Thursday, December 29, 2011

Shiktzeh! Imposing One's Beliefs & Morals – Joseph & Beit Shemesh

By Seth Frantzman, licensed for
non-commercial reuse under terms as per
A shocking example of seeking to impose religious standards on others was reported recently in Beit Shemesh, Israel. A seven year old girl who is afraid to go to school because of harassment by zealots has really brought this question home. (See video) With the qualification that media reports always only show part of the story, I think it is reasonable to assume there is a serious problem. Of course the behaviour we are seeing is absolutely wrong. 

My heart is with the demonstrators who asserted on Tuesday night that anyone who spits on a seven year old girl, spits on the beauty of Judaism and destroys its values[1]. They are right. This behaviour is not justified by the Torah “whose ways are pleasantness and all its paths are peace[2]”.  It would be wrong to blame whole communities for this and turn this into an anti-Haredi issue. Still, I think that before we can wash our hands of this, we need to consider the context out of which this outrage has come, as part of a strategy to prevent it in the future.    

This post explores whether the behaviour we are seeing is to be understood as an extreme manifestation of a broader rejection of pluralism. I think that because some traditional sources reflect anti-pluralist perspectives, work must be undertaken to establish and promote a compelling religious argument within a Torah perspective for greater tolerance of more practices[3] and beliefs that differ to ones own. Exhibit A. is the case of Joseph (Jacob’s son) and the degree to which his own beliefs influences his rule of a society who did not share his beliefs.

Ruling Egypt from a Jewish perspective – Mass Circumcision?
One surprising commentary about Joseph’s rule of Egypt is the suggestions that Joseph forced the Egyptians to circumcise themselves as a condition for being allowed to purchase food[4]. This baffling idea is offered as an explanation[5] for the odd wording with which Pharaoh responds to his people who cry out to him for food, “go to Joseph, whatever he tells you, you shall do[6]”. A simpler interpretation of this verse is that Pharaoh advised them to pay whatever price Joseph demands[7]. The idea that Joseph would impose his own religious practice on the people of Egypt is problematic on many levels[8]. While one commentator limits this idea to tribes related to Abraham that had previously undertaken the practice of circumcision[9], this is a bit of a stretch, with the simple meaning being that Joseph imposed this on Egypt as a whole. Why?

An Anti-Promiscuity Measure
One relatively recent view with echoes in the controversy in Beit Shemesh is that Joseph was concerned about the Egyptians who were steeped in promiscuity, so he introduced circumcision as a counter measure presumably to decrease desire[10].

Ironically, our sages never thought of as circumcision as a guarantee against sexual sin. This is the reason for the Yichud laws, which prohibit a Jewish man from being alone with a strange woman[11] with the door locked. In some there is significant segregation of the sexes in many aspects of life among the ultra-orthodox. While these varied measures have served the communities well and helped minimize if not prevent adultery and promiscuity, it’s imposition on others is wrong. Yet, this commentary can be taken to suggest otherwise. It also positions the other as promiscuous while viewing “us” as chaste. I am afraid there is too much in our tradition that the Beit Shemesh zealots can take further than reasonable people have in the past. 

Other views about Joseph’s “Virtue Policy”
One manuscript that softens this idea is that Joseph inspired Egyptians to want to circumcise themselves[12]. Another view is that as it was a time of hunger, it was important for the people to exercise restraint in terms of their eating and it was deemed useful to more generally initiate ‘character repair’ with the father of the fathers of this process being circumcision[13]. This links with the idea that a famine increases hunger so that people would eat three times as much[14] (if and when they can). The implications of these interpretations are still conducive to “us good and them not as good” thinking.

God doesn’t feed Heathens?
Another version of the circumcision story includes Joseph telling the Egyptians my God does not feed the uncircumcised, go and circumcise yourselves and I will give you[15]. The idea that God does not feed the uncircumcised, contradicts our belief that God feed all his creatures.

