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What is a Fundamentalist?

Jonathan Rosenblum

The New York Times' Thomas Friedman is not one to be abashed by past error. Even as his most recent big idea - globalization leading inexorably to international peace and prosperity - lay under the rubble of the Twin Towers, by September 13 he had dusted off another one: the coming battle is not between the West and Islamism, but between "fundamentalists" of all religions and those whose religious beliefs are "progressive." How politically correct to exempt Islam from any special censure. Unfortunately for Friedman's thesis, he neglected to point to any other religion that has produced thousands of would be suicide bombers or millions more who cheer their actions. Nor has he read the leading modern scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, on the profound sense of grievance that animates Islamists like Osama bin Laden. Islamist rage is rooted in Islam's specific history: After sweeping out of the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century and conquering vast swaths of the globe over the next thousand years, Islam has been in territorial retreat for 300 years and Islamic societies have everywhere failed to keep pace with their non-Islamic neighbors.

Friedman is on no firmer ground equating all "fundamentalist" religions - a term he does not define. The term "fundamentalism" was initially applied to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy - the belief that the Bible as a literal historical record - of numerous Protestant sects. Jews, even the most traditional, do not read the Bible in the same way as Christian fundamentalists. While every Torah Jew affirms the truth of every word of the Five Books of Moses, that truth is not necessarily the simplest understanding of the words. From an early age, a Jewish child learns to read the Written Torah in terms of multiple layers of meaning. He or she studies each verse in the context of Midrashim that often stray far from the simple meaning of the text and even seem to contradict one another.

Moreover, he or she learns that the meaning of the Written Torah, whether in historical or halachic sections, can only be determined with the aid of the Oral Torah. A few weeks ago, for instance, we read the verse, "Reuven went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine." But the Talmud, whose reading is definitive, interprets the verse to mean that Reuven removed Yaacov's bed from Bilhah's tent. This interference with his father's marital relations by one on Reuven's spiritual level is accounted by the Torah as if he actually slept with Bilhah. Such an interpretation, of course, would be unrecognizable to Christian fundamentalists. Since September 11, the dictionary definition of "fundamentalist" has given way to a newer meaning: one who seeks to destroy anyone who subscribes to another belief system. While Islamists may define the rest of the world as infidels, Jews do not seek to either convert or conquer non-Jews. Judaism has never been a proselytizing religion, and perhaps unique among the major religious faiths, it teaches that the righteous of other nations have a place in the World to Come.

As a minority faith everywhere for 2,000 years, Jews have never sought to prove the superiority of their G-d through territorial conquest or other marks of worldly success. More than two millennia ago, the prophets asked how can we continue to refer to G-d as awesome and powerful when idolaters are celebrating in the ruins of His Temple and enslaving His children. The Men of the Great Assembly answered: His strength refers to His ability to withhold His anger towards evildoers, and His awesomeness to the preservation of one small nation among all the nations of the world.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch points out that Jews have at once been the most persecuted of people and the least vengeful: "They knew that G-d would never forget the blood of innocent men, particularly if it was shed in His service. Our people entrusted to G-d alone the task of avenging the blood of murdered fathers and mothers, wives and children. This promise kept them free of bitter and burning lust for vengeance against their oppressors."

Friedman's uses the repugnance aroused by Islamist fundamentalists (in the second sense) as a club against anyone who does not share his "progressive" religious views. For him, all religions are nothing more than human narratives of different approaches to G-d, and thus no religion has more claim to truth than any other. In his view, "modern" religious ideas and practice, based on evolving standards of morality, are inherently superior to traditional practice and belief.

Like believers of all religions, Torah Jews reject Friedman's moral relativism. For us truth and morality are objective qualities, anchored in the existence of G-d, Who created the world for a specific purpose. The fact that some religions or religious people subscribe to beliefs that are false or morally repugnant does not prove that all religions are false or that all morality is but a human construct. True, the views of both Jews and Christians about the divinity, or lack thereof, of Jesus can neither be reconciled nor both right. Yet that does not mean that both are wrong or that there is no such thing as Truth.

Like other believers, Torah Jews also reject modernity as the measure of all things. We take from the modern world what is consistent with Torah - hundreds of Torah Jews, for instance, worked at the World Trade Center - and reject what is not. The revelation at Sinai remains equally binding for us as a matter of elementary logic. An omniscient and omnipotent Creator knew all the circumstances in which His people would ever find themselves, and was capable of providing them with a guide to life that would serve them in every time and place, without need of repeated updates.

The insistence on Sinai's ongoing voice may not be hip or modern, but it does not turn us into fanatics bent on destroying others who think differently.


[Jonathan Rosenblum is Israeli director of Am Echad and a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and the Baltimore Jewish Times, where the above appeared.]

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