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World Jewish Fundamentalism

World Jewish Fundamentalism

Louis Jacobs

Originally published in Survey of Jewish Affairs, 1987

The term 'fundamentalism', much bandied about during the past decade, has its origin in the United States at the beginning of this century, when a group of Protestant Christians formed an alliance to oppose liberalism. Liberals held the view that biblical criticism and modern science had made untenable the idea that Scripture, taken at its face value, conveys accurate information regarding such matters as the age of the earth and the way animals and human beings have evolved. Fundamentalists adopted this name in their belief that to accept liberalism was to deny fundamental Christian doctrine.

Professor James Barr (Fundamentalism, London, 1977) shows that Christian fundamentalists no longer insist on a literal interpretation of Scripture. They are prepared to interpret the Bible in a non-literal fashion (the days of Genesis being understood as vast periods of time, and so forth), so that it is not in contradiction with present-day knowledge. But they continue to insist on the inerrancy of Scripture. The Bible, for them, is the very word of God, and God cannot be in error. As Billy Graham is said to have put it, God wrote the Bible using sixty-three amanuenses.

It has frequently been argued that the term fundamentalism is inapplicable to Jews both because it is taken from Christian debates and because no traditional Jew can ever be a literalist, since, for him or her, authority is not vested in the plain meaning of the Bible but in the oral Torah, that is, in the interpretation of the Bible now found in the rabbinic literature. This argument is unacceptable. Admittedly, the term was first used in Christian discussion, but the phenomenon it represents is of wider application. As for the question of literalism, this, as Barr has noted, is not the main thrust of fundamentalism. It is the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, and on this Jewish fundamentalists also insist, extending it, in fact, to the rabbinic interpretation as well.

Jewish fundamentalism, then, can be defined as that attitude which recognizes neither development nor any human participation in the transmission of the Torah. The Jewish fundamentalist denies, in effect, that Judaism has had a history. The truth is seen as simply handed down without change from generation to generation. Even later legislation by the sages of Israel is itself seen as sanctioned by divine fiat and therefore ordained by God (BT Shabbat 23a). It is, of course, possible to accept the traditional doctrine that the Torah is from heaven, and interpret it so that the historical development is recognized; but this is precisely what fundamentalists will not allow. In their view the Torah is all the word of God. To acknowledge a human element in the Torah is to reject this fundamental doctrine of Judaism.

It follows that the term fundamentalism, though imprecise when applied to a Jewish attitude, can be used without distortion as a convenient shorthand for the position just sketched, and the term will be so used in this essay. It will not be used pejoratively to denote fanaticism or extremism; though such an attitude does tend toward both in that the direct word of God cannot tolerate opposition or rejection, no matter how small. It is not within the scope of this essay to comment on whether Jewish fundamentalism is good and true or harmful and false, but to describe in as objective a manner as possible for one who rejects fundamentalism how this view manifested itself in contemporary Jewish life.

It is important to note that in Jewish religious life, unlike in Christianity and Islam, there is no identifiable, organized group consciously adopting the fundamentalist position to distinguish itself thereby from the rest of the observant community. Indeed, far from claiming to occupy a particular role within the tradition, Jewish fundamentalism strongly affirms that its viewpoint is the traditional one. If by traditional we mean the view that prevailed before the emancipation and emergence of the Jew into Western society, fundamentalists are correct. The whole issue depends on whether the new situation demands a radical rethinking of doctrine, not simply changes in the externals of Jewish life. Despite apologetic statements to the contrary, the mediaeval, pre-modern attitude recognizes neither religious pluralism nor tolerance of non-conformism. The mediaeval Jewish courts did engage in coercion in order to enforce religious observances, at least when the community approved, which it normally did.

It is true that in the modern world, even the most rabid Jewish fundamentalist would not advocate, say, flogging offenders of the religious code, realizing that anything smacking of coercion in this area will not be tolerated in a pluralistic society. Rabbinic approval of religious tolerance is, in fact, found in the works of Rabbi A. I. Kook and the Hazon Ish, Rabbi Isaiah Karelitz, both of whom roundly declare that the ancient laws about the right and duty to persecute heretics have now fallen into abeyance, since the heretics (apikorsim) of today are not those of whom the ancient sources speak.