A “Muslim/Sufi story
Judaism has compelling ideas about the value of all people, yet for me in spite of almost 40 years of immersion in the world of Torah, what comes to mind is a Muslim story. “The Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) would not eat unless there was some guest at his table. Once,  Abraham went out in search of a guest and he found one very old man. He invited the old man to dine with him and the man agreed. When Abraham asked him to pray before eating the man refused, Abraham was angry and refused to feed him. When he did so he heard a voice from above: “Abraham, how old is that man? I tolerated him, (the old man) fed and sustained him for seventy years despite his disbelief and you could not tolerate him for seven minutes?! Abraham repented and took the old man home for dining[16].” I wish I had a ready Jewish response of equal strength, I believe we need to find one and ensure it is well known.

Egyptian law and custom rather vs. own faith? – The Property of the Priests 
We have another case, this time in the Torah itself. We are told that Joseph was entrusted with sweeping powers over Egypt; no man will raise arm or leg without your permission[17].  Despite these powers, when Joseph effectively nationalises all land in Egypt in exchange for food and seeds, he excludes the priests. Because it is a fixed settlement for the priests from Pharaoh and they ate their fixed portion that Pharaoh gave them, therefore they did not sell their fields… Joseph set this as law… only the land of the priests did not become the possession of the Pharaoh[18]. This suggests that Joseph’s set aside his personal religious views, because he was acting not as a private individual but on behalf of the Egyptian state and Pharaoh.

Alternative Explanations
Traditional commentaries offer other explanations, eg. Joseph returned a favour to the priests for speaking out in his favour when he was accused of attempted rape by the wife of Potiphar[19]. His master had sought to have him executed but because of the priests he was saved from execution[20]. A minority view goes so far as to suggest that we are not talking about priests at all but rather officials of war and the royal chariots[21], this is based on the multiple meanings of the Hebrew word כהנים (Cohanim is plural of Cohen, which can either mean priest or official). It seems that the idea of Joseph paying respect to the priests of idol worship is too offensive and implausible.

The light of Chanukah
The demonstration in Beit Shemesh happened on the last night of Chanukah, and was said to be bringing the light on the festival to the city[22]. Chanukah could be about affirming a live and let live approach. We could celebrate the triumph of religious freedom and the victory of the weak minority against those who sought to impose their way of life on them. Yet, for many it is not so much about the few resisting the many but more about the “the defiled being (given to defeat in) the hand of the pure[23]”.  

Limits of tolerance
It is necessary for communities to establish standards. I think it is right and proper for communities to decide how to deal with various challenges such as lust and assert their views. If religious Jewish men and women want to sit separately on a bus and cover up almost all their skin, that is their right. If people object to the imposition of standards on others, they have a right to make and enforce laws that prevent people being harassed for how they dress in public spaces or where they choose to sit on a bus. We need a robust tolerance that respects ourselves as well as the other.  

A choice between risks – shiktze vs. relativism  
Orthodox Judaism is committed to the idea that it has the absolute Truth. This is not going to be negotiated. In view of this, I can think of two significant options, one is to rely on teachings like “greet all people with a friendly face[24]” to counter the implications in sources such as those quoted above. The risk is the doubly offensive use of words like “Shiktzeh”. This is a yiddish version of a hebrew word being something disgusting that some people have used to refer to a non-Jewish woman. Thankfully, many orthodox Jews do not use this word. In situations like Beit Shemesh it has been unforgivably used interchangeably with words like promiscuous or slut.

The other option is to embrace an ethic that requires us to think about the other and their beliefs and practices as equal at least in the sense that we must treat their choices as we would like them to treat ours. A strong secular education that values the wisdom of all nations would be essential for the second option to succeed. This option carries the risk of slipping into relativism or at least weakening the degree to which Judaism is seen as a superior path. I am in favour of the second option.

