In defense of fundamentalist Jews

December 05, 2001

I attach an article from Seth Lipsky, a contributing editor to The Wall Street Journal.

-- Tom Gross


They don't want to save your soul
In defense of fundamentalist Jews
By Seth Lipsky
The Wall Street Journal
December 5, 2001

Three days after the attack on the World Trade Center, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote a column asserting, among other things, that terrorism reflects a struggle "between those Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews with a modern and progressive outlook and those with a medireview one." It was one of those glancing sneers that took some people a bit of time to comprehend.

But not Rabbi Avi Shafran of the Agudath Israel of America, an organization that represents fervently religious Jews and is affiliated with the Council of Torah Sages. "If Mr. Friedman means to impugn Jews who remain faithful to Jewish religious tradition and who accept and observe the Torah's laws even against the zeitgeist, he should be advised," the rabbi wrote to the Times. "Orthodox Jews express their fervency through prayer, study of texts, ritual observance and kindness toward others, not in terrorism. To try to compare them to Islamic radicals is outlandish and worse."

A few weeks later came another of those sneers that are so subtle they can go right past a reader. This time it was by an author named Karen Armstrong, writing in Time magazine. She asserted that every fundamentalist movement she has studied "in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is convinced that liberal, secular society is determined to wipe out religion." She went on to say: "Fighting, as they imagine, a battle for survival, fundamentalists often feel justified in ignoring the more compassionate principles of their faith."

This gibe prompted Phil Baum of the American Jewish Congress to write a letter to Time. "While there are extremists in Judaism and Christianity," he wrote, "the actions of this handful of marginal religious fanatics are almost universally repudiated by other Jews and Christians." By contrast, he added, "Islamic extremism includes thousands of adherents around the globe expressly trained and sworn to kill by leaders like Osama bin Laden. Except for a minuscule number of isolated individuals, Jewish fundamentalists act out their beliefs by railing against the modern world, prohibiting television in their homes and requiring the strictest possible interpretation of Jewish law, such as Sabbath observance. But they do not direct airplanes into the World Trade Center or the Pentagon."

When occasionally a religious Jew does commit an atrocity, his co-religionists immediately and forcefully condemn him. This happened in 1994, when Baruch Goldstein slew 29 Arabs while they were kneeling in prayer at Hebron. Of those few who cheered Goldstein, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said, "Sane Judaism spits them out." He spoke for overwhelming numbers. Condemnation came not only from the secular authorities, but also from religious Jewry, including the most fundamentalist authorities.

A few weeks ago, the writer Jonathan Rosen, a former colleague of mine at the Jewish Forward, published in the New York Times magazine a seminal article titled "The Uncomfortable Question of Anti-Semitism." Mr. Rosen wrote about his sense, which a lot of us share, that things are suddenly changing in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11. The language of anti-Semitism, often used in the context of hostile remarks about Israel, is starting to become a routine part of the political chatter.

It reminds a lot of us of an earlier time.

Toward the end of his article, Mr. Rosen quotes Bernard Lewis as pointing out that after Christians reconquered Spain from the Muslims in the 15th century, they decided to expel the Jews before the Muslims. "The reason for this," Mr. Rosen writes, "is that although the Jews had no army and posed far less of a political threat than the Muslims, they posed a far greater theological challenge. This is because Jews believed that adherents of other faiths could find their own path to God. Christianity and Islam, which cast unbelievers as infidels, did not share this essential religious relativism. The rabbinic interpretation of monotheism, which in seeing all human beings as created in God's image recognized their inherent equality, may well contain the seeds of the very democratic principles that the terrorists of Sept. 11 found so intolerable."

In this context, what is one to make of all this carping about Jewish fundamentalism? At one point Rabbi Shafran a prolific columnist with far too few readers actually tapped out a charming little piece called "Confessions of a Jewish Fundamentalist." In it he describes the fundamentals of his creed as a rigorously Orthodox Jew, starting with: that there is a God and that he revealed Himself at Sinai and that an ultimate reward and punishment awaits all human beings. He explains what he calls "funny clothes" ("modest in a way that tends to stand out, especially on summer days") and "strange doings" ("from the moment we wake up until we go to bed, our lives are governed by myriad religious rules").

He explains that Jewish fundamentalism seeks neither material success nor world domination but rather good deeds and the study of Torah. He confirms the point that Messrs. Rosen and Lewis have made, explaining that efforts of Jewish fundamentalists to spread the faith extend only to other Jews who may lack traditional Jewish educations. "We don't evangelize other faiths or see them as unsaved," he writes. "Indeed, we consider a Christian or Muslim who observes certain basic moral precepts to merit a share in the World-to-Come."

Then, right after Thanksgiving, Mr. Friedman of the Times issued another column, this one, called "The Real War," attacking "religious totalitarianism." He wrote of "the contention that unless Jews reinterpreted their faith in a way that embraced modernity, without weakening religious passion, and in a way that affirmed that God speaks multiple languages and is not exhausted by just one faith, they would have no future in the land of Israel."

This prompted Aguda's David Zweibel to write to the Times to explain that religious Jews don't need to "reinterpret" their tradition to allow for tolerance of other faiths. "We do not seek, much less try to force, the conversion of Christians or Muslims to our religion." Religious Jews, he said, certainly do believe that the Torah is God's word and that Judaism is the ultimate statement of his will "just as we imagine that many people of other faiths believe that theirs represents ultimate truth." He went on to write: "Mr. Friedman's vision of America as a country where religious belief is welcome only if it abandons claims to exclusive truth is truly chilling and truly intolerant."

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.