Religious fundamentalists of all religions walk their religionism lock-step to the right each time they feel threatened, enforcing totalitarian-style ghettos, whose walls are made of rules upon rules, fences on top of fences just as strong as the real thing. And they manage to do this in the midst of thriving democracies.

Israel is dealing with Jewish ghettos in the 21st century. I remember walking through Mea Shearim. It reminded me of photos from the early 20th century of Delancy Street in New York. More than that, there seemed to be a dress code meant to reveal the level of one’s piety. And the style, straight out of 19th century Poland, is worn in climates like Israel and summers in Montreal and Toronto.

Democracies cannot afford such communities. The children in these ghettos are denied the ability to think, to choose, to develop a sense of individualism, to access information, and often the ability to earn a living beyond their walls. It is a world without enlightenment. Staying in these closed-off neighbourhoods, these children are susceptible to abuse; intellectual, sexual, physical, and emotional.

I read an interview with Rabbi Dov Lipman, the first American to be elected to the Israeli Knesset. He described himself as an Ultra-orthodox educator and then defined his meaning of ultra-orthodox:  “If ultra-orthodox means someone who is anti-Zionist, anti-education, anti-work force, and only wears a white shirt, black pants and a black hat, then I am not ultra-orthodox. But if it means complete devotion to traditional Jewish law, then I am ultra-orthodox.”

His concerns about ultra-orthodoxy, what I call “religionism,” mirror some of mine. He expressed concern about Jews who shun the real world, the secular world and secular knowledge.

Why do we allow ourselves to give up our free-will to be swayed by the teachings of others?  Why do we so easily forget God’s admonition “Beware of letting your heart be seduced; if you go astray, serve other gods and bow down to them…You will quickly perish” ?(Deut 11:16-17)

Jewish people, like any other religious group, are open to the dangers of fundamentalism. It’s a response to fear. God gave us the blessing and the curse, life and death and said, unequivocally-choose life. CHOOSE is the pivotal word. We’re being told that we must make choices in life, personal choices. We’re born with an innate free will-think Adam and Eve. But free will must be tended like a precious garden or it will wilt and die.

Fundamentalism thrives on a need for authority, a type of idol worship that encourages submission rather than freedom. Two young Mormon boys came to my door one day. They told me about a Jewish woman who had converted because finally there was an authority-the first since Moses, to tell her what to do.

 “Whenever and wherever religious fundamentalism dominates, blind faith clouds objective and rational thinking. If such forces take hold in a society, they create a mindset unfavourable for critical inquiry, with its need to question wisdom.” Quoting Pervez Hoodbhoy, one of South Asia’s leading nuclear physicists.

Religion was never meant to simplify and replace thought. Religion practiced this way removes all ambiguity and doubt.  Everything’s made to be black or white with no shades of gray. Faith becomes fixed. Feeling replaces thought and one is taught to trust the heart not the head.  It’s far easier to persuade the heart with oratory than it is to persuade the head with fact.

When we were removed from the Garden of Eden, God withdrew his total control and authority over us, forcing us to think for ourselves, developing our free will.  Bahya Ben Joseph wrote in the 12th century that searching for truth opens a man’s soul to the flow of divine grace.

We must all be like Adam and Eve: students and seekers of knowledge all our lives; to consult our conscience in the study of Scripture. “Learn and interpret, search and examine, and act according to the conclusions that appear to you to be fully attested by solid evidence.” (From J. Agus-The Evolution of Jewish Thought)

Religion needs to breathe to live and grow. It can’t when kept hidden behind walls or locked firmly in the past.  This is a recipe for disaster. We see it in the Arab world.

It is a shunda that it has come to Israel. We are the people who taught “you will care for the stranger for you were once a stranger in a strange land.”

Israel is dealing with Jewish hate mongers:  Nazi-style propaganda posters against other Jews.

Attacks against women praying at the wall.

And against  our own sons who are soldiers for the Jewish nation.

Jewish fundamentalists are a blight on all of us. Like all fundamentalists they thrive on spewing hate for “the other.” This cannot be allowed.

And when they break the law, justice must be blind to be fair.

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