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Is It Devotion or Extremism? Putting the Israeli Religious Conflict in Context

January 26, 2012 By:
Rabbi Yonah Gross
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Many of us have seen the disturbing images from Israel in recent weeks portraying Jews against other Jews in a so-called religious struggle. Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon. Such misguided zealotry by a small group of misguided people has a long history in Judaism. A historical understanding is essential to appreciating the underpinnings of today's conflict.

The Talmud (B. Gittin 56a) describes the scene right before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., as the Roman siege tightened around Jerusalem. While the Jews in Jerusalem drew strength in the knowledge that they had a 21-year supply of food and other necessities, a group known as Biryonim, ignoring pleas from rabbis and other leaders, burnt down the food stores in order to force a disastrous war with the Roman army. Who were these Biryonim? Rashi, the 11th-century biblical commentator, defines them as "empty men, with a propensity towards violence."

With starvation now descending on Jerusalem, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the rabbinical leader of the Jewish community, contacted Abba Sikra, literally translated as "Head of the Sicarii," who was, ironically, Rabbi Yochanan's nephew. The Sicarii were an organized group of Biryonim and provide the origins of the term by which the modern-day aggressors are known.

Rabbi Yochanan sought a truce to stop the Sicarii from their acts of violence and allow him to plea with the Romans to end the deadly siege. Abba Sikra's telling response was, "What can I do? If I say anything against the Biryoni agenda, they will kill me!" Despite Abba Sikra's presumed leadership, it was sham -- he didn't lead, and no one else did.

The Biryoni, a small group of ruffians, made out to represent the entire Jewish people in the eyes of the world, and they led to the downfall of ancient Jerusalem.

Today we are witness to an unfortunate situation mirroring the realities of almost 2,000 years ago. The world media reports on Jews terrorizing other Jews, but the truth is that it all comes from a tiny, leaderless minority. It's important to note that the actions of these ruffians have received unanimous condemnation from the Orthodox Jewish establishment.

The Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America wrote in a joint statement: "It should be clear to all that this hateful activity does not represent Judaism." Agudath Israel of America declared that "such conduct is beyond the bounds of decent, moral -- Jewish! -- behavior. We condemn these acts unconditionally."

Rabbinic leaders in Israel, across the Orthodox spectrum, have added their voice to the growing chorus of condemnation. I am unaware of any Orthodox rabbinic figure that has lent an iota of support, or has claimed to be a leader of this group.

While God is infinitely good, we cannot make the same claim for His people. Individuals, no matter the level of piety they attempt to display, are subject to the same emotions and disturbances that affect all mankind.

Be careful not to confuse the actions of some Jews with Judaism. The Talmud tells us (B. Yevamot 79a) that King David declared that a Jew could be identified as being merciful, modest and doing acts of kindness. Actions to the contrary are not Jewish acts. Even when at war, we temper our ferocity with kindness and concern (See Deuteronomy 20).

When the Torah is returned to the Ark, we recite (Proverbs 3:17-18) the verse "Etz chaim hi," which compares the Torah to a "living tree" because, regardless of how circumstances may change, it is relevant throughout all generations. We continue by affirming that "its ways are ways of pleasantness, and its pathways are those of peace."

All Jews must strive to spread the peaceful and loving message of Torah so that we can be a source of inspiration to ourselves and to the rest of the world.

Rabbi Yonah Gross is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood and teacher of Judaic studies at Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia.

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