... in today's multicultural world, the truly reliable path to coexistence, to peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation, must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion...It must be rooted in self-transcendence. Transcendence as a hand that reaches out to those close to us, to foreigners, to the human community, to all living creatures, to nature, to the universe; transcendence as a deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not...[25]"
Vaclav Havel

[2] Proverbs 3:17
[3] This tolerance does not need to be absolute. People of all persuasions find certain behaviours intolerable, eg. incest, theft, or indeed the behaviour of the zealots in Beit Shemesh. I would argue that the tolerance threshold needs to be higher and more open minded, with fewer behaviours being deemed intolerably offensive
[4] Midrash Beresheet Rabba, As mentioned elsewhere, the Midrash is not about what literally happened at the time but rather about teaching us something
[5] Rashi, Rabbenu Bchai
[6] Genesis 41:55, This implausible scenario is explained by Midrash Tanchuma by the sheer terror felt by the Pharaoh. Pharaoh asks the people why they did not store grain them selves? When they reply that they had stored grain but it rotted, Pharaoh is afraid that it is Joseph’s powers that caused the rot and that if the people disobey him, Joseph might decree that they should all die
[7] Chizkuni
[8] There is the ethical obligation of Joseph toward Pharaoh and the Egyptian people to carry out his duties in accordance with the purpose for which he was given his role, eg. to ensure that the Egyptians had what to eat. It is an obvious abuse of that trust and the office to use it for advancing some other agenda, regardless of how holy the thinks it is. There is also the concept in Judaism of 7 universal commandments that are applicable to all people which does not include circumcision.  
[9] Torah Shlaima, p. 1563 based on the view of the Rosh that the sons of Ishmael and Keturah were obligated to circumcise themselves
[10] Klei Yakar, in addition Klei Yakar explains that there was a direct causal link between Joseph’s stored wheat being persevered and the fact that he was circumcised.
[11] eg. A woman he is not married to, nor a direct relation such as sister, daughter, mother
[12] Torah Shlaima p. 1563
[13] Yefat Torah, cited in Torah Shlaima p. 1563
[14] Lekach Tov
[15] Midrash Tanchuma Miketz 6
[16] I heard this story from a religious Muslim, also
[17] Genesis 41:44
[18] Genesis 47:22 & 26 A careful reading of the verses could yield the explanation for Joseph not buying the priests land, being because the priests did not need to because they got food directly from Pharaoh, as mentioned in Bchor Shor. Yet, this royal stipend was presumably also administered by Joseph and he would have had the power to cancel it, this view is implied in the question of Sechel Tov, “Why did Joseph agree to give wheat to the priests?” and the interpretation of Yonatan Ben Uziel in the following paragraph
[19] Sechel Tov, cited in Torah Shlaima p. 1716
[20] Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, They suggested Joseph’s garment be examined to see how it was torn when he got away from her. If it is torn from the front then her story was correct but if it was torn at the back then Joseph was obviously running away from her and she was chasing him. The tear was found at the back of the garment (Tur)
[21] This is the view found in a Manuscript of Moshav Zkainim cited in Torah Shlaima and Chizkuni, the view that we are discussing priests is found in Rashi, Sechel Tov, Midrash Hagadol, Unkelus, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, Bchor Shor and Radak  
[22] Tzviki Levin, as above
[23] Al Hanisim prayer recited during Chanukah
[24] Avot 1:15


  1. Zalman thanks, another though provoking article and video.

    The first thing that comes to mind is that children must be protected - everywhere and always for two main reasons.
    1) Their innocence
    2) They are innocent.

    It might be worth noting for the record, that there are very few places left on this planet where children can walk to school alone unsupervised at the age of 7 and feel safe.

    In fact, it is the "cheredi" neighbourhoods - as a result of their close knit and "watchful" demeanor that fosters this good spirit of "look out for one another" that allowed this little girl to walk to school by herself to begin with! This is a very important fact that should not be overlooked.

    It is these cheredi neighborhoods that have for years been the pride and joy of orthodox Jews worldwide - these neighborhoods champion the world with near zero crime rates! This is a statistical fact.

    It is a massive shame and a disgrace to G-d's name and common decency that a 7 yr old should be bullied on the way to school, anywhere! The children of that neighborhood really need to be focusing their eyes on their studies - and need a lesson in "ahavat yisrael" to "love thy neighbour as thyself".

    Rather than "spit" or bully anyone who does not fit the mold of an established "charedi" neighorhood - the solution is to educate every person that we are all created in the image of G-d and must be treated as such.

    This issue is sensitive, and has now become a political issue in Israel. I pray that the perpetrators of such harassment come to their sense very soon and stop playing "G-d's policemen". If they don't cease their vigilantly behavior, the law of the land should deal with them and charge the offenders with assault.