For all that, religious tolerance as a principle is never accepted. At the most, there can be only a reluctant concordat between the religious and the non-religious in which each agrees, as a matter of expediency, to respect the rights of the other in practice if not in theory. In the State of Israel this resulted in countless ambiguities; for instance, in the majority of Israeli towns and cities, there are no public bus services on the sabbath, but private cars can drive where they please except in and near observant neighbourhoods. The exclusion of cars from these neighbourhoods is accepted as right (and to be enforced by the police) even by the non-religious in order to prevent any affront to religious susceptibilities.

A basic difference between Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism results from this de facto acknowledgment of religious tolerance. Jewish fundamentalism generally avoids violence in seeking to achieve its aims except for throwing stones at cars that venture near observant homes on the sabbath. Throwing stones, however, is condemned by the majority of non-violent Jews even if they share the fundamentalist outlook. A prominent Orthodox rabbi has described the throwers as Old Stone Age men. The same applies to the very occasional beatings of their opponents by religious fanatics.

There was, however, an outbreak of lawlessness in 1986 that caused a good deal of concern. An Israeli advertising agency put up posters advertising a swimsuit that depicted a very scantily clad female. The agency, perhaps quite innocently, failed to appreciate the offence this would cause to many religious Jews concerned with upholding the sanctity of the Holy Land as they saw it and always on their guard not to gaze at what might lead to lustful thoughts. Provoked by these posters, some extremists daubed them with black paint, and some of the bus shelters in which the posters were displayed were burned down. The paint daubers claimed they had not been guilty of setting the fires and that this had been done by others in order to discredit them. In retaliation, a group calling itself the Association against Religious Coercion vandalized a synagogue and destroyed sacred books in a Tel Aviv yeshiva, sending shock waves throughout a Jewry with still painful memories of Nazi book burnings and other atrocities.

The rise of fundamentalism among all three religions, certainly its popularity, can partly be accounted for by the need for believers to regard themselves as possessing total, uncomplicated truth in a world where challenges to religion have encouraged doubts even in the minds of the faithful. Weary of the quest for religious truth, the fundamentalist, Jew, Christian, or Muslim, has a deep psychological need to have found-to rest secure in uncomplicated doctrine divinely guaranteed to be free from error. This is why fundamentalism is exclusive. The fundamentalist, triumphant in his or her cause, not only refuses to engage in dialogue with those of a more open cast of mind, he or she is extremely reluctant to fraternize with them at all, lest the hard-won truth be adulterated through association with them.

Mitigating such exclusiveness on the Jewish scene is the strongly held traditional doctrine of the unity of the Jewish people, often given the mystical nuance that deep in the recesses of the Jewish soul there resides a divine spark, so that no Jew, sinner though he or she might be, is beyond redemption. Especially after the Holocaust, in which a third of the Jewish people was annihilated, there has emerged a firm resolve on the part of even the most extreme not to write off semi-believers or even non-believers. The epithet goy may be used for the sinner, but he or she is still held to be a Jewish goy.

This attitude of acceptance, nonetheless, is never extended to non-fundamentalist philosophies of Judaism. These are never allowed the slightest degree of legitimacy or authenticity. Even rabbis, if they do not belong to the fundamentalist camp, are treated as laymen, enjoying no rabbinic authority. It goes without saying that Reform and Conservative rabbis are denied the title. They are regularly dubbed ra banim (bad children). When it is asked whether the Jewish tradition tolerates women serving as Reform or Conservative rabbis, the reply is it does not tolerate anyone serving as a Reform or Conservative rabbi. Increasingly, in the Orthodox camp, groups to the right denigrate those to their immediate left, no matter how pious and learned in the Torah, as too easy-going and as compromisers.

On this matter of rabbinic authority, it is worth noting that, in point of fact, learned Orthodox rabbis are often subordinate, in fundamentalist circles, to more zealous laymen, who keep a constant lookout to see whether the rabbi is deviating in the slightest degree from what they consider to be the true path. Professor Jacob Katz, discussing with Elie Wiesel the huge crowd of 40,000 who came to pay their last respects to the great halakhist, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, remarked, 'You can say what you like, the haredim (extremely pious) certainly know how to bury their gedolim (great rabbis).' Wiesel retorted, 'Indeed they do. Even while they are still alive!' The result has been a constant looking over the right shoulder by all but the most intrepid Orthodox rabbis anxious not to be accused by extremist followers of indifference or worse. Rabbi J. L. Maimon used to say, 'The world would be a far better place if Orthodox rabbis were as afraid of God as they are of one another.'

