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John D. Rayner
Summer 1997


There is no such thing as a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ use of a word like fundamentalism. Although the term derives from a particular context — namely a reaction against modernism within American Protestantism just before and after the First World War (James Barr, Fundamentalism, p.2) — it has since come to be used much more widely, and in a variety of senses, all of which are perfectly legitimate provided that they are clearly understood both by the speaker and by the audience addressed.  

It is therefore entirely beside the point to turn to a dictionary except for information about the way in which the word is as a matter of fact used; and if the dictionary fails to report a common usage, then the inference to be drawn is not that the usage is illegitimate but that the dictionary is deficient.  

What I propose to do is first to look at the facts about fundamentalism, in its various senses, in traditional Judaism; then to evaluate those facts; and finally to consider the implications.  

A. The Facts

Simplistic and Sophisticated Fundamentalism  

The most basic sense of ‘fundamentalism’ is the belief in the divine provenance and consequent inerrancy of a sacred text. This belief occurs in two forms: simplistic and sophisticated. The simplistic form, sometimes called literalism, asserts, not only that the text is perfect but that it means exactly what it appears to mean. The sophisticated form also maintains that the text is perfect but goes on to make the important qualification: as traditionally interpreted.  

So far as Christianity is concerned, the tendency towards simplistic fundamentalism or literalism, is to be found mainly in Protestantism, which has always emphasized Scripture rather than Tradition, since the Reformation was largely a back-to-Scripture movement. Catholicism, on the other hand, has always put its chief emphasis on Tradition, in the form of Church doctrine, rather than on Scripture, so that Catholic fundamentalism tends to be of the sophisticated kind.  

Fundamentalism in Rabbinic Judaism  

Is Judaism fundamentalist? Since there have been many different kinds of Judaism, there is no simple answer to that. But if we mean Rabbinic Judaism, which dominated Jewish life from 70 CE until the time of the Emancipation, and which Orthodoxy seeks to preserve, the answer is undoubtedly Yes.  

The very process of canonising the Scriptures, begun by King Josiah but completed by the Rabbis, implies a sharp distinction between the canonical writings, which were declared to be divinely authoritative, and all other literature, which lacked that quality. And the language in which the inclusion or exclusion of particular books was debated reinforces the point. For the issue was always whether they had been written , ‘by the holy spirit’ (e.g., Meg. 7b), the assumption being that the holy spirit is not in the habit of making mistakes.  

The inerrancy of Scripture was emphasized especially in the case of the Pentateuch, which was regarded as the product of a unique divine revelation, mediated by the greatest of the prophets; but the other canonical books were also attributed to , prophecy, which is only another way of saying that they were written , under the guidance of the holy spirit; and sometimes the Prophetic Books, and indeed the Hagiographa as well, were subsumed under the heading of Torah. For instance, on the Psalm verse, , ‘Give ear, O My people, to My Teaching’ (78:1), the Rabbis made the comment, , ‘This proves that (contrary to the Samaritans) the Prophets and Writings are also Torah’ (see Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, p.122).  

Therefore when the Mishnah mentions the one who says , that ‘the Torah is not from Heaven,’ among those who have no share in the world to come (San. 10:1), although it is referring primarily to the Pentateuch, it is enunciating a principle which Rabbinic Judaism in fact applied to the whole Tanach.  

Need for Interpretation  

Of course Scripture has to be interpreted. That is the function of the Oral Torah. But the Oral Torah was also committed to writing — in the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash; and then the fundamentalist understanding of Scripture was applied to the literature of the Oral Torah as well.  

But here we must distinguish between Halachah and Aggadah. So far as Halachah is concerned, the position is clear. The Scriptural commandments (exclusively to be found in the Pentateuch) have to be understood in the light of the ancient oral traditions as recorded in the earliest strata of Rabbinic Literature; but so understood, they have the full force of divine legislation, and no questioning, let alone disobeying, of them can be countenanced for one moment.  

As regards Aggadah, the position is much more fluid. For when it comes to interpreting a Scriptural verse or passage which is only of theoretical, not of practical, import, then any number of divergent interpretations are allowed to stand side by side, without any need being felt either to choose between them or to harmonise them. Then the principle applies, , ‘We do not refute a merely aggadic statement’ (Tikkuney Zohar Chadash 166a). But while these aggadic interpretations can be quite far-fetched, they never contradict the plain meaning of the text, but rather supplement it. For the principle was maintained: , that the text never loses its plain meaning (Shab. 63a).  

