Fundamentalism in orthodox anglo-Jewry
See below is a more technical initial version of my piece on this subject which appeared here in the Guardian Comment is Free Belief section.
This generated a lot of discussion on and off the thread, not all of it constructive or accurate. Two of the better blogs generated in response were:
- Levi Brackman in Ynet challenging the idea that orthodox Jews are fundamentalist - NB: in the piece which was published I used quotes deliberately when I said this, perhaps that was too subtle in hindsight
- the As A Jew blog challenging my definition of fundmentalism
There seems to be more to be said, I am happy to continue the discussion.
All the major faith traditions have seen a growth in “fundamentalism” over the past few years and this phenomenon has received wide attention. Fundamentalism is hard to define, Sol Schimmel says It is characterised by “fear of truth” in his recent book “The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs”. It is essentially a rejection of modernity, a disdain for history, knowledge from other than religious sources and an overly literalist approach to tradition.
The majority of Jews in the UK are members of synagogues which are affiliated to the nominally “centrist” orthodox United Synagogue. Their traditions, Minhag Anglia (English custom), are derived from 19th century German neo-orthodoxy which developed a traditionalist constructive approach to the enlightenment. The British version led to development of the Chief Rabbinate and Jews College to train rabbis. Scholars involved with Jews College produced a range of translations of the classic works, including the Singer’s prayer book, Hertz Pentateuch, Soncino Books of the Bible and Soncino Talmud as well as faith schools dedicated to principles of combining tradition with modernity.
The situation has shifted radically from centrist orthodoxy , for a range of reasons. The Holocaust generated a backlash against “modernity” which was seen as allowing the barbarism and this conservatism has achieved considerable success through the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) movement. In addition, religious Zionism has led to communal leaders seeing Israel as the logical place to train the UK rabbinate. However, rabbinic academies there generally do not value the customs of anglo-Jewry which they would tend to see as overly influenced by Diaspora assimilation (for example, the practice of the rabbi giving a weekly sermon was inherited from Protestantism).
There has also been the growth of Jewish “outreach” movements, providing Judaism’s answer to the Alpha Course. These groups include the Lubavitch movement and Aish and they are very influential as they provide available, cheap and popular educational courses for United Synagogues and schools such as JFS. Their approach is characterised by “the ends justify the means”, e.g. Aish seminars include lectures on the “Bible Codes” as proof of the truth of Judaism – even though these are now discredited - and are sympathetic to Intelligent Design.
Their rejection of enlightenment values is explicit. Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt, Aish's joint UK executive director, told the Sunday Times: “Up to 150, 200 years ago, you had no secular Jews. I don't know when the rot started, but the Enlightenment brought in this concept of humanism, telling Jews they could live secular lives. The floodgates opened. And all these hitherto Orthodox kids just ran”
Whilst the dedication of the individuals and their personal sacrifice is admirable, all these groups represent different strands of fundamentalism be it messianic or just chauvinistic (used to create a sense of identity to attract unaffiliated Jews). This is not a simple split between “Haredi” and “modern orthodox” Jews, there are “fundamentalists” and “enlightened” people in both camps, e.g. with regard to modern Biblical scholarship.
Traditionalists within the modern orthodox community are under seige as a result of the growth of fundamentalism. A significant percentage of orthodox rabbis are now well to the right of “minhag Anglia” and those who are sympathetic feel under pressure not to speak out. United Synagogue education is frequently provided by “outreach” groups such as Aish. The Soncino books, which represented some engagement with modern scholarship, have now had all references to non-Jewish or non-orthodox scholars expunged, because, according to the editors Orthodox Jews nowadays are not interested in such things.
This is not just about closing of intellectual horizons. Fundamentalist attitudes have a range of effects, for example, on faith-based schools and generally in hardening attitudes to alternative approaches which are more accepting of modernity. A monolithic approach to Judaism is encouraged which writes “off message” scholars out of history where it can and radically re-interprets them where they cannot be ignored.
Still, all is not yet lost. Most people in orthodox anglo-Jewry reject fundamentalism, they need to be encouraged to recognise the dangers inherent in these approaches and to speak out to challenge unacceptable views whenever they are presented. In the USA, there is an “open orthodoxy” movement developing which will have a wider influence and we are now seeing the first alumni of a small but important UK-based rabbinic training programme.
There is a broader lesson here for all faith traditions – fundamentalism is defined by rejection of enlightenment values and this is at the core of the challenge to society that it presents in all its forms.