Several years ago a number of yeshiva heads issued a ban against Orthodox rabbis taking part in organizations of which Reform and Conservative rabbis are also members. Not every Orthodox rabbi paid heed to the ban. In 1986 the New York Board of Rabbis included members from all three groups, and its chairman, Rabbi Lookstein, was an Orthodox rabbi. But in most other cities in the United States and Great Britain there is no recognition by the Orthodox that their Reform and Conservative colleagues have any kind of religious standing. When the Pope visited the United Kingdom, he was welcomed in Manchester by a Jewish delegation from the city. Rabbi Hanoch Ehrentreu, head of the Manchester Bet Din (later, head of the London Bet Din), refused to participate, not because a church leader was being welcomed but because the local Reform rabbi was a member of the delegation.

In the political sphere Jewish fundamentalism has adopted a variety of stances. From the time of the earliest beginnings of political Zionism, a key passage for anti-Zionist polemics was the one (Ketubot 111a) regarding the three oaths. It states that God made the Jewish people take two solemn oaths: they would not all go up at once to the Holy Land and they would not rebel against the nations of the world. The nations of the world, on the other hand, were adjured not to oppress the Jewish people too much. Since in the fundamentalist view every talmudic statement is unconditioned by particular circumstances prevailing at the time (but is binding for all time on faithful Jews), anti-Zionist fundamentalists, in 1986, continued to see the very existence of the State of Israel as a rejection of a categorical talmudic statement and therefore of God's will.

This view was represented chiefly by the Satmar Hasidim, and the Edah Haredit and Neturei Karta groups with which they were associated. There could be no legitimate Jewish state until one is established with the coming of the Messiah. Members of these groups protested against building a sports stadium in Jerusalem, a mixed swimming pool, autopsies, and archaeological digs that might disturb the bones of the ancient dead, no matter how remote the possibility. While it would be gratuitous to question the sincerity of all who participated in these demonstrations, it is obvious that for many, any excuse was good enough for a protest against the illegitimate State of Israel itself.

It is typical of the fundamentalist approach that many of the religious Zionists accepted the Talmudic statement with as much seriousness as the anti-Zionists, but they held that the oaths are no longer binding either because the nations of the world have not kept their part of the bargain or because the State of Israel heralds the beginning of the messianic age when the oaths are no longer binding in any event. Moreover, the biblical passages in which the Holy Land is promised by God to Israel were interpreted to mean that the emergence of the State of Israel is God-ordained in a direct manner and consequently an expression of divine will.

In the Agudat Yisrael party and what is known as the yeshiva world, the imperatives regarding the settlement of the land in a political sense were accepted in a somewhat lukewarm manner, only in theory. In practice, they were given only the form of voting on the political program of the Agudah and a less than wholehearted participation in the government, chiefly for the purpose of safeguarding the rights of the religious. The Neturei Karta were critical of the Agudah for, as they saw it, compromising on the question of the legitimacy of the state. The political correspondent of the Jewish Chronicle (16 July l986) reported that Rabbi Moshe Hirsch, a leader of the Neturei Karta, announced that the sect was leaving the Edah Haredit because the latter, too, had been guilty of compromise on the anti-Zionist stand by associating with the Agudah in demonstrations against secular infringements. Two demonstrations, one against the Friday-night films in Petah Tikva and one against the Mormon building in Jerusalem, were jointly called by the Edah Haredit and the Agudah. Rabbi Hirsch described dealings with the Agudah as going over to the enemy.

It was quite otherwise with regard to the fundamentalist Gush Emunim, inspired by the teachings of Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook (son of Rabbi A. I. Kook, the first chief rabbi of Eretz Yisrael), according to whom a holy war against the Arab nations was not entirely ruled out if that was the only way to secure the Holy Land for the Jewish people. The promise to Abraham demanded nothing less even if Jewish as well as Arab lives were sacrificed in the process. This, too, however, was chiefly in the realm of theory. Few fundamentalists were prepared to go so far as Rabbi Meir Kahane, who, in the name of biblical teaching, advocated that the Arabs in Israel should be encouraged to leave or, if they failed to do so, to accept a permanent status of second-class citizenship. No one would wish to minimize the very serious security problems facing the State of Israel, and the division between hawks and doves affected all sections of Israeli society. Fundamentalism only entered the picture when biblical and rabbinic texts were hurled as if these rendered any further deliberations superfluous.