We may therefore say that Rabbinic Judaism is fundamentalist, not indeed in the simplistic, literalist sense, but in the sophisticated, interpretive sense. The commandments of the Written Torah, as interpreted in the Oral Torah, are divine commandments, and the narrative statements, although susceptible of a wide variety of interpretations, are never less than true.  

Against this view, a handful of talmudic passages are sometimes cited which allegedly show that the Rabbis did not always take Scripture as seriously as a fundamentalist understanding of it would seem to demand; for instance, the story of how Moses failed to recognise his own Torah as taught by Rabbi Akiva (Men. 29b), or the use made of the phrase , ‘It is not in heaven’ (Dent. 30:12), by Rabbi Joshua in his dispute with Rabbi Eliezer (BM 59b), or the admission that many of the laws of the Oral Torah, such as the Shabbat prohibitions, are , ‘like mountains suspended by a hair’ (Chag. 1:8). But these passages, which Progressives are so fond of quoting, only prove that the Rabbis appreciated the latitude which their methods of interpretation allowed, or that they had a sense of humour; and they are in any case few and far between. (For similar passages, see Louis Jacobs, We have Reason to Believe, pp. 78-81). They do not gainsay the evidence of a fundamentalist understanding of Scripture, as divinely infallible, which is the implicit or explicit assumption of almost every argument, halachic and aggadic, throughout the entire, vast Rabbinic literature. Very frequently, for instance, a Scripture quotation is introduced with the words , ‘The Merciful One says.’ To quote Scripture is to quote God.  

Fundamentalism in Medieval Judaism  

The most explicit statement of this understanding of Scripture is to be found in Maimonides’ exposition of the Thirteen Principles in his Commentary on the Mishnah. About the eighth principle, that the Torah is from Heaven, he wrote: ‘We are to believe that the whole Torah now in our possession is identical with the one that was given to Moses, and that it is entirely from God. That is to say, it reached Moses in its entirety from God, by a mode of communication which we metaphorically call , speech, even though nobody knows its nature except Moses, of blessed memory, to whom it was vouchsafed. He acted like a secretary taking dictation. In this manner he committed to writing all the dates, narratives and commandments of the Torah, which is why he is called (Num. 21:18, there meaning ‘sceptre,’ usually meaning ‘lawgiver,’ but here taken in the sense of ‘scribe’). There is no difference in this respect between a verse like "The sons of Ham were Cush and Mizraim, Phut and Canaan" (Gen. 10:6) or "His wife’s name was Mehetabel, daughter of Matred" (Gen. 36:39) and a verse like "I am the Eternal One your God" (Ex. 20:2, introducing the Ten Commandments) or "Hear, 0 Israel, the Eternal One is our God, the Eternal God is One" (Deut. 6:4)’ (my translation; for other translations see Louis Jacobs, Principles of the Jewish Faith, p.216, and Isidor Twersky, A Maimonides Reader, pp. 420f).  

Although this is an extreme way of putting it, and no doubt deliberately so for polemical emphasis, I believe that the essential point it makes would have been assented to by every single one of the thousands of Rabbis cited in the Talmud as well as the Geonim and the authorities of Rabbinic Judaism down to the late Middle Ages.  

This understanding of Scripture went virtually unquestioned in Judaism for about 2,000 years, except that the Samaritans applied it only to the Pentateuch, and the Sadducees as well as, centuries later, the Karaites applied it only to the Written Torah to the exclusion of the Oral Torah, so that these sects may be said to have represented a simplistic rather than a sophisticated form of fundamentalism.  

It is a view which was, furthermore, shared, mutatis mutandis, by Christians and Muslims throughout the Middle Ages, for they both regarded their sacred scriptures as ‘The Word of God’ and therefore containing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, with the consequence that any opinions which contradicted it, whether arrived at by reason, science or in any other way, must be rejected as false.  

Fundamentalism in Orthodox Judaism  

Orthodox Judaism is in one sense a continuation of Rabbinic Judaism and, in another, a modern movement which began, round about the time of the establishment of the Hamburg Temple in 1818, as a reaffirmation of Rabbinic Judaism against Reform and against all those forces of the Enlightenment which it perceived as hostile to itself.  

To the question which concerns us, whether Orthodox Judaism is fundamentalist, the answer is therefore obvious. It is fundamentalist because Rabbinic Judaism, which it seeks to perpetuate, is fundamentalist; and it is all the more militantly so because it is a reaction against the Reform Movement, which questioned it.  

