The problem with religion is that people start taking it
Actually, the problem is that they start taking themselves
seriously when it comes to religion. Or believe that God does. Or become
convinced that they know exactly what God wants of them.
them to do all sorts of outrageous things in the name of the Almighty, far too
often right here in our own neighborhood. Things like slaughtering untold
thousands of infidels in the name of Jesus, waging a Holy War of terrorism in
the name of Allah, or prohibiting Tzohar rabbis from officiating at weddings in
the name of Moses (“Closure of Tzohar wedding project prompts outrage toward
ministry,” November 9).
Not being an ex-chief of the Mossad I don’t feel
qualified to venture a guess as to which of the threats facing us today might be
more perilous than the next, but that doesn’t prevent me from sympathizing with
Ephraim Halevy’s recent remarks regarding the dangers inherent in the
haredization of Israeli society (“Halevy to ride out storm after saying haredim
more of a threat than Iran,” November 7). While I don’t have the tools necessary
to evaluate the risks posed by an Ahmadinejad armed with nuclear warheads
sometime down the line, I do know that the proliferation of religious extremism
in our country today poses a real and present danger that, if not contained,
will become the weapon of our mass destruction.
If Israel is to survive –
if there is to be any reason for its survival – it needs to remain a Jewish
state. And if the perception of what being Jewish means is going to be
determined by an increasingly reactionary and narrow-minded fiefdom of
politically motivated and power-hungry functionaries who are promoting a
fundamentalist and corrupted notion of Judaism, then the vast majority of our
next generation is going to want nothing to do with it. Increasingly mobile in
an increasingly global age, they are going to drive that message home by leaving
home, opening the door to myriad opportunities knocking in far-flung corners of
the world. Places where God – or more accurately, her self-appointed envoys –
has learned not to interfere with the way people live their lives.
writing is already on the wall – as well as in an e-mail I recently received
from a friend and lover of Zion who was looking for some solace in the wake of a
disturbing conversation she had just had with the son of Israeli friends
visiting the States.
“Since the moment Eyal told me why he was in the US
my hair has been standing on end,” she wrote. “He was here for the wedding of
two close Israeli friends who were married last week by a minister.”
secular celebration they had had in Israel didn’t leave them married in the eyes
of the state, of course, and when someone introduced them to a man of Christian
cloth in America who could legalize their union they jumped at the chance to go
through a ceremony that would be recognized here as well.
But what really
shocked her was Eyal’s response to her question as to why they didn’t have a
Reform or Conservative rabbi officiate even if they had an aversion to an
“All my friends hate anything to do with Judaism,” he
told her point-blank. Reeling from the wound, she asked me just how widespread
this phenomenon is and how I thought we might deal with its
I don’t have an answer to these questions, but I do have
some worrisome phenomena to share with her that have been reported on
extensively in Israeli media over the last few weeks that unfortunately won’t
leave her feeling any better about things.
Most of them have to do with
the status of women, or more accurately, their marginalization (and that’s the
nicest word I can come up with) at the hands of increasingly small-minded
The so-called voluntary segregation of women on
buses serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods has continued unabated (even if
perpetrated less aggressively than a year ago), and over the holiday period just
ended we were again witness to attempts to establish gender-specific sidewalks
in Mea She’arim.
In state religious schools, where boys and girls once
studied together as a matter of course, they are now being segregated already in
the first grade. And regardless of their take on these matters, you won’t hear
any side of these stories from women broadcasters on the haredi Kol Berama radio
station as they have now been banned from serving as such, an act of blatant
disregard for Israeli law ensuring equal opportunity in the
Making matters worse, discrimination against women on
religious grounds is no longer limited to the territory of those who purportedly
buy into it. Rabbis have recently ruled that male soldiers must absent
themselves from any event at which women are singing so that they won’t be
driven by the enchantment of their voices to think about the
Another determined that “Men commanding women ‘contravenes
Torah,’” (November 7), and instructed male officers not to take up any position
that would require them to do so. The rationale given had something to do with
modesty, the same pretext for exempting religious women from serving in the IDF
that for some reason the general public has bought into for decades. Apparently
we long ago determined that the innocence of our freethinking 18-year-old girls
is less precious – or less susceptible to corruption by sleazy male officers –
than that of their mitzva-observant peers.
Not that the purity of our
female conscripts is of no concern to our army chaplains, evidenced by their
recent prohibition of mixed dancing at an army celebration marking the end of
This is not the only vanishing act that the fairer sex is
being subjected to unfairly.
Take a look at Jerusalem’s
“Women have been steadily disappearing from street
advertising in the capital, due in no small part to self-censorship on the part
of secular advertisers scared of antagonizing the increasingly strident haredi
community,” observed Jeff Barak in an op-ed on the matter (“Taking back the
billboards,” November 7). Abused for years by scantily clad women with perfect
bodies trying to sell me things I don’t need, I recognize as much as the next
guy that this sort of sexual harassment needs to stop. But the real issue here
is marginalization, not exploitation.
While once we were able to pride
ourselves on the degree of equality between the sexes (how many other nations
could boast a woman head of state when we had Golda?), the World Economic Forum
recently reported that out of 135 countries surveyed, we had dropped to No. 55
on the scale of gender equality.
While I can’t blame the ultra-Orthodox
for this unsettling news, nor for all the other symptoms of our degeneration as
an enlightened society (eroding educational levels, widening social gaps and
growing child poverty), I do call upon the leadership of this sector, and all
other religious leaders in Israel, to invest their energies in reversing these
disturbing trends. Which is what religion should be all about in the first
Furthermore, if I possessed any acumen in the utilization of
Facebook, I would call upon all of Israel to rise up and lay claim to our Torah,
just as we did at Mount Sinai.
It is too precious, and contains too much
that might guide us as we labor to repair the world, to relinquish it to a
self-appointed few. Things like social justice, concern for the stranger who
dwells among us, and protection of the widow, the orphan and the
Yes, the time then has come for all of us to start taking religion
seriously, and ourselves, perhaps, a little less so.The writer is vice
chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of The Jewish Agency
executive. The opinions expressed here are his own.