Jewish Political Studies Review 17:1-2 (Spring 2005)
Jews and Fundamentalism
Samuel C. Heilman
The differences between active and quiescent fundamentalism, two stages
of the phenomenon, help explain developments among contemporary
Orthodox Jewry, which is also divided along these lines. Included in the
former category are Orthodox Jewish settlers in the Land of Israel as
well as Chabad Hasidim who are on a mission to transform Jewish life.
Those who make up haredi Jewry, and in particular those in the world
of the yeshivas, constitute the latter category. The year of yeshiva study
spent in Israel by young Orthodox Jews from America plays an important
role in shaping these categories.
The fundamentalist view is that there is a single truth, that the
people who share this truth are tied in an unbroken chain to the past,
and that this truth is not limited to the private domain but can and
should be imposed on the public square. This truth is articulated as
fundamentals of the faith, which must be practiced or believed if
one is truly to be among God's defenders. Of course, despite the
fundamentalist assertion that these essentials are tied to tradition, and
often demanded by an inerrant text, fundamentalism reinvents that
past by selectively retrieving from it those elements that challenge
alternative truths that are offered by contemporary culture. As such
it constitutes a kind of counterculture and society. Fundamentalism
is therefore often engaged in an intense battle against forces in the
contemporary world that, in its view, seek to undermine or to defile
the world as it sees it.
Active and Passive Fundamentalists
This culture war can essentially be conducted in two different modes.
One can be called active fundamentalism, in which the battle is waged
aggressively, taken to the enemy who is to be completely obliterated.
Sometimes fundamentalists become active because they believe they
have no choice. The enemy is at their gates and about to enter into
and defile their world; they cannot keep the enemy out and so they
are forced to fight back. Other times they become intensely engaged
in the culture war because they think the enemy has been weakened
and this is an opportunity to finally, apocalyptically, liquidate those
forces that oppose the truth.
A second phase of fundamentalism is its quiescent or passive stage.
Adherents believe they are in possession of the truth that will ultimately
triumph and dominate the public square but for the moment must
remain in protected waiting. Although the alternative ways of living
are seductive and dangerous, these quiescent fundamentalists argue,
they are ultimately doomed. All true believers have to do is to insulate
themselves from becoming defiled until that judgment day, when history
will right itself as stated in the prophecies of the inerrant text.
The key is to remain behind a wall of virtue, protected, waiting for
the day that all true believers know is coming and for whose signs
they are constantly on guard.
Whether quiescent or active, cultural and social struggle is at the
heart of fundamentalism. There must be an enemy. Fundamentalists
are much better at fighting against something than at simply defining
what it is they stand for. And that is why they often thrive precisely
where they can perceive themselves as surrounded by enemies. The
promise of a better time is always easier to live with than the need to
deliver on the promise when the time has come, as the fundamentalist
regimes that come to power soon discover.
Hence, it is not surprising that at least in the case of Jewish fundamentalism,
one finds its adherents in two of the most visible precincts
of secularity and modernity: the United States and especially New
York, as well as the modern state of Israel. In both these locales, the
enemy and the counterculture are quite close and visible.
Active fundamentalists among the Jews have largely been confined
to those religiously inclined messianists who believe that through a
particular set of activities they can hasten the day of redemption.
For some these activities mainly involve religiously settling what they
consider the biblical Land of Israel. Having elevated this "commandment"
above nearly all the other 612, they are convinced that by doing
so they are being true to the fundamentals of Judaism. Their conviction
that this activity not only sets them apart from Jews who have
hopelessly compromised God's will but also is indispensable for righting
history and saving the world often places them in opposition to
the rest of Jewry, whose Judaism is more complex and less essentialist.
This is the fundamentalism of the religious bloc that once called
themselves Gush Emunim. For these Jews any compromise in settlement
activities, especially within the territories conquered in 1967, is
tantamount to retarding the redemption and a propaedeutic to Jewish
destruction. For them nothing more than settlement in the Holy Land,
particularly when accompanied by religious faith and practice, is a
full expression of Judaism. This activity is fundamental for assuring
There are other active fundamentalists for whom the redemption
can be hastened not by settlements but by acts of Jewish ritual activity.
For these fundamentalists, Judaism is boiled down not to the need to
establish settlements in the God-promised land but to the practice of
a set of ritual acts - lighting Sabbath candles, donning phylacteries,
giving charity, and so on - whose performance by all Jews - and in
some cases also by non-Jews - will hasten the day of the Messiah's
return and hence the redemption. This is the approach of Chabad
Lubavitch. For them the religious transformation of the nonobservant
and secular Jews into Lubavitcher Hasidim as well as the assurance
that the "Seventy Nations" - that is, the non-Jewish world - abides by
the seven Noahide commandments is the key mission of Judaism.
