Torah scroll 521.
(photo credit: Stockbyte)
"It is time to act for the Lord; they have violated Your Torah" (Ps.119:126). The current anger at the way in which extremist religious groups and individuals are violating the rights of women and of non-Jews has indeed brought about a situation in which something must be done to stop the violation and indeed the desecration of the Torah. There has seldom been a time in which the Torah has been brought into greater disrepute than this. Those who have long contended that religion is a destructive force - the very opposite of liberal, humane actions - have only to point to newspaper headlines in order to vindicate their position.
More and more people are convinced that the Torah – and indeed Judaism – stand for an unenlightened approach to living. They are claiming that if this is what the Torah is, we want no part of it. Therefore the struggle today is not only for the rights of woman and for the rights of Arabs – Israeli and Palestinian alike – but for the very future of Judaism and the integrity of the Torah. Three groups have brought us to this unfortunate situation: ultra-Orthodox extremists, the so-called “hill top youth” and their mentors, and finally, the Chief Rabbinate itself.
The ultra-Orthodox extremists have gone so far that even the rest of the ultra-Orthodox are denouncing them. It is difficult for any sane individual to countenance spitting on children or woman and taking violent actions against the police. But unfortunately there are other actions taken by those who are less extreme that still violate the Torah. The total obsession with women as sexual objects, not sitting with them on buses or airplanes, not listening to them sing, avoidance of all physical contact, exclusion of women from governmental roles, is so far from anything that the Torah teaches as to constitute a violation of Torah rather than its fulfillment.
Miriam was both a political leader and a singer. The Torah is explicit in teaching that men and women were both created by God as equals and although many Torah laws reflect the reality of a patriarchal society, when compared to laws of other civilizations they demonstrate a attempt to protect women and invest them with dignity. It is no accident that the matriarchs as well as all the women in the story of the birth of Moses are depicted as strong, independent and active. They are not passive and they are not hidden away in the back of the bus and the other side of the street.
The “hill top youth” - and indeed, other like-minded people who are not so youthful - are the product of an extreme messianic approach to settling the land which has little to do with true Zionism. Their hatred of Arabs and their willingness to use violence to attain their goals are products of following the teachings of Meir Kahana and of other rabbinical leaders who have distorted the Torah by claiming the superiority of Jews over others. Kahana was not right, but he is triumphant is seeing his ideas adopted by so many people. Again, they are violators of the Torah and not its followers. The Torah is explicit in protecting the rights of non-Israelites living in the land of Israel. It goes out of its way to offer God's protection to them, along with widows and orphans and the poor, the defenseless members of society.
The Chief Rabbinate has violated the Torah by the extraordinary way in which it has placed restrictions and stumbling blocks before potential converts to Judaism, especially those Russians of Jewish origin who wish to be recognized as Jews. The Torah, of course, does not have regulations concerning ritual conversion as such, but was open and liberal in regard to the possibility of others joining the people of Israel.
When ritual conversion developed, Jewish law, as exemplified by Hillel, was welcoming to those who wished to learn Torah and convert. The Israeli rabbinate has taken the opposite position, making what is easy difficult and ignoring every possible leniency. It has done the same thing regarding marriage and especially divorce, creating untold misery especially for women with recalcitrant husbands. It has not followed the Halakha but distorted it.
These three groups and others, by taking it upon themselves to represent Torah have distorted it and brought it into disrepute. Those who are suffering from this are not only the people directly harmed, but all those who are observant of the Torah and who are sullied by association with them, all those who might be open to the true teachings of the Torah but are put off by these distortions, and the Torah itself which is brought into disrepute.
One would not know it, but the Torah is actually a book that was revolutionary for its time and for our time as well. Its views of the value of human life, the equality of all human beings, the respect and love for the other, the care for the stranger, the limitations upon the power and rights of governments and their leaders, the radical economic laws that call for equality in land ownership, for the release of debts in order to abolish poverty, for the rights of the poor to share in the harvest and so much more, make it the book that should be the basis for the social justice and protest movements.
Instead it is identified with groups that would oppress others, discriminate against women, deny rights to Arabs, spit at clergy of other religions and bring our society back to the dark ages, darker than any that actually existed historically in Jewish society. If Moses were to see what is being advocated and done in the name of his teaching – Torah Moshe
– he would be shocked and angered no less than when he came down from the mountain and witnessed the worship of the golden calf.
It is time for all of us – religious, secular, men, women, rich and poor alike – to rise up and say, "It is time to act for the Lord; they have violated your Torah!"
The writer is a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly. His most recent book is
The Torah Revolution: Fourteen Truths That Changed The World (Jewish Lights).