In Praise of Naomi Ragan: An Israeli and Orthodox Rosa Parks

This story is somewhat dated, but most of the readers probably are unaware of what actually took place in Israel regarding a brave and outspoken Modern Orthodox feminist and famous authoress who dared to stand up to an ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) juggernaut in a bus heading toward Israel.

In American history, every citizen knows how Rosa Parks made history on Dec. 1, 1955. This brave woman got arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a municipal bus to a white man. This incident sparked the famous Montgomery bus boycott. Today, Israeli women wish they had an Orthodox “Rosa Parks” to lead them in their fight for equality in the Haredi Jewish communities.

Well, actually Orthodox novelist Naomi Ragen did exactly that a few years ago not far from Jerusalem.  No, she didn’t deliberately set out to become a Jewish Rosa Parks. She just wanted to get home. An observant, Orthodox Jew, Ragen was on the No. 40 bus line, headed to her house near Jerusalem, when an ultra-Orthodox — or Haredi — man told her to move to the back. She recalls, “I was astonished . . . And I said ‘I’m not bothering anyone. You don’t have to look at me, sit next to me — but as long as this is a public bus, I will sit where I please, thank you very much.'” Ragen says the harassment grew worse at every stop. Soon an even more aggressive, bearded ultra-Orthodox man got on and commanded her to move. He weighed about 300 pounds and hovered over her like a sumo wrestler, she says, his long, black frock and wide hat in her face.

“And he started screaming and yelling,” she said, telling her to “move to the back of the bus — or else.” “My reaction to that was I looked him in the eye and said ‘Look, you show me in the code of Jewish law where it’s written that I’m not allowed to sit in this seat and I’ll move,'” Ragen said. “‘Until then, get out of my face!'”

Pretty gutsy.

Naomi was lucky; other women haven’t been so fortunate.  At one recent incident, five Ultra-Orthodox Jews assaulted a woman and an Israel Defense Forces soldier Sunday for sitting next to each other on a bus bound for Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, the civil rights movement in Israel has yet to really get off the ground. Prominent Israeli politicians are afraid to stand up against the Haredi centers of power. Even the Israeli Supreme Court has failed to grant the necessary changes to ensure equality for all its citizens. In fact, the social trends look bleaker than they did when Naomi Ragan stood up for women everywhere in Israel.

If you think about it, doesn’t it seems that misogyny might be the “Original Sin” that is behind much of the religious fundamentalism of our age?  This concept might bear looking into at another time.  Naomi Ragan represents the kind of Modern Orthodox woman who deserves our respect. I pray that more Modern Orthodox leaders show the courage to speak out against the moral and spiritual hijacking of their faith.

A “Priestly Kingdom” (Exodus 19:6)

What does it mean to be a “priestly kingdom”  in the Torah?

There was nothing  intrinsic holy about the priest, he was not spiritually superior when compared to ordinary Israelites by the virtue of him being a born into a priestly family. The priests’ vocation was not one of privilege but of obligation and responsibility–noblige oblige.

According to the philosophers Philo of Alexandria (ca. 1st century) and Moses Maimonides (ca. 12th century), birth alone doesn’t guarantee uniqueness.  So too, when classical Judaism speaks of Israel’s election as God’s “Chosen People,” this concept is not due to any sense of  racial superiority, but rather to the fact that we are the nation which lives in accordance with the  ethical and moral lifestyle prescribed by the Torah.  Indeed, any person from any race can become a member of the Israelite people through conversion.

Just as a nation is composed of all types of citizens from various walks of life and backgrounds, so too does every member of the Israelite commonwealth play a vital role in the spiritual life of the nation. Regardless of age, sex, background, or vocation; whether one  be a priest, a seer, a prophet, a sage or a commoner – plays a vital role as a “priest” of the Divine.

The life of a priest is rooted in personal consecration and dedication to the Lord. Priestly consecration demands that the priest consciously separate himself from anything that defiles and diminishes the respect and reverence for human life. As a priestly kingdom,” God requires that Israel guard herself from the forces of death, impurity and corruption that  petrifies its collective  heart and soul. Israel’s corporate vocation is both purely spiritual and socially transformative in that we bear witness to the reality of ethical monotheism.

The main purpose of the priesthood is mediate between the sphere of the divine and the ordinary world. A priest through his ritual conduct  facilitates communication across the ethereal boundary separating the holy from the profane.  Being a priest to the people demands vigilance and mindfulness in how the one carries out the  priestly duties. Every thought, word, and deed requires sublimation and holiness. By way of metaphor,  Israel  too must be conscious of how it acts in the realm of secular realm. Every holy thought, every considerate word, and especially every good deed–when performed with nobility of spirit–reflects sanctity.

