Why do Some Orthodox Rabbis Keep Spewing Bombast against Women's Rights and the Israeli Government?

We think some Orthodox rabbis keep spewing bombast against women's rights and the Israeli government because they fear feminization, threats to their imagined national identity, and they also cannot cope with their own marginalization.

We originally posted on this subject of why religious terrorists throw bombs to help us explain some of the motivations of those kinds of religious terrorists when we were teaching and using a book on the subject by Mark Juergensmeyer.

Now we find it useful to muse in another context over the specific theories of Roger Friedland, professor of religious studies and sociology, UC Santa Barbara,  in a review of Terror in the Mind of God in the journal Tikkun May/June 2000, "War, Sex, and God - Religious Terrorism in the Mind of Mark Juergensmeyer".

He argues with eloquence that religious terrorists throw bombs so as not to be misidentified as feminized males in a world of disordered sexuality. The homosocial Orthodox world for instance, sees that threat and the vulnerability of their perceived national borders as sexual humiliations that need to be met with symbolic empowerment, such as throwing real bombs or, we add, writing bombastic nationalist and anti-feminist op-ed letters in various newspapers.

This is the relevant section of Friedland's review, asking Why Do Guys Throw Bombs?
When Juergensmeyer catalogues the social origins of religious terrorists and those who support them, he finds that in every case they are peopled by powerless or vulnerable groups whose public honor, indeed existence, appears at risk-white American working-class folk threatened by the new economy and its nonwhite immigrants; young Palestinians without prospect or homeland; upper-caste rural Jats being displaced by the urban Sikh castes; Jewish settlers fearful of displacement; young Algerians without jobs, housing, or the prospect of marriage; blocked professional scientists in Japan. While group powerlessness may be a necessary condition, however, it is surely not a sufficient condition for terrorism: in our world, the powerless are legion. It is not on the who of religious terror, but its how, the psychic pathways by which religious commitment explodes into physical terror, where Juergensmeyer makes his mark.

Religious terrorists, all of whom are men, experience themselves as humiliated, as shamed. Meanwhile, in their eyes, the world against which they war is characterized by its disordered sexuality-it is a world in which women are moving forcefully into the male domain and a world in which men can display their erotic desires for other men. In short, it is a world they believe feminizes men. Against these terrifying symptoms of an evil world, cosmic war offers the religious terrorist the position of warrior, a man who manifests his masculine power on the public stage.

For these "bomb-throwing guys," as in any ritual, it is first and foremost the doing of it, the throwing, that is the value of terrorism. Humiliation is a sexual experience, here redressed violently in sexual terms. "What they have in common," Juergensmeyer writes, "these movements of cowboy monks, is that they consist of anti-institutional, religio-nationalist, racist, sexist, male-bonding, bomb-throwing guys. Their marginality in the modern world is experienced as a kind of sexual despair that leads to violent acts of symbolic empowerment." For many, this symbolic empowerment is enough; indeed, it is all there is.

Women are not only seen as more physically vulnerable, but they are cast as agents of private life, indeed as spurs to sexual competition among men. There is, in short, a homoerotics at the heart of their male-dominated collective representation. Religious nationalists in general are fighting to defend two kinds of borders, both masculine and national. Threats to masculinity are read out into the blurring boundaries of the nation, and threats to the country are read in, experienced personally as a feminization. Homosociality marks both what is desired-a masculinized world-and what is feared-the homoerotic desires that provide part of the psychic energies that make that form of identification and bonding so powerful. It is in the homoerotics that haunt male identity, and particularly within this community, I suspect, that we can find psychic sources for terrorism. It is for this reason that religious nationalists attack their foes as embodiments of disorder, shadowy enemies beyond the conceptual grid, foes, as Juergensmeyer puts it, who are "symbols for amorphousness itself." Religious nationalists fear the foreign, demand that it be kept out, if not expelled, not infrequently engaging in collective violence against those they consider "other." These are violent rites of purification.

That these men abhor women who take what they perceive to be the role of men and men who take what they perceive to be the role of women makes sense. But what is so striking in Juergensmeyer's account is the religious terrorists' almost universal celebration of male bonding, of the pleasures of exclusive male camaraderie (whether the unmarried men of the Hindu Nationalist RSS or the Sikh militants joined by a "bond of love"), as the cellular base for the constitution of a new society. While the masculinization of the public sphere is explicable within Juergensmeyer's framework, the pleasures of male bonding, its relation to the terrorists' masculine identification, and its role in the reorganization of collective representation are not.

One way to understand the religious terrorists' simultaneous embrace of heterosexual masculinity and homosocial male bonding is to see the sexed ego and the nation-state, the individual and the collective subject, as parallel psychic projects imagined in terms of each other. This means that challenges to individual males can be projected onto the collective body, the national state. It also means that the material and cultural vulnerability of the nation-state can be introjected, experienced personally, as a quality of the bodily male subject. In every case of religious terrorism, it is the collective territorial body whose boundaries are at stake, understood to be under siege. This is true, for example, in the case of U.S. Protestant postmillennial abortion bombers who feel threatened by a secular, globalist government they believe is dominated by Jewish financiers; of Jewish nationalist settlers threatened by a secular government they feel is dependent on Arabs for its rule and is unwilling to defend the lands covenanted to the Jews; of India's Hindu nationalists threatened by the Indian secular nationalists who they believe not only bestow privileges on non-Hindus but have failed to maintain the territorial body of mother India; or of the Ulster Protestant loyalists beleaguered by the "satanic deception" of the Papist Irish who threaten to engulf their territorial entity.

In each of these cases, religious terrorism coincides with two of modernity's other transformations. First, there is the massive entry of women into the market and the public sphere with the accompanying expansion of women's civil and familial rights, which threatens traditional male prerogatives. Second, there is the extraordinary explosion of global capitalism which has put the parameters of national economic growth and the bases for cultural identity increasingly beyond the nation's grasp. Both of these are experienced as threats to the collective body, to its perceived maleness. Homosociality, exclusive male bonding as the basis of collective organization, is a way to masculinize the public sphere, to restore the maleness of the collectivity against an erosion of the nation's power, an erosion which is understood as a feminization, a making womanly. In the imagination of the religious nationalists, an all-male public body is understood as a more potent collective body, more resolute, less permeable.

This alien presence inside the nation is both mark and source of its weakness, its porosity, its inability to bound and bond. That disorder, that amorphousness, is experienced within, particularly among those men for whom the global order has made it increasingly difficult to be a man. The violence marks what is both feared and desired, in that men collectively stage the submission, the subservience, the impotence, which they so fear and yet to which they wish so passionately to yield.
Some brief postscripts. It seems to us that in this element of the theoretical underpinning in his book, Juergensmeyer edges towards the reductionist, as do we in accepting his methods. Do we ever know what mechanism makes individuals tick? Isn't that why we speak more confidently about cultures or societies? Still this presentation is at the same time both tantalizing and a methodological stretch in Juergensmeyer's otherwise bold and excellent analysis.

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