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What's in a Name: A Call to Re-brand the Extremists in Israel from "ultra-Orthodox" to "Sikrikim"

What’s in a Name: A Call to Re-brand the Extremists in Israel from “ultra-Orthodox” to “Sikrikim”


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Over the course of Jewish history, groups of Jews have occasionally splintered off from mainstream Torah Judaism, in terms of theology and observance. For example, in the Second Temple period, there were the Sadducees and the Essenes. In the early middle ages there were the Karaites. And in modern times, Jews have broken off to form non-Orthodox denominations. While the system of halacha (Jewish law) has many paths within it (i.e., there is often more than one halachically valid answer to a question), at a certain point, an idea or practice is simply outside the scope of normative Torah belief and observance.

There is a group of Jews in Israel, who while still being referred to as “ultra-Orthodox” by the media, can no longer be considered part of mainstream Torah Judaism. They have conveniently given themselves a new name–“Sikrikim”–and we should only refer to them by this name from now on too.

The original Sikrikim were a group of zealots called “Sicarii” (dagger-men) who lived in the time preceding the destruction of the Second Temple. The Sikrikim of old attempted to expel the Romans and their partisans from Judea using concealed daggers and other forms of violence. The modern-day Sikrikim believe in violence too–specifically, they police other Jewish people’s level of observance through verbal harassment, spitting, physical assaults, and by throwing things like rocks, garbage, and bleach at Jews who they believe are not stringent enough in their observance.

Someone recently asked me how do we explain how far is “too far.” Where do we draw the line between very stringently observant and outside of observance? I think the answer simply is that if you wouldn’t feel safe walking down the street with someone, you are not sharing the street with a Torah observant Jew.

The Sikrikim’s actions have left many people wondering about modesty issues in terms of buses where men and women sit separately and women being cropped out of newspaper photos. Although in my circles we ride mixed buses and buy newspapers with women in them, I personally think we should let each community decide for itself what works for it as long as the stringencies do not lead to a place outside of Jewish law. Ultra-modest practices do not necessarily result in violence. Meaning, you can be a mentsch even if you’re part of a more stringent community.

I have firsthand experience with this as I once rode a men’s-only bus in Israel. (Accidentally, of course!) I was in seminary at the time, doing my weekly chesed (volunteering) project, and the bus I needed just wasn’t passing by. After waiting around for longer than I could handle, I decided that I would simply get on whatever bus came next. I reasoned that being anywhere was better than staying at that bus stop. So when the next bus passed by, I hopped on.

It was not terribly crowded, just a few men sitting throughout it. I had no idea that men’s-only buses existed, nor did I see a sign saying that I was getting onto a men’s-only bus, nor did anyone on the bus even attempt to ask me to leave. I rode the bus, uneventfully, for about twenty minutes, until I reached Jerusalem and some girls I knew saw me getting off the bus and asked me what on earth I was doing on it!

The men I rode with that day were ultra-Orthodox – not Sikrikim. How do I know? Because they left me alone, even though I wasn’t conforming to their community’s standards of modesty. The edges of Orthodox Judaism are hard to define. There’s an on-going debate on the left-wing border concerning women’s issues. How far can halacha move if people do things that are not technically outside the law, yet have no precedent? On the right-wing border of Orthodoxy, we see the flip side of the same debate. More and more modesty and segregation is not against the letter of the law, and yet there is a lack of precedent (mesorah) for some of these practices. The issues on both sides of the spectrum are complex and have valid arguments for and against.

But if the Torah standing on one foot, as Rabbi Hillel famously stated, is “not doing to your neighbor what is hurtful to you”–and if the Torah’s ways, as described in Proverbs “are pleasant and its paths are those of peace”–then we should not hesitate to recognize that these Sikrikim are the newest group to splinter off from Torah Judaism. Their ideology of violence and coercion are beyond the pale, and we should make every effort to call them only by their self-designated name until this group comes to be recognized as outside of Orthodox Judaism.

