I was appalled at the news reports about a 2nd grade girl named Naama in Beit Shemesh, Israel, shaking and crying on her way to school each morning, afraid that the haredim or ultra-Orthodox who live in her town might taunt her.
Do these people really believe God is shining down from above, applauding their zealotry, and saying, “That’s exactly what I meant when I connected with the Jews – make life miserable for those who don’t observe exactly like you.”
This is a perennial problem with no solution. Everybody interprets the Meanings of Life differently and holds that their personal interpretation is The Right One. And yet, there is no supreme arbiter, not the Pope in Rome nor the rabbis on high, who actually has a direct line to The Almighty.
Nope, we’re on our own here, people, and that means individual choices reign supreme. All fundamental religions share some common characteristics. Let’s take a look.
* Modesty mandate for women and girls. Guys can do what they want.
* Encourage big families to populate the world with believers.
* Parochial education and often, enclose within a controlled community or framework. That means, no TV, Internet, or other secular-world trappings.
* Judge others and believe you are righteous to do so. Think your way is THE ONLY WAY and everyone else is damned to hell.
* Eat only spiritually approved foods.
These characteristics transcend religion. When I insisted in my first marriage that there are many authentic ways to be Jewish, and my ex insisted that Orthodoxy was the only valid way, I heard in his voice the same judgment as devout Christians or Muslims. And now, with these reports from Israel, I see a little girl terrified by big, scary men in black suits and black hats, spitting and yelling at her because she isn’t wearing what they deem proper.
And she’s Modern Orthodox – it’s not like she’s in a bikini. She’s probably wearing a skirt with a short-sleeved shirt – not the clothing of whores by any standards.
She’s a CHILD, for God’s sake, and this behavior is probably cementing her belief that ultra-orthodox Jews are crazy and planting a seed of question about the sanity of being religious at all.
I came to the Orthodox community because of a kind rabbi and his wife in Potomac, Maryland. They were “modern” meaning the men and women had equal access to the Torah and they prized individual choice. They still separated genders in synagogue, but they did it in a humane way.
I fell in love with the tranquility of the Sabbath, the way no TV, car or phone “noise” interrupted the serenity of the day, the way we gathered around a table for hours and talked, dissected, debated meaning. I believed if I lived that way, my children would be filled with meaning and purpose and not falter on their path in life.
But eight years into it, I came to realize that the Tesslers’ way of living Judaism was rare indeed. The acceptance and respect I felt as a woman in their congregation was not mirrored in other communities, least of all here in metro Detroit. And my love of traditional Judaism disappeared after so many instances: people ending friendships with me because I uncovered my hair or wore pants, adults sacrificing the safety of their children to ensure their religiosity, a community where the children don’t matter except to continue the flame of zealotry for generations.
There is a concept in this community that a child’s purpose is to bring nachas or pride to his parents. I’ve never believed this; children don’t ask to be born and they seek only to discover, explore and love all that life has to offer.
So when little Naama walks to school with a “tummy ache,” nervous that she’ll be spit on by grown men who disapprove of the clothing choices her parents made for her, well, there is no room in my heart for such a religion.
The Judaism I know focuses on education and learning, on generosity of spirit and of pocket, of gratitude and of community. I was raised in a Judaism that had compassion for the world and a mandate to heal rifts and build bridges. The seed of tikkun olam, or the mandate to repair the world, was planted in me at a very early age and I am grateful that this meaningful vestige of my religion speaks louder than the craziness of zealots.
It’s not OK to spit on little girls and it’s not acceptable to judge others for the ways they derive meaning. This life is a quick one – it’ll pass you before you can close your eyes. If you believe it’s your mission to ridicule others and laugh at their versions of meaning, then I pity you.
But if you hold the light of all that is good and loving in your hand, then we can keep talking. The hateful spitters don’t deserve a seat at the table. They deserve their own worst fate.
And the rest of us will keep on rebuilding the world because we know that’s the true light of faith – to find harmony and peace among people, regardless of how they look, where they live or what they believe.