Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

Religion in the Holy land

 


Not all the religious fanatics are Muslims.

One can think of candidates under the umbrella of Christianity, but here our concern is Jews.

Two cases recently in the headlines provoke shame or something else, depending on one’s sense of responsibility or cynicism.

One is a bearded, well-coiffured man whose trial on sexual exploitation and slavery ended after four years of delays. There were guilty verdicts for rape and other varieties of sexual exploitation involving several wives and lots of children, but the court could not find sufficient evidence of slavery. The verdict did not pass without criticism. The slavery claimed was not chains and whipping, but emotional bondage or extreme dependence by a man who claimed religious authority.

Another case has produced police investigations and arrests, but may be months or years short of a trial and verdict. It involves a charismatic who persuaded his female acolytes that having sex with Arabs (who would pay him for their services) would advance their status as Jews and bring forward God’s promise of salvation.

We don’t know how many other charismatic Jews are somewhere under the rocks, employing one or another of the elements that imaginative creators have produced under the heading of Judaism over the course of perhaps 2,500 years.

There was a group of women who dressed in layers of covering, dubbed by the media “Taliban women,” led by a man claiming the title of rabbi who preached the severe discipline of children, then fled to South America to avoid charges of abuse.

Psychologists have pondered the weaknesses that make individuals vulnerable to such leadership. Among the findings are a lack of education, backgrounds of abuse, new converts or newly religious Jews. Yet some of the victims have been well-educated and have made impressive appearances in the media.

Beyond extremist sects, there are many more Jews whose beliefs and practices range close to or across the borders of what the rest of us consider conventional. 

We can argue about the rankings of what is more or less conventional, and in whose eyes. 

Among those living here but outside the communal tent are the ultra-Orthodox who deny the legitimacy of Israel, whose rabbis consort with whatever aggressively anti-Israel leaders are willing to host them in Ramallah, Tehran, or elsewhere. 

Somewhat less extreme are those ultra-Orthodox who ignore Israel’s Independence Day and Holocaust Memorial Day, reject all compromise with respect to having their young men do military service, or including in their schools anything other than sacred texts. Not for them is the teaching of mathematics, science, or language, certainly not history, social studies are anything that smacks of evolution. 

Somewhat closer to the conventional are the ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox rabbis who accept education that prepares their young people for supporting themselves and their families, provided that the sexes are kept separate in school and then at work.

Among the extremists are those whose demands for sexual segregation insist that women ride at the back of the bus and use separate sidewalks. 

There are Orthodox rabbis (i.e., not ultra-Orthodox) who endorse military service, but demand that soldiers not be exposed to female superiors or colleagues, or the sounds of women speaking or singing.

Another issue that links some Orthodox with ultra-Orthodox is the stringency to be employed in conversions to Judaism. This may mean not only the strictest concern to screen and educate those wanting to become Jews, but to insist on a continuation of religious observance after the conversion. Unlike those of us born Jews, a convert might find the cherished status canceled if observed eating non-kosher food or violating the prohibitions associated with Sabbath.

None of this passes quietly in the Jewish State. We have a long history of figuring out how to evade the demands of those who would regulate us according to ungodly standards. Individuals whom the Rabbinate does not accept as Jews or allow to marry in Israel can marry who they will, outside of Israel, and be recognized as married by Israel’s Interior Ministry. This provides all they need with respect to economic rights of both partners and their children. Furthermore, Judaism has a history of accepting as “married” a couple known to be living together, without benefit of a marriage ceremony. There is a problem if the woman is married to someone else, but not if the man is married to someone else. That, too, can be evaded if neither partner is religious, and does not feel the need for rabbinic approval.

The rabbis themselves have a long history of working around laws of the Torah. Death penalties pretty much disappeared from rabbinic rulings two centuries or so before the Common Era. Prohibitions against interest or commercial profit also went the way of “clarifications” added to God’s laws.

Styles have changed with time and place. The Talmud recognizes the importance of local customs. Ancient synagogues have been found without the separation between men and women demanded by more recent rabbis who claim to operate according to Orthodox traditions.

We all pay more for our food than comparable products elsewhere due to kashrut, inspectors who must be paid to plod through our supermarkets inspecting the shelves, and the manipulations required of shana shmita, i.e., the requirement that the land rest every seventh year.

Family custom combines with religious law to determine what each religious Jew accepts as kosher.

Early some mornings I have been the Jewish equivalent of the Shabbas goy, helping out the Arab manager of a neighborhood coffee shop who needs a Jew to turn on his oven, in order to keep to the standard of kashrut demanded by religious clients.

For some religious madness, such as those charismatics in the headlines, we have the police and the courts. For other demands, we have evasions or maneuvers sanctioned by generations of rabbis. 

We also have Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) to counsel us:

“That which has been is that which will be. And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:10)

“Be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.” (12:12)

One can see in Eccleasiates a wide range of what has become honored as Judaism. Some see the book as showing the influence of Greek philosophy, and suggest that the following was added in order to gain the book’s entry to the Hebrew Bible.

“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:

Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.

For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing.” (12:13-14)

Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

 

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