Fundamentalism Reconsidered

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by Jonathan Sacks

When I first read this essay years ago in The Jewish Action Reader, it spoke to me. I believe it still resonates, despite many outdated references to the 1980s, when it was written. I publish it here with permission from Rabbi Sacks and Jewish Action. Due to length considerations, I have split the essay into three parts. – ed.

When I use a word, Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I chose it to mean — neither more nor less.’1 Lewis Carroll’s remark is uncannily appropriate to the rhetoric of current religious argument. The key Humpty Dumpty word in contemporary discourse is the term ‘fundamentalism.’ It is used with passion. But no one quite knows what it means.

Is it, as James Barr suggests,2 a term relating to Conservative Evangelical Christianity, or does it apply to Catholicism as well? It has been applied, in the last decade, to Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Jews. But if Fundamentalism refers to the holding of certain doctrinal positions, then certainly there is no doctrinal common ground between these faiths.

Sometimes it is used to refer to a certain attitude to sacred texts, but again without any strict consistency. It may mean one who regards those texts as Divinely revealed, or literally true, or inerrant, or authoritative, or immutable or invested with unimpeachable sanctity. Clearly these views are very different from one another.

Others use it to refer to a range of religious and cognitive attitudes. According to Barr these include personal pietism, a reluctance to create denominations and religious establishments, a distaste for the professional ministry, a preference for informality and a refusal to give a hearing to other points of view. Only some of these — perhaps only the last — will strike a chord with those who use the word in a Jewish or an Islamic context.

Yet others again use it in the context of political activism. Fundamentalism here refers to the very different politics engaged in by the so-called Moral Majority in the United States and by radical conservatives like the late Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. The word has been used to describe the reaction of the Islamic community to Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses. When used in the context of Israel, it is most often ascribed to the territorially maximalist group Gush Emunim.

For some, Fundamentalism is an attitude to society, culture and modernity. In this sense it is certainly a reaction against modernity and an attempt to reinstate classic or traditional religious values. But the object of criticism certainly differs between faiths. In Christianity it seems to be secularization; in Islam, westernization; and in Judaism, assimilation.

One result is that when the word is used in a Jewish context it is sometimes taken to refer to all Orthodox Jews, on the ground that Orthodoxy involves a belief that the Torah is the word of God and not — even partially — the work of man. Such a belief, Conservative and liberal theologians argue, is incompatible with modern historical scholarship and therefore fundamentalist.

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

At other times it is used to refer to those who understand the Torah literally; or to those who argue that all halachic change is impermissible; or to those who invest the words of great Torah sages with absolute authority; or to those who see no value in secular culture — four very different sub-groups within Orthodoxy. As one writer has noted, ‘Any position … that is more traditionalist, or closer to the Halacha, than that of a person using the term is potentially “fundamentalist.” Hence ‘the label “fundamentalist” finds itself pinned on to a range of groups and individuals who may in practice have little or nothing in common with one another.’3

Finally, as we noted, it is predicated of the disciples of the late R. Zvi Yehudah Kook — the religious members of Gush Emunim — who lay great stress on the sanctity and settlement of Eretz Yisrael shelemah, the land of Israel in its broadest boundaries. Here it has nothing to do with religious belief as such, but to a particular relationship between belief and political action.

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Nor is this all. The emotive or evaluative charge of the word has shifted significantly over time. Barr attributes the origin of the term to the series of booklets published in America between 1910 and 1915 called The Fundamentals. They set out with uncompromising rigor the fundamentals of Christian faith. Shortly thereafter, those who held firmly to Christian dogma in the face of the then current strands in Biblical study came to be known as fundamentalists. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary dates the word’s first appearance at 1923. Originally, then, it was a term of praise.

More recently, though, it has become a term of abuse, ‘suggesting narrowness, bigotry, obscurantism and sectarianism.’ More recently still there has been a counter-attack by traditionalists. Thus one Orthodox rabbi could write, some weeks ago, The Rambam, the Vilna Gaon, the Chassam Sofer and all other gedolim were fundamentalists who respected and understood the scientific knowledge of the time.’ There is an attempt here to reclaim the positive association of the word.

The Conservative position is that the Torah is not revelation but inspiration, the word of God as interpreted by man

A word used with such constantly changing connotations is in danger of losing all sense and reference. It means just what the speaker chooses it to mean, no more and no less. There is a need for some ground-clearing to be done if invective is to be elevated to the level of argument.

The subject is large, and in what follows I have addressed only a part of a part of it: Fundamentalism as a way of reading the Biblical text. In what sense can Orthodoxy as such be said to be fundamentalist? In what sense does that term apply only to particular schools of thought within Orthodoxy? And in what sense does it not apply to Judaism at all?

Throughout, I would ask the reader to divest the word of negative associations. If Judaism commands us to be fundamentalists, let us be so, proudly and undefensively. But let us be so, also, precisely and accurately. Kiddush and havdalah are linked commands: for there is no sanctification without the making of clear distinctions.

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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. They are, that is to say, revelation. It is in this sense that Conservative Jews often speak of Orthodoxy as a whole as fundamentalist.

