How can we try to be respectful and understanding of the ultra-Orthodox when they are at the forefront of hostile activities like rioting at places which are open on Shabbat and fairly recently, vandalizing a girls’ school in Bet Shemesh because it bordered their neighborhood?
A question like this -- particularly in terms of the the way it is worded -- presumes that all people of a certain faith community are identical. It is no more fair to so categorize “The Ultra-Orthodox” than it is to so pigeon-hole “The Arabs” or “The Liberals.” People are individual humans.
I am often identified within a body of thinkers who identify with “Centrist Orthodoxy.” Thus, I am not “Ultra-Orthodox,” nor on the left-wing of Modern Orthodoxy either. In my life experience, I have met people who are wonderful and who are terrible. They come in all sizes, shapes, beliefs. They include Jews and non-Jews, religionists and atheists – and those in between.
Indeed, the very term “Ultra-Orthodox” is insulting and demeaning. Are Jewish pork-eaters “Ultra-Reform”? Are Jewish compromisers “Ultra-Conservative”? Do we ever hear of people being called “Ultra-Liberal,” “Ultra-Feminist,” or for that matter “Ultra-Moslem”?
The question is not fair and cannot be answered as asked. Those in the Jewish community of more pious practitioners who act disrespectfully towards others typically do not deserve our respect or our understanding. But we must never lose sight of a deeper truth: lots of wonderful people who might be characterized stereotypically as “The Ultra-Orthodox” are warm, kind, deeply charitable and loving people who open the doors of their homes and open their hearts to Jews of all backgrounds, reflecting the Torah’s imperative to love all Jews.
In our previous posting, somebody asked the question: How is it possible to respect the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel, when many of them behave so violently toward the non-Haredi community?
A different reframing of the question might read: Must respect be earned, or is respect given carte blanche? Moreover, what does Jewish tradition say about these important questions?
According to Hillel’s famous advice, “What is hateful unto you, do not do to your fellow man,” Hillel demands that we treat each person with respect. Authentic religion begins with the cultivation of respect toward others. Whenever religious teachers fail to instill within their followers a reverence for life, religion becomes a sham.
Two Jewish ethical philosophers, Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, develop Hillel’s message howbeit through different paths. Buber maintains that God is the third partner in every human relationship. The way we treat our fellow human beings says much about the way we feel about God. Anyone who mistreats his neighbor paradoxically behaves like an atheist.
Levinas adds that the human face reflects the Divine face, and each person must act ethically toward the Other—even if he is not necessarily deserving of respect. Levinas argues if somebody mistreats you, you have no ethical right to mistreat another human being. Two wrongs do not make a right.
In practical terms, Levinas makes a good point. If your employer acts like a jerk, that does not entitle you to act like one also. Standing up to abuse is one thing; you have every right to question his judgement–however, you need not act like a jerk in the process!
The question gets more complicated when you have an entire ethnic group misbehaving, rioting, and threatening the lives of innocent bystanders because of religious reasons.
In this instance, Levinas’s ethical approach breaks down and loses some (but certainly not all) of its validity. Buber’s criticism of Levinas is well known, for Buber claims morality is a two-way street. If somebody mistreats you, there is no a priori responsibility to play the role of a passive victim. You have no obligation to show that person respect. Morality does operate on a symmetrical principle–contra Levinas!
Let us return to our original question: Must respect be earned before it is given?
As mentioned above, respect is something we must show to all people; however, if the Other acts in an anti-social manner, society has the duty to incarcerate its offenders, criminals, and deviants. The victimizer is unworthy of respect. It is very difficult to truly respect somebody who has not even a scintilla of healthy self-respect.
This is exactly the problem we now have with the Haredim rioting in Israel.
I have rarely been asked to respond to a question that has greater opportunity to bring forth either a very angry or very sad response than this one. And while we all have feelings – for many, that means very strong feelings – about the incidents referred to in the query, the challenge is never just how does it make us feel. Rather, the moral focus must be what do we do. How do we behave, respond?
And with that, I try to embrace a teaching of Rav Kook. In discussing the sinat chinam (causeless, better ceaseless, even outrageous hatred) that tradition says led to the destruction of the Second Temple, Kook urged that our response must be ahavat chinam (causeless, better ceaseless, even outrageous love).
As the cliché suggests, at the end of the day we cannot determine another's behavior; we may only decide how we shall respond. Let us answer outrage with caring. Let us respond to ugliness with caring, for to answer only in kind means we would embrace the same behaviors we would – and rightly – condemn.
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