Both these groups are engaged in an active struggle to bring about
as soon as possible the time of redemption, a utopian messianic age,
and to dominate the public square with their beliefs and practices.
They believe they are absolutely right in their emphases, that God is
on their side and abetting their activities, that they are fulfilling His
commandments as presented in holy writ, and that history is close to
the day of judgment and the "first flowers of redemption," when the
world - and particularly those who currently fail to see the truth in
this way - will recognize that they are right. They are often willing to
challenge the status quo and engage in world-transforming activities,
regardless of the this-worldly consequences. For these active fundamentalists,
the world is divided in a Manichean way between those
who are joined with them and those who are their opponents. The
fact that they see enemies nearby, both from within and without, only
encourages them to continue in the struggle and trust that history will
vindicate their efforts.
Quiescent fundamentalists also believe that the world will someday
learn the truth. They too emphasize certain essentials of the faith.
But they are ready to wait patiently. In the meantime, they build the
walls of their fortress, remain within their enclaves, and construct a
corps of believers and defenders of the faith. This is largely the strategy
of the haredi world. They too see themselves in a struggle, but most
consists of keeping the secular, contemporary, seductive West at bay.
This is a society that has used the yeshiva as its instrument of choice,
raising study in it and life around its strictures and leaders to the
The yeshiva is viewed as a protective and insulated environment
in which Torah Judaism can grow. Secular learning is regarded as not
having particular ontological value; it may have pedagogic value of a
very limited sort. Those who abandon yeshiva life or are unwilling to
support it are portrayed as Jews who contribute to the undoing of
Judaism at worst and as hopeless compromisers who have endangered
Jewish continuity at best. The quiescent fundamentalist Jews who are,
in contrast, willing to make the material sacrifice and embrace what
one haredi rabbi called the "heroic retreat" from concerns and entanglements,
to be in contemporary society but not caught up by it, are
the ones who assure Jewish continuity.
Nonfundamentalist Modern Orthodoxy in Decline
This view was not the ideal in modern Orthodox institutions. These
institutions - predominantly the day school - sought to reflect a nonfundamentalist
model that modern Orthodoxy embraced. This trend
saw Torah learning as important but not as the exclusive intellectual
or spiritual pursuit of the observant Jew. Indeed, modern Orthodoxy
took the position that tradition and the contemporary world could
coexist. Struggle was not the dominant mode of Jewish life, the
world outside the Jewish one did not have to be kept at bay, and
Judaism was far more nuanced and complex than the fundamentalists
These ideas emerged out of the modern Orthodox worldview that
argued in the early post-Holocaust period that the best way to assure
Jewish continuity until the redemption was not to be insular, since
that certainly had not guaranteed Jewish continuity in Europe, but to
have a foot in both worlds, and that while Torah and ritual observance
were important, and maintaining a strong fidelity to Jewish values
and learning was critical, this alone was not sufficient for the Jewish
people. There was an ontological and educational value to what we
would call today a liberal arts education, and education was second
to nothing. Western culture was not just a vehicle for making a living
but something worth living
But fundamentalism has found a way to infiltrate and undermine
this view and is increasingly becoming the dominant mode of
Orthodoxy. In Israel, modern Orthodoxy was largely caught up in the
political ideology of Gush Emunim, making settlement in the biblical
lands the most important commandment and the sine qua non of
modern religiosity, with all else becoming secondary. In America, while
this too became a concern, fundamentalism has largely taken a more
quiescent form in the slow and steady undermining of liberal and
multiplex values and outlooks in favor of the monist and Manichean
Four factors appear to account for this change. One is the perceived
decline of American culture beginning in the late 1960s and 1970s.
This led many modern Orthodox Jews to have second thoughts about
the ontological value of standing with a foot in that culture and raised
fears that doing so would mean a step down the slippery slope of
religious diminution and cultural assimilation.
The second is the professionalization of day school education to
an extent that led to the family's complete handover of the responsibility
for Jewish education to the schools. Since few modern Orthodox
themselves were part of the religion faculty in those schools, the task
of religious socialization was ipso facto turned over to those who did
go into Jewish education, those who saw it as a moral calling, the
haredim. The transformation of women's roles in Orthodox Jewish
life in America, a product of the feminist movement in the United
States and the college educations they received, led to an increased
flow of Orthodox women into the career culture, removing them as
an important modern Orthodox source for Judaica faculty. A woman
who could be a lawyer, doctor, professor, or CEO was unlikely to
choose to be a teacher of Torah in a day school. She and her husband
simply gave that role to those who remained in that job. But those
people came more and more from another world.
