There is a certain group within the Jewish people that over and over again stray from our holy tradition. These people act as if they have very little regard to many of the statements and teachings made throughout Jewish scripture and subsequent Rabbinic literature. The existence and prominence of these people is a definite threat to the future of Judaism, and if we do not act quickly it may be too late.
The group that I am referring to is, of course, Jewish Fundamentalists. These people, including but not limited to: the Charedei world, most of the Yeshivish community, and even some Jews that consider themselves to be more “modern”, are sadly a growing phenomenon within Jewish demographics. While there are many reasons why I strongly feel that these groups are a major break from classical Jewish tradition, I would like to focus on one idea that I feel can summarize most of the others.
Jewish fundamentalists (well really any religious fundamentalists) are the most closed minded people in the world. They are closed minded in regards to science, empiricism, theology, or really any way of thinking that may, sort of, eventually, contradict many of their specious beliefs.
Let’s start at the beginning.
If we believe that God created the world, and that the magnificent universe should draw us to the praise of God (Psalm 19), then it probably makes sense that we have some ability to understand the natural world – aka science. This of course presents an immediate problem, as many of the ideas throughout the Torah directly contradict a scientific way of viewing and thinking about the world. No I am not talking about one time events such as the splitting of the sea or some food falling from heaven – while these miracles clearly contradict science (and I personally do not believe that they ever happened) it is still somewhat reasonable to hold these beliefs to be true and accept a scientific view of the world. I am talking big picture: age of the universe, evolution, our knowledge of the universe and the way it works. It is in these fields that fundamentalists will close their eyes and their mind to any sort of logical or rational argument, branding all who disagree as either stupid or heretical.
In the past, Judaism and biblical interpretation was never about trying to stick to the literal translation of the Bible at all costs – but rather it was a quest to learn more about the world and God. When it came to learning about the natural world, many Jewish thinkers felt that an adequate knowledge of science and the universe was crucial to understanding God. Some of these scholars wrote that a prophet was one who understood science (ever heard of the Rambam). Science and ration was not viewed as the enemy in classical Judaism, rather it was viewed as necessary to fully understand the world.
The well known Torah Scholar Malbim actually TWICE changed his commentary of Genesis due to scientific discovery in his time. If science revealed a secret about the world than we must use it to deepen our understanding of God and the Torah. Over and over again the Rabbis in the Talmud use empirical evidence to try and determine facts in many different cases. In some cases in the Talmud the Rabbis even admit that their understanding of a natural phenomenon is wrong and they are forced to re-evaluate their position (Pesachim 94b). Other exegetes such as the Ibn Ezra or Rabbi Judah Hachassid talk about the possibility of anachronistic verses in the Torah being added in later – due to their literary analysis of the text. Of course these fundamentalists feel so strongly that their world view is the “correct one” that many of them will even prohibit their students from reading these works. In a famous ruling Rabbi Moshe Feinstein actually wrote that Rabbi Judah Hachassid’s work was a forgery (based off of zero evidence). Other Yeshivot who do teach these classical Jewish sources will argue that these Rabbis did not really mean what they wrote or find other very creative ways to distort what they say.
When Jews that realize that science is valuable then try and fuse it into their understanding of Torah, the Jewish Fundamentalists are quick to silence them (Natan Slifkin anyone). And here is the main problem! It is not just that these people simply disagree with science and the world of empiricism – rather they view anyone who does accept science as an enemy who must be stopped. This is a major break from Jewish tradition. The irony, of course, being that the group of people who feel in charge of defending this tradition are in many cases the biggest threat to its continuity.
In order for Judaism to continue to thrive we must act together to stop giving these people dominant voices in our community. It is absolutely ridiculous that pre-college students are sent to certain yeshivot in Israel where the Rabbis spend the entire year trying to convince these students to turn down college and remain in yeshiva instead. Furthermore, once young men do enroll in a – God forbid – secular college, there are actually organization and people that will try and convince students to leave mid college to pursue yeshiva study. The motive for these Rabbis is the belief that Torah study is the only important and worthwhile discipline for one to pursue in their life time. It pains me that such teachers have seemingly never opened up the most important halachic work of all time.
One who makes up his mind to involve himself with Torah and not to work, and to support himself from charity, has profaned God’s Name and brought the Torah into contempt, extinguished the light of religion, brought evil upon himself, and has taken away his life from the World-to-Come… (Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10)
Furthermore, many Jewish communities filled with doctors, scientists, and professors are lead by Yeshivish Rabbis who fundamentally disagree with the disciplines of the majority of their community! How can a Rabbi denying evolution, inspire a group of doctors in their Judaism!
Many Modern Orthodox schools employ Yeshivish/Charedi Rabbis, worsening the already bad situation. Does it make sense for a high school student to spend half his day learning science, math, and history – and the other half of his day being told that these things are false!?!
