Monday, February 23, 2009

I Think We Need To Retire The Middah Of Kanouis (Zealotry)

At least four times a week, when putting away the Torah during prayers, Jewish men recite the verse from Mishlei (Proverbs) concerning the Torah. The verse, 3:17, reads as follows: Deracheha Darchei Noam V'chol Nesivoseha Shaom -- Her ways are of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.

And yet, we find that this isn't always the case. We find people who stone cars that drive through neighborhoods on Shabbos. We find people who stone buses because they aren't segregated, or those who beat up women for presuming to sit in the front of a non-segregated bus, or people who throw acid in the faces of a young girl for daring to walk through a neighborhood while not living up to their standard of tznius. We have seen stories of people who harass or shun their neighbors for failing to live up to the "chumra of the month." People have been pressured to move from their homes through violence, intimidation or harassment because they chose to live within halacha but not within the extra-halachic standards that some communities decide upon.

Is this d'rachecha darchei noam? Is this v'chol nesivoseha shalom? And, more importantly, is this actually bringing anyone closer to observing the mitzvos?

The problem with violence is that it's a great motivator when those whom you want to influence have no other alternative. If a woman lives in the areas of Afghanistan or Pakistan ruled by the Taliban, she wears a burka -- not because she really wants to, but because if she doesn't, she's liable to be beaten, put in prison, or executed. Since the power of the state is behind the threats, the version of sharia that the Taliban practice is enforced.

But using force to compel behavior has two major drawbacks. The first is that in order to compel the behavior, you have to have the authority to back up your threats. If you want to force your neighbor to keep kosher, for example, you have to have the authority to do something about it if she or he doesn't. That does not exist today. Even in enclosed chareidi or chassidic communities, no one today has the governing authority to compel behavior. No community can pass a law stating that they have the authority to whip someone for not keeping kosher. Zealots may take it upon themselves to do so, but they may be subject to punishment themselves, as their activities are strictly extra-legal.

But there's an even more severe problem with using force to compel behavior. The problem is that of motivation. God wants us to keep the Torah out of a desire to keep it -- and force is a lousy way to achieve that result. Consider, for example, taxes. All of us (barring the most ardent anarchists and tax resisters) recognize the importance and necessity of taxes. We may argue about methods, rates and models, but we all agree that taxes are necessary to pay the police, the army, the fire department, the EMS workers, the garbage collectors, etc. And yet, despite the fact that we all know that taxes are necessary, how many people would actually pay them without the IRS's ability to take action against us? Very few. In other words, despite the fact that we all know that taxes are necessary, very few of us would actually pay without the fear of going to fines, penalties or prison. In other words, when force is the primary motivation for a behavior, then most people will not observe that behavior absent the force. If most people could find a foolproof out to paying taxes, they would take it.

But we don't want that to happen with Shabbos, kashrus or any of the other mitzvos. We want people to keep the mitzvos even in the absence of force. We want people to keep Shabbos even if there is no Bais Din which is going to punish them, or some thug ready to break their window. God wants us to keep the mitzvos both in public and b'chadrei chadorim (in the innermost chamber -- i.e. in private). God doesn't want us to put on an outward display of keeping the mitzvos but yet break them when we're alone and reasonably safe from prying human eyes.

And, in many parts of the Orthodox community, that seems to be the case. I keep Shabbos not because someone is going to beat me up if I don't, but because I want to. I keep kosher not because the kashrus police are out there spying on me, but because I want to. If I wanted to violate Shabbos in the privacy of my home, I could easily do so with no repercussions from any communal authorities. If I wanted to, I could easily sneak pork into my home, or even make a cheeseburger from existing kosher products in my house; but I don't -- because I want to keep kosher. And this holds true for the vast majority of the Orthodox community today.