On messianism, it might be remarked, the Lubavitcher Hasidim believed that its Rebbe, R. Menahem Mendel Shneerson, was the Messiah even though the time had not yet arrived for him openly to declare himself as such and thus inaugurate the messianic age. In Lubavitch publications there regularly appeared an expression of the hope for the coming of meshiah mamash (the real Messiah). The word mamash, with two dots over it to denote that it is an abbreviation, obviously refers to Menahem Mendel Shneerson.

During 1986, Lubavitch messianic fervour reached its pitch with the repeated declaration that the time was ripe for all Jews to storm the heavens, entreating God not to delay because 'we want Mashiah now'. Lubavitcher messianism was, however, attacked by the rival Satmar group, though it was generally careful to avoid personal attacks on the Lubavitcher Rebbe. There was, in fact, no evidence that the Rebbe approved of the role his Hasidim had been bent on foisting on him.

Allied to messianism was the fundamentalist revival of the view found in some mediaeval sources but rejected by Maimonides that in the messianic age the third temple will not be built by human hands but will drop down ready made from heaven, so to speak, on the day the Messiah comes. This belief created a mood of intense, practical preparation. Those sections of the Talmud long studied only in academic fashion were now studied for the practical information they could yield on how exactly the sacrifices were to be offered in the new temple, so that priests and people would not be caught unaware when the opportunity suddenly presented itself. A special yeshiva was established at which the kohanim studied these laws assiduously. This led to protests in the Kneset over public funds being used for such a purpose, since the yeshiva, like many other yeshivas, received an allocation to pursue its researches. Despite these protests, the yeshiva continued to enjoy public funding, it being claimed that the activity fell within the scope of the right for religious institutions to receive an allowance from funds contributed by members and supporters.

Another manifestation of fundamentalist fervour in Jewish life was the extreme veneration accorded to charismatic personalities. Hasidic rebbes had long enjoyed elevation over their followers to a degree that scandalized opponents of the movement. What was new and astonishing was the extent to which hero worship became the norm even in mitnagedic circles. Traditionally, the rabbi was naturally expected to be thoroughly familiar with Jewish law. His authority rested solely on his expertise in this branch of Jewish learning. In the new pattern, the gadol beyisrael (great man in Israel) was said to operate in a mystical way. Certain rabbis were said to have been endowed with the gift of discerning the da'at torah (true opinion of the Torah) so that they were always preferred to rabbis thought to lack such sensitive perception. These charismatics were heeded in their advice regarding political questions, not only on matters of Jewish law proper. Officially, for example, the Agudah was obliged to heed the opinions of its Moetzet Gedolei Hatorah (assembly of Torah sages) in all its political activities; at times with a measure of conflict between spiritual and lay leaders of the organization. The latter occasionally found it hard to believe that the rabbis, learned though they were in the Torah, were equally talented through their built-in sensitiveness to advise on matters in which they had had no training and no experience.

An amusing offshoot of fundamentalist hero worship was the proliferation of photographs of prominent rabbinic and hasidic figures, dead or alive, ostensibly because merely to gaze at the holy countenance, on which the Shekhinah is said to rest, was conducive to piety. Despite traditional opposition by rabbis to having their portrait painted or their photograph taken, the practice became the norm so that photographs of the saints were regularly seen on baby carriages! They were collected by little boys in much the same way boys everywhere collect pictures of football stars. Youngsters in the streets of Jerusalem and New York have been heard offering to swap two photos of the Hazon Ish for one of the rarer Satmar Rebbe. Prayers at the graves of Jewish saints also became widespread, Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz characterizing it, to no avail, as necrophilia. On certain occasions in the year, notably on Lag Ba'omer, bus excursions were advertised to take the devout to the graves. In an advertisement for an excursion to the tomb of Jonathan b. Uziel, it was stated that bachelors, in particular, ought to make the journey, since the holy books say that praying at the tomb for a good shidduch is guaranteed to bring about this desired result.

