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Everything in Immoderation

The fundamentalism of anti-fundamentalism books

Allan Nadler
December 10, 2008

Soon after the 2001 attacks on America unleashed the dogs of war, they generated a Western literary genre intent on re-leashing the Gods behind the terror—both Allah, in whose name the carnage had been inflicted, and the Christian God who inspired an American president to declare a 21st-century “crusade.” A string of bestsellers, from the shrill and polemical to the sober and philosophical, have shared the aim of utterly discrediting the supernatural theological truth-claims of the “major” monotheistic religions, presenting religious faith as the greatest single threat to human civilization. Scholars like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins directed scientific and philosophical assaults on the paranormal claims and political consequences of supernatural faith, while public intellectuals like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens issued urgent battle-cries against God’s minions, specifically targeting the dangers of their militant apocalypticism.

Thus far, the targets of these anti-religious polemics have been, for the most part, American Bible-belt Protestant fundamentalism and militant Islamism—with Judaism left barely touched by the secularists’ wrath. But this season, Oxford University Press published Solomon Schimmel’s The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth, a post-9/11 polemic directed mainly against Jewish fundamentalism. The book has generated no small degree of public interest, including from many Islamic and Christian scholars and theologians.

Unlike the other members of this cadre—Hitchens, Dawkins, et al.—Schimmel’s book had been fermenting long before 9/11. In the introduction, Schimmel explains that its genesis lies in a 1996 seminar he gave to colleagues on the faculty of Boston’s Hebrew College, in which he tried to account for the remarkable resilience among historically and scientifically educated Orthodox Jews of the rabbinic dogma that the Torah was given by God to Moses at Sinai. “Why,” he asks, “do so many modern Orthodox scientists, and modern Orthodox academics in fields of Jewish studies, continue to affirm the traditional doctrine that the Pentateuch was divinely revealed by God to Moses at Mount Sinai in the thirteenth century BCE, in the face of overwhelming evidence against it from the fields of modern biblical scholarship, comparative religious studies, psychology, anthropology and all the natural sciences?”

This was not simply a professional inquiry, but a profoundly personal one. And it is one that separates Schimmel from the absolute secularism, ideological scientism and personal alientation from religious life that marked critics like Hitchens, Dennett and Dawkins. Although Schimmel subscribes to the findings of modern biblical scholarship, geology, archeology and evolutionary theory—he is also, by his own admission, a member of an Orthodox synagogue and an observant Jew. But he remains an uneasy member of this club. Indeed, his book is quite obviously the result of years of agonizing about the resilience of scientifically untenable and primitive beliefs among otherwise educated and rational people—which is to say, among his “fellow” Orthodox Jews.

Schimmel approaches the problem in two ways: theological and psychological. For the first, Schimmel devotes three of the book’s first five chapters to an unforgiving polemic against both Haredi and Modern Orthodox Jews’ stubbornness in upholding the “unreasonable” foundational doctrine that the Bible was dictated directly to Moses by God. There is little here that is new, as there has been a lively debate about reconciling the sanctity of the Torah with modern scholarship, one that has filled Jewish scholarly journals, for the past century and a half. In fact, the only thing that is surprising here is what has been left out, given the events of our times, in which Jewish biblical fundamentalism has played such a destructive, central role. Schimmel fails to address the only group of contemporary Jews whose literal reading of the Torah has had practical consequences in reality: the extreme wing of the Israeli Settlers’ movement, Gush Emunim, and in particular the element of it known as the Hilltop Youth. Their belief that the inerrant and eternal will of God dictates that indigenous populations of Ancient Canaan be driven out, their homes and places of worship destroyed, has had grave consequences for the state of Israel. This glaring omission severely diminishes the contemporary relevance of Schimmel’s agenda to channel science and reason to curb religious enthusiasm.

Though delinquent in addressing this sort of radical element in Jewish life, Schimmel does offer something new in the final two chapters: an insightful psychological analysis of the deep reasons for the tenacity of religious beliefs among “otherwise intelligent people.” “For most Orthodox, halakhically committed Jews, raised as such from childhood, the ‘yoke of the law’ is not as burdensome as it appears to an outsider,” he writes. “For many or most such Jews it is actually experienced as a very positive experience. It is the vehicle for doing God’s will and becoming close to him. The…mitsvot are embedded into the very fabric of the religious life, which can be replete with family warmth, positive emotions and intellectual satisfactions.”

And so, many otherwise-enlightened Orthodox Jews marginalize, or simply ignore, the intellectual challenges posed to their faith in order to preserve their rich spiritual and family lives. In fact, as Schimmel explains, a significant number of Jews who—having weighed the costs of a total abandonment of the rewarding life offered by faithful adherence to tradition—engage in the simple survival tactic of compartmentalizing.

