Ultra-Orthodox Fundamentalists Present a False Image of the 'Real Jew'

By failing to acknowledge modern values, spirituality and science, Haredi-Fundamentalist Judaism excludes the beliefs and practices of most 21st century Jews.

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The recent clamor over Jewish fundamentalism in Israel calls for those of us who practice a consciously non-fundamentalist Judaism to state proudly and emphatically how we understand our religion, and why we believe what we believe.

Jay Michaelson thoughtfully pointed out in a recent column in "The Jewish Daily Forward" that many Jews – and certainly many non-Jews – think, at least unconsciously that “Haredim are the 'real Jews'” because they appear to be the most outwardly and unabashedly religious, the most committed, and the most traditional. In much the same way that many people (wrongly) see fundamentalist Muslims as the most genuine representation of Islam, many perceive Judaism to be at odds with modernity because they view Haredi-Fundamentalist Judaism as authentic.

Ultra-Orthodox Beit Shemesh residents underneath a sign instructing women to use the other sidewalk.Credit: Shiran Granot

For many Jews, this seems to present a choice between a religious tradition that rejects widely-celebrated modern values like liberty, democracy, and equality, or a way of life that embraces freedom and egalitarianism. Not surprisingly, given this choice, most Jews, despite their positive feelings toward their Jewish identities, reject their inherited religious tradition. They proudly identify themselves as Jews, but defer authority on Jewish religious matters to the Jews they perceive to be “authentic” for seemingly refusing to compromise their faith.

Relegating Jewish religious authenticity to Haredi-Fundamentalist Jews enables Jews to satisfy their minds, but it leaves many feeling spiritually empty. They want no part of a Jewish religion that looks and feels Haredi-Fundamentalist, but retain a yearning for the transcendent. This is one reason Jews increasingly separate “spirituality” from “religion.” Studies show that most Jews believe in God, the importance of personal worship, and the urgency of a divinely ordained morality. But because these Jews see Jewish religious practice as authentic only if it is Haredi-Fundamentalist, they reject organized Jewish religious practice. Some turn to Eastern traditions like Buddhism or Yoga, which they perceive to be in greater harmony with modernity. Others simply choose to dismiss their spiritual urges altogether, concluding that religion of necessity requires a rejection of their brains.

Take the relationship between Judaism and the sciences. Haredi-Fundamentalist Jews reject science except when scientific discovery supports their understanding of the Bible. For Haredi-Fundamentalist Jews, God’s Torah is flawless, the revealed word of a perfect God (Psalm 19:8). They believe that if science contradicts Torah, then science has made the error. For example, in the Haredi-Fundamentalist view, the world is only 5,772 years old. Archaeologists using carbon dating, however, have uncovered dinosaur fossils over 200 million years old. Seeing this apparent contradiction, some Haredi-Fundamentalist Jews argue that God has put dinosaur fossils in the ground simply to test our faith.

Most Jews, guided by every rational impulse we possess, rebuff that view. We accept scientific consensus in both the natural and the social sciences. We unapologetically treat infections with antibiotics and believe the earth revolves around the sun. For many Jews, though, this means that if science contradicts the Torah, then one ought to reject Torah.

But the choice between science and religion is a false one. Firstly, it assumes Haredi-Fundamentalist interpretations of Torah are authentic and authoritative. When Torah is read through a fundamentalist lens, it undoubtedly contradicts modern science. But the rabbis of the Talmud remind us that there are many ways to understand the Torah (Sanhedrin 34a), and that the Torah was never intended to be read without the aid of different interpretative lenses (Midrash Eliyahu Zuta).

Secondly, it wrongly assumes that all reality can be understood through the lens of science. Science is primarily descriptive, not prescriptive. It can help us understand the nature of matter and use that understanding to develop an atomic bomb, but cannot with integrity tell us when, where, or whether to use it. Physicist Sean Carroll argues, “Morality is not part of science, however much we would like it to be.” Good/bad and right/wrong are not scientific categories; they cannot be decided simply by studying observable facts about the world.

On the other hand, science can and does yield spiritual insight, and our beliefs can and should be shaped and reformed by scientific discovery. Religion helps form our scientific agenda by shaping our assumptions and questions about reality and providing us a context for organizing and interpreting our scientific discoveries. Scientific discovery, by deepening our understanding of reality, forces us to alter our religious beliefs and cultural structures. Science, then, needs religion, and religion needs science, for both constitute integrated elements of a holistic understanding of reality.

Jews and non-Jews need to know that the Haredi-Fundamentalist community does not represent true Judaism or hold a monopoly on Jewish authenticity. There are decidedly non-fundamentalist approaches to Judaism that are viable, vibrant, and valid. The Jewish future can only and must only be won by a Judaism that integrates religious and scientific truths, a Judaism that values both tradition and modernity.

Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and a recent graduate of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles.



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