It started with attempts to protect sexual offenders and child abusers –going so far as co-opting a public official into treating justice as a religious choice rather than an American right. It then moved to vilifying an alleged rape victim with thousands rallying in support of an unlicensed therapist accused of raping a young girl. It peaked when more than 40,000 filled the otherwise empty seats at Citi-Field in Queens, spilling over into the nearby Arthur Ashe Stadium, to hear about why Jews must avoid the Internet. God forbid anyone would get real information, become more aware, or possibly learn to think for himself.
A few years back, I heard Christian pastor John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel, proclaim, “Where are the nations that have persecuted the Jewish people? Where is Pharaoh and his army? Where are the Babylonians? Where are the Greeks? Where is the Ottoman Empire? Where are the Romans? Where is that goose-stepping lunatic Adolf Hitler and his Nazi hoards? All are historic footnotes in the boneyard of human history. Where is Israel? Where are the Jewish people? They’re alive and well; they’re thriving; they’re prospering; they’re growing… they’re still going forward.”
It gave me chills to hear a gentile recount the challenges the Jewish people faced; how they overcame each and every one, time and again. The very essence of Jewish history — its survival through history as one of the oldest religions in the world and a nation that has withstood repeated conquest and time — has been its willingness to adapt, its innovative nature, its steadfast faith in God, and the belief in the coming of a Messiah to unify and return them to their kingdom.
Judaism is not the isolationist, controlling life-system that the growing charedi phenomenon makes it seem to be — a rigid system that demands obedience to man-made stringencies that obscure the purer nature of Judaism;. the inviting and selfless nature of Abraham, who would leave God’s side to talk to strangers and invite them to rest, and to refresh them with food. Judaism is about engaging with the world, moderating the tension between adhering to God’s law and being an active participant in God’s world. Judaism is about believing that God created science and the processes for technology when He created everything else, making any conflict between science and God man made, not divine.
If the growing trend of the recalcitrant communities of charedi continues, and the orthodox community in general continues its turn to an extreme right, the Jews of the Book will cease to be Jewish and become another religion entirely. Those who view governments run by the Taliban, or ones heavily dominated by radical Islam, as oppressive, that keep their masses controlled, closed-off and mired in narrow interpretations of tradition, will begin adding Jews to that list.
Israel is one of the most pioneering countries because of its natural resource of Jews from every corner of the earth. Is it possible that what is now considered a Startup Nation can well become an ignorant, uninspiring people who fail to grow, and slowly devolve?
Throughout the centuries, the Jewish people were known for the pursuit of knowledge while remaining true to their beliefs. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the great sage of modern Orthodoxy, is believed to have synthesized the importance of the relationship between the secular world and Torah Judaism, understood in the term, “Torah U’mada” or Torah and secular knowledge. It also contained the essence of Tikkun Olam (healing the world) through positive Jewish communal involvement with the broader community.
Another giant from the grander ages of Jewish scholarship, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, founder of what is called “neo-orthodoxy,” taught the philosophy of “Torah im Derech Eretz,” or Torah with “the way of the land,” to demonstrate that Jews play an important role giving back to world they live in.
Neither Soloveitchik nor Hirsch had dictatorial tendencies, so neither felt he had to control people to the point of stagnation. In fact, they felt the opposite; the pursuit of knowledge would make the Jewish community stronger.
Could the early pioneers of modern Israel have moved mountains, pressed world leaders, negotiated treaties, built munitions out of sticks and stones, and won wars against stronger, better armed nations and armies had they been under the influence of this model of denial?
When 1,000 men gather in Brooklyn to call the woman who cried rape a whore, Judaism’s matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah spin in their graves and wonder how such extreme misogyny developed. When the leading religious body for religious Jewry convinces the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles Hynes, to essentially cover up sex crimes and child abuse within the religious communities to protect the suspects and essentially disparage the victims, particularly where the perpetrators are men, the talmudic teaching of “Dina d’malchuta dina,” “the law of the land is the law”, gets erased from history.
When over 40,000 men fill a stadium bedazzled with digitized Budweiser ads to see their leaders on a jumbo television demand that they all shun technology and tune the world out, when there are very effective methods of preventing pornography and other unwanted materials from displaying, we know it is about maintaining control. The roughly $2 million spent on renting the Met’s home for the day could have been better spent on community-wide Internet security, distribution of useful preventative materials, or better yet, food and provisions for the truly impoverished among them.
The Internet has been used by the voiceless within these communities to find the resources needed to help overcome adversities. Rallying against the Internet as a whole is a means to blocking out any ideas or facts that interfere with the tight control often exercised over these groups . The leaders believe that they cannot confront rational ideas, progress, and modernity head on, for fear of losing the power they have. Instead, they demonize it and incite false fear of God’s wrath to keep the lie going.
Early sages saw something inherently wrong with devoting one’s life exclusively to the study of Torah if that meant shutting oneself off completely from the outside world, because they thought it sinful to intentionally reject the world around them; it was seen as a distortion of the Torah itself. God gave humans the ability to think, and He gave humans the resources needed to better the world he was given, along with the ability to create and build. To deny that is cafeteria-style religion. Sure there are dangerous places on the Internet, but to be so immersed in spiritual pursuits as those who live among the charedi do, is to intrinsically know right from wrong, as well. Self-control is a much more useful lesson than censorship. It is human nature to want what we cannot have.
At some point, Judaism around the world will have to confront the growing epidemic of devolution. The people who outlasted everything man and nature could throw its way will soon cease to have the ability to fend for itself. Is that the road to redemption?
Juda Engelmayer is an executive with the NY PR agency, 5WPR