Why is this so important? As someone who has made it my life’s work to show the world authentic Orthodox Jews and Judaism, you can imagine the horror I felt after recently receiving this message:

I’m now an orthodox Jew hater. Never had a problem with Jews before, my best friend growing up was Jewish, and I celebrated Hannukah with him. Today, I have absolute hatred for Orthodox Jews. I’m sorry, you can believe what you want, but when I see a story about Grown men SPITTING ON AN 8 YEAR OLD GIRL AND CALLING HER A PROSTITUTE FOR NO REASON, I just have to hate. Sorry, but your stupid, irrational, archaic, dumb beliefs do not give the right to abuse and traumatize, for life, an innocent child. Shame on you. If you believe in hell that’s where you are going fools, because no god in the universe would be ok with the crap I see orthodox jews doing.

The Sikrikim are not a few “isolated” con-artists who happen to look like religious Jews. This is not “one case” of a man who is a child molester and unfortunately received rabbinic ordination too. These are not just a “few bad apples.” This is a group. This is an ideology, and it is foreign to our Torah values. We must protect ourselves and our children–and the good name of Orthodox Jews everywhere–against these extremists. Perhaps one day, we can reach out to some of them and bring them back to our ways of peace. But in the meantime, please share this post and help spread the word. These people are not Orthodox Jews.

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  1. It seems to be standard that the press tend to give a skewed presentation of things, usually reflecting their own opinion and not necessarily the truth. It’s probably not one person behaving this way, however it is a very small fraction of a much larger group than has gone “astray”, causing a reaction way out of proportion to their size. I would say it’s defintely not a “movement”, it’s more like an aberration.

    • Leah, it’s true that the press likes to make Orthodox Jews look bad, however, even the frum websites were reporting that the Mea Shearim rally (where they dressed up in Holocaust garb) to support the actions of the Sikrikim drew 1000-1500 people. If you do violence or harass or condone it, I think it’s all the same, and it’s all outside the Torah spectrum.

  2. Again, those numbers are not completely accurate Allison. The numbers were much less than 1500, numbering in the 100’s. However, even that amount is unacceptable to the Torah community, and many Rabbis spoke out against it, especially against the insensitive and warped use of holocaust garb.

    I agree with you that those who commit violent acts and those who condone it are all guilty, and their name should not be linked with the rest of us religious Jews who are horrified by their behavior.

    • I don’t personally know how many were there – the number I gave (1000-1500) was something I saw on an “ultra-Orthodox” website -but who knows. The bottom line is that any amount is too many!

  3. This is a small group but is getting international attention from the press because they fit the caricature that anti-religious editors and journalists have of observant Jews. And readers who are already inclined to dislike observant Jews are being incited to become virulent haters. I think we are playing into the hands of the anti-religious agenda by condemning other observant Jews instead of condemning the prejudice in popular newspapers.

    Meanwhile, many other Jews are doing much more harm and receive no attention for it. How many reform, reconstructionist, and conservative rabbis speak in favor of same-sex marriage, the “right” to an abortion, and other destructive policies that Jewish law itself condemns? And how many of their congregants are doing the same? The harm that these Jews are doing to other Jews and to non-Jews across the nation is incomparably greater than the local actions of a small group of men in Israel.

    Condemning the words and actions of these reform, reconstructionist, and conservative Jews might be uncomfortable because they live in our own neighborhoods rather than across the ocean. But they are far more deserving of our attention, and fighting against them is far more important – for Judaism and for America.

    • Thanks for your comment, Josh but I have to disagree with you. When it comes to the Jews who use violence and harassment as a form of their service to God, we need to let the world know that this is outside of the Torah spectrum. It’s not simply an ultra ultra ultra religious interpretation of Torah – it’s outside of Torah. The non-Orthodox and non-Jewish world must know that Orthodox Jews neither permit nor condone such behavior.