If we want to ensure the survival of Judaism we must stop those who break the valuable Jewish tradition of searching out for truth in the world. We must stop hiring these fundamentalists for any sort of teaching position whatsoever! Just as the Charedi and Yeshivish world views modern Orthodoxy as a less religious and traditional version of Judaism, we must view them in the same manner. If Judaism continues at the trajectory that it is headed now, more and more people will be turned off by the anti-science and anti-thinking attitudes that permeate the religious communities – and we will eventually be left with two groups: one of fundamentalists and one of non-religious and even anti-religious people. The only people with the power to stop this phenomenon are those people who value both Judaism and its teachings, along with the rest of the academic world – something that was once known as Modern Orthodoxy.
To conclude, I feel the need to recall one of the most upsetting arguments I have ever had in my lifetime (and trust me I get into arguments with a solid amount of foolish people):
It was about a year ago on a regional NCSY Shabbaton where I was an advisor – in charge of teaching and inspiring high school students. It is through this organization that I have had the pleasure of teaching and inspiring handfuls of turned-off high school students to learn more about Judaism, including helping them chose a yeshiva program or even thrive in their Judaism throughout their college years. It was a Shabbat afternoon and I was chatting with one of the seniors about various Jewish topics. The boy, lets call him J, to hide his identity, asked me a question regarding using magical amulets to cure illnesses ( a topic which the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat devotes much attention to). As any Jewish educator should do, I explained to him the two major opinions in regards to the efficacy of such items. The first being the opinion that they work and the second (that of the Rambam and many other greats in the “rationalist camp”) being that such items are bogus and at best a placebo and do not actually work.
The answer of the Rambam greatly interested J and apparently a few other students since when I finished giving my answer there was a group of 5-7 other students surrounding us. Many of them expressed to me that they had never believed that there was such thing as magic and were overcome with joy that their were prominent Jewish scholars who had felt the same way. After all, how would these students have know the Rambam’s view on such things? They had only each been in Jewish day school since they were 4 and gone to Shul almost every week of their lives!
Anyways, the conversation evolved into talking about the Rambam’s view of magic and miracles in other contexts and that was when things turned sour. A man, probably late twenties, wearing a suit and black hat, stepped in and said that the Rambam makes no sense – “of course their is such thing as magic” he said confidently, “my rabbi told many stories which he has heard directly from descendants of the Chazon Ish, of the Chazon Ish himself performing crazy miracles”. I politely asked this man to allow us to continue our conversation in peace, when he snapped back that he was on of the few people in charge of the entire Shabbaton and he did not like the fact that I was teaching these children lies. I sighed and then asked him to go into further details about the “miracles” that the Chazon Ish performed.
I do not remember the full list, but I do remember that at the end of his list he stopped and said “Oh, yeah and the Chazon Ish discovered a cure for cancer at the end of his life due to his deep knowledge of Torah.” Since then I have learned that this is a very common belief amongst many Jewish fundamentalists, but back then I had never heard this claim before so I then asked the question that any reasonable person would ask in response to this: “so where did the cure go?” The man smiled and said that the Chazon Ish knew that the next illness was going to be much worse so he hid the cure for cancer and never revealed it. At this point I could see the bewilderment of the group of the growing number of high school students who had taken interest in our discussion. I rebutted that if the Chazon Ish knew the cure for cancer and refused to tell anyone then he should be viewed as a murderer. The man’s face turned red, but before he could say anything I asked the next rational question. “So based on the Chazon Ish’s actions do you think that we should be engaging in trying to find a cure for this deadly illness?” I will never forget his answer. He sort of shrugged his shoulders and said “well, I would never publicly say this, but if the Chazon Ish was against publicizing a cure, who are we to decide otherwise”
While this is an extreme example, this is the general direction of what the future of Judaism holds if we do not take a stand. Imagine a world where the average age of death is 30, most babies die before turning 1, and our knowledge of the universe is based on ancient mythologies. That, my friends, is what the world would be like if it was run by fundamentalists who are anti-human progress in every sense of the word. Fundamentalists do not only break the Jewish tradition of truth seeking, healthy debate, and bettering humanity, but they wish to forcibly silence anyone who values these important Jewish pastimes. We need to come together as a community and refuse to hire such people for positions within our community. Just as there are no non-charedim teaching in schools in Meah Sharim, there should be no Charedim or Yeshivish teachers in our communities. If one wants to live in a world that is anti-science, anti-ration, and anti human progress, with all who disagree stopped, then please go back in time to 15th century Europe or build a massive wall around your neighborhood or something- but please, do not pretend that you are continuing the tradition of our beloved Judaism.
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