I recently read an article in Forward magazine on the 17 biggest threats facing the Jewish people. It polled 17 rabbis from across American Jewish denominations.
The one threat most agreed was apathy/indifference to Judaism and Israel. Two rabbis thought Jewish fundamentalism/Haredim was the biggest threat. Internal divisions and McCarthyist-like turning on one another also scored significantly.
(Author disclaimer: I experienced particularly nasty Facebook vitriol myself earlier this year, while leading an Australian Labor Party Mission to Israel. I had re-posted a Nahum Barnea article criticising Bibi Netanyahu, and the comments I received from Jewish people I did not know or had never met was insulting, disgusting, and beneath contempt. My non-Jewish friends were horrified that Jews could turn on each other so quickly and easily.)
But in Melbourne, Australia we have recently discovered a hidden threat to the Jewish community that none of us realised was so invidious and dangerous. The threat is a clear and present danger the likes of which could possibly unravel Orthodox Jewish life forever in this city of 50,000 Jews. What is this hazard to our way of life?
Jewish women who are wanting to connect to Torah.
In September this year, a number of Orthodox Jewish women had organised themselves to conduct their own Simchat Torah service. It is not the first time an Orthodox women’s-only service has occurred in Melbourne; indeed it used to be a regular event, including women-only Rosh Chodesh Shacharit and Bat-Mitzvot tefillot. But there has been a hiatus and now a new generation of Jewish women are wanting to connect to Torah in meaningful ways.
But word got out that this service was to occur again this year and quickly a climate of bullying and harassment developed within some elements of Modern Jewish Orthodoxy. Insulting text messages were sent to these women, especially the younger ones. Some women were aggressively confronted. A climate of fear, mistrust and harassment was unleashed. Tears flowed and divisions were threatened.
The harassment got so nasty that the location of this women’s service had to be kept undisclosed.
It is the year 2017. And Orthodox Jewish Women in Melbourne had to conduct themselves in secret to avoid being harassed for connecting to their Torah.
I can hear the bullies, stern-faced and loud channelling Gandalf the Wizard: ‘You shall not touch the Torah!”
So while the biggest threats to the Jewish people the rest of the Jewish world faces are both existential and very real, in this little shteibel called Melbourne, it is men’s fear of empowered Jewish women that keeps those men awake at night. How sad.