      What non-Orthodox Jews are doing is not related to JITC’s mission. Condemning non-Orthodox Jews for not following halacha (Jewish law), I don’t think is a very productive exercise simply because these groups are not claiming to adhere to halacha. So all that would end up happening would be that they feel insulted and offended. My approach instead, which I do all over this site, is explain why *I* believe in the halachic system and process. Why I believe that an Orthodox lifestyle leads to meaning and Jewish continuity. I’d rather stick to a positive approach, because a) I’m generally a positive person and b) I think you catch more flies with honey.

  4. I can see why you disagree and why you believe that Jews who are opposed to halacha are outside your purview. On the other hand, many of these “Jews by birth, liberals by religion” do claim Judaism as a basis for same-sex marriage, abortion, etc. Many of them hold themselves out to the world as Jews, and as Jews they advocate for things that are in fact the opposite of what Judaism requires.

    I agree that often more flies are caught with honey, but if that is the case, why are you going out of your way to condemn the Sikrikim?

    If you are going to take this step as an exception to your general rule, I would suggest at least acknowledging that this story is being used by the New York Times and others to make all observant Jews look bad. It’s easy to pass judgment on these folks – they are far away and they have little power. The greater and more pressing problem, however, is that so many American news outlets feel justified in reporting the worst of the Jewish world without reporting any of the rest – thereby inciting their readers to real Jew-hatred. That person you quoted is a perfect example of what I mean. Anti-religious bigotry and Jew-hatred in the United States and Europe, where the New York Times circulated this story, is a much bigger problem than the actions of a tiny band of men in Israel.

    • It’s true the non-Orthodox movements are claiming that these ideas (carte blance abortion, gay marriage) are part of Judaism, but they also believe that driving on Shabbos is part of Jewish law, as well as many other things we (Orthodox Jews) disagree with. I guess my feeling is that they’re coming to Judaism from such a different place – either not believing in God at all, or believing the Torah was given with divine inspiration, and they certainly have a different notion of how the halachic process works. But no one is confusing them with Orthodox people. They clearly are part of a different movement. So what I do on this site is talk about why the Orthodox principles make sense to me and people can choose to agree or disagree, but there’s already a clear distinction between them and us.

      When it comes to the Sikrikim – people *believe* that they are the same as the rest of the Orthodox Jews and that is a problem. What I’m trying to do with this post is make the same distinction that exists in the non-Orthodox movements. When non-Orthodox rabbis say things that are against halacha, no one believes that what they say is part of Orthodox Jewish law. So too, I want the world to know that people who use violence and harassment as part of their service of God, should also not be confused with the rest of the Orthodox Jews.

      My reason for doing this is specifically to combat the incitement and anti-semitism you refer to. Whoever hates what the Sikrikim are doing should know that we Orthodox Jews also hate it.

      In terms of my reaching out to Sikrikim as opposed to condemning them none of them are online, nor would they listen to a woman, even if they were. Also, having grown up Conservative myself, I understand where the non-Orthodox movements are coming from. As we’d drive to shul on Shabbos we’d say “clearly driving is SO much more restful than walking” – we simply didn’t know better. We were never exposed to a frum perspective on halacha.

      When it comes to the Sikrikim, however, it seems that they should know better. These are people who were raised learning “v’ahavta l’reyecha k’mocha” (love your neighbor as yourself). And “deracheha darchei noam v’chol nisivosecha shalom” (the ways of Torah are pleasant and its paths are peaceful). How did they take those lessons and then become the people who assault and terrorize others?

  5. Thank you for the long and thoughtful responses.

    My main point is that when the New York Times attacks the Sikrikim, while at the same time remaining silent about all the good things (even from a left-wing perspective) about observant Jews, then the clear purpose is to make all observant Jews look bad. Even if we respond by agreeing that the Sikrikim are wrong, our strongest objection should be to the anti-religious bigotry of such slanted reporting. Otherwise, we will play into their manipulation of their readers’ sentiments, and remain on the defensive, implicitly accepting that the New York Times is a legitimate source for understanding Judaism. The first thing we should say to those who hate Judaism because of something they read in the New York Times is: “The New York Times does not want you to understand Judaism. It only wants you to hate Judaism. If you want to learn the truth, you should turn to other sources.”

