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.


[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.

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  1. Yochanan Lavie  February 7, 2010

    There is already a rebbetzin who wears a burqa and has a small following that does the same. As someone else said, this is Frumdamentalism.


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