Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

10 Shevat 5762 - January 23, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Judaism Is Pluralistic

At every opportunity -- including some that they make themselves -- our opponents criticize us by lumping us together with other religious fundamentalists.

Reform Rabbi Uri Regev, in a fundraising speech in Cleveland less than a month after the Islamic destruction of the World Trade Center, clearly implied that we were a similar threat that could be countered by giving money to him and his organization. (The need to counter the chareidim has long been the most effective argument for both Conservative and Reform fundraisers.) New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and Anthony Lewis both identified fundamentalist ideas as the greatest challenge to modern life, specifically mentioning Christians, Moslems and Jews.

Lewis, for example, wrote: "the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism is not to be found in Islam alone. Fundamentalist Christians in America, . . . question . . . the scientific method that has made contemporary civilization possible.

"Religion and extreme nationalism have formed deadly combinations in these decades, impervious to reason," and this includes "fundamentalist Judaism and extreme Israeli nationalism."

We are not ashamed of our beliefs and we do not feel any need to apologize for them. But is it correct to lump us with fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Moslems just because we believe in the truth of a text?

Though we firmly believe that the Tanach is absolute, eternal and unchanging truth, we believe that to understand it properly requires proper rabbonim to interpret it. Chazal have told us that many times the truth that Hashem is teaching us is far from what the words appear to say to an uneducated reader. The Oral Torah that is transmitted by people is a vital part of our tradition.

This guarantees that the crucial directions are given by mature, responsible individuals, the experts -- after long years of study -- in the Oral Torah. There is no possibility of someone like Osama Bin Laden deciding that he knows what the holy book "really" says and then launching a worldwide terror movement.

Moreover, there are many instances of fine fundamentalist Jews in good standing who are also prominent in academia and the professions. This shows that on a practical level, there is nothing in our brand of Judaism that need be incompatible with contributing to modern life. Many observers say that the real cause of Islamic terror is the fact that modern Islamic states have been so unsucessful in becoming full-fledged parts of modern society. Their inablity to overcome their status as outsiders led to frustration that found its outlet in terror. Fundamentalist Jews (and Christians) suffer from no such frustration.

However, Judaism is unique in its structure. Alone among all the major religions, it does not claim universality for itself.

It is well-known that Judaism does not evangelize or actively seek converts. However it is not so well-understood that this is the result of a unique vision. On the one hand, Judaism fully tolerates a wide range of beliefs among those who are not Jewish (as long as the beliefs do not violate basic principles known as the Noachide Laws), while on the other hand it allows access to full membership in Judaism to anyone who sincerely accepts its particular truths. This structure means that our reluctance to spread our religion is not a matter of lack of opportunity, but rather a consequence of its basic principles.

Externally then, Judaism is really pluralistic in an important way that is unparalleled in other religions. Internally as well there is much room for variation: the lifestyles of many Chassidim, Litvish kollel students and working baalabatim, are substantially different but they are all united by their acceptance of Torah. The one thing we do not accept is the legitimacy of any group that purports to be Judaism while denying Torah.

Our tolerance and fundamentally pluralistic approach allow us to live in respectful harmony with different beliefs and varying lifestyles.

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