The American Dream
Rabbi John Bush
October 12, 2004
Let me first thank Charles Brock for inviting me to address the group this evening. It is a pleasure to see so many people interested in the American Dream, and perhaps most interested in seeing that our immediate topic- fundamentalism- does not become an impediment to a lasting dream in which all may participate.
I believe that Charles and I began the discussion about this series early last Spring. The topic piqued my interest. I am always glad to part of a discussion or series that presents ideas from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism- three Abrahamic faith traditions. When I saw the quote on the Institute on the American Dream brochure by Elizabeth Long concerning the openness of individuals to question cultural assumptions and fundamental beliefs, then I knew that I would want to be part of the discussion. And even before I knew that there would not be a presidential or vice-presidential debate this evening, I signed on to the program.
When I read the definition that Charles provided last week, I couldn’t help but remember another definition that I heard years ago- not of fundamentalism, but of a fundamentalist. I don’t know who to attribute it to, but it stayed with me for a very long time. It went like this: “A fundamentalist is a sightless person in a totally dark room at midnight looking for a black cat that isn’t there - and he finds it!” I’m not sure how this fits into the definition that Charles provided last week, but coming from the buckle of the Bible Belt, it seemed to make sense to me over the years. How does it relate to Jewish fundamentalism?
The task of defining a “Jewish fundamentalism” is daunting. Not that it, like the black cat, isn’t there. Rather it is that it may be a phenomenon that is different from other forms of religious fundamentalism. This evening I want to attempt to put such a concept in a framework that may make more sense to me than it might to others who are not within the Jewish faith tradition. I am going to do so by first revisiting Charles’ definition of fundamentalism from last week and striving to put such a definition in a Jewish setting.
Then I will show through a very cursory look at Jewish sacred texts and Jewish tradition to see how a fundamentalist model evolves. I note that the use of the word “evolves” is not accidental. It in fact is perhaps the most accurate word that could be chosen to demonstrate how a Jewish, religious world-view develops and how, in some instances, it further evolves into fundamentalism.
Finally, I will use the settler situation to demonstrate how Jewish fundamentalism works in the life of the Modern State of Israel. Having said that, I really hope that we will be able to examine fundamentalism in the Jewish State without becoming bogged down in a political/ historical or moral examination of the Palestinian/ Israeli conflict. I would rather pray that we can, through the course of looking at the fundamentalism of Jewish settlers, see parallels that are shared by all fundamentalist movements.
Last week when Charles related the definition of fundamentalism drawn from the 1920 Watchman Examiner I recognized some things which I believed could be applied to Jewish fundamentalism. In some very real way, I believe that Jewish fundamentalism is the same as, and yet somehow different from the definition given:
‘Fundamentalism’ . . . refers to a discernible pattern of religious militance by which self-styled ‘true believers’ attempt to arrest the erosion of religious identity, fortify the borders of the religious community, and create viable alternatives to secular institutions and behaviors.
All of these elements have some place in some manifestations of Jewish fundamentalism. There is a sense of militancy. There is a strong sense of identity that comes into play, and there is a definite emphasis on defining as well as fortifying the borders of the religious community. The notion of creating alternatives to secular institutions and behaviors perhaps should be the focus of any look at American Jewish fundamentalism and would need the most attention. And yet we have a very little amount of time tonight to even begin to scratch the surface. And yet I shall try.
If we see the goal of fundamentalism to be the preservation of a specific religious community with appropriate behaviors and restrictions that attempts to keep out foreign influences- particularly secular ones, then the definition given seems to apply to the Jewish community over time. And yet it may make some sense to say that there has been as much pressure from outside the Jewish community as from within to maintain the separateness of the community. For nearly two thousand years while the Jewish people has been dispersed from its homeland, stripped of self-governance, it was often the case that others were most eager to define Jews as “other”- as a people apart.
Whether this was in the role of the Church and its creation of the idea of the “wandering Jew” or in the guise of different rulers and governments who found it beneficial to keep Jews apart while none-the-less using their skills as traders, money-lenders, etc., the result was the same. One need only look at the various councils, beginning with the Council of Elvira in the year 300, the Las Sieta Partidas of the Spanish Reconquista in 1265, which called for Jews to wear distinctive dress, prohibited relationships between Jews and non-Jews, and prohibited commercial and other types of interchanges between Jews and non-Jews to see outside forces at work to keep the Jews inside a segregated community, or Limpieza de Sangre- the Purity of the Blood- governing Jews and non-Jews in Toledo in 1449. The Jew was the outsider. And hence, if one is outside one community, one must by definition belong to another community.
