Jewish Fundamentalism

Belief that the Bible, as interpreted by rabbinic tradition, is infallible.

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Fundamentalism is the attitude towards the sacred texts of a religion in which these are taken literally and treated as infallible. 

The term fundamentalism has its origin in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, when a group of Protestant Christians formed an alliance to oppose liberalism in the Church. Liberals held that biblical criticism and modern science have made untenable the idea that Scripture, taken at its face value, conveys accurate information regarding such matters as the age of the earth and the way animals and human beings have evolved. The fundamentalists adopted this name in the belief that to accept liberalism was to deny fundamental Christian doctrine. For fundamentalists the Bible is the very word of God and as such is inerrant in all its details.

It has often been argued that the term fundamentalists is inapplicable to Jews both because it is taken from Christian debates and because no traditional Jew can be a literalist since it is not the literal meaning of the Bible that is authoritative for Jews but the Bible as expounded and applied in the Talmudic literature. This argument is untenable. To be sure, the term is taken from Christian discussions but the phenomenon it represents is to be found among Jews.

As for the question of literal meaning, the main thrust of fundamentalism is not so much in the direction of literalism as towards inerrancy. Jewish fundamentalists believe that the Bible, as interpreted in the rabbinic tradition, is infallible. Jewish fundamentalism can be defined as that attitude in which all notions of historical development are rejected. For Jewish fundamentalists there can be no acknowledgement of any human element in the Bible as understood by the rabbinic tradition.

In any event, there is no point in a semantic quibble. The term Jewish fundamentalism is no more than convenient shorthand for the attitude described above. It is important to appreciate that in Jewish religious life, unlike in Christianity and Islam, there is no identifiable, organized group consciously adopting the fundamentalist position to distinguish itself thereby from the rest of the believing community.

Moreover, unlike in some contemporary versions of Islam, Jewish fundamentalists rarely if ever use violent means to achieve their aims and there is among them a de facto acknowledgement, at least, of religious tolerance. From this point of view, Jewish fundamentalists rightly object to being called fanatics. Basically, what is involved in the question of fundamentalism on the Jewish scene is whether or not modern historical scholarship has anything to say on the way Judaism has developed.

With these qualifications in mind it is not unfair to describe Orthodox Judaism as leaning far more in the direction of fundamentalism than Conservative Judaism and Reform.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.