The Rabbi Elon Sex Abuse Scandal: The Personal,The Political & The Dangers of Charisma

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series The Rav Elon Scandal

Over the past week a number of people (off-line, of course) have praised my “courage” in writing about homosexuality and Judaism. They all assumed it must have been a very difficult post to write.

In reality, little courage was required for that. It’s actually the subject matter of this post that makes my heart heavy with dread.

The difficulty here is not in dealing with a sexual abuse scandal within the Jewish community. People who commit such crimes deserve exposure and condemnation. Openness in these matters is always the best policy (but more of that in a later post in this series).

My difficulties in writing this post come from the fact that I not only respected and admired the man at the centre of this furore, and not only did I study under him in his yeshiva (seminary) for 18 months, but he also offered the greatest hope for healing the Israeli secular/religious divide. Continue reading The Rabbi Elon Sex Abuse Scandal: The Personal,The Political & The Dangers of Charisma →

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Riots, Religiosity, and The Broken Bridge

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series The Rav Elon Scandal

Riots, Religiosity, and The Broken Bridge

My Israeli family had an unusual gift: they could always find a riot to stumble upon accidentally.

Back in 1994, when I was young and studying in Israel, my uncle and aunty* loved nothing more than to drive me back to Jerusalem after Shabbat (the Sabbath). They lived close to Tel Aviv, and would pile sundry relatives into the car with us to make the hour journey, have a coffee somewhere, and drop me off at the institute where I was studying.

These expeditions involved shoving a Middle Eastern pop cassette into the car’s deck and lots of raucous singing. We never listened to the news – which was perhaps why we were so often surprised by unrest. Why listen to depressing radio news of internal and external strife when you can wail with Sarit Hadad or feel your ears bleed to Ladino Romansa?

In between songs, my uncle would ask the same question every time: “What’s the best thing about Jerusalem?”

The others in the car would respond on cue: “The road out to Tel Aviv!”

This never stopped being funny. No elaboration was needed.

We all associated Jerusalem with stifling ultra-orthodox dominance and constant political tension.

Tel Aviv and her satellite cities, meanwhile, were where “real” Israelis lived – Israelis who served in the army, who struggled financially without generous state stipends for having a menagerie of children and studying Torah all day.

So when, one Saturday night, we arrived in Jerusalem, parked the car and made our way to the street with our favourite cafes, we naturally had no idea that a riot was in progress.

All previous demonstrations I’d seen till then were the result of left- or right-wing passions – political positions that – no matter how heatedly they opposed each other – still existed within the same broad framework. Whatever the ideologies, Zionism and democracy were integral to each side.

That night in Jerusalem, however, I saw a scene that existed beyond any familiar discourse.

Oil drums and stray pieces of news paper were set alight, and apart from my small family group and a few other hapless folk who hadn’t been listening to the news, the crowd was notable for its monolithic sameness: everyone was ultra-orthodox, everyone was male, and everyone was burning with a fury I hadn’t seen before.

Before and after that night, I would occasionally enjoy running through right-wing demonstrations, shouting left-wing slogans. Sometimes I would even wear the identifiable blue shirt of my far-left youth movement.

Everyone needs a hobby.

People might have shouted at me, but I don’t remember that. I do remember quizzical looks, and occasional amusement, and I remember feeling safe enough to be so, “brave.”

The only time I miscalculated was in an area in which a high percentage of the men had done time in prison, and even there, nothing too awful happened.

This riot was different. There was no temptation to attract attention of any sort.

The roar from the crowd shouted in unison, “Death to the Arabs.”

This was confusing at the time: I’d assumed that because the ultra-orthodox were non- or anti-Zionists that they wouldn’t harbour genocidal feelings towards Arabs. It was my first lesson that Zionism was not the problem.

My aunty is a woman for whom speaking loudly is a way of life.

Even in the depths of despair, she is voluble and humorous. That she spoke quietly and seriously in my ear that night made my every hair stand on end: “When I say run, run. Don’t ask questions, don’t say anything. They won’t care if they kill you when they start running.”

It was this tacit assumption among my family that our lives were not worth much to the rioters that left an indelible mark.

For all their bluster and love of verbal biffo, there is a sense among the general Israeli population that the country comprises a highly dysfunctional extended family that requires the citizens to look out for each other’s welfare.

That night, I understood that this feeling was not universal.

My memory of the “exciting” portion of the evening is hazy. There were police water cannon, we ran a bit. My hand was sore for a while after my aunty had released it from her grip.

The fear we felt that night coloured all my future experiences with what the family referred to as, “the religious.”

In reality, not all orthodox Jews were wholesale rejectionists of modernity and the state of Israel.

