The fanatics within

Barbara Kay, National Post
· Wednesday, Jul. 28, 2010

"Strange times to be a Jew." That's the master theme, voiced early and demonstrated often, in a haunting 2007 novel about Jewish messianism, The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

Michael Chabon's darkly brilliant achievement in alternate history sprang to mind last week, when news broke that if Israel's extreme right wing ultra-Orthodox -- the Haredim, who control the Chief Rabbinate--have their way, who is or isn't a Jew will be far more narrowly circumscribed than ever before in Israel's history.

The Knesset has approved a draft bill that would permit the Haredim to dictate the criteria for legal Jewish status. They would then hold the power to exclude thousands of Jewish converts, even many converted by Orthodox rabbis, from eligibility for Israeli citizenship under the "law of return" accorded all Jews as aninherentright.

Whether the bill passes or not this time -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reassured panicked Diaspora Jews he wouldn't support it -- it reminds us that, given Israel's electoral system of proportional representation, the political will of the disproportionately swelling ranks of Haredim (now about 1.3 million) will, one rapidly approaching day, dominate the Knesset--and Jewish destiny.

The root of the word Haredim means anxiety, which is what all Jews should feel about a putative Haredi balance of power. The Haredim are not simply religious fundamentalists with a prolific birthrate. The most eschatologically ambitious amongst them harbour lunatic urges to "force history," to hasten the arrival of a dilatory Messiah.

The Haredim are also not, as many people assume, a more "authentic" version of Torah-based Judaism. On the contrary. The Modern Orthodox, who hold that distinction, are rational, civically integrated and pluralistic in outlook. Haredi Judaism is a fossilized historical aberration from Orthodoxy. It began as an anti-establishment spiritual movement, but petrified into a constellation of self-contained planets, each orb cultishly gripped in its own charismatic-leader worship, all dependent on, but resisting contact with authentic evolutionary Judaism.

Many ritually lapsed Diaspora Jews entertain the mistaken notion that because the Haredim are so fanatically observant of the ritual law's every tittle, they are spiritually purer or holier than the Orthodox, or that they are saving Judaism from the extinction they--secular, intermarrying Jews --feel guilty about facilitating.

Such Jews should worry more about the opposite possibility: that Israel's parasitic Haredim, most of whom don't serve in the military, or contribute to Israel's economic and cultural life, could, through perfectly democratic means, reduce Israel to a farcically retrograde theme park, an 18th-century Hungarian ghetto by the sea.

In the Diaspora, extreme ultra-Orthodox cults (such as the Satmar in Quebec) are unassimilable, but at least politically ineffectual. The problem for Israel, where Haredim do seek and gain power over the nation, is Haredi messianism. Messianism, with its built-in temptation to force history by artificially setting the stage for the envisioned saviour, the world-healing man or system, even at the risk of carnage and mayhem, is a troubling feature of all fundamentalist beliefs, including secular "progressive" revolutionary movements.

In what seems like a wildly inventive plot in the Chabon novel, messianic Jews team up with messianic Christians in a hypnotic folie a deux around "end times." This version of forced history involves a literal return to the days of the Temple, including animal sacrifices, a supposed condition for the Messiah's arrival/return.

But the novel is reality-based. Apparently, in anticipation of a potential event, a corps of Haredim in Jerusalem have constructed an intricate scale model of Solomon's Temple, as blueprinted in the Torah. The original was destroyed by the Babylonians, then rebuilt and restored (by the Judean king who ordered Jesus' death), and destroyed again by the Romans. These messianists believe that if they can actually build this third Temple and sacrifice the Torah-prescribed, unblemished all-red heifer (which doesn't exist, but dedicated breeding programs are attempting to create one), the Messiah will come.

There is, however, this one small problem: The Temple must be situated where it was in previous incarnations. Since the end of the Seventh century, that spot has been occupied by the symbolically freighted Dome of the Rock. It's not going anywhere. That is, not of Muslims' volition.

So up to now the restored temple remains a dream, not the terrorist plot in Chabon's novel. The trouble is, as an influential secular Jew famously said, "When you will it, it is no dream." Do messianist Haredim merely fantasize about the Third Temple, or are a critical mass of them "willing" it? With messianism comes irrationality, and sometimes irresponsibility.

