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Throw the Bible at Fundamentalist Jews Like Bezalel Smotrich

There are those who say that religion and politics should never mix. In Israel they already do. The time has come to stop holding on to our polite pluralism | Opinion

Dr. Alex Sinclair
Alex Sinclair
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Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset, December 7, 2016.
Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset, December 7, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman
Dr. Alex Sinclair
Alex Sinclair

There are many terrifying things in Ravit Hecht's recent extended interview with Bezalel Smotrich. His casual racism, his dismissal of Palestinian rights, his distortions of international law, his warmongering. Perhaps most terrifying of all is his smugness and certainty that he holds the truth. The big difference between him and Reform Jews, he says, is that "I believe in the existence of absolute truths. That is my life... [God] created the world and he gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai... I cannot legitimize the distortion of the truth in the Jewish state."

This absolutist, fundamentalist theological certainty feeds all those other terrifying aspects of Smotrich's worldview. His certainty in his Orthodox truth allows him to dismiss other opinions, worldviews and narratives – and that is why it is his fundamentalist theology that must be attacked. Not his politics, racism, nor warmongering, but his theology: That's his Achilles' heel, that's the cornerstone which holds together the whole edifice, and it's there that our efforts must be directed.

And here's the good news: He's wrong. God did not give us the Torah at Mount Sinai. Generations of Biblical scholars, using the tools of linguistics, history, archaeology and literature have proven "beyond a reasonable doubt" (as Rabbi Louis Jacobs famously put it) that the Torah does not come in its entirety from one historical period, that parts of it were written centuries after the time of Moses, that it contains historical anachronisms and clear signs of the human hand.

This isn't news. Committed Conservative, Reform and even some modern Orthodox Jews know it well, and have integrated an understanding of the Torah's history into their theological approaches and spiritual lives.

But we've never used Biblical criticism as a weapon in our political battles, and now we must.

For too long we have retreated to the comfortable liberal position of "this is my truth, but others have the right to believe what they wish." The time has come to stop this disastrous polite pluralism. "You understand why we will win?” Smotrich asks Hecht, "laughing, at our first meeting." And yes, the fundamentalist streams of Judaism are winning, in both Judaism and the Diaspora. They will continue to win as long as we lack the courage to attack. Smotrich’s "you are wrong, you are living a life of lies" will always beat "I have my truth, you have yours, and let’s respect and learn from each other."

The time has come to fight back. No, Bezalel Smotrich, you are living a life of lies. You, who thinks that the Torah was given at Sinai in spite of the mountain of evidence to the contrary, you are living a lie. You, whose theology can only exist by ignoring science and history, you are living a lie.

I have no illusion that Smotrich, and others who hold similar fundamentalist beliefs, will be persuaded. He, and they, will continue to live their life of lies. But at least we can stop their arrogance, their smugness, their easy dismissal of secular, Reform and Conservative Jews. Let us go on the offensive, and put him on the defensive. We must begin every conversation with a fundamentalist by pouring our own scorn on them. "You realize that you're wrong, don't you," we must say. "You do know that you’re denying simple historical facts, right? Surely you realize that it’s totally clear that different parts of the Torah were written in different periods much later than Moses?”

Two arguments will be made against my position. First: Not all Orthodox Jews are fundamentalists, and not all fundamentalists are like Smotrich. And yes, of course there are many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews who are wonderful, tolerant, open people, and who hold thoughtful and sophisticated positions about Jewish theology and history. I have many colleagues like this. But simplistic fundamentalism is still the default position of the orthodox education system and its public and political discourse. That fundamentalism is wrong, it is dangerous, and it creates people like Smotrich.

Second, what of Jewish identity? Aren't orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews keeping alive the fire of Jewish life and identity for all of us? This is a real issue, and one that the liberal Jewish movements must address. We liberal Jews must do a better job of creating rich, compelling, committed Jewish identities in our lives, in our education systems, in our communities. I count myself among those who dedicate their lives to this task, but we must do better.

There are those who say that religion and politics should never mix. Well, in Israel they already do. And if we want to win the politics, we need our kind of religion in the mix.

Dr. Alex Sinclair is Director of Programs in Israel Education for the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the author of "Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism." He lives in Modi'in, Israel.

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