Thursday, April 03, 2008

Judaism's golden mean

An ultra-Orthodox couple from Beit Shemesh are under arrest for allegedly assaulting at least some of their 12 children. Sadly, that's not earth-shattering news in a country where child abuse seems to be on the rise. That some of the couple's children may have engaged in incest only adds to the grotesque revelations.

Yet what makes this story truly bizarre is that the 54-year-old wife and mother involved also heads a sect of several dozen women who maintain a Taliban-like dress code requiring them to cover their faces and wear multiple layers of clothing.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, in another ultra-Orthodox household, several people are under police investigation for abusing two toddlers. The youngest remains hospitalized and in a coma. The mother allegedly "corrected" the children's behavior by whipping them. Police insinuate she may be part of a sect which adheres to violent child-rearing practices.

Then there was the shocking bombing in Ariel on Purim, which critically wounded 15-year-old Ami Ortiz, the son of Messianic Christian pastor David Ortiz. A court order prevents detailing the direction of the investigation. What does seem apparent is that the perpetrators were Jewish extremists.

Messianics insist that one can remain a loyal Jew while professing faith in Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah. In fact, this theology is abhorrent to Jews and Judaism. Christians who identify themselves as Jewish have long complained of violent harassment, most recently in Beersheba and Arad. Not a few messianic Jews live among us as "reverse Marranos," frightened to share their true identity for fear of persecution. Plainly, for those who proselytize - a practice insulting in Jewish eyes - such concerns are not misplaced.

Finally, there is the decree of the chief rabbi of Kiryat Arba, Dov Lior, coming in the wake of the March 7 massacre at Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, which claimed the lives of eight students, that it is "forbidden" to rent homes to Arabs or employ Arabs anywhere in Israel. Other religious Zionist rabbis have also supported a ban on Arab labor.

THERE MAY not be a pattern here, but all these are manifestations of religious extremism seemingly tolerated by the community in which they took place.

Take the deviant deportment of the "Taliban mother." Anyone who moves around, as this family reportedly did, among the country's various ultra-Orthodox communities, will almost immediately come into contact with their synagogues, rabbis, communal leaders and teachers. In these communities a fair amount of privacy is willingly sacrificed for a life within the all-embracing collective. Peer pressure is the norm.

That being so, why was there no intervention? After all, had the "Taliban family" made it their practice to drive on Shabbat, their car would quite likely have been stoned by those irate at this desecration of the holy day.

There was at least one attempt by a neighbor to sound the alarm via Internet postings, but did more of the family's genuinely pious neighbors, who may have suspected something was not right, report their qualms? And if not, what happened to the principle that all Jews are responsible for one another?

Or take the attack on the Ortiz family. We've heard Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman condemn the bombing. Likewise, Penina Taylor, of Jews for Judaism, says unequivocally that her anti-missionary group denounces the "atrocity" and prays for "the complete healing of this boy and the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator[s] of this heinous crime." Amen to that.

But we'd like to hear leading rabbis in the haredi and national religious community explicitly denounce all anti-missionary violence - not just the Ortiz attack, but also the ongoing harassment in Arad and Beersheba.

Let them say what we all know: that in a sovereign Jewish state such violence is immoral, illegal and contemptible. Further, and more broadly, let our spiritual leaders declare that fanaticism - whether that embodied in the Taliban of Beit Shemesh, or in blanket prohibitions on all Arab labor - goes beyond the bounds of Judaism.

It was not only Aristotle who preached the desirability of the golden mean. Authentic Judaism, too, has always sought a balance between "too much and too little." Clearly, the lesson needs to be taught anew; and it is up to those we turn to for spiritual succor to teach it.

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