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Religious extremism - a global catastrophe

March 30, 2017



In the post I published on January 10th I blamed radical Islam for the wave of global terrorism. Maybe it’s odd that I use terms of guilt or blame, when Islamic terrorists don't bother to conceal their origin and purpose. They see themselves as messengers of religion. A significant proportion of these terrorists have undergone religious brainwashing; a normal person from a community wouldn’t walk into a club, an airport or a restaurant and, in the name of religion, kill dozens of innocent people.


Radical Islam is not the first example in history when humans have murdered in the name of God. But, unfortunately, religious fanaticism is not satisfied with just the murder of the body, but also wants the murder of the soul. In this post, I’ll give an example from Judaism. Those of you who’ve read previous posts of mine know that I don’t spare the state and institutions of Judaism - I try to look at the world as objectively as I can.


Unfortunately, there’s no real equality between women and men in Orthodox Judaism, which is in the majority in Israel (including my family). I define myself as an atheist, but Jewish tradition is important to me because of historical and cultural affiliation. In the Orthodox synagogue, men sit near the front of the temple right next to the Holy Ark where you can find books of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, all handwritten on parchment) while the women sit behind a screen in the back. Women have no right to testify in a rabbinical court, and they can’t get a divorce without the consent of their husband (by the way, the Hebrew word for “husband” also means "owner," and many women in Israel avoid using the word because of that). These are just some of the laws, which are still very much alive, that discriminate against women. In many areas of life, religious women occupy more and more space that was previously closed to them, but there are still communities where women's status has not only not improved, but even worsened.


One of those communities is the Gur Hassidic, which was established in Poland. For years, there were rumors about religious extremism in this community, but a few months ago, one case revealed to everyone in Israel the sad condition of the Gur's women. Esti Weinstein, an attractive woman of 50, a divorced mother of seven girls, disappeared. A few days later, her body was found. Esti had committed suicide and left behind a draft of a book called At His Will, in which she described the journey that led to her extreme act. At first, the details of the case were not clear; it was known only that Esti, who was formerly part of the Gur Hassidic, had decided to leave her husband and her religion life style and she left six of her daughters behind. (One daughter also left the Gur Hassidic and kept in touch with her.) The rest of her religious family wiped out all contact with her. After a week, in the main edition of the weekend show, everyone in Israel discovered the big secret.  


And it was big.


The Gur Hassidic maintain very strict rules of modesty, and Esti's husband, Jacob, was very strict with the rules - at least outwardly. According to the article, he didn't even call her by her name. Can you believe that? That a husband wouldn't call his wife by name, but clicked his fingers as though he was calling an animal? But all this strict behavior was only for show. Behind closed doors, Jacob had sexual perversions. He took Esti to massage rooms in south Tel Aviv and made her do things she didn't want. She felt she was living a lie, and even tried to commit suicide. Ultimately, she chose to divorce him and leave the house, and not tell her daughters the truth in order not to ruin their lives. Eventually, she decided to tell her story. She wrote the book and knew she could not live when the book was published, and chose to die. I've read her book. It's a very powerful and sensual book. I very much hope it’ll be translated into English and become available through Amazon.


Esti was not the only woman to have suffered from tyranny in the name of religion. I personally have a friend - also, incidentally, a writer and journalist - named Sarah‎, who also managed to escape from the Gur Hassidic community and her husband with her two small children. Both Esti and Sarah left the religion for a reality in which they would be alone in the world. Their families turned their backs on them, and cut off contact with them.


I come from a religious family, but my family isn’t very strict. My grandfather (my father's father) was a Polish Jew and, in Poland, he belonged to the Gur Hassidic. When he came to Israel, he was no longer living in the community, but continued to contribute money to the Gur's institutes and went to the Gur's rabbi to ask questions about religion. On one occasion, he donated money on behalf of all his grandchildren and noted their names. He noted the names of his grandchildren, and only then the names of their spouses - in my case Michal and Yonni Hartstein. For those unfamiliar with Hebrew names, the English equivalent might be Michelle and Johnny Hartstein. From that year on, we received an annual greeting for the Jewish New Year, with a request for a donation. The letters were addressed to Rabbi Michael and Mrs. Yonna Hartstein, or if I try to convert it to less Hebrew names: Rabbi Michael and Mrs. Joanne Hartstein. You see, for people like the dark Gur Hassidic, women can’t come before men. My beloved grandfather, even though he was a former Gur Hassid, was an enlightened man, but unfortunately he contributed to the wrong organization.


There are narrow-minded people everywhere and, unfortunately, in many cases, there’s a correlation between religion and narrow-mindedness. I'm not saying that all religious people are narrow-minded. Definitely not! As someone from a religious family, I can testify that many religious people are educated and enlightened, so there’s no contradiction. The problem lies with those extremists in every religion who think that, through religion, they can control the human soul, and who think that their gender or religion makes one person superior over another.


This is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult problems in history and, as things stand now, the future of the human race.

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