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The Creeping Normalcy of Religious Fanaticism

July 17, 2012 – 9:06 pm160 Comments

Are you machmir enough to wear this chumra hat?

By Alex Kats
Recently, a friend of mine who went to an all-girls Jewish day school, told me about an incident that happened to her whilst she was in upper high school. Ever since hearing about it I have been enraged and frustrated and wanting to do something about it.

It happened one morning when on the way to school she walked by a boy from a neighbouring Jewish school and nodded to him to acknowledge his presence, and he nodded back in return. They did not stop or speak, though they were not just friends, but rather they were distantly related through marriage. Not wanting to cause a scene on the street, however, they simply and courteously acknowledged each other and continued on to their respective schools a few paces away.

Later that morning, my friend was summoned to the principal’s office, an address within the school that she was acutely familiar with. On the way to the office she wondered what it could be this time, not even remembering that she had seen her family friend earlier in the day. Once in the familiar setting of the principal’s domain, she was told that a senior teacher had seen her that morning talking to a boy, an apparently serious offence at this single gender religious institution. She tried to reason with the principal, a not entirely inconsiderate individual, but realised it would be fruitless. In the end, she was given a minor punishment, but an admonishment nonetheless.

What baffled her then, and what baffles her still, quite a number of years later, is the fact that this is a supposedly religious school, yet none of the conduct relating to this incident was in any way pious. It may be the case that the school – for whatever reason – has a rule about not mingling with the opposite gender. Yet the boys school is just around the corner and it is inevitable that boys and girls will see each other on the way to or from school. Heck, some might even come to school together, and in many cases, with large families living close to each other and within walking distance of the two schools, there is probably no way of avoiding inter-gender contact. Apart from that, in this case all that happened was a nod of the head, not even a chat or a ‘hello’. Surely it would be more discourteous to not acknowledge a friend or a relative at all. I know I learned about courtesy at school and I would have thought that courtesy is a manifestation of piety, but what do I know?

Even aside from all that, my friend was reported to the principal and was reprimanded seemingly based solely on hearsay. A senior teacher apparently saw her transgress a rule. This is the same school that teaches about the horrors of loshon hora and expects students to not spread gossip, yet innuendo stemming from a teacher is apparently welcomed.

Of course this is a minor story that happened some years ago and undoubtedly the school has changed and things are different now. But this incident is a precursor to a larger issue that is definitely still relevant and is currently on the rampage. And that is the issue of religious fanaticism cloaked as mainstream Orthodox Judaism. Too often, minor inane scenarios occur in our community and too often we accept them without challenging the issues or the authorities. And when someone thick-skinned, knowledgeable, intelligent, and brave does stand up against the authorities, he is shouted down by a chorus of rabbis and community leaders, yet many of their congregants and colleagues accept his rulings surreptitiously anyway. Whether it be kashrut, tzniut, kol isha, conversion, synagogue acceptance, or any range of issues, the mainstream Orthodox community seems to be moving more and more to the extreme.

In the Torah itself, there are stories of women reading from the Torah and singing in front of men.  In Europe 150 years ago, Orthodox rabbis allowed people to convert who were clearly doing so for ulterior motives in contradiction of halacha, but based on specific circumstances; whilst even in Australia, just 50 years ago, Orthodox synagogues had choirs with female members and services were often conducted with piano accompaniment on Shabbat. However, if any of these things or similar are even discussed these days, they instantly draw the ire of the Orthodox community. I recently heard an Orthodox man tell me that I should not even talk about such things as they are blasphemous, let alone consider doing them. And this is the case not just in Australia but all over the world. In the UK for instance, if a convert decides to be less religious than they were when they first converted, then the London Beit Din – which is the strictest in the world – apparently deems it appropriate to revoke a conversion. How absolutely ridiculous!

In line with this, a few weeks ago, a former Israeli army General was in Melbourne. He is a religious fellow and talked about some of the incidents that he experienced in the army as a religious soldier and later as a General. Some of the incidents, particularly about religious ignorance or intolerance, left him frustrated; so together with a religious academic friend, he developed an educational course that is now compulsory for all Israeli soldiers. Its purpose is to teach Judaism to the IDF so that the soldiers know what they are defending and why. In the process, he and his partner also developed a conversion course for the many former Soviet and other immigrants who have questionable Jewish status when they arrive in Israel. Inevitably his course is regularly criticised and only has fringe support from the all-powerful Israeli rabbinate (though just enough support to be considered vaguely legitimate).

When questioned about this and about the broader issue of religious extremism, he said that it all stems from the proliferation of Yeshivot and synagogues, and the apparent need for Charedi and so many baal teshuva men in particular, to become rabbis. Yeshiva study is a good thing, and synagogue attendance and rabbinic ordinations are equally good things, he said, but when people abandon their lives and secular pursuits for the sake of the Yeshiva, or when a new synagogue opens up every time there is a minor dispute, then in his view, this is a step too far and partly explains why Judaism all over the world is tending towards fanaticism.

He also said that with the constant availability of the internet, it is possible for people to become ‘experts’ without actually knowing about the practical details of a situation. People might have peripheral knowledge that they gained online, but do not really know enough to mount a decisive argument, so they therefore tend towards the extreme view to legitimise and cover up their lack of real understanding.

So when people like him start their courses, when a hechsher is given to a religiously supervised vegetarian restaurant, when a product is made not in the usual way, or when a synagogue starts that is not like every other Orthodox institution, these things are seen as being marginal rather than standard despite being within the strict confines of halacha.

And all of this is exemplified even more by ridiculous incidents like the one that happened to my friend during her schooling, that I’m sure was not a one-off at that school or within our community. Obviously private schools can set their own rules, but surely school rules should be reflective of the law and community values. If even a non-verbal acknowledgement of a student of the opposite sex is a transgression, and if the alleged reporting of such an ‘incident’ warrants punishment, then that says a lot about the views of such a school and the community within which it sits.

All of this in recent years has made me question my own religious commitment, and I have been inclined in some elements to move slightly away from Orthodoxy, albeit reluctantly, but without much opposition, because I am not comfortable with the direction that much of the Orthodox community is moving in. Religious fanaticism has become the bane of many communities around the world and is permeating our Jewish community as well. I hope one day that stories like the one my friend experienced become a thing of the past, and that the mainstream reclaims its status as being moderate, accepting and anything but the extreme.


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