One need only consider that the first “ghetto” was the Jewish one in Venice, where the Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and subsequently Portugal were forced to live next to the “Ghetto Nuevo”- the New Foundry. But this was not the first isolation of Jews into separate communities; it was only the first time that the word “ghetto” was used to first name the phenomenon of setting a people or a class apart from the dominant group. And yet to be honest, we must also admit that the leaders of various Jewish communities found it necessary to use fundamentalist approaches to the Jewish experience in order to keep the community intact even when not being forced into physical isolation.
These days, when the word “assimilation” is the watchword for maintaining the Jewish community, Jewish leaders across all denominations admit that the American Dream and its lure of assimilation has been the greatest threat to Jewish continuity and community since the dispersion from the Land of Israel and Palestine nearly two thousand years ago. For some, a reversion to fundamentalism is the only possible answer to the growing problem. Others, like myself, will see that it has been the success of the American Dream that has enabled Jews in all walks of life to maintain their Jewishness at the same time that they achieve in society at large in ways that no community of Jews has ever achieved in any other place or time.
Then we may ask: “Why Jewish fundamentalism?” if one can live an authentic Jewish life and live as a full participant in the American Dream. We cannot begin to answer this question until we spend a few moments examining some fundamentals of Judaism itself. Only then can we describe Jewish fundamentalism and its origins within the structure of Judaism over time.
Let me illustrate the rabbinic understanding of how Jews as a “faith community” developed for the past thirty-five hundred years. Of course, the beginnings go back earlier than that to the covenant between God and Abraham, who is viewed within Judaism as the first Jew. I will leave aside for another discussion the question of whether he was also, or rather, the first Muslim.
In any case, using the Torah as our guide, we can trace this covenant from Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob/Israel, through the twelve tribes until the moment at Sinai when all of the Israelites say when offered the Torah: “na-a-seh ve’nish-mah- we will do it! Now tell us what is in it!”
[show transparency of Transmission of Torah]
A parallel notion to this idea of an inerrant transmission of the word and will of God from Sinai to the present- from teacher to student who then becomes teacher to other students, is the idea that is at the core of rabbinic Judaism: once the Torah was given, it would be up to each generation of Jews to reinterpret, to redefine the terms of the covenant. In fact one story from the tradition suggests that when a group of Jews were arguing in the study hall as to whether the Law was according to Rabbi X or Rabbi Y, and a voice comes from the heavens and proclaims Rabbi Y to be right, the sages say, “We don’t listen to heavenly voices; the law follows the majority!”
I should make clear that this approach to the transmission of God’s will and the covenant from generation to generation is not necessarily a recipe for anarchy. It is only within the modern era that Jews have claimed to haveindividual authority to determine the meaning of the Jewish covenant rather than as a community, and this in response to Emancipation in Europe, the French Revolution, and the Declaration of Independence and the other foundational documents of American free and liberal society.
Indeed, the schema developed by the rabbis of the Talmud, has rigid, specific mechanisms for how interpretation is to be done. Fundamental to this understanding is that the community as a whole decides rather than the individual what is required of the Jew to meet his or her side of the covenant.
It is a short leap from the idea that says that the meaning of Torah is determined from within the community to saying that those same earthly voices have the right to define the borders and boundaries of the community, and indeed to define who is in and who is out. This is what I mean by speaking of Jewish fundamentalism and, more generally Judaism, as an evolutionary process. Evolution is built into the system. To put it a different way, the sages tell us that whatever a person learns to day about a text, about a mitzvah- commandment, about a way of living, was already spoken by Moses at Sinai. On some level, this process is analogous to the idea of Constitutional law in American jurisprudence, that the court does not make law; it only discovers what the law has already spoken.
In the world of the Talmud, which is the discussion by the rabbis of the second through fifth centuries of the Common Era on the Oral Torah, it becomes an imperative that not only the majority opinion is recorded but also the minority position. As the rabbis say: “Elu v’elu devarim Elohim Chayim- these words and those words are both the words of the Living God.” Or to phrase it another way: “What is the minority position today may become the majority position in the future.”
How does all of this relate to our discussion of fundamentalism? Consider this: If there is an unbroken, inerrant chain of transmission of God’s word and will back to Sinai, then there can be only one way of understanding the text; there can be only one way of living it. And when this one way of living becomes surrounded by a culture, a society, that does not share the same values, then borders must be defined, rules must be established, and fundamentalism or orthodoxy must be developed to create religious alternatives to secular ways of living, and a way of looking at the world that must become exclusionary and inward looking. Thus we arrive at Jewish fundamentalism. It is important to note that even where Jews follow the process for reinterpreting the Torah, there are differences between groups within the community. The one way to do a particular thing results in different understandings of that one way in actual fact. Thus two Jews who both describe themselves as Orthodox or Halachically bound- that is bound to the Oral Law- Jews will differ in the actual working out of details of daily living. One of the biggest areas of difference would be among the two main groups of Jews- the Ashkenazim or Jews from central and Eastern Europe and those Jews who came from the Iberian Peninsula after 1492- those called the Sepharadim. Both claim inerrant transmission back to Sinai, and yet have different ways of living the resulting development of tradition. Mind you, the differences are far fewer than the similarities, yet there are differences. And fundamentalism may find a home in either camp.
