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Fundamental Decency
Rabbi Avi Shafran & David Zwiebel

Fundamental Decency

Rabbi Avi Shafran & David Zwiebel

An insightful observer once noted that issuing a "clarification" usually means one's original words were understood just a little bit too well. The thought came to mind reading a recent opinion piece in The New York Jewish Week by the Religion Action Center of Reform Judaism's director Rabbi David Saperstein about what has come to be known as the "Rabbi Regev controversy."

To recap, for those who may not have been following this latest episode of unseemly Orthodox-bashing:

On October 12, the Cleveland Jewish News reported on an "impassioned" High Holy Days sermon delivered by Rabbi Uri Regev of the Israel Religious Action Center whose message, according to the report, was that the events of September 11 should serve as "a wake-up call about religious zealotry" in Judaism no less than in Islam.  "Left unchecked," the Cleveland Jewish News article reported the Reform leader saying, "the same kind of intolerance which drove Islamic terrorists to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon threatens to tear the state of Israel apart."  And, in drawing what the article characterized as "a chilling parallel between Islamic and Israeli religious extremists" - being "the Haredi, fervently religious Orthodox Jews who comprise about 6% of the Israeli population" - Rabbi Regev was quoted as saying that "They have distorted Torah (teachings) and interpreted them as giving license to get rid of infidels."

Widespread protest, predictably, ensued in the Orthodox community; opinion pieces were written taking Rabbi Regev to task, and an advertisement doing the same appeared in two Jewish weeklies.

Several weeks later, the Cleveland reporter issued a clarification, admitting to having taken a number of journalistic liberties, from omitting ellipses to combining quotes from different occasions to neglecting to note that some of her material had come from interviews with Rabbi Regev and statements he had made in informal gatherings rather than from his sermon. She also explained that Rabbi Regev had not been referring to "all" Haredim but only one of "four groups within the Haredim"; and that his "getting rid of infidels" comment had been made in the context of "acts of hate such as graffiti sprayed on non-Orthodox institutions in Israel" rather than as a description of the mindset of Haredim generally.  At the same time, she asserted, Rabbi Regev "did not clarify that the individuals he considered most difficult represented only a small number of Haredim."

The reporter's clarification thus secured, Rabbi Saperstein sprung to his colleague's defense.  While acknowledging that Rabbi Regev had used the events of September 11 to "cast a harsh spotlight on the potential effects of unchecked fundamentalism mutating malignantly in the minds of a few," Rabbi Saperstein insisted that his colleague's remarks could in no way be seen as equating Haredim with Islamic terrorists, and he called on critics to apologize for "tarnishing Rabbi Regev's reputation."

But, with all due respect, the tarnish was and remains entirely self-inflicted.  We don't know the precise words Rabbi Regev used during his sermon; our request for a tape of the sermon has been rebuffed.  But what is quite clear, even after all the "clarification," is that mere days after September 11 and explicitly invoking the Islamic terrorist attacks on America, Rabbi Regev warned his listeners (either during his sermon or at other times in the presence of a reporter) that Israel's Haredi "religious extremists" are, like Islamic fundamentalists, a dire threat to the lives of others.

Reality Check:  Graffiti is not akin to murdering innocent men, women and children.  Isolated incidents of vandalism have been unconditionally condemned by Haredi leaders and are entirely foreign to the overwhelming majority of Haredi Jews - as are the violent acts of Boruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir (cited by Rabbi Saperstein as examples of Jewish "fundamentalists"), neither of whom, in any event, was or is Haredi. There are no military training camps operated by Yated Ne'eman's editorial board, no suicide bombing manuals published by Shas and no anthrax mailing operations in Me'ah She'arim.  To mention Haredim in the same sermon as the broad terror network against whom civilized society is at war is an obscenity.

And if Rabbi Regev failed to make clear in his public comments that "only a small number of Haredim" fit the odious profile he described, as the Cleveland Jewish News now tells us, then we would respectfully suggest that Rabbi Saperstein's call for an apology would best be redirected toward his own colleague.

There is a broader problem here, though, than one rabbi's sermon.  An assortment of pundits have, since September 11, put forth the notion that civilization's enemies are "fundamentalists" of all faiths, including Jews who live by the laws that have defined Judaism for millennia.  Such nonsense needs to be countered, not encouraged, by all Jews of good will. Mere weeks ago, the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, in a principled and commendable act, joined a brief in favor of proponents of a contested eruv in Tenafly, NJ.  The brief notes the highly charged atmosphere at public hearings concerning the eruv.  Some local Jewish residents revealed some rather ugly attitudes toward Orthodox Jews, with one council member invoking the specter of stone-throwing Haredi zealots invading the neighborhood upon construction of the eruv.  The brief argues that Tenafly's refusal to allow an eruv violates the rights of Orthodox Jews.

Jews of all stripes should recognize, as the Commission on Social Action did in the Tenafly brief, that ugly stereotyping of Orthodox Jews is totally unacceptable.  Implying that Haredim are violent fundamentalists of a kind with the September 11 terrorists feeds those very stereotypes.  Rabbi Regev, and Rabbi Saperstein, should know better.

All Jewish leaders must take pains not to ever, even subtly, misportray their fellow Jews.  And that goes as well - no, especially - for Reform leaders, even as they seek to import their vision of Jewish life to Israel and discover the determination of Jews, who, on principle, oppose their efforts.


[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America; David Zwiebel is the organization's executive vice president for government and public affairs]

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