Sometimes what I have just said is denied, but only because of the negative associations — of intransigence, intolerance and worse — which the word fundamentalism has acquired in recent times. That, shorn of these associations, the description not only fits, but is the very basis of Orthodox Judaism, seems to me perfectly clear. But because it is sometimes denied, I had better adduce some evidence.  

Akiva Eger, who, with his son-in-law the Chatam Sofer, may be regarded as the chief founder of Orthodox Judaism, wrote: ‘Only he can be considered a conforming Jew who believes that the divine law book, the Torah, together with all the interpretations and explanations found in the Talmud, was given by God himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai to be delivered to the Jews and to be observed by them for ever’ (q. by David Philipson, The Reform Movement in Judaism, p.58).  

Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of Modern Orthodoxy, referring to the Torah in its entirety, wrote: ‘This word of God must be our eternal rule superior to all human judgment, the rule to which all our actions must at all times conform; and instead of complaining that it is no longer suitable to the times, our complaint must be that the times are no longer suitable to it’ (q. by Louis Jacobs, Principles of the Jewish Faith, p. 227).  

Chief Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz was a passionate defender of the divinity of the Torah. His commentary on the Pentateuch, seemingly beloved in all sections of Anglo-Jewry, is one long, sustained polemic against Bible Criticism. And in one of his sermons, published in his Affirmations of Judaism, after a hysterical outburst against Bible Criticism, he concluded: ‘And we, the descendants of those who stood at the foot of Sinai, will continue to bless Him who is the God of truth, whose Law is a Law of truth, whose prophets are prophets of truth, and who aboundeth in deeds of goodness and truth. We will continue to lift the Sepher Torah on high and exclaim: "This is the Law which Moses set before the children of Israel at the command of the Lord"’ (q. by Louis Jacobs, op. cit., p 228).  

Non-Fundamentalist Response  

In the 1960’s Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs was hounded out of Jews’ College and the United Synagogue because in books like We have Reason to believe and Jewish Values he had expressed a non-fundamentalist view of the Torah which Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie, prodded by his Dayanim, considered incompatible with Orthodox Judaism.  

In 1989, Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks published an article entitled ‘Fundamentalism Reconsidered’ in which he wrote: ‘Orthodoxy involves belief in a proposition denied by most non-Orthodox Jews, namely, that the Five Books of Moses are the unmediated word of God’ (L’eylah No.28, September, 1989, p. 9a). Incidentally, the word ‘unmediated’ is odd considering that the Tradition, on the contrary, emphasises that, with the sole exception of the first two of the Ten Commandments, in which God speaks in the first person singular, the entire Torah was communicated to the Children of Israel through the mediation of Moses.  

The article continues: ‘The belief in Torah as revelation is not simply a fundamental of Jewish faith. It is the fundamental. For were it not for our faith in Torah, how could we arrive at religious certainty about the creation of the world, the meaningfulness of human existence, the justice of history and the promise of messianic redemption? Our knowledge of these things, fragmentary as it is, is derived neither from logic nor science but from our faith in Torah and its Divine authorship. In this sense, therefore, Orthodoxy is fundamentalist’ (ibid.).  

Jonathan Sacks goes on to repudiate what I have called the simplistic fundamentalism of, for instances, Karaism, with its rejection of the Oral Law. ‘In this sense,’ he says, ‘Fundamentalism is a negation of Orthodoxy’ (p. 10a). He even allows a certain amount of legitimacy to academic Bible scholarship, but only as chokhmah, secular learning, which is, however, largely irrelevant, since the purpose of the Torah is to convey an entirely different kind of truth. ‘It does not set out primarily to answer the question, "What happened?" but the question, "How then shall I live?"’ (p. 11a).  

‘Biblical scholarship,’ says Jonathan Sacks, ‘may be chokhmah but it is not Torah. For only the community of the commanded can experience the Torah as command’(p. 12a). And he concludes: ‘If this is Fundamentalism, so be it. On it, I stake my faith as a Jew’ (p. 12b).  

Two years ago Jonathan Sacks, in an article in the Jewish Tribune, launched a bitter attack against the Masorti movement in the course of which he said that ‘an individual who does not believe in Torah min ha-Shamayim . . . has severed his links with the faith of his ancestors’ (Jewish Chronicle, January 20, 1995, p.26).  

