The Western Wall, one of the most sacred and prominent sites for Jewish and Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem, was the locale for anger, rock tossing and controversy last week when several hundred Jewish women exercised their legal right to pray at that prominent locale.
The way the world seems to be heading might lead one to conclude that the more prayers, the better, but not so for the ultraorthodox Jews who were furious because these brash women came to pray in a spot that they claim is reserved for faithful Jewish men only. And so the 200 women praying at the Western Wall were assaulted by rocks and bottles from a crowd of 2,000 rock- and bottle-throwing ultraorthodox women determined to hurt those whom they considered trespassers and maybe heretics.
The angry female demonstrators were incited to violence by their ultraorthodox rabbinic leaders who urged them to protect the sanctity of the site and only the presence of 500 Jerusalem police officers separated the praying women from the women taunting and throwing missiles. Anticipating the violence, those who came to pray arrived and left in armored buses, and even the vehicles themselves were attacked.
What is one to make of such an outpouring of hatred and violence? It’s fine to say that a person of faith ought to take his or her faith seriously. It’s easy to say that one must not mix good with evil, that a principled stand would involve no compromise with wickedness.
But when does practicing one’s faith cross the line? One challenge for the three monotheistic world religions (Jew, Christian and Muslim) is that each faith is tormented from within and from without by those in each faith community who take their religion to the extreme.
One person’s definition of extremism is another person’s definition of simple faithful obedience, and one person’s elevation of moderation and tolerance is another person’s accusation of apathy. Even so, there is something bordering on the absurd on the description of these rock-throwing Jews as “ultraorthodox.” One is either orthodox, holding a right belief, or one is not. The prefix “ultra” is unnecessary.
What will happen when it’s not good enough to be ultraorthodox? Will one then have to become hyper-ultraorthodox or doubly sanctified hyper-ultraorthodox? Where will it end?Herein are the seeds for religious violence.
Some people avoid the term “ultraorthodox,” claiming that it is pejorative. They suggest that a kinder, gentler description of these practitioners as fervently obedient and faithful Jews would serve just as well. These Jews identify themselves as Haredi, a Jewish word in the book of Isaiah to describe being “fearfully determined to carefully follow God’s word.”
I understand why those who practice their faith scrupulously don’t want to be labeled insultingly. But those who — in the name of religion — hurl bottles and rocks at other people of the same faith who are praying in public had better get used to being labeled as ultraorthodox.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.