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From the November 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 11)

Middle East

Is There a God?

Haim Levinson, Kol Ha’Zman (centrist weekly, published by Ma’ariv), Jerusalem, Israel, Aug. 21, 2003

A victim of a suicide bombing
An Israeli wounded in an Oct. 4 suicide bombing in Haifa receives first aid (Photo: Roni Schutzer/AFP-Getty Images).
The bombing of bus No. 2 in Jerusalem [on Aug. 19] didn’t only shatter the windows of adjacent buildings on Shmuel Hanavi Street, on the corner of Haim Bar-Lev Street—it also caused a deep fracture within ultra-Orthodox society. Twenty people, including children—the majority ultra-Orthodox—were killed in the suicide attack. The community was left with no choice but to ponder and deal with the difficult questions that the attack raised. Unconventional issues of faith were opened to public discussion. Subjects surfaced that are usually kept silent during normal times, such as the nature of the protection of the individual or the masses by divine power. In discussions on the street and in Internet chat rooms, the ultra-Orthodox are trying to understand why this happened and, specifically, why it happened to their tightknit community, which is extremely religious—an attack on people who were returning home after praying at the Western Wall. Questions surface—even about God.

One of the prevailing beliefs in the ultra-Orthodox community is that each event has a reason and that each person has individual divine protection. A person who gives tzedakah [money for good causes], studies the Torah, and lives according to Orthodox laws will be protected and rewarded by the heavens. This belief has been shattered in light of the toddlers who had not sinned, yet were killed in such a cruel way. The ultra-Orthodox are looking, apparently, for alternative answers. They aren’t focusing on individual divine protection, but rather on a general one. An enormous tragedy with so many victims doesn’t point to the sins of each individual but to a significant common sin of the people of Israel. This is how, for example, the ultra-Orthodox community explains the killings of the Jews in the 1700s, by attributing it to the fact that Jews spoke during prayer, and this is how they explain the Holocaust, as a reaction to the mixed marriages between Jews and gentiles that had spread through Europe.

The reason for the present event, according to their explanation, is immodest behavior. “The attack happened in the period of ‘in-between times,’ which is the three-week vacation that the ultra-Orthodox community enjoys during the summer.

“During this time, there are many immodest behaviors, such as going to the beach, where the laws of separation [men and women swim separately] aren’t upheld,” says Hechkel Rosen-boim, who arrived at the site of the attack Tuesday night. “It shows that God is signaling to the people of Israel that even during this time, one must study the Torah. Always study the Torah.” And a special religious declaration was made public in the ultra-Orthodox community just days before the terrorist attack, calling on the women of Israel to dress more modestly so as not to bring harm to the nation.

The ultra-Orthodox community believes that the death of the toddlers occurred to make up for the extreme sins that only the death of a person who hasn’t sinned can make up for. Maybe this, too, is a form of consolation. The sudden death of seven children (ages three months to 16 years) assumed a significance that the non-religious public has difficulty accepting; but for the Orthodox community, this explanation eases the pain.

In contrast to the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, where people live close to the site of the explosion and talk about these issues over and over in the stairwells or simply in the street, the rabbis keep a low profile. The leader, as always, is Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv. After the attack, he closed the Gemara [an extensive legal code, which together with the Mishnah forms the Talmud] and read chapters from the Book of Psalms for the recovery of the wounded. He didn’t discuss issues of faith at that time. Rabbi Elyashiv dedicates his time to religious activity, setting a personal example for his followers. He tells them, don’t analyze or philosophize, concentrate on prayer and forgiveness. “Put aside all marginal issues, insist on Torah, Torah, Torah,” as described by one yeshiva student.

The community has begun discussing security issues. On this subject, the public is deeply divided over the opinions of the rabbis. They don’t say it out loud, they don’t go out and argue with the rabbis, but the public holds an extreme belief, out there between [the ruling] Likud and the [right-wing] Ihud Leumi-Israel Beitenu Party. The rabbis, for their part, at least the majority of them, are maintaining a more moderate front.

They came from Lithuania and were raised on the familiar beliefs “Don’t climb up the Wall” [meaning: Don’t establish a state in Israel before the arrival of the Messiah] and “Don’t rise against the gentiles” [meaning: Don’t agitate them]. This is why Zionism and the occupation are interpreted as “climbing the Wall” and as “agitating the gentiles.” And on top of that, in the opinion of the rabbis, saving one’s soul in Israel is more important than the struggle for national pride or the popular Israeli saying “We’ll show them,” which is far from ultra-Orthodox beliefs.

“Let the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) kick someone’s ass,” say ultra-Orthodox teenagers, who have never held a weapon and don’t know what the refugee camp in Jenin looks like from the inside. But this is what they want: They’re busy studying the Torah, which protects Israel in spirit, and leave it to the IDF to protect Israel through action.

“It’s clear that you can’t trust the Arabs, and there’s no political solution to the problem,” says Yossi, an Orthodox teenager, who ponders why Arabs are allowed to enter Israel to work. “We don’t need anything from them. Not the good, not the bad.” Later he reflects on Jewish history and concludes: “Ishmael always wanted to kill Yitzhak [Isaac]. We need to stand guard.”

This strategic argument also extends to issues like the separation fence. The ultra-Orthodox community doesn’t think Israel needs a fence. Israel doesn’t have to enclose itself, but must resolve the matter with force. Rabbi Elyashiv, on the other hand, holds a different point of view.

Sources in city hall say that in one of his weekly meetings with Jerusalem’s mayor, Uri Lupoliansky, the rabbi asked about the developments regarding the fence around Jerusalem. “If the fence saves one soul in Israel, use all of the resources that are at your disposal to accelerate its erection,” the rabbi told the mayor.

The last security issue that the ultra-Orthodox deal with is the civil guard. The second attack in the area and the heightened stress felt in Jerusalem in general are causing the Orthodox public, in particular its energized teenagers, to volunteer to try to help.

They aren’t satisfied with ZAKA [Zihui Korbanot Ason, Identification of Disaster Victims, the volunteer organization that gathers and buries all human remains after an accident or a terrorist attack—WPR], because it’s an activity that takes place after something has happened, after the damage has been done.

They want to prevent it from happening again. They want to stand guard. Not all of the rabbis like this idea. In spite of ZAKA’s collaborating with Israel’s national institutions, it is still a touchy subject. To be active in Zionist institutions is problematic.

But with another terrorist attack, with yet another funeral, the feeling on the ultra-Orthodox street that something must be done is getting stronger.

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