So I conclude by saying: Rabbinic Judaism is fundamentalist, not indeed in the simplistic but in the sophisticated sense, and Orthodox Judaism is even more emphatically so.  

B. Evaluation

What is at Issue  

Let us now move on from the facts to evaluation, and that entails asking two questions about fundamentalism: whether it is true or false, and whether it is good or bad.  

But first let us be clear that the assertion fundamentalism makes is an all-embracing one. It is not that some of the Bible is divine, or that most of it is divine, but that all of it is divine and perfect. And it is an elementary principle of logic that universal propositions of that kind are refuted by a single unfavourable instance. Even if there were only one black swan in the world, the proposition that all swans are white would be untrue.  

It is one of the disconcerting habits of the conservatively inclined among non-Orthodox religious Jews that they tend to fudge this issue. For instance, when Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks attacked the Masorti movement for denying the doctrine of , Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg replied in the Jewish Chronicle: ‘We cannot believe that the Torah was dictated letter by letter by God. Yet we do believe that it comes from God’ (January 20, p.27). Which of course invites the question: ‘What, all of it?’ Until we know the answer to that, we don’t know where the Masorti movement stands on the key issue.  

The same kind of equivocation used to be characteristic of the RSGB. When I first came into contact with it in the 1940’s and 50’s, it was quite impossible to find out what its leaders actually believed about the divinity of the Torah. Only when Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, with his impeccable traditionalist credentials, declared publicly that he rejected fundamentalism, did it become kosher on the conservative wing of Progressive Judaism to express similarly heretical views.  

Yet so deeply embedded in the consciousness of Western people is the perception of Scripture as ‘the Word of God’ that even Progressives still find it difficult to reject it unequivocally. As recently as 1989, in an essay on ‘Revelation in the Hebrew Bible’, Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Magonet wrote: ‘Either everything is revelation or nothing’ (Manna, No. 25, Autumn 1989, Supplement, p. 3c).  

From all that you will gather, if you didn’t know all along, that to the question whether fundamentalism is true, my answer is an unequivocal No. To my mind it falls down on three grounds, in ascending order of importance.  

The Question of Authorship  

First, the fundamentalist view of Scripture is inextricably bound up with a particular view of how it came to be written.  

While some of the books of the Bible are anonymous, some have superscriptions asserting authorship. For instance, the book of Isaiah is superscribed ‘The prophecies of Isaiah son of Arnoz,’ and the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes claim to be the work of King Solomon. And where such attributions are lacking in the Bible, they are supplied by the Talmud. There we are told, for instance, that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, except the last eight verses of Deuteronomy, as well as the book of Job; Joshua wrote the last eight verses of Deuteronomy and the book of Joshua; Samuel wrote the books of Judges, Samuel and Ruth; David wrote the book of Psalms; Jeremiah wrote the books of Kings, Jeremiah and Lamentations; etc. (Bbl4b-15a).  

These attributions, however, are not sustainable in the light of modern scholarship. For instance, it is quite clear that the second part of the book of Isaiah was written during the Babylonian Exile, and some of the Psalms even later.  

But of course the most important issue relates to the Pentateuch, which is anonymous but came to be regarded as the work of Moses; hence its popular name ‘The Five Books of Moses.’ Again, Bible scholars don’t accept that attribution. They used to subscribe to the so-called Documentary Hypothesis which regarded the Pentateuch as compounded of four sources, known by the initials J, E, D and P, which they dated between four and eight centuries after the time of Moses.  

In recent times that view has been much modified. There is now greater emphasis on oral rather than written sources; it is no longer thought possible to demarcate them from one another so precisely; there is a stronger inclination to believe that they may go back to early times; and there is a greater interest in the literary characteristics of the finished product, regardless of its prehistory. But none of that amounts to a reinstatement of the traditional view that it was written by Moses. On the contrary, there is a general inclination to believe that the actual process of composition was even more complicated than the exponents of the Documentary Hypothesis supposed, only that it is no longer possible to reconstruct the process with any great precision.  

After Babylonian Exile  

Moreover, there is still general agreement among Bible scholars that the book of Deuteronomy dates from the reign of King Josiah in the latter half of the seventh century BCE. and that the Pentateuch as a whole, however early some of its sources, was not finally put together until after the Babylonian Exile.  

What seems to me particularly telling is the fact that in the books that are known to date from before the Babylonian Exile, the word torah is never once used in the sense of Pentateuch, or indeed as referring to any book at all except for the law-book that was discovered in the Temple during the reign of King Josiah, which, as I said, scholars identify with the book of Deuteronomy.  

