Last night was extremely difficult for me.
Seeing those Israelis in Cyprus cleared of rape (but guilty of plenty of other stuff) wearing kippot and giving thanks to God for “saving them” made me ill. Part of my reaction was based on what they did. Part of my reaction was based on what they represent.
A quick background on the story: A couple of weeks ago, 12 Israelis vacationing in Cyprus were arrested for sexually assaulting (raping) a British tourist. Since then, this woman has retracted her charges and is being charged with placing a false complaint. Having said that, there is no dispute that many of these teens had sexual relations with her, filmed the action, and sent the video out on social media. Anyone wanting to read more about the sordid story can do so here.
Seeing them on TV, it is clear that these teens come from what is known as Masorati or traditional families. Meaning – they are not classically Orthodox Jews who carefully (at least in theory) keep Jewish law with all its fine points. They keep some parts of the tradition, feeling a connection to the tradition, but not necessarily bound to it. In addition, and this is a delicate point, Masorati Jews are typically Sefardi Jews. Ashkenazim can be much more binary in their approach to Torah Judaism. Yes, I realize that I just made a huge generalization but this is a well-known phenomenon in Israel. Go to a typical Ashkenazi Modern Orthodox synagogue on Friday night. All or the vast majority of men will be wearing a white buttoned down shirt and trousers. Now go to a typical Sefardi synagogue on Friday night. You will see men dressed in everything from torn jeans to black suits. In addition, many have beliefs about asking for God’s intervention, beliefs that are more than problematic.
Sunday night on TV, these boys and their families were talking about God intervening, about open miracles, singing a popular song by Eyal Golan (there is an irony here that I will not get into; google him), including the words “We are believers, the sons of believers.” This reaction to the news disgusted me, yet represents an incredible dark side to much of Masoriti practice.
Maybe these young men actually do believe that God intervened, because, frankly, many Masorati people have beliefs that verge on superstition. Regardless of how you live your life (including having group sex with a woman, filming it, and throwing her out of the room when you finish with her), you can pray at a gravesite, get a bracha (blessing) from a rabbi, wear a kameiya (amulet), kiss a mezuza, say Nishmat kol chai (a prayer), wear a red thread, whatever, and things will go good for you. When Madonna talks this way, we laugh. However, when men go to Cyprus and act like animals and then talk this way, it is not so funny anymore.
In many ways, the institution or concept of Masorati is actually wonderful. It totally prevents the Ashkenazi binary thinking of “you’re in or you’re out” that is such an incredible curse. It keeps alive a connection to 3,000 years of Jewish history and practice. But as practiced by many, it is a complete distortion of anything related to Torah, the complete opposite of
ומה ה’ דורש ממך כי אם עשות משפט ואהבת חסד והצנע לכת עם אלקיך (מיכה ה)
What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 5)