Two holy men belonging to oriental communities died in 1983: Rabbi Israel Abu-Hatzeira of Morocco and Rabbi Mordecai Sharabi of Yemen, both of whom lived in Israel. Less than a year after their passing, hagiographical works appeared in Jerusalem (Baba Sali, father of prayer, on Rabbi Abu-Hatzeira; Ha-Rav Sharabi on the Yemenite saint) in which miracle tales abound and of a kind, moreover, that the hasidim would not have dared to tell of their rebbes. To give one instance among many, in the Abu-Hatzeira book the rabbi is said to have performed many times 'the miracle of the arak'; that is to say, he poured out glass after glass of the drink for his guests, with the bottle covered by a towel, but when the towel was removed, the bottle was as full as it had been from the beginning. In the Sharabi book, there is a tale of levitation. Rabbi Mordecai's grandfather, when a young man, would fly through the air from his rooftop in the Yemen on the eve of the sabbath to spend the sabbath in Jerusalem; after which he would return by the same convenient method of transportation.

There is also a tale about a company of Yemenite Jewish merchants erecting a tabernacle on the model of the biblical tabernacle in the wilderness and offering a sacrifice there; whereon fire came down from heaven and consumed them. Anyone who enters that area loses his life. Of Rabbi Mordecai himself there is an eyewitness account of how one Friday night he went into a trance, and when his followers looked at his eyes, they saw a numinous glow radiating from them. No doubt, such tales were a regular feature of Jewish life in oriental lands. Relevant to this essay is the fact that the books were bought by thousands of Jews in Israel and were soon sold out.

On the intellectual level, fundamentalism made rapid advances with fundamentalist works published in large numbers in English and Hebrew. In this type of publication, historical scholarship is either ignored completely or attacked as heresy. The most amazing illustration of the fundamentalist approach to Jewish learning was the extremely popular ArtScroll series on the Bible and many other Jewish classics. Books in the series, in hard cover and paperback, are beautifully produced and written in fairly good English.

Unlike the famous Hertz Humash, in which the maxim is quoted and accepted, 'receive the truth from whichever source it comes', ArtScroll's editors and writers denied that works compiled by non-Jews or Jewish heretics can possibly throw any light on Jewish literature. Their attitude was that of the Caliph Omar when faced with the destruction by fire of the great library at Alexandria: 'If the books contain that which is in the Koran, they are superfluous. If they contain that which is not found in the Koran, they are false and should be allowed to burn.'

It is well known that some fundamentalists deep in the heart of Russia scornfully denied, as late as the eighteenth century, that there existed any place such as America. For, they argued, if there were, why is there no mention of it in the Bible! The ArtScroll people did not deny that there is an America-they used American know-how very skilfully-but their attitude was very similar to that of their Russian predecessors. Anything not found in the tradition was never to be referred to except for brusque dismissal in elucidating Torah texts.

In the preface to the Book of Esther Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz writes: 'It must be made clear that this is not a so-called "scientific" or "apologetic" commentary on the Megillah. That area has, unfortunately, been too well covered, resulting in violence to the Jewish faith as well as the correct interpretation. It is in no way the intention of this book to demonstrate the legitimacy [sic] or the historicity of Esther or Mordecai to non-believers or doubters. Belief in the authenticity of every book of the Torah [sic] is basic for Jewish faith . . . Rather the aim was a specifically traditional commentary reflecting the Megillah as understood by Chazal. No non-Jewish sources have even been considered, much less quoted. I consider it offensive that the Torah should need authentication from the secular or so-called "scientific" sources." [1]

In his Hebrew approbation to the Book of Jonah in the series, a prominent rosh yeshivah writes:

'The concept of repentance as illumined by the Torah is as far removed as possible from all the discussions on this subject at all times among all religions. All our present existence is life after Adam's sin and the purpose, according to our holy Torah, of man's service is to return to the marvellous light that existed before Adam had sinned. It follows that even the most perfect saint is engaged in the task of repentance. From this point of view, there is, indeed, "none righteous upon earth who doeth good and sinneth not," since there is the taint of the serpent in whatever he does.' [2]

This is fundamentalism with a vengeance and Christian fundamentalism at that, or very close to it.

