Virtual Talmud

Rabbi Stern, it strikes me, doth protest too much.

It is true that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews are not extremists who will take matters into their own hands to enforce their own social and religious agenda. It is also true that Judaism has produced fewer crazies and extremists than certain other religions. I never argued otherwise.

What I did say–and what I have not seen a convincing response to–is that extremist behavior among Orthodox Jews in Israel, while still small, is on the rise.

It’s not just (just!) Yigal Amir and the rabbis who supported him as Rabbi Stern writes. It’s Baruch Goldstein, who massacred Muslims at prayer in Hebron, killing 29 and wounding more than 150. And it’s Moshe Levinger and his followers who sought to blow up the Dome of the Rock to clear the way for a Third Temple. And it’s the Haredi rabbis who pronounced the pulsa d’nura curse against organizers of the gay pride march and against police who would attempt to hold back demonstrators. And it’s those who take matters into their own hands, hurling invectives and stones at those who don’t conform to their idea of proper modesty, proper prayer, or proper Shabbat observance.

The larger question here is why it is Orthodoxy that lends itself to such forms of extremism, and not other branches of Judaism. The answer, I believe, is directly related to the reason Rabbi Stern doesn’t supply for Orthodoxy’s attractiveness: certainty.

Any Orthodoxy–Jewish or other–is rooted in certainty that its own approach, its own understanding of the world, is the correct one. That’s the meaning of the word “Orthodox”–from the Greek for “correct belief.”

Certainty can be attractive and useful but it has its dark side as well. When people spend too much time with others who look, act, and think only like themselves, they often become absolutely certian that their way of looking at the world is the only way of looking at the world. And when a community becomes too sure that its own way is the only right way, perhaps even physical violence seems an acceptable means to silence those who disagree.

As the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel becomes ever more insular, certainty will continue to provide the blinders that make it ever easier to lash out at the world rather than engage it.

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