I have recently checked that point by looking up all the occurrences of the word in conjunction with the verb , to write, or the noun , book, or the name of Moses. There is only one such occurrence in the entire Pentateuch, where the reference is only to the Ten Commandments (Ex. 24:12). There are none in Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, or Jeremiah. There is therefore little doubt that the Pentateuch is post-exilic, and certainly centuries later than Moses, even though some elements of it, such as the Ten Commandments, may go back by oral tradition to his time.  

Now it may be argued that all that is really irrelevant, since the truth of the Bible doesn’t depend on any particular theory about its authorship. Indeed, it has long been fashionable in some circles to quote Franz Rosenzweig to the effect that it doesn’t make any difference whether ‘R’ stands for ‘Redactor’ or ‘Rabbenu’. But of course that is muddled thinking.  

For one thing, even if only a single authorship attribution, made within Scripture, is shown to be incorrect, the fundamentalist theory falls to the ground. For another thing, the traditional veneration for the Pentateuch in particular is intimately bound up with the traditional view of the manner of its revelation, as a one-time supernatural event, with Moses acting as recorder. And that is hard enough to believe. But the supposition that an unknown number of unknown individuals who played a part in transmitting the oral traditions and written texts which ultimately became the Pentateuch were all endowed with the same superhuman ability faultlessly to record divine messages, though not logically impossible, is so wildly improbable as to be far beyond the bounds of reasonable credibility.  

The Question of Historicity  

But more important than the question of authorship is the question of historicity. How accurate are the Scriptural narratives as accounts of what actually occurred? If the fundamentalist dogma is to stand, they must be totally accurate.  

One part of the problem relates to narratives which seem incredible because they run counter to our experience of reality or our knowledge of science: the stories, for instance, of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, of Noah and the Flood, of the Parting of the Red Sea, of Balaam and his Ass, of Jonah in the Belly of the Fish, and of Daniel in the Lions’ Den.  

This part of the problem is easily disposed of if we recognise, as of course we should, that not all biblical narratives are meant to be factual. Some of them are myths, legends, accounts of dreams, or short-stories, told to convey truths quite different from historical truths: allegorical, poetic, spiritual and moral truths. As a matter of fact, to anybody educated in literature who reads the Bible without dogmatic presupposition, it is immediately obvious that books like Jonah, Ruth, Esther and Daniel are fictional short-stories; it would never occur to them to think otherwise.  

And there is no reason why a sophisticated fundamentalist shouldn’t go along with that. But the curious fact is that traditionalists do tend — quite unnecessarily — to defend the historicity even of these kinds of narratives. You only have to read their commentaries to see how they wriggle to make sense of these stories on the basis of a complete misunderstanding of the kind of literary genre they represent. In other words, even Jewish fundamentalism, which is supposed to be of the sophisticated kind, tends towards the simplistic variety.  

Are They Reliable?  

But leaving all that to one side, we still need to ask ourselves about those biblical narratives which do purport to be historical: are they reliable? The answer is: In the main, yes. But we have to add: less so when they deal with the early periods, of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, and the Conquest of Canaan, where fact and folklore are often commingled; more so when they deal with the later period, of the Monarchy, the Babylonian Exile and after.  

In any case, ‘in the main’ is not good enough to sustain the fundamentalist view. To satisfy it, the historical narratives would have to be totally reliable; and that they certainly are not. There are innumerable duplications, discrepancies and improbabilities. Many of these are listed in Louis Jacobs’ Principles of the Jewish Faith, Chapter 8, pp. 240ff, and I don’t want to take up time by going over them. It is perhaps sufficient to mention that one finds in the historical books two very different attitudes to the provincial shrines, permissive and prohibitive; and two diametrically opposed attitudes to the institution of monarchy, favourable and hostile; and one need only compare the books of Samuel and Kings with the books of Chronicles to see how divergently the same episodes are often related.  

To put it another way, the Bible is an invaluable source for the history of ancient Israel, but neither a sufficient nor a totally reliable one. It has to be read critically, and checked against what we know from other sources, such as archaeology and ancient Near Eastern languages, literatures and civilisations. It is a painstaking business, and some Bible scholars can’t be bothered with it; they prefer to read the Bible as a devotional text, and that is their privilege. But if one wants to know the truth about ancient Israel, the historical method is the only valid one, and in that discipline the Bible is a human document among other human documents.  

