Wednesday, October 2, 2013

When Judaism Is Evil

This morning, I was sent this article, tagged as "devastating." There's a word, yet to be invented, which means "more devastating than words can adequately capture," and that's a better word for it. The article is about adults who have left the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) community and, as a result, are denied contact with their children.
The particulars of her situation were unusually sad: She was allowed to see her children only once a month, under supervision of a family member who remained within the community where she grew up. She was not allowed to take her children out of the Hasidic enclave where they live. The visits were frequently canceled; the children had weddings and bar mitzvahs and other events to attend, and she could always visit with them next month, she was told. She felt humiliated when they began to call her by her first name, Devorah. She wanted them to keep calling her “Mommy,” but “Mommy” was a title given to somebody else—the Hasidic woman her ex-husband married.
The subject of the article, Devorah, committed suicide last Friday. I can only assume that there was no single, simple reason for that tragedy, but I also have no doubt that the ongoing trauma of not seeing her children was a major, if not the major force behind Devorah's struggle. The author of the article went through a similar struggle with his children and, luckily, made it through. But, he has seen first hand what Devorah endured, and he describes it in heartbreaking fashion.

I'm in one of those moods this morning that makes it hard to read this with any kind of equanimity. I can't help but wonder, only briefly, what it would be like to go through this kind of living hell. I say "only briefly" because, frankly, the briefest of thoughts about it are too awful to bear, and I quickly move on to other thoughts. Mainly, thoughts of disgust.

Fanaticism is evil. It is. I don't use that word lightly, and I'll admit to not having given this a huge amount of thought (I suppose that there could be some forms of fanaticism which, even if not good, would fall short of "evil"), but I'm still willing to lead with that thought: fanaticism is evil. It distorts reality, and it distorts people's views, and it pushes them to do horrible, indefensible things. When one thing is the only thing that matters, then anything, anything at all, is permitted in the name of that One Thing. More than permitted, even--it becomes required. Commanded, in the language of our religion.

In the end, it probably doesn't matter at all what you are fanatical about. If you are truly fanatical, then you're in trouble. Religious fanaticism, nationalist fanaticism, political fanaticism, racial fanaticism--you can go on and on. There are many ways to be fanatical, but in the end, they're all very much the same. They are the elevating of one thing to the status of One Thing. And, that's idolatry. And, that's evil.

For a few months now, a group of about a dozen of us have been meeting weekly to study Rabbi Art Green's Radical Judaism. It's an exposition of Green's decidedly anti-fundamentalist theology. And, yesterday, we read a section which discussed what it really means to claim that all human beings are created betzelem elohim--in God's image. All human beings; not just Jews. The Torah is clear about that much. Ultimately, that means that Judaism, a particular way to be a human being, must be judged by its ability to lead us towards a greater sense of universal humanity:
Once we have a basic principle, or even a set of basic principles, we have a standard by which to evaluate all other rules and practices, teachings and theological ideas. Does this particular practice lead us closer to seeing the divine in every person? Might this interpretation of a Torah verse be an obstacle toward doing so?… Any Judaism that veers from the ongoing work of helping us allow every human being to become and be seen as God's image in the fullest way possible is a distortion of Judaism.
Be committed. Be devout. Be religious. But, when you start thinking that your religion, or your cause, is so ultimately, perfectly important that it gives you the right to demonize a parent to his or her children, or to treat a person with whom you disagree, and who practices or believes differently from you, as less than a full human being, then you are no longer practicing religion. You are practicing fanaticism and idolatry, and dressing them up in religious clothing.

May Devorah's memory be a blessing.

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