Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Jewish Fundamentalism???

So here is my question to begin this discussion: How do we frame and develop appropriate responses and approaches to contemporary challenges using and not compromising the system, elements, teachings, and dictates of Halacha/Torah m’Sinai?

I agree with the adage held by many within our larger community that generally there is no such thing as “Jewish Fundamentalists,” not really. Oh yes, there is that small community of Karaites that we hear about from time to time, and there are the much larger and more numerous communities of Lost Tribes, trying to find their way back to our and their heritage (and this is a completely different discussion, to be addressed in another posting), but truly, we are not fundamentalists. So what about the extremists amongst us, you know the ones that throw dirty diapers at people who try to open a parking lot in Yerushalayim on Shabbat or spit at people that they disagree with? This is a problem and a daunting challenge for our larger Jewish community to be sure, but is it fundamentalism per se?

Precisely because we have a Rabbinic process of developing and adapting our Torah law, we are not fundamentalists, not in the sense of other religious groupings that only have the instruction of an original Holy Writ without the benefit of explanation and legitimate expansion. Just ask Irshad Manji (author of The Trouble with Islam (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2003), which is a book I highly recommend) among many others outside of the Jewish community, and you will hear testimony to the value of the Rabbinic process which is critically invested in maintaining the meaning, core values, practices and applicability of Jewish law all at once. Judaism is a both/and not an either/or operation in both spirit and practice. One need only look at a page of Gemara or at a variety of commentators’ voices on any verse in the Torah/Tanach or any page of Jewish text to begin to appreciate the multi-vocal approach to our understanding of what happened and how it happened that made us who we are. Across the generations and the miles, we maintain the Tarbut HaMachloket , that is the Jewish textual culture and expectation of discussion and debate. Manji maintains that if Islam had such a process in place of ongoing interpretation and checking in with the sacred text, perhaps we would not be seeing such extremist behavior within the ranks of Islamicists.

Everyone knows the old jokes about “two Jews, three opinions” or the one about the lone guy on an island who builds two synagogues, one of which he is a member and the other one that he would never think of attending. The notion that we, as adherents of Jewish beliefs and practice, value and encourage this dialogue and debate amongst, even within, ourselves bolstered by the more recent democratization of the accessibility of the pages of our sources due to translations, easily available printed versions and the newest kid on the block, the Internet, speaks volumes about who we are as a people and our approach to our basic religious beliefs.

In today’s world, the word fundamentalism evokes so many emotional responses that we forget the initial meaning was that it was valued as a way of life, because within its parameters, all of people’s fundamental needs were met – religiously, socially, economically, communally, and otherwise. In that way, yes, Judaism is a fundamental religious system. However, given our contemporary reality, this word has acquired a stipulative definition, referring to a specific rigid reading of one’s texts and religious code, and extremely stringent (and often narrow) implementation of the resulting beliefs that one holds. Often that belief can invade the space of the beliefs and ideas held by others, both within our own families and groupings and amongst all the families of humankind. It has become associated with extremism on many levels. Somewhere along the slippery slope, we collapse all of these graduated meanings into the feeling held by many that “religion is bad.”

Some years ago, we had a lovely young man who identified himself as a secular Israeli from Northern Israel stay in our home for a while who remarked at our Shabbat table, “If we could just get rid of Yerushalayim that would solve 80% of the world’s problems.” Needless to say (or maybe it is needed!), all six members of my immediate family shared a collective audible gasp. As religious and ritualistically observant Zionist Jews, we all spend a great time in Israel generally and in Yerushalayim specifically. BUT, (and this is what turned a disagreement into an incredible discussion) my kids know enough to ask questions and withhold judgment. So sure enough, one of our daughters responded, “Why do you say that? Explain what you mean. We really want to understand your thinking.”

Our guest then explained that as a secular Jew who lives near Arab villages and has friends of different nationalities and religious groupings who all get along and hang out in the same places together in their free time, he believed that religion is responsible for most of the world’s problems and for him, everything about Yerushalayim represented that religion. To be sure, he is not alone in this assessment. There are many who propose that religion is in fact responsible for the majority of wars and violent deaths in world history. Looking at many centuries and chapters of history, this is clearly a position that is hard to deny.

