Tefillin ("phylacteries") are two small black leather boxes housing four biblical passages that observant Jews wear during the weekday morning prayers. The commandment to wear tefillin is found in four places in the Torah: Ex. 13:1-10, 11-16; Deut. 6:4-9; 13-21. While there is no prohibition against women wearing tefillin, the custom has long limited the practice to men. Today, however, and more and more women choose to pray with tefillin as well. And with this shift in practice comes the predictable resistance to it.
Case in point: Noa Raz, a Conservative Jew living in Israel. Ms. Raz was attacked and beaten by a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish man at a bus stop in Beersheva. The man noticed the strap marks tefillin often leave in one’s arm. Outraged, the man grabbed and beat her, all the while screaming, “Woman, abomination, desecration.”
Ms. Raz got away, filed a complaint with the police, and wrote about her ordeal. “We live in a country where the strong dominate and where women are humiliated. As our society becomes more ultra-Orthodox, more extreme, these boundaries become clearer and more frightening,” she writes. “We can protest against the Haredim every day, but they are not the only guilty ones. They are Haredi; this is how they believe and they have the right to believe this way. It is the State that is also guilty of violence, for authorizing their every rampage; and we just carry on and keep quiet. If we don’t wake up to what is happening around us, we will very soon find ourselves living on the corner of Meah Shearim [an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem] and Tehran.”
She is right. And the problem isn’t restricted to Israel. While we focus our attention on global civilizational clashes, there are intra-civilizational clashes that are no less important, indeed which may prove even more important. This clash is between religious extremists and religious moderates. True, you may find both to be steeped in ignorance and wish to see today’s gods go the way of Zeus and Thor, but that isn’t going to happen. What must happen, if religion is to further human progress, is that the ultra-Orthodox of every religion must be dethroned. There is still a sense among too many (even too many liberals) that being fanatical for your god is a good thing; that liberal religionists are weak willed and inauthentic; and that only the extremists are true to their faith. Liberals need to speak up more loudly; they need to affirm the legitimacy of their faith more powerfully; and challenge the haredi of every religion whenever the faith spills over into abuse. The alternative is to surrender faith to the fanatics and allow whatever good religion can do to get lost in the fog of fear that is the haredi mindset.