A Tale of Two Experiences: Life In Israel
I made Aliyah 25 years ago because I believed the most important expression of Judaism was to be an ardent Zionist. After living in a secular Israeli community for two years, I gained new insights and amended my perspective to believe that the most important manifestation of Judaism was to be an observant Jew. Thus my journey into Orthodoxy continued long after we returned to the States. However, had I been exposed 25 years ago to the zealous fanaticism of the Israeli Chareidim I am experiencing now during my three month stay in Beit Shemesh, I most likely would never have developed the desire to become religious.
Do not misunderstand what I am about to say. I am not against the Israeli Chareidim (Ultra-Orthodox), despite the fact that within their communities, there are ardent anti-Zionists. They are entitled to their way of life. However, in Israel, partly because there is no separation of religion and state and partly due to the local culture, the arrogance of the Chareidi religious zealots invades one’s domain and creates unacceptable intrusions on one’s life style. According to their belief set, the only genuine expression of Judaism is that of their own narrow, restrictive, parochial view and they are dedicated to forcing their will on others. The police try but rarely succeed in controlling them. Their Rabbis as well as other Chareidim are silent or unwilling to speak out against this violent minority because, in my opinion, the zealots have threatened any opponent with violence or loss of respect. This very vocal and aggressive minority of Israeli (but not Anglo) Chareidim project a lack of respect and love of their fellow Jew.
This is the primary reason why there are virtually no outdoor cafés in Ramat Beit Shemesh; why some stores post signs forbidding immodestly dressed women from entering; why there are no movie theaters, bowling alleys, pubs or nightclubs in the entire city of Beit Shemesh with a population quickly approaching 100,000. In Beit Shemesh they tried but failed to shut down a religious girl’s school and engaged in unmentionable acts of cruelty and disrespect during their protests. They demand gender segregated buses and gender separated children’s Chanukah concerts. This bus segregation is no different than the racially segregated buses in the American south of over 40 years ago: Women in the back, men in the front. Unfortunately, politicians, especially our Beit Shemesh mayor from the Shas party, pay tribute to these extremists and use them as a means to promote his personal and party power.
The list of religiously coercive activities in Israel is a long one. In a recent article by Jonathan Rosenblum in the December 21st issue of Mishpacha Magazine titled: “False Zealotry and its Victims,” (http://www.jewishmediaresources.com/1499/false-zealotry-and-its-vicitims), the author states that there is a form of religious zealotry that is not just permissible but praiseworthy. The author contunes to say that the Hasmonean revolt against the Seulucid Greeks began with Mattityahu killing a Hellenized Jew bowing down to an idol. The zealousnes of Pinchas led to his killing of Zimri and Kozbi after they defiled the Mishkan and turned Hashem's wrath from the Jewish people. Rosenblum continues, however: “Yet the Torah clearly recognized the dangers of kana'us (zealotry). … The Torah specifically relates Pinchos's descent from Aharon HaKohen…. to teach us that only one filled with Aharon's quality of pursuing peace and overwhelming love of every Jew can fill the role of the kana'I (zealot). Anyone who does not act out of that closeness to Hashem or lacks the quality of being a rodef (pursuer of) shalom is a murderer pure and simple.”
Later in this enormously insightful article, Rosenblum says “The second great damage wrought by the kana'im(religious zealots of today) is that they distort the Torah and make it ugly in the eyes of those far removed from Torah observance.” Indeed, this is a clear violation of Torah and Jewish Law. The religious zealotry of today’s misguided religious zealots are not close to the level of Mattityahu and Pinchas.
The following quote from Charles Dickens “A Tale of two Cities” sums up life in Israel. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair……”
Israel is not a utopia. However, if anyone reading this article knows where Utopia is, I beg you to reveal its location. There are enormous challenges to living in Israel. There are economic, cultural and of course, religious challenges which can make life here both complicated and aggravating. On the other hand, there are breathtaking, awe-inspiring, uniquely Jewish experiences impossible to have anywhere else. There are advantages here in addition to Kosher Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken: It is a holy land, a gift from the Almighty and the place in which Jewish destiny will unfold; Jewish religious education is free; health care is excellent and low cost. One need not take off work in order to keep Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover and all the other Jewish holidays: They are all legal national holidays. December 25 and January 1 are ordinary days, no Black Friday and Christmas lights, decorations and music are thankfully, missing. Instead the country gears up for Chanukah: Children off from school, sufganiyot everywhere and of every possible flavor. A mélange of Chanukah decorations populate the streets and highways. Children are more responsible and independent and programs, plays and parties abound for them during chol hamoed and Chanukah. The growth and dynamics of Israel’s technological advances is palpable and inspiring. Israel is one of the most technologically advanced and innovative countries in the world and a leader in medicine, science, and agriculture. Shabbat observance is special and one can sense it’s onset from Friday morning until the candle lighting time siren. Assimilation into another religion or culture is not a fear. Despite the hardships caused by religious issues, bureaucracy, financial difficulties and hostile neighbors, Israeli society is a surprisingly happy and positive place to live in.
By Mort Barr
Atlanta, GA and Ramat Beit Shemesh