The extremists are taking over

By Geoffrey Alderman, October 3, 2008

Charedi activists are trying to ban ‘non-kosher' music and force women to dress more modestly in Israel

What are the salient characteristics of a "fundamentalist" creed? The dictionary will tell you that the adjective denotes the belief in the infallibility of a sacred text. But in common parlance the meaning of religious fundamentalism goes far beyond such dogma, because almost all religious precepts require interpretation. Nowhere in the Pentateuch does it say that a Jew should not eat milk and meat dishes at the same meal; the fact that I myself do not do so derives exclusively from an interpretation of a biblical verse.

Call me a fundamentalist if you like. But in ordering my life according to this interpretation I harm no one else. My fundamentalism is, at least in this respect, my own affair, an exclusively private matter.

More often than not, however, religious fundamentalism tends to be much more than a merely private matter. If you accept an invitation to dine at my house, you will have to accept the separation of milk and meat. Of course, you do not have to accept the invitation. But suppose that I physically forced you to modify your behaviour so that it met the demands of my fundamentalism. We would then have done away with religious freedom, and would have replaced it instead with a form of tyranny.

In Israel media attention has recently focused on the tyrannical leanings of rabbis Ephraim Luft and Yitzhak Meir Safranovitch. Rabbi Luft has established a "Committee for Jewish Music". He contends that much of the music played at Orthodox functions or public events is not kosher. What exactly (you may ask) is music that is "not kosher?" Apparently, any music that is contemporary, and any that is "Western". Any that uses "modern instruments" and any in which percussion ("the beat") is emphasised at the expense of the melody.

Modern music, he adds, is "disrespectful", and leads people - especially young people - astray, resulting in low moral standards and threatening the collapse of civilised society as we know it. No wonder, therefore, that his committee has compiled a black-list of treifah musicians, and that, no doubt inspired by him, Charedi activists were recently able to secure the sacking from an Israeli radio show of a well-known disc jockey, Menachem Toker - despite the fact that Toker is himself Charedi.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Luft's brother-in-arms, Rabbi Safranovitch, has been hard at work enforcing female "modesty". When I say "enforce", I mean just that. Under Rabbi Safranovitch's patronage, "modesty" squads operating under the umbrella of his Va'ad L'maan Tohar Hamachaneh (Council for the Purity of the Camp) patrol the highways and byways of Jerusalem beating up women who, in their view or in the view of their husbands or families, dress or behave in an "immodest" way.

In one instance a husband contracted with a "modesty squad" (to which he paid around £1,000) to attack his ex-wife with a club. In another, a Charedi wife who had left her husband and his lifestyle was beaten up. How they could have touched her when they could not have known her menstrual state is beyond me, but what need have we of Yiddishkeit when morality as defined by these yobs is itself at stake?

In Meah Shearim one local "enforcer", Yoel Kreus, boasts that through his strong-arm tactics he assists people to become "moral". If his spies report that a Charedi home has a computer, he makes sure the children are thrown out of school. Non-religious girls, he explained to one newspaper, "don't dress properly. They make me sin."

But of course it is not they who make him sin. It is his own emotional immaturity, and his conviction that the sort of prejudices he holds sit squarely within Jewish Orthodoxy. Whereas, were he capable of anything resembling rational thought he would soon realise that the religion he practices has little to do with Judaism but possesses many of the traits of the Deobandism of the Taliban.

His ravings do, however, remind us that most religious fundamentalisms are male-dominated, and that at their core they articulate a primeval fear of womanhood. How refreshing it is, therefore, for me to report that at its recent pre-Rosh Hashanah meeting the Council of the Federation of Synagogues voted overwhelmingly to permit women to attend its meetings as observers, in accordance with a ruling first made by the late Dayan Fisher some 31 years ago, and recently reaffirmed by Dayan Lichtenstein.

This is a small step for the Federation but a large one for authentic Torah Orthodoxy.

Last updated: 11:22am, October 3 2008