That having been said, I challenge those who believe this to consider that it is people who practice within the parameters of these belief systems who misuse and abuse them for their own purposes that are responsible for such a pervasive and negative perspective. Judaism itself (and clearly an analogous statement could and should be made by adherents of other faiths regarding their systems of belief) represents an ideal frame for living, taking into consideration along the way the realities of who we are as people and our inherent weaknesses, including propensity to judge others and inability or reluctance to accept that someone else might be right, too. I believe that G-d, in G-d’s infinite wisdom created the system of Halacha and its checks and balances to help maintain some semblance of order and protect the human being from his/her own propensities to go off the “derech yashar,” or the best possible path for him or her in this world. Within this system of checks and balances, there are ritual observances, proscriptions and prescriptions of how to live a proper life and a host of foundational (fundamental, you might say!) values that should be at the core of how one interprets this system within the reality of one’s life. Kindness, acceptance of others, compassion and remembering that no one of us gets to judge all others are just some of the foundational elements that inform this system.

I highly recommend two books for people who are interested in this phenomenon to read. First, Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews (Anchor Books. New York, 1988) is an impressive outsider’s view of what is RIGHT and WONDERFUL about Judaism and the people who have been its adherents through the ages. He speaks of triumphs and hopes, moving from being a “group of rag tag nomads” to a strong and admirable people, changing our destination as a result of exploring new understandings of what it is that we think we are supposed to do and be in our lives. He, along with Manji, sees Judaism as expansive and Jews as creative. These, he claims, are among the gifts of the Jews to all of civilization. A most important lesson for us to learn from this Irish Catholic!

The second book that is an important read regarding this topic is Charles Kimball’s When Religion Becomes Evil (San Francisco, Harper Collins Publishers, 2002). Kimball focuses on the difference between the laws and expectations indicated in a religious code and one’s assertion that they know best what those laws and expectations really mean. Further, he shows how the values of compassion and caring are at the root of many religions and their codes of behavior and beliefs, certainly including along with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He claims that this is self evident to anyone who has a clear understanding of the larger perspective of these belief systems. He then warns about when any single or group of believer/s claims exclusive ownership of the message, that is, asserting that their understanding of their religious system is the ONLY CORRECT ONE. Again, he notes that Judaism specifically is not structured in such a manner, due to its organic means of interpretation and adaptation to changes in our world.

Once again we find acknowledgement that the discourse of the Talmud and Torah and so many other classic texts of our heritage emphasizes that no one person has a monopoly on the understanding of what G-d tells us or what the words of G-d’s expectations ultimately mean. Looking at the authority structure of our religious communities, these writers outside of the Jewish community seem to exhibit an understanding of the difference of trying to adhere to and reconcile one self with the laws of our religious structure, versus the claim of knowing the law and its details with ABSOLUTE certainty. In fact, there is clear instruction within Jewish thinking and learning about the necessity of remaining humble and accepting the truth that we as human beings will NOT completely understand G-d’s ways and G-d’s reasons. It is discipline and acceptance of the will of G-d that is foundational in Judaism, NOT the notion that any one person is empowered to speak on behalf of G-d and decide for G-d what G-d wants. Of course, in the Jewish community we have our share of those who would rather TELL others what to believe and what to do, but that too is often more of a sign of our sense of democratic access to Jewish law and practice more than any dictated position. Further, when such dictated authority presents, as happens in Israel and elsewhere in our right wing Orthodox circles, clearly the word of dissent that is raised is heard and people are not killed for presenting such a challenge, though we would be remiss to not mention that there can be behaviors exhibited of which no one can be very proud.

To be sure, all of Judaism is in fact fundamental, in that it speaks to our lives socially, economically, communally, and with regard to every aspect of our daily lives. Just as important as what Mark Kellner calls this “pots and pans” approach to religion, is the notion that questioning too is one of the most fundamental truths and elements of daily Jewish living, along with instructions regarding how we eat, dress, act in business, pray, interact with others, and so much else.

While people like Manji and Cahill, as well as others, seem to understand the notion that the Jewish nation is a light to the nations of the world (Or LaGoyim) in the best sense, let us remember that in our Jewish belief system, we acknowledge the right of each other and other peoples to exist and believe, to live and let live.

And so, we are left with our same question, namely, How do we frame and develop appropriate responses and approaches to contemporary challenges using and not compromising the system, elements, teachings, and dictates of Halacha/Torah m’Sinai? We do so by questioning, learning, listening and remembering with the same humility for which Moshe Rabbeinu is remembered that no one of us was given the totality of G-d’s truth and revelation. Rather, we need to interact with each other to continue figuring out what it is that G-d intends for us to do and be. And that, is fundamental to who we are!

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