Religious Zealotry, Then and Now

I love Chanukah. I love the fact that it gives us a reason to celebrate when the days are dark and (relatively) cold, and to light a light against the darkness. Last but most certainly not least, Chanukah also reminds us of the power of faith in God, and in the rightness of our cause, to carry us to victory in times of trouble, even against insurmountable odds.

This year, however, as we celebrate the ancient victory of the Maccabees, I am deeply concerned.

What inspired Judah and his family to rise up in revolt was a deep sense of outrage at the insults against Jerusalem perpetrated by the ancient Greeks. As a leading priestly family that had an intimate connection to the physical and spiritual space of the Temple, few could feel the affront of Antiochus’ oppressive rulings more passionately than they could. The Temple was their home in every sense of the word. It had been violated, and they were determined to take it back and restore it. It’s hard not to identify with their passionate anger and determination, and to admire it.

Today, however, we are seeing increasing and ever more disturbing manifestations of religious passion and zealotry in Israel that are threatening the very fabric of Israeli society. It is no longer a question of whether or not one admires the zealots. It is, rather, a question of how to stop them, and how to respond.

Extremist elements in the Ultra-Orthodox and Haredi communities in Israel are slowly but surely pushing women out of the public arena. On city buses where women and forced to sit in the rear, at public celebrations where separate seating between men and women is mandated so as “not to offend anyone,” in Israel’s army- supposedly the great leveler of Israeli society- where great effort is being exerted to prevent women from singing in public… these are but a few of the areas where what passes for “religious passion” is being used to sew seeds of division and discord in a public already conditioned to intensely dislike the religious establishment.

I have little doubt that those attempting to create these changes believe passionately in their cause, and are convinced that God is on their side. But that is exactly the point, and the problem. How do you reason with people who are convinced that they speak with the authority of God, and that those who would differ with them are horribly wrong? What is the line between passion and Hillul Hashem — desecrating God’s name?

Furious over the dismantling of their illegal West Bank outpost, Ultra-Orthodox nationalists break into an Israeli army base and throw stones at the soldiers, calling them Nazis. Are there enough words to describe exactly how offensive that kind of behavior is, and how wildly inappropriate? Again — I have no doubt that they believe passionately in their cause, and feel that they are carrying out the will of God. But if there is indeed a line between religious passion and Hillul Hashem, they surely crossed it. Who can make them understand that? How tragic that Israel’s newspapers are filled with editorials calling for them to be treated like terrorists.

We do Jewish tradition, and ourselves, a grave injustice by denying that passionate violence is part of our religious tradition. Levi, with his brother Shimon, slaughtered the entire town of his sister Dina’s rapist after its men agreed to become circumcised and join the ranks of the Israelites. His “punishment” is that he becomes the progenitor of the priestly line. Pinchas, Levi’s descendant, impales a Jewish man and Midianite woman for violating the modesty standard of the Israelite encampment. He is rewarded with the promise that the priesthood would remain in his family forever.

From earliest Jewish history, there has been a troubling but unmistakable connection between religious passion and the capacity for violence. In most instances, the problematic behaviors to which I have referred have not involved violence, with the egregious exception being the episode on the army base. But as regards the encroaching exclusion of women from public life, I dare say that the necessary precondition for violence against women- or anyone, for that matter- is a serious and concerted effort to devalue and demean them. And please don’t tell me about Eishet Chayil … it says nothing to the current situation. How vulnerable can Israeli society allow women to become?

I love Chanukah, and the story of the Maccabees continues to inspire me thousands of years after their improbable victory. But religious zealots scare me, and they scare Israel, too. And they should.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.