There is a story that is told of R. Levi Yitzchock of Berditchev. R. Levi Yitzchock was known as someone who was always trying to find a way to find favor for the Jews in the eyes of God. One erev Pesach, after the time for the burning of the chametz, he called in his shammos (aide) and asked him to try to obtain some beer (which is chametz) from one of the Jews of Berditchev. The shammos was shocked at the request, but eventually agreed to try to obtain the beer. After a few hours, he returned and told his Rebbe that he had failed in his mission. He then asked him to try to find some tobacco*, a substance banned by the government. Within a short while, he was able to procure some. Seeing this, he turned to the heavens and proclaimed "Ribbono Shel Olam, see how much Your people love to observe Your mitzvos. The king has all sorts of police and soldiers and yet people still flout his authority and smoke tobacco. But You - You have no soldiers, no armies, no police - and yet, Your people keep Your mitzvos and not a drop of beer was to be found in their possession on Erev Pesach."

*That's* the type of approach that we need to foster if we are to see an increase in the observance of the mitzvos in the future. But to maintain that, and certainly to extend this to the non-Orthodox community, you can't take the stick approach -- you have to use the carrot. Throwing stones at people, yelling at them, throwing acid in their faces and the like does not encourage a single person to want to keep the mitzvos - on the contrary - it causes the victim and other non-Orthodox people to move further away from the keeping of the mitzvos. Even when violation of the mitzvos were punishable by Bais Din, I'm sure that the violence had a harmful effect. I don't think a single person who ever witnessed a person receiving malkus (lashes) for eating treif ever came away from it feeling "Wow! That inspired me to keep kosher." They may have kept it out of fear, but not out of desire -- and lacking that, they can and would continue to violate when they felt they could get away with it. I would be highly surprised to find that violence ever inspired anyone to keep a single mitzvah out of desire. And in an environment such as ours, where there is no direct enforcement of mitzvos, it is imperative that we mandate the carrot approach.

Ultimately, I think that people who use violence, intimidation and harassment have much to answer for. Ostensibly, they do these things thinking that they are increasing the observance of the mitzvos. But knowingly or unknowingly, they are, in fact, harming the cause of mitzvah observance. With every act of violence, they are driving more and more people away from seeing the beauty of living by the mitzvos and observance of the mitzvos. And for that, they will one day have to answer.

The Wolf

* The banned substance changes in various versions of the story. The one I heard was tobacco, but there are other versions with different substances.


Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Complex approaches, eg. reasoned dialogue, are for complex minds.
Simple approaches, eg. throwing stones at "the other" are for simple minds.

Anonymous said...

You bring many good points. Playing devil's advocate, I would remind you that using force to compel the performance of mitzvos is an established tradition in Judaisim. There is the use of legal compulsion in ancient Israel, which you mentioned. There is the midrash that says Hashem held a mountain over klal Yisroel and ordered them to keep the mitzvos, even though had already volounteered to do so. There is the Rasha in the hagaddah, whose teeth we encouraged to knock out. (Not exactly the same thing, but still there is the use of violance.) There is Pinchus, who can be said to be the archetype of kanouis. The midrash seems to relish describing his actions in gory detail.

Given the precedent, is it so surprising that some of the less forgiving (and perhaps more simple-minded, as the previous commenter suggests) members of the community feel that violence against those who violate their sense of what is proper is a mitzvah.

I think an interesting question is why some people feel the need to compel others to agree with them.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. However, I don't agree with your conclusion. These fundamentalists (Jewish, Moslem, etc. there's no difference) don't give a rat's tushie about increasing observance.

It's all about power. Usually related to, and you can any shrink about this, repressed sexual aggression. These creeps are more akin to schoolyard bullies than to any true concept of "Kanoyis".

So the rationale that they are actually driving people away from Yiddishkeit is completely lost on them. Ironically, the only way to get people like them to comply is through the very punishment you advocate against. They must be made to realize that there is an immediate consequence to their actions. Ideally, this would be via local law enforcement, but in the absence of that, the greater community must act against them forcefully. (We've had some success with this in Beit Shemesh.)

The Hedyot said...

Not that I agree with their policy, but I know that the reasoning behind many people’s approach of forcing observance is as a stop-gap measure in order to keep younger people in line. They figure that during years when people are supposedly more susceptible to being influenced in a certain direction, they need to be forced to stay on the straight and narrow, irrespective of how bad it might look or how resentful they might be about it. Later on, they figure, when the kids are older and more mature, then they will not have to be forced and will hopefully be able to appreciate the beauty and importance of torah and mitzvos. Or at least they will simply be trapped by their family commitments (after all, they need to get married young and have kids right away, no?) and/or the expectations of frum society, which will prevent them from straying. But in the meantime, they don’t want to risk the possibility that the person will be unduly influenced and lost forever.

