104. respect


Tonight on the Tuesday edition of the CBC’s As It Happens, a story was aired about an ultra-conservative sect of Jewish men who are creating a lot of controversy in Israel by demanding a return of sex segregation and enforcing strict standards of modesty for Jewish women. The story has been covered in the Jerusalem Post, amongst other places, but it’s caused something of a cultural clash between traditional conservatives and progressive secularists. (I’m not quite sure if “secularists” is quite how to describe the latter group, but it seems appropriate when contrasted with the more religious conservatives.)

The issue has struck a bit of a cord when, as the story on the CBC related, the men began protesting outside of an all-girl’s school in the city of Beit Shemesh, harassing and even threatening the children on their way to and from, and then even during, school.

This they do in the name of their religion. And their god.

The sect in question is known as Haredi Judaism. As the article on Wikipedia states, “According to Nachman Ben-Yehuda, ‘the Hebrew word Haredi derives from harada – fear and anxiety – meaning, he who is anxious about, and/or fearful of, the word of the Almighty.’ Nurit Stadler writes that the word ‘meaning those who fear or tremble, appears in Isaiah 66:5: ‘Hear the word of the Lord, you who tremble at His word’.”

There is also the unfortunate case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman convicted in 2006 of the murder of her husband (which carries a stiff prison sentence) but is being sentenced to death by stoning (now commuted to hanging apparently) for the separate crime of adultery. Not surprisingly the outcry from the international community and from amnesty groups has been vocal, but (also not surprisingly) Iran is stubbornly moving forward with the (dare I say it) execution of the sentence.

To modern eyes accustomed to a modern judicial system, this sentence makes absolutely no sense. Prison for murder—but execution for adultery? Where no one was physically hurt or killed, and the only crime is against a husband (which itself is a private matter)? This sentence only makes sense in light of the barbaric views on women still harbored within religious fundamentalism, where women are considered inferior to men by decree from Almighty God.

Even the Apostle Paul, whose writings (presumably) make up a large part of the New Testament of the bible, had this to say about women:

“Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” – 1 Timothy 2:915 (ESV)

The popular post-feminist interpretation of verses 11 and 12 of this passage is that Paul was not talking about all women but rather about one woman; that this woman rather was being disruptive and disrespectful of the entire congregation. Yet why would he bookend those verses with directives about women dressing modestly, and then with the reminder that it was Eve and not Adam who brought about the downfall of Mankind?

Yes, this was a different time and the views of the ancient world towards women were dreadful; yet those views have changed little in the Middle and Near East; in places where women often go uneducated, have few to no individual rights, and are themselves given as and considered the property of men.

This is the problem with religious fundamentalism, the kind that I was talking about in the previous article; the kind that is ultimately anti-human in nature. As Stephen Weinberg, who was often quoted by Christopher Hitchens, said, “If you want to make good people do wicked things, you’ll need religion.”

(“But wait!” you might be saying (if you read my last blog, or have dialogued with me about ethics). “You don’t believe in good and evil. You’ve said so!” And quite rightly, I don’t. To expound on the quote, “If you want to make people, who under normal circumstances try to behave towards others in a kind and respectful manner, do things that even beasts would call beastly, you’ll need religion.” Things like:

  • Gunning down a doctor who performs late-term abortions as he is serving as an usher at his church while his wife looks on in horror from her seat in the church choir;
  • Blowing yourself up in a crowded marketplace along with numerous others who have done no wrong to you other than to hold differing beliefs;
  • And protesting at the funerals of soldiers—who, ironically, died defending your right to protest—with hateful slogans like “Thank God for IEDs”, “Thank God for 9/11” and “Pray for More Dead Soldiers.”)

Fundamentalism not only loathes change: It rallies and often wars against it. It insists with a sharp finger jab to the chest that “the old ways were good enough for your grandparents, and it’ll sure as hell be good enough for you.” It screams, “Who the fuck do you think you are?” and sneers, “So, you think you’re better than us?”

Behind the black hats and the long beards of the Haredi; beneath the turbans, kufiya and the Pashtun dress of the Taliban; and the well-coiffed hair and tailored suits of men like Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann is fear. Theirs is a stern and unsmiling god, graven in their image, who looks down from Heaven with disapproval at anything that they dislike or feel uncomfortable around (which usually has to do with sex or sexuality, something god—even though he technically gifted us with it—is terrified of and detests). They fear anyone on the outside who thinks, believes or behaves differently, and cloister themselves, their families and their children away in guarded communities and schools (or home schools, in the case of many Christians).

It is this fundamentalism that presents the greatest threat to civilization and to progress. It’s the kind that demands that the whole world stop whatever it’s doing and bow down to its god and to its inexorable ethics. It craves the suspending of all human rights, of all human wants and desires, and of all human emotion and need. It demands worship and unwavering devotion, transforming people into mindless hordes marching unquestioningly into the yawning maw of its ravenous god, much like that iconic scene in the silent film Metropolis, where the main character sees a dynamo transformed into the god Moloch.

That’s a bit of a melodramatic description, yes, but no less true. These are the religions that demand that all females subject themselves to males as their superiors, to do with as they please, and as their god permits them to do. These are the religions that mutilate bodies according to the decrees of an ancient holy book. These are the religions that execute homosexuals for the supreme crime of loving someone of the same sex, but also the religions that brainwash gay teens and adults into believing that they are broken, diseased and in need of curing. These are the religions that promise that no matter how awful and unbearable life is on earth, that no matter how much you suffer, if you can hold out long enough, that Heaven is just around the corner, with a bright, shining afterlife.

In a scene from Tony Kushner’s Perestroika, the Angel delivers this prophesy to Prior:

Foresake the Open Road:
Neither Mix Nor Intermarry: Let Deep Roots Grow:
If you do not MINGLE you will Cease to Progress:
Seek Not to Fathom the World and its Delicate Particle Logic:
You cannot Understand, You can only Destroy,
You do not Advance, You only Trample.
Poor blind Children, abandoned on the Earth,
Groping terrified, misguided, over
Fields of Slaughter, over bodies of the Slain:
There is No Zion Save Where You Are!
If you Cannot find your Heart’s desire
In your own backyard,
You never lost it to begin with.
Turn Back. Undo.
Till HE returns again.

This is what all fundamentalist religion demands of humans.

It’s what evangelical Christian parents demand of their gay sons and daughters, that drives those children to despair and sometimes to suicide.

It’s what Haredi men demand of Israeli schoolgirls in Beit Shemesh.

It’s what Iran demands of its people when it puts women to death for adultery, but not for murder.

Or when an Afghan court tries to force a raped woman to marry her attacker to spare her family the shame.

Evolution by nature moves forward. It progresses. The question is: How long before humanity lets go and progresses with it?

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