The fanatics within
National Post - Wednesday July 28th, 2010
Barbara Kay, National Post · Wednesday, Jul. 28, 2010
"Strange times to be a Jew." That's the master theme, voiced early and demonstrated often, in a haunting 2007 novel about Jewish messianism, The Yiddish Policemen's Union.
Michael Chabon's darkly brilliant achievement in alternate history sprang to mind last week, when news broke that if Israel's extreme right wing ultra-Orthodox -- the Haredim, who control the Chief Rabbinate--have their way, who is or isn't a Jew will be far more narrowly circumscribed than ever before in Israel's history.
The Knesset has approved a draft bill that would permit the Haredim to dictate the criteria for legal Jewish status. They would then hold the power to exclude thousands of Jewish converts, even many converted by Orthodox rabbis, from eligibility for Israeli citizenship under the "law of return" accorded all Jews as aninherentright.
Whether the bill passes or not this time -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reassured panicked Diaspora Jews he wouldn't support it -- it reminds us that, given Israel's electoral system of proportional representation, the political will of the disproportionately swelling ranks of Haredim (now about 1.3 million) will, one rapidly approaching day, dominate the Knesset--and Jewish destiny.
The root of the word Haredim means anxiety, which is what all Jews should feel about a putative Haredi balance of power. The Haredim are not simply religious fundamentalists with a prolific birthrate. The most eschatologically ambitious amongst them harbour lunatic urges to "force history," to hasten the arrival of a dilatory Messiah.
The Haredim are also not, as many people assume, a more "authentic" version of Torah-based Judaism. On the contrary. The Modern Orthodox, who hold that distinction, are rational, civically integrated and pluralistic in outlook. Haredi Judaism is a fossilized historical aberration from Orthodoxy. It began as an anti-establishment spiritual movement, but petrified into a constellation of self-contained planets, each orb cultishly gripped in its own charismatic-leader worship, all dependent on, but resisting contact with authentic evolutionary Judaism.
Many ritually lapsed Diaspora Jews entertain the mistaken notion that because the Haredim are so fanatically observant of the ritual law's every tittle, they are spiritually purer or holier than the Orthodox, or that they are saving Judaism from the extinction they--secular, intermarrying Jews --feel guilty about facilitating.
Such Jews should worry more about the opposite possibility: that Israel's parasitic Haredim, most of whom don't serve in the military, or contribute to Israel's economic and cultural life, could, through perfectly democratic means, reduce Israel to a farcically retrograde theme park, an 18th-century Hungarian ghetto by the sea.
In the Diaspora, extreme ultra-Orthodox cults (such as the Satmar in Quebec) are unassimilable, but at least politically ineffectual. The problem for Israel, where Haredim do seek and gain power over the nation, is Haredi messianism. Messianism, with its built-in temptation to force history by artificially setting the stage for the envisioned saviour, the world-healing man or system, even at the risk of carnage and mayhem, is a troubling feature of all fundamentalist beliefs, including secular "progressive" revolutionary movements.
In what seems like a wildly inventive plot in the Chabon novel, messianic Jews team up with messianic Christians in a hypnotic folie a deux around "end times." This version of forced history involves a literal return to the days of the Temple, including animal sacrifices, a supposed condition for the Messiah's arrival/return.
But the novel is reality-based. Apparently, in anticipation of a potential event, a corps of Haredim in Jerusalem have constructed an intricate scale model of Solomon's Temple, as blueprinted in the Torah. The original was destroyed by the Babylonians, then rebuilt and restored (by the Judean king who ordered Jesus' death), and destroyed again by the Romans. These messianists believe that if they can actually build this third Temple and sacrifice the Torah-prescribed, unblemished all-red heifer (which doesn't exist, but dedicated breeding programs are attempting to create one), the Messiah will come.
There is, however, this one small problem: The Temple must be situated where it was in previous incarnations. Since the end of the Seventh century, that spot has been occupied by the symbolically freighted Dome of the Rock. It's not going anywhere. That is, not of Muslims' volition.
So up to now the restored temple remains a dream, not the terrorist plot in Chabon's novel. The trouble is, as an influential secular Jew famously said, "When you will it, it is no dream." Do messianist Haredim merely fantasize about the Third Temple, or are a critical mass of them "willing" it? With messianism comes irrationality, and sometimes irresponsibility.
Between "friends" like ultra-liberal Jews on the left and the Haredim on the right, authentic Jews may not need their other myriad enemies.
Barbara Kay: You say Haredi, I say Haradi — some clarifications