Just as the priest conducts himself with grace and with dignity, so too does God’s holy people. Most importantly, just as the priest acts as a conduit for God’s blessing to the general community, Israel also serves as a  medium through which all the nations of the world become blessed (Gen 12:2-3). Israel’s recent involvement in Haiti and other places affected by natural catastrophe derives from her spiritual sense of priestly service and ethical responsibility.

Jewish law teaches that any priest who does not get along with his community is not allowed to bless his congregation with the priestly benediction, since the blessing demands that the priest feel love toward the people he serves. Given the mercurial nature of his community, this is certainly no easy task!

Freedom “of” Religion or Freedom “from” Religion?

The year: 2010.

Haredi rabbis demand separate buses to ensure the separation of the sexes.  Beyond that, they are now insisting on separate times for men and women whenever they go shopping at the local supermarket. Once again the politicians look the other way rather than deal with the real problem– the ubiquitous threat of religious coercion.

Any gentile or liberal Jew reading this news might smirk: Are they afraid shopping along the aisles or sitting in a bus might lead to mixed dancing? (If you haven’t seen Kevin Bacon’s cult classic, “Footloose,” I recommend you rent this film at the local video-store. Maybe we need a Haredi version of the movie, starring Kevin Kosher!) Bifurcation of the sexes continues to morph into new and even stranger directions. The story is far from over for the  Haredi rabbi’s newest “Halachic” innovation is: separate sidewalks! A few weeks ago or so, some Haredi used megaphones urging that men and women should walk on opposite sides of the road during a busy weekend.

Now that’s taking segregation to the streets!

One wonders: Are burkhas next?!

Anyone who has studied ancient Jewish history probably knows that Haredi piety seems a little bit like déjà vu. As intimated in the last paragraph, the displays of piety we are witnessing today also occurred over 2000 years ago in ancient Judea.

Here are the rabbinic texts that substantiate this observation:

Our Rabbis taught: There are seven types of Pharisees: a fool saint, a subtle knave, a woman Pharisee, and the plagues of Pharisees ruin the world (BT Sotah 20a).

Who is a man of piety that is a fool? He, for example, who if a woman is drowning, says, “It is unseemly for me to look at her, and therefore, I cannot rescue her.’ Who is the crafty scoundrel? R. Yochanan says, “He is the man who explains his case to the judge before his opponent arrives.

Who is the pious fool? He who sees a child struggling in the water, and says, ‘When I have taken off my phylacteries, I will go and save him.’ By the time he arrives to rescue him, the child has already expired. Who is the crafty scoundrel? R. Huna says, ‘He is the man who behaves leniently toward himself, while teaching others only the strictest rules” (T.J. Sotah 3:4, f. 19a, line 13.)

Our Rabbis have taught: There are seven types of Pharisees: the ostentatious Pharisee[1], the Pharisee who knocks his feet together and walks with exaggerated humility[2].  The third type of Pharisee knocks his face against the wall rather than gaze at a woman[3]. Then again, there is the Pharisee who who feigns religious piety while constantly exclaiming, ‘What is my duty that I may perform it?’[4] There are also Pharisees who act out of love, while others act out of fear, i.e., who serve God because of  ulterior motives or conversely—or because they fear retribution.[5] Lastly, there is the Pharisee who wraps himself in his cloak, feigning humility (BT Sotah 22b).

In short, religious piety takes all different kinds of shapes in the world. Whether it’s the Taliban persecuting barbers for shaving men, or imposing the burkha for women–it is a fanatical religion that seeks to totally micromanage the lives of its followers. Israelis also grapple with religious fundamentalism much like their Muslim counterparts. More and more people in Israel are demanding not just freedom of religion, many are now unfortunately clamoring for freedom from religion.

And now you know–the rest of the story.


Notes:

[1] He behaves like Shechem, who circumcised himself for an unworthy purpose (Gen. 34) The J. Talmud explains: who carries his religious duties upon his shoulder (shekem), i.e., ostentatiously (Ber. 14b).

[2] He walks with exaggerated humility. According to the J. Talmud, he says: ‘Spare me a moment that I may perform a commandment.’ For such a Pharisee, it’s all about “looking good and pious.”

[3] The J. Talmud explains that this is a calculating Pharisee, i.e., he performs a good deed and then a bad deed, setting one off against the other–he behaves a lot like a religious accountant.

[4] He behaves as if he has fulfilled every religious obligation.

[5] This reading follows Rava and Abaye who view the Pharisee as interested in pecuniary gain; or fear the consequences of God’s wrath should they sin against His will.  In J. Ber., however, they are both taken in reference to God — i.e., love of God and fear of Him.