    I was taught as a kid, if you see something that does not fit into the moral system taught - LOOK THE OTHER WAY, and walk on!

  2. It is important that you write this blog. It is important that people can by your actions and your thoughts you daily break down stereotypes and showthe spectrum of thought within the haredi community - and people try to appreciate the spectrum of thought within the non-haredi community. We must study and learn from all sides; our history tells of the Zealots and the baseless hatred which resulted in the lost of Jerusalem in 70 CE. We must never forget the lessons of that tragedy. We need Rabbinic figures like Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai to lead us into sensible decision making and steer us away from the extremists.

  3. A Comment by S on FacebookDecember 29, 2011 at 10:52 PM

    I'd like to argue on behalf of the zealots for a minute. Let's start from first principles. The world was created by G-d. Our whole purpose in life is to get close to Him (ie by doing exactly what the Torah says). Anything that prevents that from happening, eg a slide in community standards, has dire eternal consequences for our very souls. Particularly as we are judged collectively, so any transgression on your part reflects on me. So yeah, sorry you're frightened, little girl, but I'd rather that you be frightened than anything happens to my eternal stake in heaven, thanks very much.

    Rabbi Kastel, because you're a moral person, and can feel the pain of the little girl, you're trying to look for some basis in Judaism to tell them to stop. Perhaps we can take the example of Avraham and his charity. Perhaps we can look to other cultures to see how we can make this a more pleasant world to live in. Perhaps calling a little girl names is assur. But it misses the point. How else are we going to safeguard our eternal souls?

    I reckon the only counter-argument you can make against the zealots of Beith Shemesh is that there is no eternal soul you need to protect. There is no god, Judaism isn't really true, so you don't need to worry about coercing people into being more frum to protect yourself and your family. Because if we believe in the truth of the incentives that Judaism sets up, the most moral thing we could do would be to scare little girls into wearing a skirt of the correct length. It's the same moral reason for why we coerce people into refraining from putting anthrax into the water supply. The only way you'd get me to allow anthrax in Warragamba dam is if you could prove that it's not harmful.

  4. Thanks S for engaging with my writing. There is an element of truth in your argument that for these guys, eternity is tied up with the length of others people's skirts. The solution for them is a few days in jail perhaps. Thankfully, for the broader Haredi community, they are able to live and let live, more or less, even with their belief in the Torah and heaven etc.

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  5. Greetings Dear Friend: I find it very hypocritical that Jews and Israelis are all of a sudden SO UPSET about the treatment of this little girl. Why? Because she is a Jewish girl. I can post videos of Palestinian girls being accosted by these same Jews and settlers on a daily basis and practically NO ONE in Israel cares. And it's done in the presence of IDF soldiers ...

    That being said ... the problem here is that Israel cannot be BOTH a secular and religious country. That simple. The current state of Israel, like many Muslim populated countries, are not set up on sharia or halacha. If they were, one could be shocked and surprised when something like this happens. As it is in Israel, they have many groups competing for the same interests. There has been and will always be problems like this there until the end of time. Because people want power and control. Israel cannot only be for Jewish people. It is the only land of many different people.

    But as you have written, that is not negotiable or Orthodox Jews.

    So, Israel will become like many Muslim dictatorships: my way or the highway.

  6. I mean to say "holy" land for many people, and not negotiable "for" Orthodox Jews. iPad keyboard does strange things sometimes.

  7. Safiyyah. The question of justice in the conflict over the holy land is an important one. I am not convinced that dealing with the issue of violence and harassment in the name of religion within one community cannot be dealt with separately.
    I don't think it is hypocritical to try to address issues within one's own "tribe", although consistency of caring about people of all groups would be an ideal. I think there are many people in Israel who care about abuse suffered by Palestinian children, it's just not deemed as newsworthy as men with beards and strong beliefs going ballistic. Not sure what it is about beards that is so interesting for the media.
    The bottom line is that no child should be accosted or mistreated by anyone, regardless of religion, culture or nationality, Israeli or Palestinian or anyone else.

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