Gilad & Beit Shemesh haredim

We are not the people of Noah; we are the people of Abraham, who believe in one God as much as we believe in the dignity of a single person.

Beit Shemesh school protest 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Beit Shemesh school protest 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Over the last few months, when I’ve mentioned to people that I am from Beit Shemesh, I have consistently received the same reaction: “Isn’t that the city where a group of extremist haredim [ultra-Orthodox] are aggressively disturbing the peace and causing problems?”
Yes, a trademark of Beit Shemesh isnow that it is a place where a significant group of extreme right-wing haredi hooligans are aggressively protesting the opening of a new religious girls’ elementary school (first through sixth grade) in a neighborhood where many of them reside but that by no means belongs to them – or to any one group, for that matter – on the outlandish grounds that it is immodest and suggestively promiscuous. Some of the tactics to which these extremists have resorted include spitting on and physically assaulting both the girls and their parents, and acts of vandalism such as destroying property in the new building and dumping excrement upon the children and the school campus.
I have witnessed some of this firsthand, as my daughter attends fifth grade at the school. This past Sunday, as she returned to classes after the holidays, I was surprised – as were many parents – to find that this contorted bunch was once again assaulting the girls and vandalizing the building (a brick was hurled through one of the windows, and a stink bomb was set off, rendering their new classroom unusable).
I was not surprised by these appalling tactics (unfortunately many in Beit Shemesh are beginning to grow accustomed to, although not complacent about, these demented and abusive strategies over time), but many had thought such efforts had subsided, considering that there had been no incidents between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It had appeared that through the efforts of the police, the girls would be left alone. However, upon reflection, I understand why this was not the case.
The days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are known as the Ten Days of Repentance and are considered the holiest time of the year to the Jewish people. It is a time to reflect upon one’s relationship with God, and it is precisely for this reason that these people, convinced that they are indeed God-fearing, were not prepared to deface and desecrate during this holy period.
Unfortunately what these hoodlums do not understand is that religious Judaism preaches two inextricably bound components that are the key to wholesome religious practice: the servitude of God, and compassion for one’s fellow man. In fact, the latter precedes the former. While it is clear to me that these groups of extremists (which are in no way representative of the majority of the ultra-Orthodox world and should not be seen that way) do not understand what God really expects of them, it is even more evident that they do not accept the religious premise of consideration toward others. This is why they comfortably returned to their shenanigans immediately following the High Holy Days.
IT IS also no coincidence (religious Judaism believes that nothing is coincidental) that their distorted actions are occurring in the week we read the Torah portion of Noah, a story with which we are all familiar.
Noah was the first God-fearing person recorded in the Torah; he is dubbed “righteous,” and the Torah attests that “the Lord walked with him.” And yet, Noah was not given the title of “first Jew,” nor was he credited with the merit of being the first to spread the doctrine of monotheism in the world; these were ascribed to Abraham, for good reason. While Noah was indeed truly God-fearing – as demonstrated by his commitment to carrying out God’s mission, including cleaning the animals’ waste from the floor of the Ark – he made no effort during his years of constructing the Ark to warn his fellow man of the impending danger. That Noah was silent and did not reprimand his peers meant that he accepted the promiscuous behavior around him and that he was prepared to witness the annihilation of an entire world.
This brings to mind the silence of Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul, Chief Rabbi Shimon Biton and other haredi rabbinic authorities in the city, who have not even mentioned their disapproval regarding the extremists’ behavior. In fairness, there are a number of rabbis and haredi groups in Beit Shemesh who have actively joined in protesting the extremists’ actions; yet the rabbis teach us that “silence is an act of admission.”
Noah demonstrated an inability to relate to the society and the people around him. In fact, it is precisely when he disembarked from the Ark and came in contact with civilization again that he found himself in trouble; engaged in promiscuous relations with one of his sons, imbibing alcohol and disclaiming any sense of responsibility toward establishing the moral premise of a future civilization.
God chose Abraham to be the first Jew and the founder of monotheism, not merely because he believed in one God, but largely because he was kind to his fellow human beings – the majority of whom at the time fervently disagreed with his way of life. In fact, while the Torah does not reveal the methodologies he used to find and believe in God, it does reveal explicitly that he did not want to quarrel with Lot his nephew, that he consistently hosted people in his home and that he was compassionate toward human life, aggressively protesting not Jewish girls’ schools, but God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gemorra, even when he knew they were wicked and promiscuous people.
Judaism begins with man’s sensitivity to his fellow, and anyone who does not understand that (or is not prepared to get up and declare it) is not living according to the doctrine of the Torah.
THE OTHER event that “coincided” with my daughter’s return to school – indeed, it was not by circumstance – was Gilad Schalit’s return home. The debate surrounding his release continues to resonate throughout the Jewish world, and I have always consciously refrained from engaging in this dialogue. However, now that the deed is done, I will say this: I believe that Schalit’s liberation should serve as a reminder to the Jewish people of who we are. How can one understand the polls that showed 75.7 percent of the public here supporting the deal, and only 15.5% opposing it, while the same polls showed that the vast majority of Israelis believe that the deal harms our national security? The answer is that the majority of Israel’s population understands something that this minority group of extreme haredim does not.
We are a people that values human life – our fellow man – more than anything else, and more so than any other nation on the planet. We are a people that has consistently viewed one individual as an entire world; this is what sets us apart from everyone else, and it is the motto that facilitates our designation as the Chosen Nation.
We are not the people of Noah; we are the people of Abraham, who believe in one God as much as we believe in the dignity of a single person.