The Question of Quality  

What I have said about authorship and historicity is, I think, more than sufficient to demonstrate that the fundamentalist understanding of Scripture is untenable. The evidence has certainly convinced traditionalist scholars who, like Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, combine phenomenal learning with intellectual honesty.  

Here are some of the things he has written on our subject. ‘If the Bible, though the Word of God, is the product of the divine co-operating with the human, then human imperfection will be found in it side by side with divine perfection’ (We have Reason to Believe, 1957, p. 83). ‘There are many things recorded in the Torah which God did not say, which are part of the human element in Israel’s encounter with the divine, (Jewish Values, 1960, p.26). ‘It is obvious that there is a human, as well as a divine, element in the Bible’ (Principles of the Jewish Faith, 1964, p 270). ‘It can no longer be denied that there is a human element in the Bible . . . that it contains error as well as eternal truth’ (A Tree of Life, 1984, p. 242).  

But what kind of ‘error’ are we talking about? Inaccuracies relating to authorship and history? There are plenty of those, but immeasurably more serious is the fact that the Bible contains passages which, in terms of their religious and moral quality, fall short of what it would need to be if the fundamentalist assertion of its divinity were true.  

The problem is partly in the narratives. The book of Numbers (Chapter 31), for instance, relates how the Israelites waged a genocidal war against the Midianites, killing every man, and how Moses was angry with them for sparing the women. Similarly, in the book of Deuteronomy (25:19), the Israelites are commanded to exterminate the Amalekites, and in the First Book of Samuel (Chapter 15) the prophet Samuel rebukes King Saul because he has not carried it out to the letter. And the Second Book of Kings (Chapter 2) relates how on one occasion a group of boys made fun of the prophet Elisha because he was bald, whereupon he cursed them, and immediately two she-bears came out of the wood and mangled 42 of them.  

All these honor stories are told without the slightest squeamishness but, on the contrary, with the clearest implication that they were executions of the divine will and that the victims deserved their fate.  

Problem in Commandments  

But though any one of these tales is quite sufficient to dispose of the fundamentalist understanding of Scripture, the greater problem is not in the narratives but in the commandments.  

Take, for instance, the Deuteronomy law which says that an Ammonite or a Moabite ‘shall not enter the congregation of the Eternal One even in the tenth generation’ (23:4), which, as traditionally interpreted, means that a member of these peoples may not marry into the Jewish community even after conversion to Judaism, nor may a descendant of such a convert, no matter how many generations later.  

What is the reason for this prohibition? Generally the Bible doesn’t give a reason for its commandments, but in this instance it does: ‘Because they did not meet you with bread and water on the way, when you came forth out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam . . . to curse you.’ The reason is undying vindictiveness towards these peoples because of the hostility of their ancestors in the distant past.  

It is an altogether human motive, and not nobly but ignobly human. It is the kind of irrational, unforgiving resentment which we wish the Greeks and Turks, or the Catholics and Protestants of Ireland, would have the good sense to overcome. It is a motive which the Bible itself condemns when it says: ‘You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge’ (Lev. 19:18). Yet here it is attributed to God.  

Now it is true that in the subsequent history of Judaism this particular prohibition was rendered inoperative: first, on the specious ground that it applied only to male Ammonites and Moabitess, since Ruth was a Moabitess (Yev. 8:3); secondly, on the ground that the latter-day descendants of these peoples were no longer identifiable (Yad. 4:4). But even the theoretical proposition that it was once a divine commandment is surely preposterous.  

Besides, it is immediately preceded by an identically worded prohibition against intermarriage with a Mamzer (23:3) which has never been abrogated in theory or practice. And the fact that a Mamzer was defined as the offspring of an incestuous or adulterous union makes it no better. For just as a Moabite can’t help being a Moabite, so a Mamzer can’t help being a Mamzer. How can it be just to penalise innocent children for the sins of their parents? Is not that very point made elsewhere in the Bible (Deut. 24:16). And if it is unjust, how can it be the commandment of a just God?  

Another example is the law of , the ‘stubborn and rebellious son’ who is to be stoned to death on being indicted by his parents (Deut. 21:18-21). Now it is true that the Rabbis said of this law, , that it never was and never will be applied, and was included in the Torah only that we might gain merit by studying it (San. 71a). But the mere suggestion that such a law was divinely ordained is monstrous, and we are much more likely to gain merit by repudiating the whole fundamentalist philosophy which makes it possible to entertain such a notion.  