The orthodox Religious Zionists never fell under my family’s definition of “religious” and it was easy to understand why. While their politics and religiosity may not have reflected our beliefs, we never felt separated from them. It was possible to have long, heated, but ultimately good-natured discussions with them. They saw themselves as Israeli, and they saw us as Israeli. They may not have approved of our eating habits or Sabbath breaking ways, but they never gave us the impression that they thought we weren’t Jews.

The ultra-orthodox – the people my family meant by the term “religious,” referred to us as Israeli “goyim” – non-Jews.

On a tour of one of the ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods in Jerusalem that year, I was spat on by someone. I’d taken care to dress “modestly” as instructed, but I was still obviously a secular Jew who was bringing the tone of the neighbourhood down.

And what a strange neighbourhood it was. 18th century Poland/Hungarian village life had been transplanted into the Middle East and somehow this represented the ultimate in Jewish authenticity.

The news regularly reported stories of wayward secular cars accidentally straying into ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods on the Sabbath. These cars were soundly stoned by the enraged devout.

Those of us living outside Jerusalem, however, generally preferred not to think about he issue at all – until it was our car that was lost on a Sabbath in Jerusalem.

Tel Aviv and her surrounds were our turf, and on our turf, we could do as we pleased – in theory.

A few years later, I’d caught the last mini-bus home. It was a short ride well within Tel Aviv city limits. The mini-bus was packed and the only seat available was next to an ultra-orthodox man.

My first thought was, “I wonder if he’s lost.”

And then the shouting began: “Don’t let her on! I won’t sit next to her. She has to get off, NOW!”

In this man’s mind, his modesty would have been thoroughly compromised by sitting next to a woman; so obviously, I would have to walk.

The mini-bus erupted. Men and women screamed at this man in unison, “GO BACK TO JERUSALEM! This is Tel Aviv. You don’t like it? Get out yourself!”

Eventually, the mini-bus driver, a pursuer of peace, told the man to come sit next to him. I was ensconced among my secular brethren and we all glowed a little from our victory.

In hindsight, I understand how hollow this victory was – how such minor triumphs actually obscure the reality of ultra-orthodox domination of the country and how very illusory the “freedom” of Tel Aviv is.

I may have been able to catch that bus, but there are many other buses now – state subsidised – that enforce segregation between the sexes.

In the august tradition of Jim Crow America, women are relegated to the back of these busses. Should they object, they will be met by a number of forms of intimidation and ultimately forced from the bus should they remain obdurate.

The ultra-orthodox control personal status law in the country.

Should two Jews not wish to be married by a rabbi – and not be subject to archaic divorce laws that profoundly discriminate against women – they have to go overseas to wed.

Should a Jew and a non-Jew, or a Jew and a Jew not recognised as Jewish by the ultra-orthodox wish to marry, again, overseas marriage is the only option.

And now, the ultra-orthodox are looking to entrench their power to determine who is a Jew further and they are able to do this – to disenfranchise the entirety of non-Orthodox Jewry – because of Israel’s catastrophic electoral system that sees minor parties granted massively disproportionate power.

The tensions between the vast majority of Israelis, who are irreligious and the ultra-orthodox are cyclical. There hasn’t yet been a concerted and sustained effort to wrest control of personal status from the ultra-orthodox, and changes to the political system are due to arrive with the Messiah.

In Australia, it’s easy to have a, “live and let live” attitude towards the ultra-orthodox. Their life choices have no impact on the three quarters of Australian Jews who are not religious.

Israel is different. The nature of ultra-orthodoxy is to encroach on the lives and freedoms of the general citizenry.

When Rabbi Elon worked at bridging the religious/secular divide, his starting point was as a proud Israeli who never sought to deny the Jewishness of secular Israel. His agenda was not to turn Israel into a theocratic state that squeezed out all religious diversity.

The tragedy of his departure was that he was one of the few people able to converse with both sides. Secular people loved him, and most orthodox recognised his immense learning.

That this bridge is gone makes mediation between the sides seem as impossible as it was before Rabbi Elon appeared on the scene.

Yaron, who studied under Rabbi Elon will write about the Rabbi’s strategies and successes and will ask whether the fall of the man necessitates the destruction of his message.

* they were not actually my uncle and aunty but more distant relatives who, with their enormous extended family, “adopted” me.

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The Bridge Builder – By Yaron Gottlieb

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series The Rav Elon Scandal

Unfortunately any scandals or misdeeds associated with a religion – or more often, with religious leaders – will always be used by some as a refutation of the religion itself. “Don’t shoot the messenger,” is a well-worn cliché, but perhaps as important is the notion that that the message – if useful or relevant – should not be killed off, even when the messenger delivering it may have destroyed the trust so many had placed in him. Continue reading The Bridge Builder – By Yaron Gottlieb →

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