Two forms of religious extremism confronted me last week, first when I lectured
in the United Kingdom, then when I arrived in Jerusalem to launch my book Kosher
In England, I attended Limmud, where a full 1 percent of all Jews
in Britain gathered for a Jewish studies conference that has by now become the
most successful Anglo-Jewish export in recent history. Every Jewish group was
represented, with one glaring exception:the Orthodox rabbinate, who boycott the
event because of the Reform and Conservative (Masorti) rabbis
This is in sharp contrast to Limmud NY where, for example,
Yeshiva University – responsible for ordaining the vast majority of modern
Orthodox rabbis in the United States – sends an official delegation.
second and more insidious example of frightening religious intolerance hit me as
I landed in Israel and discovered a country up in arms about a haredi man
(poorly translated as ultra- Orthodox) who had spit on an Orthodox eightyear-
old girl for immodest dress (ironically, the girl was wearing a skirt and
elbow-length sleeves at the time of the attack) and another haredi man arrested
for calling a female Jewish soldier a “whore” for refusing to move to the back
of a bus.
On New Year’s eve haredi activists donned holocaust prison garb
with yellow “Jude” stars in a vulgar attempt to allege Nazi-like persecution at
the hands of Israeli society. In truth all they accomplished was to trivialize
the gassing of six million Jews. The finishing touch was placing their own
children in concentration camp garb before the world’s media which added the
violation of innocence to the defamation of the Jewish state.
There is a
common thread uniting these stories.
Religious extremism festers when
decent lay people are cowed into submission by fanatics whom they falsely
believe to be more religious than they are. There is nothing holy about rabbis
refusing to teach young Jews who are pining for Jewish knowledge, just as it is
an abomination of our faith for men to treat women abusively. A black coat will
never redeem a dark heart. A long beard is poor compensation for a shriveled
SOME DEFENDERS pointed out that these heinous acts are perpetrated
by only a small number of haredim. True. But in the face of Islamic terror
outrages we in the West rightly demand that mainstream Islamic leaders condemn
the extremists, lest their silence make them complicit in the violence. The
Jewish community must be judged by the same standard and rabbis of every stripe
must condemn this abuse as sickening and contrary to the core of
Other defenders maintained that while the extremists’ behavior
was deplorable, secular women were also at fault for failing to display
sensitivity to religious people and visiting haredi neighborhoods without
appropriate modest clothing.
Sorry, but it doesn’t work. Judaism’s core
value is freedom of choice and men calling themselves religious can choose to
transcend even the most incendiary provocation. Violence in the name of God is
never allowed, a point we have repeatedly made to some of our Muslim brothers
who justify Palestinian suicide bombers with arguments that “Israeli
humiliations” provoke the murders.
Jews suffered extermination at the
hands of the Nazis, but it never led them to blow up nurseries and buses.
Haredim who feel provoked must register their protests respectfully and
The Talmud is clear: a religious man who humiliates a woman by
calling her a whore in public has lost his place in eternity.
In the UK
draconian standards have long governed what purports to be a modern Orthodox
community. Travel to any college campus where Chabad and other Orthodox groups
are active and you will see female students serving as presidents of Jewish
student organizations and regularly delivering Torah speeches during
Yet, for Anglo-Jewry, the question of whether a woman can serve
as an officer in an Orthodox synagogue or deliver a D’var Torah remains hotly
There is something magical about England’s Jews. They proudly
hold on to their Jewish identity, generously support an endless array of Jewish
social welfare organizations, and have a higher percentage of children in Jewish
education than we do in the United States. But British Jews are also curiously
submissive to their rabbinic leadership, even when some rulings contravene the
basic demands of Ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel) and human decency.
Baal Shem Tov extolled the virtue of ordinary Jews who were not rabbis. Even
non-scholars are aware of common courtesy and must pressure their spiritual
leaders to work with non- Orthodox colleagues to increase Jewish learning and
defend the State of Israel.
At Limmud I was peppered by journalists
asking whether I was a candidate for British chief rabbi and the strange
speculation reached a fever pitch when The Jerusalem Post published a long
feature on the conference’s third day exploring that possibility.
eleven years of my life building Jewish student life in Oxford and six of my
nine children were born in Britain. I am deeply attached to the country and the
community. But a chief rabbinate that muzzles its occupant and prevents him from
reaching out to thousands of young Jews for fear of offending right-wing
sensibilities cannot cater to anything but vanity and egotism. And while I am
certainly not immune to those ills, I have never allowed myself to be silenced
for any title and never will.
A chief rabbi is not an ambassador but a
The office of chief rabbi must be expanded from its current focus
on mesmerizing the BBC, thereby perpetuating a myth of Jewish subservience and
the need for Jews to win non-Jewish approval, and focus instead on electrifying
Jewish youth, before it can attract serious candidates.
The Jewish “homo
religiosus” is not the submissive man of the spirit but rather Yisrael, the
rebellious man of faith. And if we Jews are enjoined to emulate our patriarch
Jacob who wrestled with an angel, then surely we must also respectfully
challenge our spiritual leaders and reclaim our human voice.The writer
has just published
Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself, (Wiley),
and will shortly publish
Kosher Jesus. Follow him on his website www.shmuley.com
and on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.