The response to extremist Judaism lies within Judaism

In an attempt to better understand the problem that arose as a result of the recent events in Beit Shemesh — the one that succeeded to light a fire under so many people — most of us always return to our comfort zone by declaring that the problem lies in the Jewish religion. But the truth is very far from that. The deeper problem stems from the ability of a capricious, domineering and vociferously vocal minority to set a political dynamic into motion. This is exhausting and worrisome to the extent that no politician is capable of standing up to it. When the spirit of compromise is always one-sided, when the rioting and acting-out side always manages to achieve more, and, mainly, when the quiet and tolerant side begins to feel that it always ends up with less, people begin to ask themselves what God meant when he described us as “a light unto the nations” and what the founders of the Zionist movement meant when they wanted to establish an exemplary society? Maybe we are simply not suited to be the “chosen” people.

As always, Israeli society woke up late to the issue, went into panic mode and began waving the first flag they found next to their beds upon waking — the flag of the secular. It’s a comfortable flag to wave, both basic and superficial enough to satisfy anyone who was moved by the tears of Naama Margolese (the little girl who was attacked by the ultra-Orthodox in Beit Shemesh). But in many ways, it is a flag devoid of meaning, one that is not substantive enough to have any real meaning. And so, every time it has been waved in the past, it ends up collapsing after a short while and returns to its place in the dead-storage space of the “State of Tel Aviv.”

The Jewish religion is not just mehadrin bus lines (connecting Charedi communities), separate sidewalks and spitting at women. The fact is that we, the secular public, have grown lazy and have accepted things deterministically. This is not only sad, it also raises serious doubts about our future as a Jewish people that are enlightened, progressive and pluralistic. Our decision, of which we are not even aware, to give up on our Judaism for the sake of a radical and violent group who have decided to use religion and nationality as it sees fit, means we give in not only to them but also to ourselves, and allow a norm to reign whereby “might makes right.”

When Yohanan ben Zakkai felt that the zealots were threatening to put an end to the Jewish people with their persistent support of the Great Revolt and their attempt to claim ownership of the Jewish religion, he could have opted for the easy response — to lose faith and gather himself behind the door of his beliefs. But instead of giving in to the zealots, he fought them with the “weapon of the Jew” itself: He left Jerusalem for a period of time and created an alternative that would allow Jewish life to continue in the spirit of the time and the changing reality. He understood then what too few of us understand today — that Judaism is not religious fanaticism or a cult; it is first and foremost a culture and a value system. This is the legacy of an enlightened Jewish leader 2,000 years ago. But somehow we have a hard time repudiating fanaticism and a Taliban-like identity, and cleaving to the true essence of our nation (and, yes, we are first a nation and then a religion, in case we forgot).

By waving the militant flag of secularism, we accomplish nothing other than creating an equally fanatic backlash (even if secular fanaticism is nicer than religious fanaticism) and strengthening the notions held by the Charedi community that they are the “real” Jews and we are not. We end the battle by scoring a goal — in our own wrong court.

Everyone believes that a fundamental change has to occur — a genuine social and political earthquake. In order to make this happen (without destroying ourselves) we have to make greater efforts, persist in knowing more, engage our brains in independent and innovative thinking and know how to learn from those, like Yohanan ben Zakkai, who stood before exactly the same kind of cultural war and learned what it takes to win. The secular response to Charedi radicalism does not lie in declaring ourselves atheists, or making a point of eating shrimp for ideology’s sake. The answer is written here — in the history of the Jewish people, in our Bible and in what the Jewish religion was meant to be from its inception.

Elisheva Mazya is the CEO of the Ruach Hadasha (New Spirit) organization which works to prevent the negative emigration of secular young adults from Jerusalem by supporting young idealistic and pluralistic communities.