Third, this changing nature of Judaica faculty in the day schools,
and in particular the changing nature of those who became Orthodox
rabbis, a role that the modernists also abandoned, served to enhance
the haredi, fundamentalist outlook in the schools. Because the parents
had largely withdrawn from personal involvement in the education of
their offspring, they became overly dependent on the Judaica faculty
of these schools. These teachers increasingly promoted a way of life
that was far more fundamentalist than the modern Orthodoxy that
characterized the homes and families from which the students came.
Moreover, whatever those teachers said, the parents who were in a
kind of iron cage were forced to accept. After all, they hired them,
sent their children to them, and endowed them with an authority
that was near absolute in the domains of religion. That discontinuity
between what they saw at home and learned in school either made
the students reject Orthodoxy altogether, because it was so disconnected
from the way they lived at home, or converted them into haredi
sympathizers, who saw their parents and the rest of modern Orthodoxy
as the incarnation of folly, duplicity, and hypocrisy.
America declining, the Jewish education of children completely
under the control of the schools, these schools themselves and the
Judaica faculty moving further and further to the right - all this produced
a fear that for the children eventually to enter American society
via the university, which was still much more radical and liberal than
the rest of America, and also remain fully committed to Orthodox
Jewish tradition would prove impossible. In other words, it would not
be possible to guarantee Jewish continuity in its Orthodox incarnation.
Finally, as a response to all this, came the emergence of study in Israeli
yeshivas and women's seminaries or midrashot as an essential part of
Orthodox education for American Jews - something that began as a
kind of extra insurance against the seductions of American contemporary
culture that the young were expected to encounter in college.
This further helped transform the modern Orthodox into a more
The Role of the Israeli Yeshivas and Seminaries
Because these Israeli yeshiva institutions are dominated both by active
and quiescent fundamentalists - settlers and/or haredim - the "graduates"
of these schools often absorbed the ethos and worldviews they
represent. Moreover, they were taught that there really was no graduation.
Torah was the only legitimate pursuit; all else was selling out
and going down the drain of assimilation. Some stayed in the haredi
world of the yeshiva and Israel; others became settlers and converts
to the messianic cause. Those who came back home came back ready
to transform the Orthodox world into a far more fundamentalist one.
The yeshiva/midrasha experience in Israel is extraordinary. Here,
where there are no pressures of getting grades - since most students
have already been accepted to college - one finds young people who
are ready for a change. They are in the period of identity quest and
role moratorium. For many of them, this is their first extended period
away from their parents. It is spent in what is essentially a total institution,
cut off from their parents and everything that is familiar to them.
Being in a yeshiva is being where the key element of life is sitting side
by side with a peer, in a protective environment where the rabbis and
religious teachers are the only adult models, where all one has to do
is study Torah and absorb the holiness of the place (both the school
and the Land of Israel) and where one is told that by doing so one
fulfills God's plan. The result is a kind of identity transformation.
Ultimately the goal is never to leave the yeshiva because that is the
ideology of yeshiva life. The Land of Israel and Torah become the
essentials of Jewish life, surpassing all else.
There are few if any alternative voices or patterns of life that these
institutions present. Life beyond is viewed as threatening at worst and
defiled at best. There is no going back. If one does return to that
world left behind it is only to engage in a struggle with it, to transform
it. Those who do come back see themselves as a class apart. They
seek to recreate cultural enclaves where they can fashion a kind of
quasi-yeshiva or where they identify with and support the activities
of the messianists who seek to hasten the redemption.
The complexity of Judaism is lost; the contributions of general
culture are often denied. The only concerns are those that are the
fundamentals of the faith. Whether this guarantees the continuity of
Judaism and the Jewish people is of course subject to debate. The
Jewish people has throughout the millennia of its existence managed
both to retain some key elements of its identity while also adapting
to the societies and cultures in which it found itself. That ability to
rebuild and recreate itself was what allowed a people that began as a
Temple cult and became a people of books to survive exile and dispersion.
It was nothing less than the capacity to be different in different
times and places, even as it remained attached to a covenant and a
history, that enabled the Jews to endure. To those who argue today
that all this complexity can be devolved into a few fundamentals, one
can only say time will tell. If one considers what has happened to the
rich culture of Islam as it has devolved into Islamist fundamentalism
as a model, the Jews who espouse this option would do well to rethink
* * *
PROF. SAMUEL HEILMAN holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York. He has also been a visiting professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, and the Universities of New South Wales and Melbourne in Australia.
The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect
those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
The above essay appears in the Spring 2005 issue of the Jewish Political Studies Review, the first and only journal dedicated to the study of Jewish political institutions and behavior, Jewish political thought, and Jewish public affairs.
Published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (http://www.jcpa.org/), the JPSR appears twice a year in the form of two double issues, either of a general nature or thematic, with contributors including outstanding scholars from the United States, Israel, and abroad. The hard copy of the Spring 2005 issue will be available in the coming weeks."
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