Fundamentalists have always been eager to prove that it is possible for a big fish to swallow a human being, as it did Jonah, as if the high moral and religious significance of the book depended on whether the story is factual. The ArtScroll writers, who take every midrashic fancy as sober truth, inform us that, since the word for fish is found in both its masculine and feminine forms, Jonah was swallowed not by one fish but by two; the first fish was a male, the second, female.

A particularly unfortunate case of fundamentalist heresy-hunting was that of the Swiss scholar I. S. Lange, an authority on mediaeval manuscripts and a strictly observant Jew. In 1975 Lange published in Jerusalem a commentary (from manuscript) to the Pentateuch by R. Judah, the Saint of Regensburg. A local rabbi, sniffing out heresy, approached the renowned halakhist, R. Moshe Feinstein, who, sad to relate, took a hand in having the book withdrawn from circulation. The author was obliged to substitute a bowdlerized version with the offending passages omitted. An account of the affair and his part in it are given by Rabbi Feinstein in his responsa collection, Igerot Mosheh. [3] It is known that some of the great mediaeval scholars did not take too literally the implications of the talmudic passage (Sanhedrin 99a) that it is heretical to believe that post-Mosaic additions are found in a few instances in the Pentateuch. In the Lange volume Judah the Saint suggests that one or two passages in the Pentateuch are late editorial glosses and Psalm 136 was originally part of the Pentateuch and composed by Moses, with David incorporating it into his book of Psalms.

All this was considered to be rank heresy. Despite full documentation by the expert, Lange, the rabbis insisted that the book was a forgery, fathered on Judah the Saint who would never have indulged in such heretical writing. Not since the Reconstructionist Siddur was burnt many years ago by zealots in the Waldorf Astoria has there been such banning of books in the Jewish community.

Increasingly, the rejection of what the ArtScroll series refers to as 'so-called scientific scholarship' became the norm in fundamentalist circles. Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller, for instance, taking issue with Rabbi Emanuel Rackman's contention that there is no dogma that one has to accept the attribution of the biblical books to the men traditionally regarded as their authors, writes:

'Surely, if we cannot accept the word of the Mesora on so basic a subject as the authorship of Tanach, then on what can we? If in this basic non-scientific non-technological area modern archaeology and Bible criticism are capable of superseding the Mesora and Chazal (who, it would be presumed, were misled somewhere along the line) what then prevents us from assuming they were not misled on the authorship of the Pentateuch, which Rabbi Rackman is not willing to question?' [4]

Rabbi Keller inadvertently hit the nail on the head. Over the years, modernists (like Rabbi Rackman, the target of Keller's protest) in Orthodoxy had been prepared to accept the view that on questions of history it was modern scholarship that was to have the final say even where the verdict of scholarship was at variance with traditional views. That attitude was, however, limited to the study of the rest of the Bible. It was never adopted, as Keller rightly observes, to the Pentateuch. And here Keller was right: there is an either-or, and it is illogical to be liberal with regard to the other classics of Judaism and yet remain fundamentalist with regard to the Pentateuch.

The movement known in the United States as modern Orthodoxy, of which Rackman was a distinguished representative, had not faced up squarely and unambiguously to the problem of fundamentalism. No Orthodox thinker had ever produced a statement in which he accepted textual criticism of the Pentateuch, let alone literary criticism.

The mere fact that many thousands of young men were ready to devote laborious years to studying the Torah in yeshivas and kollels all over the world was greatly admired. To an unparalleled extent, these institutions had proliferated in Israel and the United States. The majority of these pursued analytical methods of study taught in the famous Lithuanian yeshivas. Modern Jewish scholarship, too, looked with fondness, and perhaps a degree of envy, at this burst of enthusiasm for learning. Fundamentalism was undoubtedly the dominant viewpoint in the yeshivas, but it differed radically from most varieties of Christian fundamentalism in that there was no anti-intellectualism per se. On the contrary, the exercise of the mind in the study of the Torah was the hallmark of the yeshivas. This should not be taken to mean that yeshivas were generally hospitable to modern scholarship. They were not; indeed, they were opposed to critical-historical investigation and in this sense could be described as fundamentalist.

