01/17/2012 06:43 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2012

Message to Religious Extremists: Listen to Joseph!

Because of the talent and popularity of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers is familiar to many. Far less familiar (at least to those whose only reference is "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat") is the fact that when Joseph's brothers leave him to journey back to their father, Jacob, Joseph adjures them to "Not argue along the way back home."

The classic rabbinic commentaries suggest that Joseph is concerned that 1) they may choose to blame each other for what they did to Joseph, 2) they may actually argue with others along the way because they feel so important as the "brothers of the ruler Joseph" or 3) the exhortation may be to admonish them not to argue about halacha along the way (since the Hebrew word "halacha," most commonly meaning Jewish "law" can also be translated as "the way"). The commentator suggests that it is sometimes common practice for individuals to righteously pronounce their interpretation of the law as the only correct one, and mock others who may practice differently. Related to that, the classic medieval commentator known as the Ramban states that the purpose of Jewish law is to promote peace and harmony within society and the world, and thus promote the love of G-d by this behavior. Halacha is not to be used to demean or embarrass others, and when one behaves in this way, says the Ramban, it disparages the name of G-d and detracts from the true purpose of halacha. Reflecting on this, the commentator says that it is unfortunately possible to be a "scoundrel even when one is carrying out the letter of the law."

Whatever one's religion, the fact is that adherence to religious laws and precepts can be an elevated and meaningful experience; bringing joy, comfort and a sense of G-d's presence to those who choose to live their lives in accordance with their religious beliefs. Ancient teachings and traditions passed down from generation to generation can provide a depth of wisdom and engender a sense of spirituality in a modern world that is too often fraught with shallowness and misguided values. Unfortunately, however, there have been and will most likely always be those whose sense of righteousness in their own religious practices causes them to ridicule or denigrate those who practice differently. And usually, the greatest wrath of these "holier than thou" practitioners is reserved for those in their own religion who they deem as having gone astray.

In recent weeks, there have been reports of the escalating tensions in Israel between some in the ultra-Orthodox community and the general Israeli populace. On Dec. 23, the most popular news show in Israel featured a story on Na'ama Margolese, an 8-year-old girl in the city of Beit Shemesh, who was afraid to walk the 900 feet from her home to her Modern Orthodox school because religious extremists cursed and spit on her for being dressed "immodestly." While certainly not representative of the entire ultra-Orthodox community, to this small but vocal group of religious extremists, Na'ama's religious school is not religious enough for them. The Associated Press quoted Na'ama as saying, "When I walk to school in the morning I used to get a tummy ache because I was so scared ... that they were going to stand and start yelling and spitting. They were scary. They don't want us to go to the school."

That a child could be brought to tears in the name of religion is a travesty of the worst kind. Those who caused it should consider spending less time cursing and more time studying the words of the Ramban. What is happening in Beit Shemesh is simply unacceptable and it requires Jewish religious leaders to speak out and remind our people, once more, "not to argue along the way."

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, PhD is the President of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJRCA) and Vice-President of Claremont Lincoln University.