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Are Orthodox Jews fundamentalists?
There are many things that others may find unbelievable and unreasonable but, after thorough review, are found to be true
Writing in the UK’s Guardian Newspaper this week my friend Dan Rickman quotes a new book by Sol Schimmel that claims that Fundamentalism is characterized by "fear of truth." He then goes on to say that “Orthodox Jews are fundamentalist in their belief in the divine revelation of the Torah to which they cling to unreasonably in the face of evidence from modern Biblical scholarship.”

 

Being called a fundamentalist in the sense that I strictly adhere to a set of beliefs does not bother me. However, the juxtaposition of the word “fundamentalist” with “unreasonable” turns the term into an insult. Let us be clear: there are many things that others may find unbelievable and unreasonable but, after thorough review, are found to be true.

 

Traditional Judaism has always believed in the concept of “Torah from heaven.” The Reform Movement and others who have moved away from the tradition argue that the Torah was authored by a number of humans over several centuries. Their main argument to support this thesis is Biblical Criticism which is the adaption of textual criticism and applied to the Torah.

 

This textual analysis of the Torah, known as higher criticism, points to the fact that the Torah was not written by one author and was composed over a period of many years. Academics and self styled rationalists thus conclude, in their view unequivocally, that based on the evidence the Torah cannot have come from a Divine source at one point in time. Any suggestion to the contrary is seen by adherents of this thesis as unreasonable.

 

But they miss one major fact. The discipline of textual criticism as applied to the Torah starts with the hypothesis that the Torah has multiple historic layers and authors. It is therefore not surprising that when the Torah is subjected to that sort of analysis that is what they find. This is similar to my Christian friends who seem to find references to Jesus all over our Torah—even in places where, to me, they obviously do not exist. Since this is what he sets out to find that is what he discovers.

 

Textual criticism

More than 1,500 years ago the Talmud already warned that inherent within the Torah is the ability to interpret it in ways that are not in accordance with how it was originally intended. It is therefore not surprising that my Christian friends interpret it a manner that allows them to see Jesus within the text and my academic friends see multiple layers and authors. However, it is obvious that the interpretation and evidence brought by them from the Torah’s text has more to do with the one interpreting it than with the text itself.

 

There are some texts that history tells us were written by one author at one point in time. Most books that are published today fit into that category. Subjecting such texts to textual criticism may be interesting. But if the outcome contradicts the testimony of the author who claims to have written the book himself we would certainly say that the results of the textual criticism are void.

 

Traditional Jews see the Torah in a similar manner. History tells us—through the testimony of generations of people—that the Torah was written by Moses through divine revelation at one point in time. Thus, subjecting the Torah to a type of textual criticism that aims to prove that its text contains multiple authors and historic layers leads to a foregone and erroneous conclusion.

 

Academics have a right to question and argue against tradition’s historic point of view. But saying that a belief, backed up by what would otherwise be considered sound historical evidence, is unreasonable is akin to hurling insults in order to avoid the substance of the argument. It leaves one wondering who in fact is unreasonable and scared of the truth. It may not be Orthodox Jews after all.

 

Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts

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