional Judaism of yore, but is a warped imitation of it. And to this kind of extremism, we must not surrender.
The writer is the vice president of Hiddush, For Religious Freedom and Equality.