A few days ago, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of a Second Temple clay seal approximately two centimeters in diameter in an excavation at the southwest corner of the Temple Mount. The inscription reads: “Pure for God.” Archaeologists now have proof that the Hanukkah story, as told in the Babylonian Talmud, that refers to a small vial of oil sealed with the stamp of the High Priest is likely a reflection of actual Temple procedure. (The fact that the announcement was made during the celebration of Hanukkah itself adds to the drama of the find.) Those items were reserved for ritual use would have such a seal attached.
Just about the same time, a story aired on Israeli television about religious extremists in Bet Shemesh, a suburb of Jerusalem, sent a collective chill down the spine of Israeli society. The attempts to impose their own brand of ultra-Orthodoxy on the community by some self-appointed ayatollahs of Torah included terrorizing an eight-year old girl who can no longer walk without fear the three hundred meters from her home to her Orthodox school. That is right. She is an Orthodox girl, a daughter of American immigrants, attending an Orthodox school wearing long sleeves and skirt, but, apparently of insufficient length to satisfy the extremists who spat at and cursed her. Other residents have similarly been accosted and threatened. While incidents on public buses when ultra-Orthodox men have demanded that women move to the back of the bus are growing, he story of an eight-year-old girl was the tipping point. President Shimon Peres – long with the Chief Rabbis – have called for end for unwarranted assaults that are contrary to the Torah as well as the law. Only time will tell whether Israeli society will be able to keep in check the roughly 10% of the population identified as ultra-Orthodox, a fraction of which wants to Teheran-ize as well as terrorize Israeli society into submission.
What both stories share in common is the powerful need to find authenticity in religion. For the Temple, that meant ensuring that only the best was used in Divine service. God demands purity and it was up to His servants to ensure that purity would prevail. It might have cost more and demanded more time and attention. But the effort expended is proof of commitment. A religion that demands more is one that is worth more. And a worthy religion is an authentic one.
The ultra-orthodox extremists operate with a similar mind-set. The more demands imposed on Jews, the harder it becomes to observe, the greater the effort required to live a Jewish life, the more uncomfortable life is made, the greater the devotion required, the more authentic Jews who live this way must be for only the most deeply committed would take on these strictures. These sectarian Jews are not masochists – even though it may seem that way to the casual observer – because what they do to themselves is not considered painful. They welcome any and all additional restrictions because it is a measure of their willingness to endure anything for God. In short, it makes them authentic.
Understanding the extremists does not entail accepting their warped view of Judaism. While Judaism certainly has standards – even in matters of modesty – they are reasonable ones. Jewish tradition warns against imposing additional and unnecessary restrictions as not only unwise, but acts of impiety and arrogance. And those who put lives in danger in order to uphold their own sense of propriety are labeled “pious fools” by the Talmud.
A similar mistake is made by Jews on the other side of the spectrum, those who equate Judaism with every left-wing social cause. They, too, are searching for authenticity that is defined by the editorial page of the New York Times. The more Judaism correlates with all social activists hold to be sacred, the more authentic it and they become.
Authenticity will not be found in the extremes. Authenticity is the product of the undistorted understanding of Judaism that comes from a passionate pursuit of the truth and a dispassionate study of text.