Center Field: Taliban Judaism does not work in modern world

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post as:

Radicals Aren’t Necessarily More Authentic

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-28-09

Once again haredim held massive, violent demonstrations over the opening of a parking lot on Shabbat near the Old City. Somehow, some bizarre rabbinic dispensation allows haredi radicals to launch their own unholy war on Shabbat, desecrating it by rioting. Other controversies regarding conversion and appointing Zionist chief rabbis for Jerusalem feed perceptions of a “religious-secular” divide.

Parking lot riots. Taliban Judaism does not work in the

modern world. PHOTO: Ariel Jerozolimski

Actually, the push for a Zionist chief rabbi proves this is not a religious-secular issue but a clash pitting violent haredi radicals against patriotic Zionists. In this struggle, Orthodox Jews from around the world and Religious Zionists in Israel must stand strong. Those two (overlapping) communities must send a clear message to the haredi radicals, saying “back off.” The message must be reinforced by religious Zionists fighting for quality of life in the State of Israel as ardently as many fight for every inch of the Land of Israel and by Orthodox Jews threatening to cut off donations to all haredi institutions if haredi violence persists.

It is difficult to quantify how much money flows from Orthodox Jews abroad to haredi institutions here, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is considerable. Imagine if those legendary Orthodox Jewish visitors who love to visit yeshivot in Mea She’arim and ask how much it costs to feed the kids lunch, then donate a week of lunches, changed their tunes. What if they said, “We would love to donate, but first reassure us that your community had nothing to do with the recent violence.”

What if others specifically targeted those rabbis and yeshivot who have been acting like hooligans and cut off the money spigot from Brooklyn and the Five Towns, from Paris and London, from Melbourne and Cape Town? This money message should accompany a moral message from rabbis and leading authorities throughout the Diaspora and Israel. Rabbinic authorities with impeccable religious pedigrees must denounce haredi extremists.

LEAVING THE FIGHT to so-called “secular” Israelis exacerbates tensions. Alternatively, if religious and non-religious Jews stood together in this struggle, even while agreeing to disagree on other issues, it would reduce Israel’s growing polarization, wherein a Right-Left divide on security increasingly parallels a religious-secular divide regarding lifestyle, philosophy, pluralism and tolerance.

Orthodox and religious Zionist rabbis who are so pure of heart they dismiss all this as “politics” and beneath them ignore the conflict’s religious dimensions. Anyone who prays for the State of Israel, says Hallel, the prayer of thanksgiving, on its birthday, or speaks about it as a “redemption” or “salvation” cannot stand idly by while hooligans threaten “to set the whole country… on fire.”

Moreover, for decades now religious Zionists and Orthodox Jews have been in denial about how much harm religious extremists do to those of us laboring to bring the masses of alienated Jews back to Judaism.

Taliban Judaism does not work in the modern world. The all-or-nothing, command-and-control approach of the haredim and (I am sorry to say) of much of the Israeli rabbinate alienates millions. Awash in freedom, most Jews today have to embrace Judaism voluntarily. This is not an argument for watering down Judaism. Rather, it is an argument for focusing on its essential positive messages, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught, and avoiding desecrations through violence or political coercion.

UNFORTUNATELY, TOO many Orthodox Jews and religious Zionists are not just bystanders to haredi and rabbinic extremism but enablers. Too many fear the extremists. This cowardice comes from a brand of religious one-upsmanship extremists the world over have mastered. People from the center, no matter how passionate or pure, end up having their credentials questioned by the ayatollahs in religion and the commissars in politics. Too many modern Orthodox Jews and religious Zionists act insecure when amid their more radical brethren.

Radicals are more radical, not necessarily more authentic. Nevertheless, modern Orthodox families in North America send their kids (as well as their cash) to “learn” in yeshivot that are far to their Right. We also see Diaspora communities held hostage on matters of kashrut certification by the most extreme forces. In Israel, the mainstream religious voices refuse to take on the violent haredim.

Fortunately, some heroes have emerged. In Jerusalem, Rachel Azaria of Hitorerut-Yerushalmim (the Wake-up Jerusalemites party) has been an important force for change. A religious Zionist activist, Azaria led an insurgent grassroots campaign and ended up on the city council. She and her party have organized demonstrations demanding a Zionist chief rabbi for Jerusalem. They support Mayor Nir Barkat’s attempts to find a compromise on the Shabbat parking lot issue that will serve non-religious Jews seeking to visit the capital on Israel’s one full weekly day off.

Others, like the Tzohar rabbis, have sought to be, as their slogan celebrates, a bridge between the two worlds, giving non-religious Israelis more user-friendly rabbis when marrying, divorcing and celebrating a circumcision or bar mitzva. In North America, Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future has run programs training Israeli rabbis in the kind of pastoral duties too many neglect because they are deployed by the Chief Rabbinate and not beholden to congregants.

Still, in the face of haredi violence, the religious story has been much more one of the “silence of the (kosher) lambs.” Orthodox and religious Zionist cowardice does tremendous harm. We need mainstream religious rabbinic authorities in Israel and the Diaspora to confront the haredi bullies and repudiate violence, especially on Shabbat, with words and deeds.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. He splits his time between Jerusalem and Montreal.


Gil Troy: My Jerusalem jogging track

Center Field: My Jerusalem jogging track

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-26-09

Almost every morning, I walk my children to school in Baka, in south-central Jerusalem, then jog toward the Old City. I jog 35 to 45 minutes. But I journey through thousands of years, celebrating Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s eternal capital and the spiritual focal point for billions. Doctors debate if jogging is good for your body; my Jerusalem jogging track uplifts my soul.