Misinterpretation of Divine Will  

Any one of these examples is sufficient to demonstrate that the doctrine of , as traditionally understood, is impossible. But they can be multiplied many times. Consider, for instance, the law of , the woman suspected of adultery, whose guilt or otherwise is to be established by the ‘Ordeal of Jealousy’ (Num. 5); or the law of , the ‘Red Heifer’ whose carcass is to be burnt, mixed with other ingredients, and used as a purifying agent against ritual defilement (Num. 19); or the law of , the scapegoat which is to be pushed over a precipice to atone for the sins of the people (Lev. 16); or the innumerable rules and regulations of the sacrificial cult, including the burnt-offerings, which, as the Torah mentions 38 times, are to provide , a pleasant odour, for the Eternal One; or the laws of capital punishment which, according to the Rabbis, was to be carried out, according to the gravity of the offence, by strangulation, decapitation, pouring molten metal down the throat, and stoning; or the subordination of women to men in marriage, divorce and inheritance.  

Surely there can be nothing more certain in all the world than that these are all instances of human misinterpretation of the Divine Will! Therefore these examples demolish the fundamentalist position with the greatest possible conclusiveness. They don’t mean that the Bible is bad, or something to be ashamed of. They show that it is human; that it is part of ancient Near Eastern literature; that it represents a phase in the history of Judaism; that it is the record of a people’s encounter with God and of its efforts, inspired by that encounter, to rise above the level of contemporary civilisation — efforts which were often successful, even to the extent of producing insights that have remained unsurpassed to this day, but which were by no means always successful; that it was written by people who, however inspired, remained human and fallible and children of their age.  

The Bible, then, is not a divine book. It is a human book: gloriously human — and sometimes ingloriously human. There is no such thing as a divine book. It would be wonderful if there were, for then all our questions would be answered with certainty. But there isn’t. That has been perfectly obvious to all open-mindedly thinking people since the close of the Middle Ages. Indeed, the recognition of that fact — that certainty is not attainable, that we have to live with uncertainty — is precisely what distinguishes modernity from medievalism.  

The Bible is still a great book; it is still the greatest book of its kind; and it is still the foundation of Judaism. But it is not a divine book, and therefore not a perfect book. And if to say that is to lower the Bible, compared with the veneration accorded to it by fundamentalists, it is at the same time to elevate God. For then we are relieved of the awful burden of having to hold God responsible for the command to slaughter the Amalekites and all the other laws which are so obviously incompatible with the highest teachings of the same Bible that the Holy One of Israel is the God of all humanity, and a God of perfect righteousness and compassion. Then we can adapt what King Solomon said about the Temple (I Kings 8:27), and say: ‘Heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain God, how much less this book which our ancestors have written!’  

Benign and Malignant Fundamentalism  

Having discussed whether fundamentalism is true or false, we still have to consider whether it is good or bad, harmless or harmful, benign or malignant  

As regards most fundamentalist believers, Jewish as well as Christian and Muslim, it is surely innocuous — as innocuous as, shall we say, the belief in astrology or spiritualism or reincarnation or predestination or the theory that the earth is flat. Indeed, it is even beneficial, for the sense of security it gives is comforting, and the certainty its adherents feel as to what God requires makes them more likely than wishy-washy liberals to observe devotional disciplines and moral precepts, less inclined to make excuses when it is inconvenient.  

Yet it is not entirely harmless, for even apart from the question whether it is ever harmless to entertain false beliefs, those who identify themselves with fundamentalism, say, by belonging to an Orthodox synagogue, do acquiesce in, for instance, acts of discrimination against women, and become to that extent accessories to injustice.  

There is, furthermore, an attendant risk of intolerance. As long as it is merely an intellectual intolerance, that is still not serious. For to believe anything is to believe that contrary beliefs are false. To that extent we are all intellectually intolerant. I am, as you may have observed, intellectually intolerant of fundamentalism. But fundamentalism isn’t just one belief. It carries a whole lot of other beliefs in its train. It asserts the truth of every statement, and the obligatoriness of every commandment, in a huge literature. That is why it is so vulnerable, why a single adverse instance brings it tumbling down like a house of cards. But for the same reason it means that those who subscribe to it must consider others who don’t to be wrong, not on one issue, but on hundreds of issues.  

