The symbol of the election campaign for the National Religious Party is the unraveling knitted skullcap. Vote for the Mafdal, the commercial says, or all our wonderful educational institutions, our youth groups, our synagogues will go under.
As I watched the commercial, I thought of an experience I had last summer.
Boiling beneath a corrugated tin roof and its one lone fan that sluggishly pushed the stale air in dusty circles, I sat beside an old school friend. We were waiting to visit her son. I studied the bars across the small opened window, the gray metal lockers, the old peeling wooden cubbyholes where visitors like us were meant to deposit our personal belongings before being led inside. It was visiting day at the “religious wing” of a prison somewhere in Israel. My friend’s son was serving out a term for murder. Like many others in the prison’s “religious wing,” he too wore a knitted skullcap.
This week I read about the indictment of Rabbi Zeev Kopolevitch, once head of the most prestigious yeshiva high school in Israel, Netiv Meir. In 23 pages, over nineteen former students describe a series of shocking sexual abuses at the hands of Kopolevitch. But most shocking of all, was the fact that the most respected Rabbis of the National Religious Party, leader of B’nai Akiva yeshiva movement and Knesset member Rabbi Druckman, and former chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Avraham Shapira, had both allegedly been informed about the abuse and had chosen to do nothing, thus allowing it to continue.
My school friend and her husband are gentle, educated, deeply religious people who abhor violence and extremism. When their son was thirteen years-old, he was invited by a Kahane party activist to use Kach’s workout room in the Old City. Unbeknownst to his parents, he became an avid Kach follower. When he was barely fifteen, he and two friends decided to avenge Meir Kahane’s death by exploding a grenade in the crowded Old City shuk. As a result, an elderly Arab man was killed.
My friend and I see each other in synagogue every Shabbat. It is a synagogue in which prayers for the government and the army are said with sincerity, where new recruits are blessed from the pulpit, and where more than one son has fallen in defense of our country. It is also a place where- despite the admirable but ignored protests of one or two members — someone regularly places Kach literature along with the study sheets about the weekly Torah portion.
Something has gone awry here.
When did messianic fervor to settle Yehuda and Shomron begin to erode reason and human values?
Was it inevitable that the hatred which Jewish settlers experienced in building their homes among Arab villagers, find an echo in their own hearts, shouting down the sincere idealism, the love of Eretz Yisrael which was their original motivation? And if so, is it possible to really serve G-d with a heart attune only to the worthiness of its own cause, deaf to the cries of pain coming from others?
I was taking a bus the other day and an elderly woman got on. She put her cane on the side and stretched her arms between both of the bus’s railings to help herself up. A woman wearing a wig, perhaps innocently in a hurry, rushed up the steps behind her, pushing her. The elderly woman turned around, furious: ” And you call yourself religious? ” She thundered. “You’re a fake, a fake!”
Like it or not, those who wear the knitted skullcap, or any other accouterment of religious observance, have a tremendous responsibility. We aren’t allowed what for others would be natural human frailties, feelings of revenge, because our Torah forbids us to hold a grudge, to take revenge, to spill human blood….Or to ignore the suffering of innocents because it embarrasses those in power.
We must ask ourselves if in our enthusiasm for one sacred idea, we have not trampled so many others. We must ask ourselves if the knitted skullcap still sits well, and firmly, and comfortably on our heads. As any B’nai Akiva girl– knitter–of- skullcaps– will tell you, when a skullcap starts to get crooked, or is too round or flat, all you can do is start from scratch, taking out all the wrong stitches that led you astray.
Stitch by painful stitch, we need to get back to where it was we started from, not so long ago.