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Virtual Talmud

The vast majority of American Jews would take no offense were I to take this opportunity to wish them a “Happy New Year. ” Although the new Jewish year of 5767 began several months ago with Rosh Hashanah, the Gregorian calendar used throughout the Western world is ours as well. As Americans, the rhythms of this calendar affect our lives–often more so than the Jewish calendar–and we can certainly join in recognizing the passing of an old year and hope for more peace, compassion, and love in 2007 than we witnessed in the year that has just passed.

Then there are those segments of the Jewish world that seek to lock out any acknowledgment of the secular world, to insulate themselves from any influences of the modern world–and their campaign is on the rise. Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Jews make up only 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, and yet in recent years they have been gaining in political strength and been increasingly vocal about and effective at forcing their religious and cultural norms on the rest of the Israeli population.

We remember what happened in early November when a planned gay pride march was cancelled under increasing threats of violence from Jerusalem’s Haredi community, although the proposed route of the peaceful march went nowhere near ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. More recently, Haredim have been flexing their new-found muscle to campaign against other aspects of non-ultra religious culture they find objectionable, threatening drivers of city buses that don’t separate men and women, for example.

In addition, Haredi Jews are also considering a boycott of the Israeli airline El Al–which has maintained a practice of not scheduling flights on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath)–because El Al had made a one-time decision to allow a few flights to depart on the Sabbath to help Israeli travelers who were stranded in U.S. airports. And Mevakshei Derech, a Reform synagogue in Jerusalem, has been the target of vandals multiple times in recent years.

Usually, we associate these types of threats and attempts to force specific religious norms onto others with the Taliban in Afghanistan or modesty patrols in Iran, but not with Jews. So the rise of Jewish religious extremists–and the violence that has been accompanying it–is a disturbing new trend.

This attempt to shut out the modern world–by force if necessary–is the type of close-minded rejectionism that would refuse to acknowledge that much of the world has welcomed in a new year. But then again, for religious extremists everywhere, there is little use for anything new, and the hope and freedom it might bring.

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