Keep Dreaming: Taking religion seriously

Yes, the time has come for all of us to start taking religion seriously, and ourselves, perhaps, a little less so.

Mea Shearim 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Mea Shearim 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The problem with religion is that people start taking it seriously.
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.
Which allows 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.
The 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.”
The 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 Orthodox ceremony.
“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 repercussions.
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 religious authorities.
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 workplace.
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 unthinkable.
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 Simhat Torah.
This is not the only vanishing act that the fairer sex is being subjected to unfairly.
Take a look at Jerusalem’s billboards.
“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 place.
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 poor.
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.