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A Fundamental Misunderstanding Of Religious Freedom

By Sam Sokol

What I am about to write is harsh and may strike some as intensely disagreeable; however, I believe that it can and must be honestly stated: Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, uneducated in Western thought, or indeed in any core secular subjects, have a fundamental misapprehension regarding the nature of religious freedom in the Western enlightenment tradition.

I base this remark on comments made by chareidi rabbis and legislators which show their ignorance, on a most basic level, of the functioning of the democracy in which they live.

“The place of Torah students is in the tents of Torah, and no one had the right to uproot them or harm the essence of the right to our existence in the Holy Land, and for sure there is no right to draft them and force them into the army, where the very fact of them being there is a spiritual danger to their way of life and their faith,” said a recent joint statement by the Councils of Torah Sages of the Degel HaTorah and Agudat Yisrael parties.

This statement was reinforced by a recent declaration by MK Yisrael Eichler, who announced, ahead of a recently canceled U.S. tour by ultra-Orthodox politicians and several chassidic rebbes, that the trip was intended to “enlist the Jewish community of the United States to generate diplomatic pressure on this wicked government.”

“If the government continues with these decrees, international human-rights [groups] will be required to investigate the discrimination and to ask how a prospering state creates 800,000 poor children,” he added.

The assertion that no government has the right to make decisions regarding the status of yeshiva students—as well as related statements contending that only the deans of said students’ yeshivas retain such a right and Eichler’s implication that a draft constitutes a human-rights violation—implies that the ultra-Orthodox community believes that religious freedom means throwing off the yoke of submission to duly constituted state sovereignty in any matter in which their rabbis choose to disagree with the law.

That is not to say that they do not actually retain the right to fight for their principles through democratic processes or that they do not have recourse to civil disobedience, a traditional means in a democracy of disobeying what one sees as an unjust law. However, the statements of the ultra-Orthodox leadership betray their intent and elucidate the outlines of a position which takes religious freedom to an extreme, absolving them of any duties or obligations to the state, as any law with which they disagree—they seem to contend—would rightly fall under the heading of religious coercion.

Religious freedom cannot be extended so far as to remove the compulsory power of state laws. If they are merely speaking about Judaism, which has no analogous concept of religious diversity and freedom, then they may be correct. But as soon as they run to outside parties and state that their freedoms are being infringed by the standards of the West, their arguments lose credibility.

If the Council of Torah Sages propounded the theory that one need not pay taxes, no one in their right mind would believe that it is an infringement of the religious rights of the ultra-Orthodox to make them pay. However, this is the same argument made regarding the draft.

Call it right, call it wrong, just don’t call it a violation of the chareidi community’s human or religious rights.

The draft, by imposing an equal burden on all, is the highest expression of democratic values . . . but that is neither here nor there.

The arguments of the chareidi camp go even further, however. According to the Jerusalem Post, Eichler also complained that the government is seeking to require secular academic accomplishment as a prerequisite for working. This strikes me to be symptomatic of what Rabbi Berel Wein described in a recent column as the ultra-Orthodox community’s “complete disconnect with reality.”

Wein writes: “We have grown so comfortable over the past centuries of Jewish life as being the persecuted victim, that we are frightened to shuck off that protective mantle. We see the world in black and white . . . the good guys and the villains. There is no room for nuance or moderation in such a worldview.

“If we are involved in rabbinic scandal, financial misdeeds, abusive physical and sexual behavior, violence against police, corrupt elections (and those elected thereby), and are caught by the authorities for so doing, the immediate knee-jerk reaction is that we are being persecuted because of our religious practices, different dress, traditional lifestyle, and distinct societal mores.”

At the end of the day, a decision was made by the political and rabbinic class in Israel to cancel the planned anti-draft tour, probably upon realizing that, to American eyes, it would appear identical to a rally held this year by Satmar in Manhattan, in which both the draft and the state of Israel were demonized. Maybe the leaders of the Israeli chareidi world suddenly understood that many local Jews who would otherwise support their political views would look askance at an effort to go to gentiles with a request to put pressure upon Jews. They may even have seen it, dare I say it, as mesirah.

The average American gentile—and especially those who support the state of Israel, of whom there are many in America—certainly would have apprehended such a tour with scant sympathy. This approach is alien to the American mindset.

According to a recent article in the Harvard Political Review entitled “Limits of Religious Freedom,” Zak Lutz wrote that “existing precedence has generally held federal law superior to religious practice.”

Citing Reynolds v. United States (1878), in which the Mormon Church objected to a federal law banning polygamy, Lutz wrote that “the majority opinion declared that the law was constitutional since it neither interfered with religious belief nor selectively outlawed religious practice.”

“To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land,” Chief Justice Morrison Waite explained.

However, a community that has long held a strong antipathy to Zionism and even to other streams of Orthodoxy probably cannot be expected to share this view nor, if one takes into account their education system, to even know that it exists.

Someone must have told Eichler and the Council of Torah Sages, though, because in a statement issued on Monday, Eichler’s office explained that they worried that the “gathering will not be understood properly, and that it might stir up anti-Semitism.”

As observant Jews, we generally believe that one is required to follow the laws of a nation in which we reside unless those laws actively ban our rites. However, nobody is banning Torah study in Israel and nobody is banning circumcision or ritual slaughter, as in Europe. The truth is, like it or not, the draft is not analogous to the decrees of the Greeks or the Romans, or even the draft under the Russian Czars.

The ultra-Orthodox community’s efforts would be better directed towards ensuring proper conditions for the yeshiva students than in engaging in a fruitless battle to prevent their enlistment. v

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Posted by on January 2, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to A Fundamental Misunderstanding Of Religious Freedom

  1. RAM

    January 2, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    How does this argument convince someone who holds that the State as constituted is illegitimate, but that the State nevertheless owes a him a certain level of support, regardless of his participation or non-participation in State-mandated activities.