Rabbi Oscar Z. Fasman, president of Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, representing the older, less extreme trend in the world of American yeshivas, was critical of the swing to the right in the yeshivas. [5] Fasman was especially concerned with the negation of all secular culture in the newer yeshivas, typical of fundamentalist exclusiveness, though Fasman does not use this expression. If, the yeshiva heads argued, Western culture did not prevent the horrors of Hitlerism and if the Western world turned a blind eye to the Holocaust, what was the vaunted culture worth? The yeshiva student will be far better employed if he spends his time studying the Torah and nothing else. More serious, according to Fasman, was the negative attitude in the yeshivas to the practical rabbinate, that is, even the Orthodox rabbinate, in the conviction that the rabbinical office today leads to compromise on Torah laws and values.

Naturally, yeshiva students were discouraged from reading heretical works even, or especially, if the authors were Jews. In his excellent and very sympathetic study, The World of the Yeshivah, William B. Helmreich cites as examples of works viewed with suspicion Salo Baron's A Social and Religious History of the Jews and Heinrich Graetz's History of the Jews. Such works were accused of 'lacking in proper Torah hashkofos' (perspectives). [6]

The notion of correct perspectives was generally considered of great importance in the yeshivas, of which there were many, catering to the ba'alei teshuvah (literally, repentant sinners but used of those who have returned to a fully observant Jewish life after having been estranged from it). The whole ba'alei teshuvah movement was a new phenomenon on the Jewish scene, with its positive side in that it succeeded in winning for Judaism large numbers of gifted men and women. Yet, on the whole, the perspectives these yeshivas sought to convey to their students were largely based on fundamentalist premises. The ideas were chiefly those of the Lithuanian Musar movement, Samson Raphael Hirsch, and hasidic masters, with little reference to modern Jewish thinkers. So captivating did the ba'alei teshuvah movement become that the term BT (abbreviation for ba'al teshuvah) was adopted by some in the United States as a status symbol, with those born into observant families describing themselves by the acronym FFB (frum from birth).

The ba'alei teshuvah yeshivas welcomed women as well as men. They were supportive in a very generous way of young people genuine in their quest for a more authentic Jewish life. But, on numerous occasions, irate parents accused yeshiva teachers of brainwashing their sons and daughters so that they gave up a good place at a university, caring nothing for the glittering prizes offered to those with a university education. It is important, however, to note that unlike some Christian fundamentalist sects, the ba'alei teshuvah yeshivas never consciously sought to estrange children from their parents. The young men and women, far from being kept away from their homes, could go and come as they pleased, and a major theme was how observant people could live in the homes of their non-observant parents while compromising neither on kashrut or the sabbath, nor the fifth commandment.

The voice of fundamentalism was also heard in a number of outrageous statements seeking to express what those who uttered them imagined to be the correct fathoming of God's mind.

Fundamentalists are prone to see God as operating on a quid pro quo basis, since, in a literal reading of the biblical texts, that is the way He is described as operating. Christian fundamentalists declared, when the tower of York Minster was struck by lightning in a freak storm, that God was showing His displeasure at the installation there, a few days earlier, of the heretical Bishop of Durham. When Mrs. Thatcher underwent surgery on her little finger, the Rev. Ian Paisley observed: 'It's the will of God. He has struck down the hand that signed the Anglo-Irish agreement.'

Jewish fundamentalists have similarly been fond of taking biblical passages (and in their case, rabbinic) to yield such a simplistic notion of divine providence, refusing to interpret these in the more sophisticated manner of, say, a Maimonides or Gersonides. In particular, two rabbinic doctrines have been given a crude interpretation: these are the doctrine of midah keneged midah (measure for measure) and the doctrine kol yisra'el arevin zeh bazeh (all Israel are responsible for one another). These have been given a broad interpretation by Jewish philosophers, but for fundamentalists they mean that God punishes directly any sin and makes the punishment fit the crime exactly and the innocent also suffer together with the guilty because of the principle of surety.

It is notorious that when even an epidemic broke out, fundamentalists in Eastern Europe would 'seek out sinners', whom they held to be responsible for the calamity because of their sins and persecute them just as their Christian counterparts sought witches in seventeenth-century Salem. When terrorists murdered a number of Jewish youngsters in the Israeli town of Ma'alot, it was suggested that God had withheld His protection because a number of the mezuzot in the schoolhouse in which the children were killed were unfit. In a later embellishment, the number of unfit mezuzot was said to tally with the number of children killed.

