The attack by small segments of the Hareidi society on the place of women, not just their own, but all women, is only one component of what appears to be an increasing growth of a form of clannishness that has run amok not only in Israel but in the US too. If you do not ascribe to the rules of this particular Hareidi tribe you are considered a threat and therefore, in their view it is justifiable to be attacked.

Concurrent with the increasing reports of aggressiveness — from the destruction of a bookstore selling books not approved by these Hareidim, spitting on women who refuse to sit in the back of the bus to attacking an 8-year-old girl deemed by them as immodest — we are also seeing an attempt by pundits to understand the cause for these irrational behaviors. There is undoubtedly no religious basis for it. In a New York Times op-ed Rabbi Dov Linzer clearly pointed out that according to the Talmud, licentiousness is not the task of the woman, no matter how immodest her appearance, but is solely the mans responsibility. If a man is turned on by a woman it is his self control that is at stake and he has no right to blame anyone else. He can always look away from her. Similarly, if a bookstore sells a range of texts that are beyond a limited religious worldview a shopper has no right to remove what he perceives as offensive. He can however, always remove himself. But these Torah directives do not apply for this Hareidi segment.

Several theories have been circulated to try to understand why these few radicals take the actions that they do with increasing vehemence and attempt to turn the blame on the recipient of their violence when victims respond. One theory is that these Hareidi men do not engage with the outside world, spending their entire lives cloistered in yeshivas. Their mothers, sisters, and wives on the other hand do engage with the world working, shopping or socializing. The men fear decreasing power, influence, and status compared to their women and in attempt to control their feelings act to subordinate women in ways Judaism never demanded, or even allowed.

Another possible explanation relates to a sense of tribalism. Few of the religious leaders within the Hareidi communities have ever spoken out against Hareidi violence. When they have, it has always been carefully couched in diplomatic language so obscure that it is hard to make the connection to the offenders or their behaviors. Take the recent attacks against the eight-year-old girl. Agudas Yisroel of America issued a statement (12/28/11) indicating that attacks are not justified, and are even reprehensible. Reading the statement though is akin to trying to decipher a Ponzi scheme couched in a paradox. The first paragraph speaks in generalities about proper behaviors while the remaining paragraphs implicate Israeli “politicians and secularists” for seeing the problem as a broad Hareidi issue, but more so – speaking about the importance for women to dress and act modestly.

Many see this statement as justifying attacks on those deemed immodest by simply spending more than two thirds of the declaration on the topic of Tzniut not the reprehensible behavior of these few troublemakers. The same author in a letter to the editor of the New York Times (1/27/12) stated “to give particular care to matters of modesty in times of widespread societal licentiousness are about one thing only: honoring the Jewish religious tradition.” Although it may have been edited out there is no clear statement by this Agudas Yisroel representative that attacks are reprehensible simply that Rabbi Linzer’s article is astounding in that he pointed out those directives about modesty may be related to certain men controlling women. (I have been on the receiving end of this Rabbis’ invective when he disagreed with things I have said. After sending me many attacking E mails I finally asked him to stop contacting me. When he started again and I pointed out that he misquoted me and my position and I still did not wish to communicate with him, his response was “if you wish to continue to fume…” Again an attack!) The idea that the position they take can never be wrong is the only point individuals who are so rigid assume.

Essentially, the tribal approach to these issues mean that leaders who are supporters of those who are revered become deified too while anyone else who challenges them runs the risk of being attacked, or worse, called irrelevant. Zeal has no boundaries among those who wish to belong and thus obfuscation of the true problem, in this case the savage behavior of a few Hareidi individuals, while not deemed permissible is treated as a superficial aside while focusing on their excuse for aggressiveness thereby justifying the behavior.

Another explanation for the rising brazen intensity among this small group has been linked to the international rise of religious fundamentalism. As the bar for the demand of religious acceptance internationally has been lowered the demand for more stringent acceptance of increasingly radical demands intensifies. You can never be wrong if you call it gods’ directive. All three of these theories lead to a form of Stockholm syndrome among victims and their supporters while validating the expression of sympathy even encouragement for those who are the attackers.

There is a much more parsimonious explanation. In 1956 the noted social-psychologist Leon Festinger published his groundbreaking study of a religious group that predicted the coming end of the world. The book, aptly titled When Prophecy Fails, described in detail the behaviors and attitudes of a group of fervent believers. The believers prepared for the end of the world but on the appointed day the end did not arrive. The group did not become disbelievers of the prophecy, they did not even disband. They dealt with the conflicting themes of the end not arriving, the reality, with their absolute prophecy that it would, by altering their religious goal. The new belief that emerged was that they were spared by their god to proselytize for the future and spare others from certain doom in the future.

Festinger called this adjustment to conflicting thoughts the theory of cognitive dissonance which is defined as the tension which arises when two conflicting thoughts exist simultaneously and how they are then reconciled. This theory is one of the most influential in psychology and has spawned a plethora of studies.

A study of how Mormons processed the change in 1997 from believing that god is an exalted man to a broader belief that downplayed god’s gender caused some dissonance for those who viewed their doctrine as immutable. And, like those in Festinger’s earlier study they seem to have resolved this cognitive conflict by increasing their commitment and belief. In studies of people who have been abused a common outcome is that the abuser is deified by the victim. We have seen this repeatedly in academic situations. If a Rabbi is verbally abusive or even hits a student, the students who survive their victimization believe that it is only because of the Rabbi that they have “become a man.”

Additional studies over the years have looked at intellectual abilities and cognitive dissonance with some indicating that those who are smarter tend to be better able to resolve their dissonance and those who are unable to think for themselves are more likely to suffer dissonance. Interestingly, a common criticism of fervently religious individuals is that they choose not to think for themselves. This would mean that they suffer intense dissonance which can only be resolved for them by blindly following their leaders and attacking disbelievers. In Judaism one would expect this pattern to be mitigated as Jewish Halacha is predicated on the rabbinic tradition of study hall give and take.

Balance theory, which is related to cognitive dissonance, suggests that most people seek a balance or consonance between their own views and the views of others. This theory has a mathematical formulation which is designed to understand how a group evolves into a balanced state of consonance even when there is conflict between the hard logic of reality and strongly held belief. Invariably, according to the equation, feelings are constantly being updated and dissonance is slowly altered. Politicians are accused of being shifty when they change their position but this can be seen by Balance Theory as an example of adjusting their dissonance when they are confronted by the dissonance of new and different information.

Religious believers feel intense dissonance when their partners have differing beliefs. When this occurs there is often a cognitive change to rationalize the dissonance.  For this to happen though, requires there to be a sense of connection between the two parties. And herein is the rub – the Hareidi who are the most aggressive tend to be the most removed and least likely to engage with others. For them there is no possibility for changing the dissonance because they see no break between their reality and belief hence, no dissonance, no need to reconcile. They are also conditioned to follow rules without exploring consequences. And, they are most often supported in their beliefs by others too fearful to confront them. The abuse is simply allowed to continue.

This is a pessimistic evaluation but I believe it is also a realistic one. If we are to find a path to consonance with individuals whose beliefs are extreme we must find a way to engage them via religion, intellect or even through the legal process. If the cognitive dissonance is so great that they cannot be engaged there may never be a point of departure where we may meet one another.