If That's 'True Judaism,' I Don't Want a Bar of It

Anshel Pfeffer got it wrong: true Judaism is not the same as the fundamentalist Judaism that burned a Palestinian baby to death; the latter ignores thousands of years of development and interpretation of our Torah.


I know that in his column “True Judaism will kill us if we don’t reject it in time” (August 7, 2015), Anshel Pfeffer has in mind the same goal as I have – the defeat of these fanatic rightwing messianic groups that injure, kill, set fire and otherwise harm those they hate and do so in the name of Judaism. But calling them the "true Jews" and their doctrines ”true Judaism" – writing that “they are more truly Jewish than you or I will ever be” – is the wrong way to go about it. It simply gives them more ammunition and makes it more difficult to defeat them in the arena of public discourse. Furthermore, it is simply not true.

True Judaism is not the same as fundamentalist Judaism based on the written Torah without taking into account the thousands of years of development and interpretation by religious leaders. The religion of the Torah at its time was the Israelite religion. Judaism grew out of it and emerged during the period of the Second Temple. It was the Pharisees who developed it as opposed to the Sadducees, who wanted to remain true to the Torah text and not take into account any later developments or interpretations. The Sages of Israel continued that work after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and thereby created Judaism.

As Solomon Schechter once wrote, to return to Torah Judaism today would be pernicious. To apply its laws without rabbinic interpretation would be catastrophic for Judaism. The Sages themselves understood that well and knew that their work went far beyond the literal meaning of the Torah text in so many instances. We see that, for example, in the well-known legend told in the Talmud of God showing Moses the academy in which Rabbi Akiva is teaching his disciples. Moses cannot understand a word of what is being said even though at the end the students declare that “this is the law as taught by Moses at Sinai” and Moses is content.

The Sages understood the stories and the commandments concerning the war with the Canaanites as covering a onetime situation and not being an example for the future. The laws regarding idolatry were similarly not applicable to later religions. The 13th century exegete Menachem Meiri formulated the idea that those gentiles who are governed by the rules of ethical religions – specifically Christianity and Islam – were not in the same category as pagans and none of the laws against paganism apply to them. 

To say that these teachings are not true Judaism is simply nonsense. Even before that time, the Sages themselves annulled laws that discriminated against non-Jews because they brought shame to God and Judaism – Hillul HaShem – and because the ways of the Torah are the ways of peace, and so we must live with and respect non-Jews – and they were talking about pagans with whom they lived together in Judea in the 2nd century.

As a matter of fact these fanatics who Pfeffer calls "true Jews" are the products of a group of rabbis represented by the authors of the infamous Torat HaMelekh, which concluded by saying that according to Jewish Law one could kill any Arab including infants at any time since they all intend to kill Jews. The authors, along with those who inspired and praised it, built a new version of Judaism based on the fact that the Tanya, the writings of Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the leader of the Lubavitch sect, taught that Jews have souls that are superior to the souls of gentiles, who spring from the realm of evil. They then draw the conclusion that, therefore, non-Jews can be treated differently. By distorting many of the teachings of the Talmud and the medieval authorities, they find ways of justifying the killing of even infants because they will grow up to harm Jews. They teach this in their yeshivot. Don’t tell me that this is "true Judaism!"

Within the vast literature of Judaism there are many different ideas and sayings and they often contradict one another. There is, however, a main stream that represents the overwhelming consensus and that main stream is certainly not what Torat HaMelekh teaches and what these fanatics are promoting. It is much closer to the words of Pinchas ben Elazar: I call heaven and earth to witness: The spirit of holiness rests upon each person according to the deed that each does, whether that person is a non-Jew or a Jew, a man or woman, a manservant or a maidservant (Seder Eliyahu Rabba 9). There is also a midrashim comment on the verse “and you shall love the Lord your God:” Make the Name of Heaven beloved by human beings. Do this by the way in which you conduct your business in the market place with others so that they will say, "Fortunate is so-and-so who has studied Torah! See how pleasant are his deeds, how lovely his ways!" (Seder Eliyahu Rabba 26).

We must all reject the teachings of this group of fanatics but to do so we will have to teach our children and ourselves the true teachings of Judaism – and it is exactly the opposite of what they are preaching. We should not dignify what they are doing by calling it "true Judaism." If that is Judaism, I for one would want no part in it.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a well-known author and lecturer. His latest book is "The Torah Revolution" (Jewish Lights) and his next book, "Akiva: Life, Legend and Legacy," will be published in October (JPS).