In Baka, I enjoy the jumble of houses and the mix of people. The Anglo and French immigrants-by-choice often live in the renovated houses. Many older neighbors arrived after Arab countries expelled them in the 1950s. Today, they are citizens, not perpetual refugees. I appreciate the flat, lush terrain amid the hills of the Judean Desert, especially in the stately German Colony.

Already, five minutes into my jog, I have traversed Jewish history. Many Baka street names are biblical. I jog along Jacob’s sons: Judah, Zebulun, Levi. My German Colony route honors non-Jews who helped Jews: Emile Zola, the French novelist whose “J’Accuse” defended Alfred Dreyfus against anti-Semitism; Lloyd George, Britain’s prime minister when Lord Balfour recognized Jews’ right to a homeland. Setting out along Derech Beit Lehem, the road to Bethlehem, I pass three institutions symbolizing modern Jerusalem’s cultural vitality. The Khan Theater, built where a Crusader inn once stood, is one of two excellent theaters in walking distance from our house.

The Menachem Begin Heritage Center’s fabulous interactive museum commemorates one of Israel’s founders, while hosting weekly Torah portion discussions, historical conferences, a mock Knesset for students. Behind Begin, archeologists found a First-Temple-era priestly burial site, discovering an engraving of the Torah’s Priestly Blessing, with which we bless our children every Friday night. Further down, the cutting-edge Cinematheque hovers over the Hinnom Valley, known in the Hebrew Bible as Gei (the valley of) Ben Hinnom. Because ancient pagans sacrificed children to Moloch there, “Gehenna” now means hell. This is sobering stuff for a morning jog – but one of many reminders how Judaism civilized the region.

CROSSING HELL, I ascend to the Old City. Mount Zion’s green, sculpted slope reflects the remarkable efforts of so many worldwide to beautify Jerusalem, especially through the Jerusalem Foundation, in this case working with JNF Canada. One friend calls Jerusalem every Jew’s synagogue; all want to make their lasting contribution. To my left into the valley is the no-man’s-land that divided the city for 19 years when the Jordanians occupied east Jerusalem. I often enter the Old City imagining some historical figure resting on my shoulder.

One day King David or King Solomon might be admiring what of his handiwork survived. Another day it might be a medieval rabbi, a Holocaust victim or my own paternal grandfather, who all longed to visit the magical city I enter easily. Coming through Zion Gate, the Jewish Quarter’s lifeline blocked in 1948 which IDF soldiers freed in 1967, I enter the Armenian Quarter. Occasionally, I notice a “map of the Armenian genocide.” Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge its crimes against the Armenians depresses me, as does the world’s indifference to Rwanda’s Tutsis in the 1990s and Sudan’s Darfuris today.

IN THE JEWISH Quarter, I vary my route. Sometimes, I pass the Broad Wall, a 23-foot-wide outer wall from the First Temple period, probably destroyed in 586 BCE. Sometimes, I glimpse the Western Wall, which survived the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 CE. Sometimes, I climb the stairs at the end of Rehov Chabad to appreciate the Old City’s skyline with curved rooftops, modern satellite dishes, hanging laundry and sacred Christian, Muslim, Jewish sites jutting into the air. Sometimes, I pass the majestic Hurva Synagogue, its new dome now dominating the Jewish Quarter skyline. Arab rioters destroyed the Hurva, meaning ruin, in 1720, long before Zionism began. Rebuilt in 1864, Jordanian troops ruined it again in 1948. After 1967, Jews rebuilt only one large arch suggesting the dome’s grand height. Recently, this homage to McDonald’s became one of four arches supporting the new dome. The rebuilt synagogue opens soon. The Jewish Quarter tends the past while growing in the present, preserving history without being mummified. Children rush to school above Roman streets. Men wrapped in tallit and tefillin roam. Women scurry in the direction of the Temple Mount or the new city. All reflect the 42-year renaissance since Jews returned to the quarter the Jordanians desecrated.

Leaving the Jewish Quarter, I wander the Arab market, the shouk. Sometimes I jog through the Muslim shouk, smelling the spices, hearing the birds chirp, staring at the butchers’ carcasses hanging for all to see (and breathe on). Sometimes I jog through the Christian Quarter, with its wide streets. Usually I jog up David Street watching merchants arrange their touristy trinkets, exit Jaffa Gate back toward the new city, cross Yemin Moshe, the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the Old City, pass its famous windmill from 1857, then return home. I move seamlessly between the quarters. In years of jogging through Jerusalem, during calm times and after terror attacks, I have never felt fearful. I have never witnessed Arabs and Jews quarreling – or any arguments in the Old City (except when people bargain). I am not naïve. I know the tensions, frustrations, angers. I pass markers commemorating terrorist stabbings and the 14A bus bombing. But I experience the Jerusalem most Jerusalemites experience daily, a city of normal hustle and bustle amid powerful historical and spiritual currents, a city once violently divided now blessedly united. A city that works and prays, learns and plays.

A city that for the overwhelming majority of its residents, an overwhelming majority of the time, lives up to its name, Jerusalem, the city of peace. A city heroes liberated in 1967, 42 years ago yesterday, tended for decades by visionaries like mayor Teddy Kollek, which deserves to be celebrated today and everyday. Happy Yom Yerushalayim.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, was recently published by Basic Books. He divides his time between Montreal and Jerusalem.