How does Jewish fundamentalism work within the Jewish community? There is no easy answer to this question and hence my comment earlier that the definition of fundamentalism given by Charles last week may fit the Jewish model in some aspects and that there may yet be differences. When we see the growth of Jewish Day Schools, when we see communities like Monsey, NY where 99 percent of the population is Orthodox Jewish, we are witnesses to some aspect of fundamentalism that sees a need to separate oneself from the larger culture. And yet, the majority of Jews in the United States live in neighborhoods that are not exclusively Jewish. Jewish fundamentalism is not a ghetto phenomenon as much as it is an exercise in self-definition. In the United States, Jewish fundamentalism defines a particular segment of the Jewish community at large. But the borders and self-definition may be much more porous than we might suspect at first blush. Let’s consider the Lubavitch Hasidic movement within Orthodox Judaism.
Clearly the Lubavitch movement defines sharp lines as to the proper way to behave, the scope of those who may call themselves “Lubavitch”, and also sets the lens through which the tradition and the text is defined. And yet, it is not entirely fundamentalist in that the Lubavitch would not define Reform or Conservative or Reconstructionist or “other” Orthodox as “Non-Jews.” Rather they may say that we are bad Jews or Jews who aren’t living right. But, they do not exclude us from the Jewish community- only from their subset of the community. Do they have what we would call a fundamentalist world view? Absolutely, but it is different than other fundamentalisms. Yes, there is a militancy, a need to stop the erosion of values and traditions that are perceived of as being “from Sinai”. There is a need to spread Judaism and their version of Judaism out in the largest Jewish world, and hence we see mitzvah mobiles, have people greet us at airports offering to help us pray, etc. Their outreach is to other Jews and not to non-Jews. And here we see an important point to make about Judaism as opposed to other, missionary, religions. Judaism has in the past seventeen hundred years or so been largely non-missionizing. Think about it. When was the last time that someone knocked on your door on Saturday morning or afternoon and asked: “Do you know Moses?”
There is a part of the Jewish tradition that is not exclusive or exclusionary, and which transcends all manifestations of Judaism as we see them today. This tradition coming from the Talmud some fifteen to seventeen hundred years ago, says that “The righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come.” In other words, one doesn’t have to be Jewish to be saved, and I should say that “saved” is a Christian construct and not a Jewish one. In other words, one can be a follower of another religion and still merit the world to come.
So if we accept that Jewish fundamentalism is an intra-Judaism phenomenon as well as one directed outside the community, let’s look at how it drives the interactions within the American Jewish community. First, the large, national Jewish organizations are cross-denominational (you should pardon the expression). The United Jewish Community, the United Jewish Appeal, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, Hadassah, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Israel Public Affairs Council, and on and on, are all organizations which have Jews from all streams actively engaged in preserving the Jewish community qua community. Then within the denominations, there are structures and organizations which have a full spectrum of Jews from strict to liberal beliefs who all have a place at the table. This is the strength of our community and why we seldom hear the word “fundamentalism” within the Jewish community. On some level the American Dream of celebrating diversity and promising to all has become the Jewish American dream.
Don’t misunderstand me. We can find things to grumble about. Yet, we rarely see one sub-community attacking another despite Samuel Freedman’s book, Jew vs. Jew. His book succeeded as well as it did because it portrayed something out of the ordinary rather than the norm.
So where does Jewish fundamentalism really show itself? I want to make the argument that one can see it in one of its most stark forms in the settler phenomenon in Israel and Palestine. Let’s look at who the settlers are and how our sacred text drives their commitment to the idea of a “Greater Israel”. One of the most prominent of the settler groups is an umbrella organization called the YESHA COUNCIL. “Yesha” is an acronym for Yehudah- Judea- the area surrounding Jerusalem, Shomron, the area of the North of the country with Nazareth, Tzfat, Carmel, and Tzippori as its heart, and Aza, the Gaza Strip. Note that the biblical names for the areas are used and not “The West Bank”, not the “Gaza Strip” and not “East Jerusalem.” Each of these areas becomes critical to an understanding of this particular form of fundamentalism. Let me illustrate this situation with a few graphics:
[ show the transparencies of the Numbers passage, David’s Kingdom, Israel 1000 BCE to 636 CE, 1920 Partition Plan, 1922 modification, 1947 UN Partition Plan, Jewish settlement in 19th-20th centuries, The “Roadmap”]
For the fundamentalist within Israeli society, for the settler, and for some who do not live in the Territories, the Torah roadmap is the only one that matters. When God promises the land to the Israelites in Torah, since Torah is inerrant by definition, and since God cannot or would never go back on the Divine Word, the Land must belong to Jews. For the fundamentalist, the case is closed. And if this means that defending the whole land, settling on the land, and ignoring the possibility that others may have rights on the land, then so be it.