Between "friends" like ultra-liberal Jews on the left and the Haredim on the right, authentic Jews may not need their other myriad enemies.



Barbara Kay: You say Haredi, I say Haradi — some clarifications

Barbara Kay  August 3, 2010 – 7:59 am

As I expected, I got a lot of hate mail for my July 28 column entitled “The Fanatics Within,” an allusion to the ultra-Orthodox Haredim who control the Chief Rabbinate. I was motivated by concern that their growing demographic strength will one day soon hand them the power to set a draconian standard for ritual commitment for conversion to Judaism (i.e. on a par with ultra-Orthodoxy itself). I have been berated for my ignorance and for what many Jews consider my bigotry and even anti-Semitism.

Some clarifications are in order.

I don’t write the title of my columns, nor do I choose the accompanying graphics. The picture of the Haredim with the chickens is actually a faithful representation of an ultra-Orthodox ritual custom, but I didn’t choose it or even see it until I picked up my morning newspaper, just like you. If you don’t like it, yell at my editor.

The framing theme of my columns was the danger of messianism. Several respondents readers pointed out that the messianists amongst the ultra-Orthodox are the ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist Zionists, who are extremely politicized, while the Haredim, also ultra-Orthodox, are apolitical or even anti-Zionist for the most part. Both ultra-Orthodox groups are fixated on goals guided by religious extremism that I consider detrimental to Israel’s political health and even survival. But I should have made the distinction.

I was also taken to task for not distinguishing between Chassidim and Haredim. Although these two groups think the other is diametrically opposed to them, to the rest of the world they are two sides of the same coin: whether it was Chassidim or Haredim who had political power in Israel, the result for most Jews would be the same: alienation and eventual schism. At the moment it is the Haredim in Israel who have the fastest-growing numbers.

Many readers also pointed out that the root of “haredi” means “trembling” or “fear.” I said it meant “anxiety.” Well, it does mean anxiety too, but for those readers who would be happier if I said Jews should “fear” or “tremble” at the thought of the Haredim achieving the balance of power in Israel, “trembling” is fine with me.

I know Herod didn’t order the second temple to be built, but he oversaw its restoration, which was what I thought I implied. The question as to who called for Jesus’ death is disputed. Some say Herod, with Pontius Pilate cooperating to avoid unrest, others say it was Pilate’s decision alone. Whatever. I personally don’t think it’s important 2100 years later.

Many readers took me to task over the figure of 1.3 million as the number of Haredim, which I meant as a global, not an Israeli figure. I took it from a footnoted Wikipedia article: “There are approximately 1.3 million Haredi Jews[8], one of the fastest growing demographic sects in the world [9].”
I stand by my main theme, which is that extremism, irrationality and purposeful segregation from society in the name of any religion is socially unwholesome and politically troublesome.

The great rabbi Hillel said, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” The “community” he had in mind was “k’lal Yisrael,” the Universal House of Israel, and if he lived in the days of democracy, he probably would have also urged integration into the larger community as well.

The hallmark of the ultra-Orthodox – with again, notable exceptions – is the refusal to integrate meaningfully, certainly not into the general community, but also not even into the mainstream Jewish community. I consider the impulse to wall one’s own group off from k’lal Yisrael an “aberration” from Jewish history, and that is why I consider modern Orthodoxy the authentic Jewish torchbearer.

In fact, I would urge my critics to read up on Open Orthodoxy, a movement within Modern Orthodoxy, which, inspired by the spirit of democracy and pluralism, is a welcome, Torah-based role model for an intelligent marriage of authentic Judaism and engagement with the larger community.

The majority of world Jewry is not ultra-Orthodox or even Orthodox. Israel was founded, fought for and built up by secular Jews. While all that effort and loss of life was going on, most of the Orthodox world actively or passively opposed political sovereignty for Jews. I’d say a little humility amongst the ultra-Orthodox is called for.
With notable exceptions, the Haredim do not willingly fight for Israel, and must be chivvied into it with government programs and inducements. That alone should temper the righteous indignation fuelling my critics. So I stand by my statement that It will be a sad moment in the annals of Jewish history when people with this outlook have the power to guide public policy on any number of social and cultural matters in Israel. That does not make me an anti-Semite. It makes me a concerned, but realistic Zionist with Israel’s best social, cultural and political interests at heart.

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