    I have no problem with your opposing harassment and vulgarity by observant Jews. I share that position. This is not really what is at issue here, however. Rather, the NYT story is just one more step in the effort by secularists to keep people ill-informed and make them believe that all religion is vicious and backwards.

    As for the Reform/Conservative groups, I respect the sensitivity you show to their viewpoint, but I will leave off making further comments since they could distract from the goal of your article.

    Thank you again for considering my argument and posting my comments on your blog.

  6. 🙂 Understood, and thank you for doing it.

    By the way, your article reminded me of a story I read in a book called “Seeing G-d.” After hearing an atheist complain about the silliness of belief in G-d, the rabbi responded, “That G-d you don’t believe in? I don’t believe in him, either.” Meaning, of course, that what was silly was the atheist’s skewed idea of G-d, not belief in the true G-d.

    One might say that you have made the same response in a different context by saying to the anti-Jewish critics, “That Judaism you don’t believe in? I don’t believe in it, either.”

    Again, thanks, and good night.

  7. I am glad they have a name I can use now. I was saddened to see some video clips of this group assaulting people (verbally and sometimes physically) in the streets. I knew that image did not jibe with what I know of Orthodox Judaism (and the acquaintances I have who are Orthodox), so I am very glad to have a name for the group rather than “Ultra-Orthodox Radicals” (which seems to lump all Orthodox Jews in with them). Thanks for this!

  8. Todd Berman : July 9, 2013 at 1:21 am

    The problem with this dichotomy, at least for Israeli Charedim, is that the Eida Charedis supports the Sikrakim. So to claim they are not really the same is very difficult.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : July 9, 2013 at 3:15 pm

      Thanks for your comment (we don’t allow outside links posted on the site). But I saw the article that the Eida Chareidis supported the Sikrikim. So I have two things to say about that: #1 things are said in rabbis’ names all the time that they didn’t actually say, so I HOPE that is the case. but #2 if that’s not the case – if a rabbi supports someone who destroys someone else’s property in the name of religion then that’s not my religion or my rabbis’ religion. It’s certainly not Torah Judaism. I don’t know how far this problem extends, but I know for sure that harassing people and destroying other people’s property is against halacha.

  9. Batsheva BeSeven : October 5, 2014 at 4:48 am

    Seeing this post a couple of years late, but better late than never. Fantastic!

  10. The notion of a community’s authorities imposing tzni’us standards (sounds like Saudi Arabia’s modesty police, doesn’t it?) is not outside of halacha. See S.A. O.C. 529:4. The question here is who (and how) defines a community, the standards, and who controls (polices) the police.

    The following example is a bit extreme, but perhaps it will illustrate a point.

    On Chol HaMo’ed of Sukkos, Mea She’arim is flooded by (mostly American) Sem girls coming to watch the Simchas Beis HaSho’eva festivities. They are not part of that community (which is fine), but they wish to temporarily participate in it – i.e. they’re not there to visit their grandmothers who happen to live there – rather, they’re there to be part of something that doesn’t go on in the Anglo community, neither in Israel nor in America (which is also fine, for we are all family). But they don’t respect the standards of Me’a She’arim. (Most of them, despite having packed six suitcases worth of clothes for their year in Israel, don’t even have an outfit that would pass muster.) And this, of course, goes on year after year after year. And then they are shocked when a few young fools react foolishly because ‘well, it covers my knees, doesn’t it?’ (These are young fools that have experience facing Israeli mounted police, bulldozers, and water cannon…)

    My intent is not to condone such behavior, but rather to point out that two wrongs don’t make a right, and that certain actions have [somewhat] predictable results.

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Allison Josephs

Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.