In Plain Language: Halachic terrorism

Halachic terrorists harm three different groups: Their victims, the haredi community, and the Jewish People and the Jewish state in general.

Manny's 521 (photo credit: Stewart Weiss)
Manny's 521
(photo credit: Stewart Weiss)
The media, all too often, has it wrong. Most of the main headlines are gobbled up by wide-ranging international stories concerning threats – or implied threats – to our well-being, such as the nuclear program in Iran, the protest movements rocking the Arab nations on our borders, or the turmoil on global financial markets. Only on the inside of the paper, or squeezed into the nightly news broadcast as little snippets, just ahead of the weather, do we hear the local news, about what is happening internally, inside our little country.
And it is precisely that part of the news, I suggest, which ought to be our main concern. For it is those issues which represent the battle for Israel’s soul, and it is those issues which we can actually do something about, day by day.
Several weeks ago, I learned of the assault taking place upon a bookstore in Mea She’arim which commits the heinous crime of selling “Zionist” texts, and books in English. This, apparently, is guaranteed to attract foreign tourists who – in some people’s opinion – invariably dress in an inappropriate way. A small, self-appointed group of vigilante vandals – known as the Sikrikim – were determined to drive this store out of business and prevent the “contamination” of their neighborhood. And so they continually attacked the place, breaking the windows, gluing the doors shut and pelting the premises with rotten eggs and human feces.
In an attempt to stop the outrage, I contacted this newspaper’s Jerusalem reporter, who immediately followed up on the story and finally nudged the police into action. One of the leading hoodlums was identified and arrested, and it looked like the matter had been resolved. But last week we learned that, due to continuing harassment, the store had made an “arrangement” with the Sikrikim that would require their books to be “cleared” for content and that a sign, urging modesty in dress, would be posted at the front entrance.
While I completely sympathize with the store owners and their unenviable plight, I am sickened at this latest victory for vandalism, this latest achievement for the horrific phenomenon that may best be called halachic terrorism.
In its most extreme manifestation, halachic terrorism uses violence to force others to bend to its decree and follow its demands. But in more subtle scenarios, it employs peer pressure, intimidation and fear of being ostracized to compel the well-meaning observant Jew to forgo independent thought and deed in order to toe “the party line.” All in the name of God and Jewish purity, of course.
Examples of this insidious phenomenon abound, from the simple urging of congregants to wear only a black kippa to services (lest they stand out in the crowd, Heaven forbid); to kosher butchers being told they will be boycotted if they carry non-glatt meat in their stores; to women who sit in the “wrong” seats on public buses being cursed or spat upon; to families being shunned if they dare send their children to the army or display an Israeli flag on Independence Day.
The perpetrators may be small in number, but their victims are many, across a wide spectrum of Israeli society. They may be Beit Shemesh youngsters set upon as they walk to a coed school, wearing clothes the zealots find immodest; they may be rabbis hesitating to issuing more lenient halachic decisions, for fear they will be branded heretics; they may even be haredim – as one friend recently told me – who was accosted, his clothes ripped, because he was urging other haredim to vote for the Agudat Yisrael party in the previous elections.
What is at the source, the core of this deviant behavior? What would incite one Jew go to such lengths to attack another Jew, just because he or she did not mesh with his mindset? Why are some people unwilling to live their life as they see fit, while at the same time letting others live their lives in peace?
Clearly, one factor is the witch’s brew combination of insecurity and triumphalism. At the same moment that this person is forced to confront his doubts and reservations about his own religious doctrine and spiritual behavior, he is also convinced that he has the power to suppress, or even eradicate, the spiritual choices of others.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Moshe Halevi Spero of Bar-Ilan University describes these villains as being in a state of internal paranoia and sabotage.
“They feel persecuted, and so they persecute others. They can see things only in the extreme – black or white, no compromise, with no middle ground whatsoever. And because they feel threatened on the inside, they threaten those on the outside.”
The way these people view other Jews who do not act in consonance with their opinion, says Dr. Spero, is essentially the same way Islamic terrorists view the State of Israel: a foreign, renegade and dangerous element to be eradicated before everyone is infected.
Regrettably, while many rabbinic and political figures privately condemn the Sikrikim, few are willing to do what it takes to stop them. We are worlds away from the great halachic heroes of the past, such as the universally acclaimed decisor of Jewish law Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.
Rav Moshe was an unabashed defender of Jewish law, but he believed in persuasion rather than persecution as a means of swaying those who disagreed with him. In one celebrated decision, he ruled that a Chicago mikve (ritual bath), built jointly by the local community and Jewish Federation, could be used by observant women even though non-Orthodox conversions were performed there. In that case, too, disgruntled extremists railed against Rav Feinstein – even appealing against his decision and accusing him of senility – but Rav Moshe would not be dissuaded.
Halachic terrorists harm three groups: They harm their victims, of course. They also do injury to the haredi community, the vast majority of whom are law-abiding, God-fearing individuals with exemplary behavior. But they also harm the Jewish People and the Jewish state in general, projecting upon us an odious image of being intolerant, incorrigible and at war with one another.
A Jew of faith believes in two basic principles. The first is that we control our own destiny, by acting in consonance with God’s will. The second is that the way we react to our fellow Jew is precisely the way in which the world at large will react to us, measure for measure. Given that, we would do well to battle terrorism on all fronts – without and within.
The writer is a member of the Ra’anana city council and director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; [email protected]