I know for a fact that many people live by this policy when necessary.

ZachM said...


When you say "that using force to compel the performance of mitzvos is an established tradition in Judaisim." I think you are missing the point. The point of malkot is not to inspire mitzvah observance it is specifically to punish those who PURPOSEFULLY and KNOWINGLY violate the law despite a detailed description of the incorrectness of their action, presumably in a civil, even kindly manner, and the punishment they will receive. Malkot is the last ditch effort to turn an ingrained sinner around.

And regarding Hashem holding the mountain over Klal Yisroel's heads, most agree that image is a parable. It was meant to show that Bnei Yisroel had lost their free choice because of the miracles they had witnessed--it is lamenting the fact, not glorifying it. This, in fact, was the reason we had to "re-accept" the oral torah at Purim.

But yes, it is quite easy to **misinterpret** these symbols and parables, so your overall point has validity. I think you should just be more careful with the way you present your information.

Anonymous said...

Pinchas lost his right to be assume the mantle of Moshe's leadership because zealotry -- rush to judgement -- is a questionable trait. It is almost always abused, and fails to inspire the masses. At best, it's a dire, one-time tactic, not a strategy. And it's usually wrong.

Anyone who presumes to be a sincere zealot for anything but his own religious practice is arrogant, selfish, deeply unhappy with himself -- and a criminal.

Ahavah said...

I agree with Menachem - it's all about power and control and money. They are not even the slightest bit interested in persuading those they harass and intimidate to be truly Torah observant for its own sake. They are only interested in driving off people who will not submit to their authority, and to increase the geographic area of their little fiefdom by driving out them out and filling up their places with those over whom they have control.

I think if you asked them directly, you would find that even they admit they would not trust someone who only adopted their stringencies because they were threatened with violence. They know that does not cause true compliance. They would be forever worried about what such a person might be doing behind their back. So the intent is not to have them adopt a coerced conformity, it is to "ethnically cleanse" (so to speak) their area to get rid of everyone who isn't a "real" Jew (a "real" Jew by their definition being only those who will submit to their personal authority).

Anonymous said...

"There is the Rasha in the hagaddah, whose teeth we encouraged to knock out. (Not exactly the same thing, but still there is the use of violance.)"

Mistranslation. Look at the shoresh of the word.

Anonymous said...

How do we get around the fact that the Torah mandates the death penalty for gathering twigs on Shabbos?

BrooklynWolf said...


Read the post. Even when punishment is properly meted out by a bais din, it doesn't inspire people to keep the mitzvos.

In any event, there are two major rebuttals to your argument:

1. We *don't* stone people to death for it and, even when we did, it was done in such a way that the death penalty was carried out so rarely. Heck, in order to be executed according to halacha, the person practically has to want to die.

2. You can't compare a punishment meted out by a properly constituted bais din to the vigilante actions of individuals.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

I think you and the commentators have the motive wrong. The purpose of the violence is not to reform its target. And only in some cases is it the result of a bully who takes pleasure in controlling or hurting others. The reason behind it, and certainly the reason it is tolerated in those portions of the community in which it is tolerated, is that it is thought to inspire a devotion to high standards of mitzvah observance in the perpetrators.

I do not understand this view, and i certainly don't agree with it. But if you are going to criticize the violence on the grounds that it is counterproductive (as opposed to its being assur and/or morally wrong), you have to address the intended purpose.

Jeff Eyges said...

Wolf, many frei Jews (probably most) wouldn't become observant in the sense that you mean it, even if it were presented to us in a warm, friendly, nonjudgmental manner. Most of us have rational reasons for not being Orthodox. It isn't (usually) because someone was mean to us.

As for the rest of it - I agree with your other commenters. These acts of violence aren't motivated by a misguided desire to bring people closer to observance. You're a nice guy; I think you may have trouble conceptualizing that people behave this way out of fear, solely to protect their belief system, and/or to intimidate others (often the young) into conformance.

Anonymous said...

The paths of the TORAH may be pleasantness and peace.

But the paths of the CHUMROT ... not so much!