In 1986 adults and children were killed in an accident at a level crossing in Israel. Rabbi Peretz, a Sephardi rabbi holding a cabinet post, declared publicly, and refused later to withdraw his statement, that it was because people in a nearby town were not as careful as they should have been in keeping the sabbath. A number of rabbis strongly criticized Rabbi Perez, but it has to be realized that in the fundamentalist view, if the Talmud, taken at surface value, says this or that is so, it is futile to reject it on the grounds that it does not fit in with Jewish philosophical reflections on the way God works.

In this survey, the attempt has been made to detect the resurgence of fundamentalism in world Jewry in recent years. This resurgence has coincided with the emergence of strong fundamentalist tendencies in the Christian church and particularly in Islam. Such is the mysterious nature of the Zeitgeist. To repeat what has already been said, Jewish fundamentalism did not belong to any identifiable group, but the fundamentalist mood was very powerful throughout the usual groupings in the Orthodox community. Evidently, a considerable number of observant Jews refused to acknowledge that modern thought requires Judaism to be seen in terms of a quest but have rather approached Judaism as a beleaguered fortress, held by intrepid soldiers of the Lord anxious not to yield an inch to the foe.

It is precarious to try to forecast the direction Jewish fundamentalism will take. Some questions clamour for answers, but these are not easily forthcoming. Is fundamentalism likely to hold its ground or even increase in Jewish life and thought? Does fundamentalism pose a threat to rational interpretations of Judaism, or is it no more than a peripheral trend of no lasting significance? Will fundamentalism encounter such a powerful reaction among the more liberal minded that non-Orthodox trends will emerge in circles at present inhospitable to such trends?

It is difficult to attempt answers to this kind of question, a difficulty aggravated by the absence of any clearly defined and organized body of fundamentalists whose progress could be observed. Jewish fundamentalism is amorphous. In a given group of contemporary Jews there may be those who lean towards fundamentalism and those who lean towards liberalism. It is not infrequent for both tendencies to be present in the same person, since very few have given much thought to the whole question, and the language of tradition, on the face of it, does seem to favour fundamentalism.

Many years ago Rabbi Jacob B. Agus of Baltimore suggested that instead of the Jewish religious community being assessed in the conventional terms of Orthodoxy, Reform, and Conservative, it might be nearer to the truth, in the future, if the real division cutting across the others were seen in terms of fundamentalism versus non-fundamentalism. There may be very few Reform fundamentalists today, but the two positions are not necessarily incompatible; witness the famous Reform leader in the United States, Isaac Mayer Wise, who refused to allow Professor Louis Ginzberg to teach at the Reform seminary, the Hebrew Union College, because he had adopted features of the higher criticism in his thought.

Conversely, it is certainly not unknown in the Jewish world today for Orthodox (in the sense of thoroughly observant) Jews to entertain liberal views with complete conviction when their scholarly researches lead them in that direction. It remains true, as has been noted earlier, that officially, Orthodoxy likes to equate itself with fundamentalism, at least so far as the theory of the Pentateuch is concerned. And this is true even in those Orthodox institutions where the methods of historical investigation are applied to the rabbinic literature and even biblical books other than the Pentateuch.

The sober fact is that while in the Christian church, for example, a non-fundamentalist attitude is perfectly respectable and is, indeed, a completely 'orthodox' position to hold, no non-fundamentalist trend has emerged within Jewish Orthodoxy. On the surface, at least, the more representative a rabbi or teacher is of Orthodoxy, the more will he tend to decry scholarly investigation itself as rank heresy.

For those who wish to see the triumph of fundamentalism, the signs are many that its appeal is increasing. For those who see fundamentalism as an untenable philosophy of Judaism leading to disastrous results, some of which have been noted, in practice, the situation still does not call for gloom. The very fact that scholarship is enthusiastically embraced in enlightened Orthodox circles provides some hope that an increasing number of devout Jews will be found totally committed to both scholarship and Jewish observance.

  1. Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, Book of Ester, ArtScroll series (New York, 1977), p. x.
  2. The Book of Jonah, ArtScroll series (New York, 1978), p. x.
  3. B'nei B'rak, vol. 6, nos. 114-115, 1981.
  4. Reuven P. Bulka, ed., Dimensions of Orthodox Judaism (New York, 1983), pp. 263-7.
  5. Ibid. 317-30.
  6. William B. Helmreich, The World of the Yeshivah (New York, 1982), pp. 167-70.
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