The shocking behavior of a small group of haredi militants in Israel has forced me to face the difficult reality of just how much divides the Modern Orthodox Zionist community, of which I am a member, from that of the haredim, despite our sharing of an ancient text.
Until recently I viewed haredi beliefs and attitudes as benignly different than mine. But I have come to see that those haredi views lend themselves to extreme behaviors that are actually threatening my way of life, despite the fact that I live thousands of miles away from Beit Shemesh. More importantly, I have had to acknowledge my sickening sense that these destructive behaviors are occurring along an ugly and dangerous fault line that imperils the viability of the State of Israel.
A recent YouTube video, gone viral, highlights the activity of abusive haredi activists in Beit Shemesh who are hurling insults and epithets at females whom they believe are not dressing properly.
“Ani ish bari!” (“I am a healthy man!”) trumpets a young haredi man in a car, in response to a reporter’s questions about men who called an 8-year-old schoolgirl a “loose woman” because they felt her clothing to be immodest.
What does this man’s health have to do with this little girl’s clothing? It takes several synaptic jumps to realize that he is referring to his robust sexual urges — apparently a sign of health in a red-blooded man — which are seemingly stirred up by the sight of this little girl in her long skirt and blouse. Healthy? Maybe those urges feel scary — as well they should. Or maybe out of control — as they most certainly are. But healthy? Really? I think not. Sexualizing a young girl should set off alarm bells, but this man’s religious stance gives him the cover not to have to hear them.
So what assumption is operating for this man that allows him to shout these words without worrying that he might be crossing a line? Is he trying to make the point that Judaism requires women to cover up because men — whose “health” is to be both vaunted and protected at all costs — can’t, and shouldn’t even be asked to, control themselves? What is his statement if not a poorly veiled justification of sexual abuse, a religiously clad declaration that inadequately covered females of any age are fair game?
It is not by chance that the community where this behavior originates has chosen to call itself haredi (literally, trembling with fear). For just as fear and trembling fuel their relationship to God and God’s commandments, so does fear fuel their relationship with other aspects of God’s world. In a relationship based on fear, there are only two possibilities — submission or domination. Submission to the ultimate will of God may be a positive religious stance; however, to be overly fearful has an ominous flip side, which is to be rigidly authoritarian. When the community becomes vulnerable, especially at its edges, where there is less stability, the situation we are now witnessing is the result. Hence this powerful fringe group, driven by fear of modern society, rigidity and ignorance, and unable to process any aspect of the world that doesn’t conform to its fantasy of the perfect life.
Using force and abuse to ensure that their external reality will accommodate their needs, they flout both the principle of human dignity upon which their country was founded, and the Torah’s language of “Tzelem Elohim” (that humans were created in the image of God), a term they seem to have reserved for themselves alone. Unfortunately, the response to this sadistic, narcissistic bullying, done in the name of God, has been inadequate to the threat it represents to the particular people it targets, to the democratic country of Israel, and to the Jewish religion.
Something is shockingly, perilously, toxically awry in a society where even a small percentage of men who think this way about women are bolstered by an interpretation of the Torah that supports their sexist agenda, and are rewarded by a polity that wants their votes. Where are the haredi rabbis? Where are the political leaders? This is a perfect Taliban-like storm, and it requires a strong religious, political, economic, cultural and philosophical response commensurate with its destructive power.
The weak response of mainstream haredim is not enough. The revolting demonstration this weekend of haredim dressed as Holocaust victims wearing yellow stars defines profanity. Moreover, reactionary measures resulting from mainstream haredi initiatives such as the “back of the bus” phenomenon in Jerusalem, and the absence of pictures of women in Jerusalem advertisements, are sexist and destructive, and combine to create an all-too-logical context for the playing out of these extreme forces.
Immediate action is called for. In Israel, the government needs to take strong steps to criminalize this behavior and withdraw economic entitlements and political rewards for the nefarious activities of these groups. Every religious leader needs to powerfully condemn this violence and take pains to make it stop. We in America must use the power of our purse, refusing absolutely to support any institutions that do not indisputably condemn and take action against the madness we are seeing on the streets of Israel.
Finally, as a people, we have to examine carefully and courageously what it is about our religious life that has led to such a deeply festering misogynistic impulse, masquerading as a celebration of woman’s exalted status in Judaism. Debasement is exaltation’s evil twin. Women and men, both created in God’s image, need to share in the responsibilities of modesty in all the ways that they live. We cannot allow depravity, frustration and ignorance to define our religious and political agenda unless we are prepared to have our lives, our religion, and our Jewish homeland brutally wrenched from our grasp.
Dr. Gail Bendheim is a psychologist in private practice in New York.