So much has been spoken and written about the goings-on in Bet Shemesh, and more generally about their ramifications for the wider issue of the relationship between Israel's Charedim and the rest of Israeli society- and indeed between Charedim and the rest of the Jewish people - that you might think nothing more remains to be said. I believe, however, that there is more to say. But let me first put down a couple of markers.
The first is that I bear the Charedim no malice. If some of my Jewish brethren wish to dress in a distinctive way, good luck to them. If they wish to assert that their standard of kashrut is better than mine, I defend their right to so assert - though I do expect, in return, that they defend my right to denounce such an assertion as conceited and just plain wrong. If they wish to delude themselves that they are an elite (a word that I have often heard used), and are closer to God than I am, then I declare that they should be absolutely free to indulge in such delusions - just as I demand the freedom to publicly denounce such thinking.
The second marker that I need to put down is that although - very commendably -there have emanated from the Orthodox world a great number of condemnations of Charedi excesses in Bet Shemesh and elsewhere, none in my view approaches the eloquence of the censure delivered by the British-born rabbi of New York's Lincoln Square synagogue, Shaul Robinson. Take a tip from me. Go to the Lincoln Square website, click on "recent posts" and then on Rabbi Robinson's post of January 1 entitled: "The curse of violent extremism." On the subject of Charedi immoderation, and of the correct halachic response to it, there's simply nothing I've read that begins to match his measured, damning critique.
Nonetheless I don't think the last word has been spoken on these grave matters. Focussed as we all must have been on events in Israel, we owe it to ourselves to step back from the trees and take the measure of the forest - or rather the jungle, in which Jew denounces Jew and Jew attacks Jew, all in the name of the Almighty.
The fact is that some good may yet come of the disgraceful scenes enacted in Bet Shemesh, if for no other reason than that they have exposed the genuine fault-line that separates the protagonists. The Battle of Bet Shemesh was not between Charedim and the secular world, which Charedim have long ago written off and have not the slightest interest. The Battle was between Charedim and datim - other Orthodox Jews. To be sure, the trigger was real estate: who else (if anyone) is permitted to live in areas self-reserved for Charedi families? But the underlying cause was the war declared by charedim against any who dare pronounce themselves Orthodox but not of the charedi persuasion.
There is no Orthodoxy but their Orthodoxy, they declare
This war has been going on for a long time, but in the aftermath of the Holocaust the Charedi world can certainly claim to have significantly extended the territory (metaphorically and literally) under its control.
One facet of this aggrandisement is represented by the ArtScroll publishing phenomenon, through which Charedi rabbinic authorities have been able to overturn Orthodox interpretations of liturgy not to their liking, and to impose instead a deliberately over-stringent canon of Jewish law. There is no Orthodoxy but their Orthodoxy, they declare. Ultra-Orthodoxy is the only true Orthodoxy: the only genuine Jewish lifestyle is the Charedi lifestyle, and the only true expositors of this lifestyle are Charedi rabbinic expositors. Nothing else matters. Not the law of the land. Not the goyim. And certainly not other Jews, corrupted as they must be by the secular world and all that it promotes.
These are, in brief, the crude but central characteristics of the Charedi mind-set. Believe me, Bet Shemesh was just a minor skirmish. So the Charedi foot-soldiers got a little out of hand. The battalions will regroup. And remember that the Charedim have learnt how to play the political game, and maximise their influence through the votes they cast. Gender segregation on buses? So why not on trains? Enforcing a dress code in Bet Shemesh? So why not in Hackney? Or Hendon? Or Higher Broughton?
Why not indeed?