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Here’s the problem with looking too closely at fundamentalism, a trap into which Schimmel himself occasionally falls: One can become so obsessed with its elements of irrationality that one becomes, in effect, a fundamentalist of a different sort. In arguing against those who choose to follow Torah as the literal word of God, Schimmel—though explicitly denying that he is himself an ideological secularist or an advocate of materialist scientism—refuses to grant any quarter to efforts at a moderate middle: creative attempts at theological compromise between total faith in revelation and an exclusive acceptance of the results of scientific inquiry. By positioning the issue of faith in stark Manichean terms, Schimmel drains the conversation of all hope. This is particularly sad, since his target here is Judaism—a tradition that has for many centuries benefitted from a rich history of debate around this dogma. But Schimmel is so intent on utterly demolishing the synthesis of reason and revelation that he dismisses all efforts at harmonizing faith and science—historical and contemporary.

For instance, Schimmel creates the impression that there has been one standard employed by all Orthodox rabbis from time immemorial: Maimonides’ formulation of the belief in literal revelation of every word and letter of the Torah in his Thirteen Principles of Faith. In and of itself, this is doubly misleading, both because it overlooks Maimonides’ complex, decidedly anti-literalist approach to understanding Scripture’s meaning, and exaggerates the degree to which his Thirteen Principles ever became a kind of Jewish catechism: they did not.

But a larger problem arises when Schimmel applies the alleged Maimonidean standard to the actual practice of Jewish law: “If the words of the Torah don’t necessarily mean what they seem to mean according to their plain, contextual sense, then we needn’t observe the mitsvot (commandments), if we can provide a symbolic, allegorical, or metaphorical understanding of what might appear to be a law but which needn’t be understood as one.” This is wrong. Jewish law has never been dependant on either a strictly construed insistence on the Torah’s textual immaculateness or a literal understanding of that text’s legislative meaning. Quite the contrary: rabbinic law is notable for its indifference to the legal relevance of the peshat, or literal meaning, of Scripture. The entire structure of Jewish law is founded on elaborate system of legal exegesis that so often results in radical departures from the overt literal meaning of the Torah’s text. Examples abound, but let’s point to just one of the most obvious among them: rabbinic tort legislation, while ostensibly based upon the Biblical Lex Talionis—“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a leg for a leg”—mandated pecuniary compensation, not the direct physical retribution suggested by a literal reading of Scripture.

Given his inability to see nuance in Jewish history, it comes as little surprise that Schimmel is equally myopic to contemporary efforts at reconciling faith and reason. In a particularly unwarranted attack, Schimmel waxes incredulous that British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks could say the following: “Religious belief requires faith. But faith is not a denial of the senses. It is trust in something beyond the senses…There was something beyond the human hand that first inscribed the words of the Mosaic book. That something…was God.” This almost poetic interpretation is far more nuanced than any simplistic, dogmatic endorsement of the inerrancy and literal truth of Scripture, but Schimmel dismisses Sacks as little more than a fancy-talking fundamentalist. “It seems to me that Rabbi Sacks’s beliefs and arguments are not as different in their underlying structure from Protestant fundamentalism as he thinks they are,” he writes.

Aside from his ungenerous reading of Sacks’s formulation, Schimmel fails to provide a piece of vital historical context: the still-bitter legacy, for British Jewry, of the notorious Louis Jacobs affair. During the 1960s, Jacobs’ nomination as principal of Jews’ College, England’s establishment Orthodox rabbinical School, was rescinded on account of his insistence on taking modern biblical scholarship into account in formulating his belief in the Torah’s revelation. Given this, it would almost be irresponsible for Sacks not to be circumspect in addressing this dogma, for the social peace of the community he shepherds.

But it is in his dismissal of one modern Orthodox scholar in particular that Schimmel most fully reveals his bias. In one section, Schimmel raises Israeli Orthodox feminist scholar Tamar Ross’s theology of “progressive revelation.” Ross argues against the fixed Orthodox understanding of Jewish law in favor of more plastic interpretations of Jewish law as an endlessly unfolding process that grows with and adapts to major historical and social progress—notably, for Ross, gender equality. Schimmel is unbowed by her theory, which she also refers to as “cumulative revelation”: “It seems to me that Ross is evading, rather than confronting, the challenges to Orthodoxy not only from feminism but, more fundamentally, from biblical scholarship,” he writes, “and that this evasion is motivated…by the fear of the collapse of halakhic authority were she to conclude that the whole notion of divine revelation of the Torah at Sinai is no longer tenable.” Ultimately for Schimmel, it seems any “confrontation” with the Orthodox theory of Divine Revelation is only genuine if it leads to its complete rejection.

Schimmel’s refusal to credit any efforts toward creative compromise between faith and science—of the type which, as Jewish intellectual history amply demonstrates, tend to give rise to great theological works and schools of thought—is unfortunate. Had the theological sections of his book displayed even a small measure of the explorative openness that characterizes the final chapters on the psychology of irrational beliefs, this book might have engendered a productive dialogue between the doubters and true believers. Sadly, its reductionist polemic, that dismisses any such openness as a cop-out, is likely only to stiffen the backs of the very people Schimmel seems so desperate to reach.

Allan Nadler, a professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish Studies at Drew University, is currently a visiting professor of Jewish Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Allan Nadler, a professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish Studies at Drew University, is currently a visiting professor of Jewish Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.