Suicide Bombing Tests Ultra-Orthodox Views of Suffering
by Craig Nelson
October 3, 2003
After becoming best friends in high school, Devora Eisen and Miriam Eisenstein often marked the Jewish high holy days together with fervent prayers to God for forgiveness and earnest vows to be better people. As Yom Kippur approached, they would often ponder, too, what God would write about them in the Book of Life, the record of each person's fate during the coming year.
When the most sacred and solemn day of the Jewish year starts at sundown Sunday, the prayers will be just as fervent and the vows just as earnest, but for 20-year-old Devora, the mysteries of the Book of Life will seem ever more imponderable and God's ways ever more inscrutable.
On Aug. 19, Devora and Miriam went to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. For Miriam, the weekly trip to Judaism's holiest site to pray for herself and her family was a labor of devotion. Afterward, they boarded a cross-town bus. Along the way so, too, did a Palestinian militant later said to have been angered by Israel's killing of two fellow militants in his West Bank hometown.
In what quickly became known in Israel as the "children's bombing" because of the number of women and children aboard the bus, the man blew himself up, killing 23 people, including Miriam. Devora, who had become separated from Miriam when they boarded the crowded vehicle, was unhurt.
The suicide bombing, one of nearly 100 in the past three years, soon became notable for yet another reason.
The bomber was reportedly disguised as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, and many of the victims were, like Miriam and Devora, ultra-Orthodox Jews _ or "haredim" as they are known here, after the Hebrew word "hared," meaning "to fear God." It was the worst suicide bombing to strike Jerusalem, and the country's most devout believers had been the target.
While outrage after previous suicide bombings had often been aimed at Palestinians or the Israeli government, the ultra-Orthodox put forth their own distinctive explanation of suffering. For Devora and other haredi, the bombing was a sign from God that something in themselves or in the world was in need of repair. In their view, God was responsible for the bombing, for reasons that cannot be known.
"God Almighty did it. We're not supposed to understand his ways. We're puppets with invisible strings, and there is someone deciding what the story and plot should be. I know that more than ever," Devora said last week, sitting in the dining room of the apartment of this Tel Aviv suburb that she shares with her parents and 10 brothers and sisters.
Miriam believed that, too, she said, recalling how, after a suicide bombing during last year's high holy days, her best friend had replied: "Look _ God must have already signed the Book of Life."
The funerals for Miriam, like those of the other 22 victims, were not rife with condemnations of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or calls for revenge against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Rather, the bereaved families and other members of the haredi community asked for God's forgiveness and exhorted each other to improve themselves in some way.
Instead of shouting for revenge, ultra-Orthodox families of the bomb casualties read Psalms as they waited the night of the attack in the waiting room of Jerusalem's Forensics Institute for results of DNA tests on remains.
This and other responses to the attack by the ultra-Orthodox reverberated across the country cast a positive light on a community often deeply resented by mainstream Israelis. The ultra-Orthodox comprise about 10 percent of Israel's 6.2 million people, yet thanks to a well-oiled political machine, they receive what many secular Israelis say is a disproportionate amount of government largesse and overseas charity.
Heeding the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply, the ultra-Orthodox have as many children as wives can bear, and government subsidies for each child encourage large haredi households that now average 10 people. Tax breaks also enable ultra-Orthodox men to shun regular jobs in favor of lifelong study of the Talmud, while sons and daughters are largely exempt from compulsory military service.
The self-imposed separation of the haredim from mainstream Israeli society has compounded the estrangement: They prohibit televisions and radios in their homes for fear they will be exposed to improper thoughts and images. Devora and many other haredi women refuse to allow their pictures to be taken, lest they appear immodest or arouse impure thoughts in men.
The relatively privileged position of the ultra-Orthodox have earned them the pejorative nickname "the blacks," after the heavy dark frocks and hats that haredi men wear, even in the oppressive summer heat.
Yet the mere fact that the haredi community had suffered in the August attack elicited goodwill. "The Aug. 19 bombing produced something good. We bought sympathy with blood," said Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, a member of the Israeli Knesset representing the United Torah Judaism party.
"We feel that we are legitimate Israeli citizens like everyone else because we have suffered, too," Ravitz said.
The bombing and further bloodshed may help begin to bridge the differences, said Jonathan Rosenblum, director of the Jewish think-tank Am Ehad.
"It's being viewed as a right of passage. There is a recognition that the haredim live apart, but as long as the buses are the front-lines, they are as much apart of Israeli as anyone else," Rosenblum said.
Devora approaches this Yom Kippur like no other she has experienced. The attack has deepened the insistent, stiff-necked determination of she and Israel's other ultra-Orthodox to regard suffering as a spur for spiritual advancement.
"I already feel the prayers differently. I know more intensely that each of us and the world needs to be corrected so the Almighty can rule us."
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