At the same time the intensity of the certainty which fundamentalists feel makes them inclined not only to disagree with those who don’t share their view but to disagree with them in a hostile manner. Many Orthodox Jews, let it be said, overcome that tendency by their innate or cultivated decency, courtesy, , love of fellow Jews, and , love of fellow human beings. But some don’t manage that, and when they attack Progressive Judaism there is sometimes in their voice or in their language a peculiar kind of venom. (In saying that I don’t wish to deny the defenders of Progressive Judaism are sometimes, with less excuse, just as offensive.)  

Ceases To Be Benign  

It is at this stage, of verbal aggression, that fundamentalism ceases to be benign and begins to become malignant. But that is not all. For from a fundamentalist point of view contrary beliefs are not only mistaken; they are illegitimate. That point has been made many times by spokesmen of Orthodox Judaism about Progressive Judaism, and is the basis of their rejection of pluralism in Judaism. Jonathan Sacks put it succinctly when he wrote: ‘Orthodoxy does not recognize the possibility (by which of course he meant the admissibility) of denominational pluralism’ (One People? , p. 117).  

But to deny the legitimacy of any belief system except your own is the intellectual equivalent of what in politics is called totalitarianism. And indeed intolerance, first intellectual, then verbal, can easily, in its next stage, become political. For if a particular ideology is in your own opinion not only mistaken but illegitimate, it may seem very logical to use such political power as you possess to prevent it from expressing itself.  

Fortunately, in Britain as in other countries of the Diaspora, freedom of religion is protected by the law of the land, and Orthodox Judaism has little political power which it could use, even if it were so inclined, against other forms of Judaism. And yet the tendency of Orthodox rabbis to boycott joint activities with their non-Orthodox colleagues, and to oppose their efforts to gain equal representation, is in its way an exercise of political totalitarianism within the communal scene.  

In Israel, however, the Orthodox wield far greater power, since they are organised as political parties which actually share the reins of government. Admittedly, they are a minority which must defer to some extent to the secular majority. Even so, they have, ever since the State of Israel was established, used their political power in various ways to keep down the Progressives. And if ever they were to become a majority — unlikely though that happily is — there is little doubt but that they would forcibly suppress any non-Orthodox expression of Judaism altogether.  

I don’t think it is unfair to say that fundamentalism encourages a totalitarian rather than a democratic mind-set. Even while they are still a minority, elements within the Orthodox community in Israel have resorted more than once to undemocratic means to oppose policies and modes of behaviour they disapprove of. These means include appeals to superstition, incitements to hatred, stone-throwing and assassination.  

Admittedly, these elements are a small minority, but they are not negligible. And there are even bigger issues at stake than the right of Progressive rabbis to perform marriages and conversions, or of the secular to travel on Shabbat. The victory of the Likud in last year’s election was due in part to the support of Orthodox parties which oppose the peace process on religious grounds, and therefore Israel’s last, golden chance of making peace and therefore of surviving, may yet be destroyed by — fundamentalism.  

To the question whether fundamentalism is true or false, my answer is that it is false. To the question whether it is good or bad, my answer is that it can be benign, but that it has a tendency to become malignant: to degenerate from intellectual intolerance to verbal aggression to political suppression and ultimately to terrorism. And in its malignant form, fundamentalism is not only dangerous, but, world-wide, the gravest threat to human civilisation since Stalinism and Hitlerism.  

C. Implications

Having taken so long to get to this point, I can only indicate in a few sentences what the implications are.  

First, I think it is important that within Progressive Judaism we should cease to equivocate as to where we stand on the key question of the divinity and authority of Scripture, and of the Oral Torah, but say quite candidly that, and why, we reject the fundamentalist position, as I have tried to do.  

Secondly, we need to answer the attacks occasionally launched against us from a fundamentalist point of view, not acrimoniously, but firmly and politely.  

Thirdly, we need to seek out opportunities to engage the fundamentalists in discussion of the issues I have raised in this lecture. That is extremely difficult, and will usually get us nowhere, like arguing with Jehovah Witnesses, but we must nevertheless persist.  

Fourthly, we need to ensure as far as we can that Progressive Judaism is fairly represented within the Jewish community, and that its voice is heard as much as it should be in the general community.  

Fifthly and most importantly, we need to strengthen Progressive Judaism by deepening the religious knowledge and intensifying the religious practice of its congregations and individuals.  

Finally, we need to evolve a genuinely Progressive Halachah and, more generally, a consciously post-Rabbinic, post-medieval, post-fundamentalist Judaism which is at one and the same time deeply rooted in the past and forthrightly responsive to the present.

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.