If we consider the map of David’s kingdom and compare it with the League of Nations Mandate Map from 1920, we see that that proposal comes closer to meeting the Biblical boundaries of the Land of Israel than any map since then. For the fundamentalists in Israel, they view any ceding of territory from that particular map or the one that could be drawn based upon the passage from the Book of Numbers as a perversion of God’s promise. They are not alone in that view. Listen to the words of Pat Robertson speaking while he and a large group of Christians were in the Land at the Fall Jewish holidays:
“I see the rise of Islam to destroy Israel and take the land from the Jews and give East Jerusalem to Yasser Arafat, I see that as Satan’s plan to prevent the return of the Lord Jesus Christ…” According to the Associated Press report of his remarks while on this trip to Israel he said that he was putting Osama bin Laden, Arafat, and militant groups that “you will not frustrate God’s plan” to have Jews rule the land until the Second Coming of Jesus. He says that only God should decide if Israel should relinquish control of the lands that it captured in the 1967 war, including the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem. “God says: ‘I’m going to judge those who carve up the West Bank and Gaza Strip’,” Robertson said. “It’s my land, and keep your hands off it!”
Now we see that there is a nexus between Jewish fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism with regard to the land, although in each case, the fundamentalism is coming from a different understanding of the role of Israel not only in the current world but also in eschatology- the looking forward to the End of Days. The fact that these two groups with widely different theologies and ideologies can come together for a common purpose puts fundamentalism in a whole different light.
But what about within fundamentalist Judaism itself? One cannot assume that all religious/ Orthodox/ true believing Jews - and I use that term not in any sense to validate the notion that one group of Jews has a lock on the truth- that all of them subscribe to the tenets of the Yesha Council Jews. Indeed, the Shas party- an Orthodox Sephardi party within Israel politics- long ago subscribed to a land for peace formula as a solution to the Palestinian conflict. How do they get to this kind of position if they take a fundamentalist, religious approach to the text and to God’s word? They do so by placing the value of saving of human life above the value of preserving a biblical/Greater Israel. Thus we can see that Jewish fundamentalism is itself somehow dynamic.
But we can ask, if a process of interpreting text can lead to a more flexible approach to life and death issues, why wouldn’t all or most religious Jews, or even fundamentalist Jews, get to the same place as Shas? There are many reasons. Some of them are based solely upon the structure of the Israeli government as a parliamentarian system which exaggerates political party differences into insurmountable mountains that cannot be overcome. Some of the reasons are tied to Israeli understanding of their situation, not in isolation, but against the backdrop of the Holocaust, two thousand years of being the outsider, four wars for survival against the surrounding countries, and being a speck of Jewish real estate in an overwhelming sea of Arab, Muslim, and non-Jewish Middle East.
And there is another factor that drives Jewish fundamentalism in Israel. It is the idea that in a country the size of Israel, every family has been touched by war, terrorism, and hate. Look at this poster. You see a poster- a collage of faces- that are just that- faces. To Israelis, each face looks like someone they know or in fact is the face of someone they know. In the face of terrorism, the fact that Gaza has almost no biblical significance- Samson did his thing there- is irrelevant. Gaza becomes part of a larger struggle for survival. The West Bank becomes a part of an on-going definitional battle for the soul of the modern State of Israel.
So how do we bring this overview of Jewish fundamentalism to any kind of resolution this evening? How do we answer our questions about how fundamentalism- indeed the shared fundamentalism of Christian fundamentalists and Jewish fundamentalists can be resolved with a fundamentalism that may spring from Islam from secular leftists, or any of a number of other places?
At the heart of the Palestinian/ Israeli conflict is a core difference in the foundation stories that each group tells its own people.
[Show the Peace Research Institute Materials]
The beginning of resolving the conflict is to acknowledge the different stories, to find common elements that can be built upon, or in the alternative, to convince each group- including the fundamentalists on both sides- that valuing the foundation story, the fundamentalist approach, can never solve the conflict. Only by raising another value, such as the saving of human life to the top of the hierarchy of values, can we ever hope to reach a new day. Only by over and over telling the fundamentalists that we will no longer follow their interpretation of the sacred texts, can we begin to let a new voice be heard. The American Dream serves as a model for constructing a new framework for dialogue. The question is do we have the will to let it lead us on a path towards a trans-national dream? I saw a bumper sticker that said: “God bless the whole world- No exceptions”. To which I say Amen.
[ask for questions]