Various non-mainstream Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities in Israel and in the U.S. are clashing with western values embraced by less religious Jews. Daily reports are breaking out of Haredi sects imposing forced gender segregation on buses, spitting on women in the streets who are deemed immodest and rioting against anyone who is perceived different.
What is it that leads to Haredi violence? It seems that the motivation for Haredi resistance to outside influences is an effort to preserve their way of life from perceived secular encroachment. They view outside influences and exposure as a threat to their traditional existence.
The ultimate goal of the Haredi is preserving their heritage. The Haredi should be asking is what is the best method to sustain their way of life? Is it violence? Is it intolerance? Is it spitting on people who dress differently? Is it isolationism? Is there perhaps a better workable model? One that allows for co-existence with those that are different?
A good paradigm of Haredi living, thriving and integrating in the secular world while still preserving their heritage, is Chabad-Lubavitch. Chabad is an outreach movement that according to the terse web definition is “known for their hospitality, technological expertise, optimism and emphasis on religious study.” If you look at images of Haredi in Beit Shemesh, Israel, and at images of Chabad emissaries all around the world, they essentially look the same and share a similar religiously intense lifestyle. They sport fedora-style hats, often wear long trench coats and, of course, have conspicuous beards. They both follow the literal dictates of halacha (Jewish law) by praying three times a day, dressing modestly, following strict Kosher and all the rest. Yet the Chabad emissary is an integrated member of society involved in civics and community service with Jews of all observance levels, while the Beit Shemesh Haredi is an angry extremist who believes that violence and isolationism is the way to preserve their lifestyle.
Why is education, debate and acceptance the solutions to preserving Judaism and not ghettoization and violence? Besides the fact that insular Haredi communities will no longer be able to shelter their adherents in a religious cocoon free from secular encroachment, opposing other viewpoints and lifestyles with violence belies the Jewish intellectual tradition of healthy debate. The entire Jewish tradition, including interpretations of various Jewish laws, is based on rigorous, yet civil debates. In fact, the Talmud even preserves the losing arguments because the debate itself leads to a greater understanding of the issues.
The Haredi communities turning to violence have forgotten the essential cornerstone that has kept Judaism relevant, vibrant and intellectually honest through the ages. It wasn’t quelling other ideas through violence, intimidation and censorship, but providing a platform for meaningful dialogue about the issues.
The first century rabbis who typify the Talmud’s rich culture of debate are Hillel and Shammai, two opposing schools of Jewish thought. These schools of thought debate everything from ethics to interpretations of ritual practice. The dispute that typifies the example of resorting to violent demagoguery is the biblical story of Korach who contested Moses’s leadership but did so not for the sake of seeking the truth and engaging in meaningful dialogue but for the sake of attaining power and control over the people of Israel. For this reason the Talmud explains that the debates of Hillel and Shammai’s schools of thought will endure but the debates of Korach and his faction will not endure.
If the Haredi want their tradition to endure they should live by the example of Hillel and Shammai by encouraging meaningful dialogue with those that have a different philosophy than them instead of resorting to violence like Korach and his faction. Through encouraging different opinions the Haredi will go much further in preserving their way of life and enhancing their communities — and start to live consistent with Judaism’s rich culture of debate.