Have we gone mad?

The Jewish community should rid itself of religious one-upmanship and shed its insecurities, which tend to breed radically absurd suggestions.

By BY SHALOM HAMMER
February 22, 2010 22:56
4 minute read.
Ultra-kosher for ultra-Orthodox.

haredim kosher food 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Last week as I was flying back to Israel from the United States, I was sitting next to two elderly women. These ladies were very anxious as they explained to me that they were Evangelical Christians who were coming to visit Israel for the first time. As they reviewed their itinerary with me, I found their excitement contagious and I sincerely wanted them to enjoy themselves and forge positive impressions of Israel and the Jewish people.

Mid-conversation we were unexpectedly approached by a hassid who tersely asked me, "Are you Jewish?" followed by "would you like to put on tefillin?" When I informed him that I already put on tefillin, he moved on to the next man sitting in front of me. This man was very put off by the intruding question and dismissed the man, ordering him to move on, which he did. He continued to ask every man in our section the same question.

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The ladies next to me looked confused and I could see by their expressions that they were uneasy with both the question that was posed and the reactions which followed. I was equally confused as I wondered if indeed the hassid was fulfilling God's mission. Would God be happy that it was being performed in such a forceful, insensitive and distasteful manner? I approached the hassid and asked him this question, to which he responded, "Nothing is distasteful or insensitive when it is done in the name of God in heaven."

This answer is unacceptable and detestable, because from a Jewish perspective if it is used liberally it is potentially dangerous.

An article was published recently claiming that a prominent rabbi and halachic authority within the haredi community in Israel ruled that braces on one's teeth are considered a "partition" and therefore disqualify any woman who wears them from dipping in the mikve (ritual bath). This rabbi explained that the water must come in contact with every part of the woman's body in order for her to immerse in the mikve and fulfill the commandment of family purity. This is despite the fact that immersing in the mikve is performed while one's mouth is closed; consequently the water would not touch one's teeth in any case.

Effectively this edict means that every time a woman with braces wants to go to the mikve she would have to get her braces removed, which is unreasonable and would deter observant women from seeking orthodontic treatment. It also has serious implications for those women who may have immersed in the past while wearing braces.

I CALLED a number of Torah scholars to ask their opinion. One suggested that many of these rulings are fabricated and don't really come from the rabbinical source quoted. While I began to ponder where the rulings actually did come from, I was willing to accept an oversight at least for the sake of preserving my reason.

However, the nonsensical would not go away, for the following day I read an article in The Jerusalem Post ("'Personal mehitzas' marketed for haredim," February 19) stating that haredi airline passengers are being advised to hang a new type of mehitza - a halachic barrier to separate the sexes - around the top of their airplane seats, to shield their eyes from immodest neighbors and in-flight movies. The Rabbinical Council for Public Transportation (something I never knew existed but now that I do I will certainly look at trains, planes and automobiles with much deeper and spiritual meaning) are encouraging the haredi community to purchase the traveler mehitzot which stick onto the fabric of the airplane chair and can be arranged to make a protective "shield" around the head and in front of the passenger's face.

As Rabbi Shimon Stern, spokesman for the Rabbinic Council for Public Transportation (yes, they have their own spokesman) called the travel mehitzot very cute and very practical, I found myself wondering whether my fellow observant Jews were either very confused or very cracked. Are we, the same intelligent Jewish people who are referred to as a light unto the nations, meant to pursue a Taliban-like existence defined by extreme behaviors as we isolate ourselves from the world around us? Can we honestly claim that these absurd suggestions and inventions are the correct way of fulfilling God's plan and exhibiting spirituality in the world?

Surely this was not what God had in mind. In fact I would not be surprised if God is looking down upon all of this and laughing hysterically. As I pondered these questions I convinced myself that perhaps these halachic restrictions were all part of preparing for the Purim spirit of humor and good fun.


God never asked us to live an ascetic existence, nor does He expect us to refrain from enjoying what the world has to offer. On Purim we eat, imbibe, sing and dance - all physical functions with a clear message. Purim reminds us that God allows the Jewish people to partake in what the world has to offer, but He does not want us to get lost or enthralled by it. God expects His people to arrive at a more sophisticated, spiritual consequence.

Purim represents a fine balance between the physical and the spiritual, between materialism and altruism. Purim restores a rare commodity that is slowly dissipating from the Jewish community. This commodity is called normalcy. The Jewish community should invest more in this commodity by ridding itself of one-upmanship when it comes to religiosity and by shedding its insecurities which tend to breed radically absurd suggestions and extreme licentious behaviors.

The writer teaches at Hesder Kiryat Gat and serves as a guest lecturer for the IDF Rabbinate. He is also an author and lecturer on Israel, Religious Zionism and Jewish education. www.rabbihammer.com


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