Without revelation, we would not believe in inspiration

Here, for example, is one recent Conservative account of the distinction between ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘historical’ approaches to the Bible. The ‘fundamentalist view … held by many Orthodox Jews, some Protestant Christians and almost all Moslems … contends that the whole Pentateuch was given by God to Moses at Sinai.’ The ‘historical view … held by the great majority of the Conservative and Reform movements in contemporary America, much of Christendom and most Biblical scholars … is that the Bible consists of a number of texts, composed by a variety of people in a number of places and times and later compiled in written form by a redactor.’4

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 though 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.

It is strange, though, that the word should be used in this sense, as if to suggest that belief in revelation were obscurantist or ‘unscholarly.’ The phrase ‘And God spoke’ is full of mystery. But no more so than the phrase ‘And God did.’ The mystery in both cases lies at the point of contact between the Infinite and the finite, the metaphysical and the empirical.

The beliefs in creation, miracle, Divine providence, reward and punishment and redemption all share this same feature with revelation, that they involve attributing an event to the authorship of God. They do not rule out the possibility that an empiricist — one who refused to admit the idea of a metaphysical cause — might interpret those events differently. There are no religious events that are self-authenticating; none that can be interpreted in only one way (with the exception of Matan Torah itself: See Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, 8:1 and 8:2). As the Torah’s description of Pharaoh’s reaction to the plagues makes clear: a miracle can always be interpreted as magic. Religious belief, that is to say, always requires faith. But faith is not a denial of the evidence of the senses. It is a trust in something beyond the senses. There was something beyond the mighty east wind that parted the waters at the Red Sea. There was something beyond the human hand that first inscribed the words of the Mosaic books. That something in both cases was God.

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To believe in revelation, therefore, requires faith. What is perplexing, though, is the Conservative argument that there can be Jewish faith without belief in revelation. For, broadly speaking, there are two kinds of ‘non-fundamentalist’ approaches to the Torah. There is the empiricist-historicist view that the Torah is to be seen as an altogether human work, to be understood within the categories of secular history. And there is the Conservative position that the Torah is not revelation but inspiration, the word of God as interpreted by man. The first view is consistent. It dispenses with religious faith altogether in reading sacred texts. The second view, though, is not yet a view at all until we have some criterion for distinguishing between the Divine and human elements in the text.

Some Conservatives, for example, have argued that the law of mamzerut (illegitimacy), which they see as morally offensive, must therefore be the works of man. Some liberals have said the same about the Biblical prohibition of homosexuality. But this is an extraordinary view of man. On what conceivable ground can we assume, a priori, that man can have only offensive ideas? Why not inspiring ones also? If so, then all items of Jewish faith — the covenant, the promise, the hope — are possibly human constructs also; and we have no way of knowing which are not. If so, Jewish faith as a totality has no more objective reality than the religious imagination of a small group of dreamers long ago and far away.

The Conservative position is given spurious credibility by two separate confusions. First is the assumption that it is supported by secular Biblical scholarship of the last two hundred years. It is not. That scholarship assumes at the outset that texts are to be understood independently of Divine revelation or inspiration. It therefore supplies no support to, or refutation of, any particular metaphysical view of the way God speaks to man. Second is the assumption that since Judaism contains a view of inspiration (to the other prophets) and revelation (to Moses), the former idea is coherent without the latter. Again, it is not. As Maimonides makes clear, our belief in prophecy is dependent on the laws laid down in the Torah itself.5 Without revelation, in other words, we would not believe in inspiration.

A further factor in making Conservatism seem coherent is its apparent similarity to ‘conservative’ positions within Christianity, ones that admit historical criticism of sacred scriptures. Again the comparison is misleading. For this kind of Christian theology takes another kind of revelation to be central: the revelation of God in human form. Once theology is built on that foundation, it can take a critical view of scripture. For scripture is not then revelation itself, but the record of that revelation by witnesses to it. For Judaism, revelation does not refer to the person or presence of God but to the word of God. By this fundamental criterion, all other manifestations of the Divine are to be judged (Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, 8:3). A view, therefore, that can be made intelligible within Christianity cannot be transferred to Judaism and assumed to be intelligible there also.

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  1. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, Chapter 6. 

  2. James Barr, Fundamentalism, London: SCM Press, 1977. See also his Escaping From Fundamentalism, London: SC, Press, 1984; and his Holy Scripture: Canon. Authority, Criticism, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983. 

  3. Jonathan Webber, ‘Rethinking Fundamentalism: the Readjustment of Jewish Society in the Modern World,’ in Studies in Religious Fundamentalism, edited by Lionel Caplan, London: Macmillian, 1987, 108. 

  4. Elliot Dorff and Arthur Rosett, A Living Tree, New York: State University of New York Press, 1988, 20. 

  5. M.T. Yesodei haTorah 7:7, 8:3. 

About Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth between September 1991 and September 2013. He is a global religious leader, philosopher and author of 25 books as well as the weekly Covenant & Conversation parsha study. His website www.rabbisacks.org features an extensive archive of all his written material.

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