One woman’s extremism is another woman’s truth

There's violence in our midst; why are we quibbling over how stringent authentic Judaism is?
The cover of 'Mishpacha' newspaper, featuring Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (screen shot: Twitter via JTA)
The cover of 'Mishpacha' newspaper, featuring Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (screen shot: Twitter via JTA)

I once heard it said, tongue in cheek, that the word frum, pious in Yiddish, means that anyone to the right of me in religious practice is a fanatic and to the left of me is modern.

There is nowhere where this is more apparent than in the online discussions being conducted in the aftermath of Mishpacha magazine’s recent pixelation of women from a Holocaust-era picture. The vociferous internet debates center on the question of whether excluding pictures of women from mainstream Haredi magazines and circulars is a perversion or reflection of traditional Jewish values.

Proponents of excluding pictures of women argue that it is a practice in line with more machmir, more stringent religious rulings, and while it may not be normative halachah and thus a mandatory practice, it has a sound basis in Jewish tradition, intended to prevent men from ogling women. As Rabbi Yair Hoffman writes, funnily enough in an article discussing Mishpacha’s controversial inclusion of a silhouette of Hilary Clinton on their front cover, “Most poskim [halachic decisors] seem to learn that it is, in fact, not halachically forbidden to look at pictures of women, but that it is strongly discouraged…one should view them [those who hold that men should not view pictures of women] as adhering to a valid halachic opinion.”

Others argue that it is Talibanesque, oppressive and degrading to women, and a symptom of a growing trend in religious circles toward extremism. As women’s-rights activist Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll commented in a Facebook post, “I speak out against extremism and erasing women because it is an affront to the Judaism I know and love… I am not bitter or angry, other than at those who allow extremism to ruin the precious world we were given, which came with balance and kavod, and have the gall to call it Torah.”

It appears then that one person’s extremism is another person’s truth.

One person’s commitment to halachic Jewish observance is someone else’s fanatical observance of it.

The great medieval scholar, Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra, quoting a concept mentioned in the Talmud, tells us there are shivim panim laTorah, 70 perspectives to everything written in the Torah. We find that for most halachic rulings, there are other, equally valid halachic decisors who disagree with the conclusions drawn, who provide a contradictory interpretation, who rule more leniently or more stringently on the same issue.

When we conflate more stringent halachic observance of Jewish law with extremism and fanaticism, we risk obfuscating the issue of genuine and dangerous extremism, which deserves the strong condemnation from those on every spectrum of Jewish observance.

When we condemn the machmir halachic observance more commonly seen in Haredi communities, and conversely, when we view any pointing out of flaws within the Haredi community as an attempt to undermine the Haredi value system, we turn discussions of issues into a fight over which form of Judaism — more stringent- or more lenient-leaning — is more authentic, and we lose sight of the real threat in our midst.

Genuine extremism is when proponents of particular beliefs turn to violence, aggression and intimidation in an attempt to uphold their faith. Ironically, extremism seems oblivious to the fact that the use of violence and aggression contradicts the precepts of the very value systems being fought for.

Extremism is when a pro-life activist firebombs an abortion clinic, killing the people inside.

It is when an adherent of Islam, the religion of peace, blows himself up at a rock concert.

And in religious Jewish circles in Israel, it is when those in insular enclaves in Jerusalem or Beit Shemesh or any other place physically attack soldiers or harass women who dress less modestly than their wives and mothers, all in the name of upholding G-d’s law.

It is when yeshivah bachurim protesting the draft and its consequence — their inability to study Torah full time  — leave the study halls and take to the streets, blocking traffic, burning garbage and intimidating passersby.

It is when guests at a wedding dance with raised guns, guns intended to be used for self-defense, holding pictures of an innocent Palestinian baby, Ali Saad Dawabsheh, burned to death in an arson attack on his home.

This is the extremism we need to take a stand against.

Let’s not pixelate out the dividing lines between stringent religious observance and religious extremism.

About the Author
Originally from Australia, Sara Bonchek now lives in Beit Shemesh with her husband and five children, where she writes, edits and keeps house.
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