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Beware of the Ultras

Where did all these fanatics come from?

History traces the origins of some, but others remain a mystery.  My own personal theory is that one of the most fanatical sects of modern times was invented in the early 1980s by Time Magazine.

I’m talking about the group commonly identified as Ultra-Orthodox.

In truth, there is no such label.  Nevertheless, ultra is a favorite adjective of the media: it implies radicalization and imposes a stigma of extremism on otherwise respectable individuals and institutions.

Ironically, the same tactic gave rise to the term Orthodox itself.  In the early 19th Century, a movement coalesced among the Jews of Germany to bring “reform” to the 3100-year-old practices of Judaism.  To augment their own legitimacy, these self-styled reformers branded Jews adhering to traditional practice as “orthodox,” a pejorative intended to marginalize mainstream adherents as out of date and out of touch.

HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN?

Every driver on the road believes that he alone is travelling at the correct speed – anyone going faster is a maniac, and anyone going slower is a plodder.  And it’s no different with ideology, whether political or religious.

We all believe ourselves to be balanced in our worldviews.  Anyone to this side is a zealot; anyone to the other side is a heretic.  And there are always just enough true zealots and true heretics associated with any group so that detractors can point and declare, “See!  They’re all like that.”

The sign of true leadership, therefore, is not to denounce opponents on the other side of the aisle or the divide; rather, it is to call out those on one’s own side whose irresponsible speech or behavior threatens to discredit one’s own affiliation.

Former President George W. Bush drew fire from the right last week for doing just that, when he denounced the incendiary rhetoric and tribalism that have become too common within his own party.

Should Mr. Bush have called out those across the aisle as well?  Possibly.  But perhaps he hoped that leaders on the other side might follow his example and demand proper conduct from their own.  And indeed, only days later former President Jimmy Carter chastised the media for its open hostility toward Donald Trump, Colin Kaepernick and his cohorts for their disrespect of the national anthem, and Barak Obama for his “disappointing” presidency.

Meanwhile, two oceans away, a similar story of leadership unfolded.

A VOICE OF ULTRA-MODERATION

For decades, a large contingency among the community of Torah observant Jews in Israel has felt itself under attack by a secular government and secular society.  Recent legislation to eliminate army service exemptions for seminary students sent sparks into the tinder, igniting last week into unruly protests that blocked traffic, intimidated bystanders, and cast a pall of chaos over the city of Jerusalem.

In response, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the Torah community’s most revered leaders, broke his characteristic silence by denouncing the protesters as “empty” and “reckless,” an “inflamed mob,” and “public desecrators.”

Yes, there is justifiable cause for anger and protest.  But for those who choose to identify themselves as observant Jews, as children of Torah, and as students of the sages, it is inexcusably perverse to embrace the tactics of the street in order to defend a lifestyle of spiritual and moral refinement.

But the dark display brought forth a beacon of light, as Rabbi Kanievsky imparted the wisdom of true leadership upon the confused and misguided souls whose hearts may have been well-intentioned but whose reason clearly abandoned them.  Whether they aspire to be truly Torah observant or Orthodox Jews, their “day of rage” exposed them as deserving of only one label:

Ultra.

May we soon witness leaders on every side and from every corner who demonstrate the courage and conviction to denounce not only opponents but allies whose extremism endangers the essence of civilization and civil society.

Published on Jewish World Review


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