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.

haredim kosher food 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredim kosher food 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Last week as I was flying back to Israel from the United States, I wassitting next to two elderly women. These ladies were very anxious asthey explained to me that they were Evangelical Christians who werecoming to visit Israel for the first time. As they reviewed theiritinerary with me, I found their excitement contagious and I sincerelywanted them to enjoy themselves and forge positive impressions ofIsrael and the Jewish people.
Mid-conversation we were unexpectedly approached by a hassid whotersely asked me, "Are you Jewish?" followed by "would you like to puton tefillin?" When I informed him that I already put on tefillin, hemoved on to the next man sitting in front of me. This man was very putoff by the intruding question and dismissed the man, ordering him tomove on, which he did. He continued to ask every man in our section thesame question.
The ladies next to me looked confused and I could see by theirexpressions that they were uneasy with both the question that was posedand the reactions which followed. I was equally confused as I wonderedif indeed the hassid was fulfilling God's mission. Would God be happythat it was being performed in such a forceful, insensitive anddistasteful manner? I approached the hassid and asked him thisquestion, to which he responded, "Nothing is distasteful or insensitivewhen it is done in the name of God in heaven."
This answer is unacceptable and detestable, because from a Jewishperspective if it is used liberally it is potentially dangerous.
An article was published recently claiming that a prominent rabbi andhalachic authority within the haredi community in Israel ruled thatbraces on one's teeth are considered a "partition" and thereforedisqualify any woman who wears them from dipping in the mikve (ritualbath). This rabbi explained that the water must come in contact withevery part of the woman's body in order for her to immerse in the mikveand fulfill the commandment of family purity. This is despite the factthat 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 wantsto go to the mikve she would have to get her braces removed, which isunreasonable and would deter observant women from seeking orthodontictreatment. It also has serious implications for those women who mayhave immersed in the past while wearing braces.
I CALLED a number of Torah scholars to ask their opinion. One suggestedthat many of these rulings are fabricated and don't really come fromthe rabbinical source quoted. While I began to ponder where the rulingsactually did come from, I was willing to accept an oversight at leastfor the sake of preserving my reason.
However, the nonsensical would not go away, for the following day Iread an article in The Jerusalem Post ("'Personal mehitzas' marketedfor haredim," February 19) stating that haredi airline passengers arebeing advised to hang a new type of mehitza - a halachic barrier toseparate the sexes - around the top of their airplane seats, to shieldtheir eyes from immodest neighbors and in-flight movies. The RabbinicalCouncil for Public Transportation (something I never knew existed butnow that I do I will certainly look at trains, planes and automobileswith much deeper and spiritual meaning) are encouraging the haredicommunity to purchase the traveler mehitzot which stick onto the fabricof 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 PublicTransportation (yes, they have their own spokesman) called the travelmehitzot very cute and very practical, I found myself wondering whethermy fellow observant Jews were either very confused or very cracked. Arewe, the same intelligent Jewish people who are referred to as a lightunto the nations, meant to pursue a Taliban-like existence defined byextreme behaviors as we isolate ourselves from the world around us? Canwe honestly claim that these absurd suggestions and inventions are thecorrect way of fulfilling God's plan and exhibiting spirituality in theworld?
Surely this was not what God had in mind. In fact I would not besurprised if God is looking down upon all of this and laughinghysterically. As I pondered these questions I convinced myself thatperhaps these halachic restrictions were all part of preparing for thePurim spirit of humor and good fun.
God never asked us to live an ascetic existence, nor does He expect usto 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 whatthe world has to offer, but He does not want us to get lost orenthralled by it. God expects His people to arrive at a moresophisticated, spiritual consequence.
Purim represents a fine balance between the physical and the spiritual,between materialism and altruism. Purim restores a rare commodity thatis slowly dissipating from the Jewish community. This commodity iscalled normalcy. The Jewish community should invest more in thiscommodity by ridding itself of one-upmanship when it comes toreligiosity and by shedding its insecurities which tend to breedradically absurd suggestions and extreme licentious behaviors.
The writer teaches at Hesder Kiryat Gat and serves as a guestlecturer for the IDF Rabbinate. He is also an author and lecturer onIsrael, Religious Zionism and Jewish education. www.rabbihammer.com