First Person

Jewish World Review Jan. 29, 2002/ 16 Shevat, 5762

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Confessions of a Jewish fundamentalist -- WITH all the understandable concern these days about fundamentalism, the American public might want to better understand one group of religious reactionaries that have long been lurking in our midst: Jewish ones, that is, like me.


"Haredim", as we rigorously observant Orthodox Jews are called, are fundamentalists of the first order. The fundamentals we affirm without compromise are those of the Jewish faith: That there is a G-d. That He revealed Himself at Sinai. And that an ultimate reward and punishment awaits all human beings - though we tend to dwell more on the particulars of good and bad than those of Heaven and Hell.


Like all fundamentalists, we Haredim dress strange: our men and boys wear hats or yarmulkes (turbans are rare); our married women keep their hair covered, though we're not into veils. Our clothing is modest in a way that tends to stand out, especially on summer days. And, like many chic dressers, many of our men favor black.


From the moment we wake up until we go to bed, our lives are governed by myriad religious rules. We pray three times daily, eat only strictly kosher food (much of it, interestingly, Chinese), meticulously avoid a long list of actions on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and celebrate Jewish holidays as they have been observed for three thousand years. I could try to explain the citrons, palm fronds and bitter herbs but it would take too long.


What makes us Jewish fundamentalists particularly unusual, and suspicious, is that our goal is neither material success nor world domination but rather the performance of good deeds and the study of Torah - which includes the Jewish Bible, the Talmud, and thousands of later works based on them. While we hardly lack for doctors, lawyers, plumbers, electricians and businesspeople of most every conceivable sort, the study of Torah is considered the most fortunate "profession" in the Haredi world. What's more, Haredi families sacrifice much in the way of financial security for the sake of Torah study and the Jewish education of their sons and daughters. Which, of course, helps explain such subversive tendencies as our enthusiasm for school vouchers.


Most reactionary of all, we tend to shun television, movies and much of what passes for music and popular culture these days. We even reject the contention that witnessing thousands of murders and immoral acts is a harmless part of coming of age.

And, like all good fundamentalists, we don't just disapprove; we react - by attempting to shelter ourselves and our children as best we can from things like the commercialization of sexuality and the idealization of materialism. We even go so far - hey, fundamentalists aren't passive sorts - as to support legislation that is consonant with our beliefs.


True to the fundamentalist credo, we Haredim embrace holy war. But while some others see their jihads or crusades as involving violence and the vanquishing of others, our battle is exclusively with what our tradition teaches is the evil that lurks within our hearts. Swords and bombs and germs and such are generally ineffectual in that struggle, and so we opt instead for more useful stratagems like studying ethical works and engaging in deep introspection.


Like other fundamentalists, we Haredim try to spread the faith - but only to other Jews who may lack traditional Jewish educations. We don't evangelize to members of other faiths, nor do we see them as unsaved. Indeed, we consider a Christian or Muslim who observes certain basic moral precepts to fully merit a share in the World-to-Come. So as a plethora of pundits proclaim that the Western World's battle today is against all religious fundamentalism, the citizenry might do well to reflect on what some of the world's loudest fundamentalists themselves seem to regard as a pernicious threat: their Jewish counterparts.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. Comment by clicking here.


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