Religion And Politics (IV)

Part I, Part II, Part III

Jewish fundamentalism

In the history of modern Judaism, there are two messianic movements with fundamentalistic patterns of both theological thought and political practice: the religious Zionists and ultra-orthodox Jews. The first group is known as Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) and they are found mainly in Israel. The second group is mostly Hasidic, known as Haredim (those who tremble before God) living in communities in Israel, Europe, and North America (Canada and the USA). It has to be noticed that both movements together are, in fact, a minority within the minority taking into consideration a total number of the Jewish population worldwide (around 15 million).

In principle, ultra-orthodox Jews are known by different names. One type of them is the Hasidic Jews or Haredi. This last term is taken from Isaiah and, therefore, this term describes Jews who are God-fearing and punctilious regarding the religious commandments. They are attempting to observe all 613 commandments (mitzvot) and believe that ritual slippage lessens the spiritual worth of the Jews. But, worst yet, it delays the coming of the Messiah and the day of redemption. The fact is that, even though Israeli Haredim are living in the Promised Land, they are interpreting their position in Israel as still living in exile. It is estimated that the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish population in Israel comprises around 4‒10% of the total population of just over 6 million.

The Jewish fundamentalists are narrowly focusing their struggles on the eagerly awaited coming of the Messiah – the king sent by God who will bring justice to earth and destroy the Jewish enemies including and those Jews who are not true believers. However, those two Jewish fundamentalistic groups are taking different attitudes regarding the contemporary world and especially concerning the Zionist state of Israel est. 1948. Religious Zionists believe that God inspired secular Jews (Theodor Herzl, 1860‒1904) to establish a political movement with the final task of Jewish return to Zion (the name for the ancient Jewish homeland in Palestine). Regardless of the very fact that Herzel’s Zionist movement was not explicitly religious, the members of Gush Emunim are in a strong belief that all Zionist political leaders have been and are agents of the Messiah. For evidence of such divine plan, the religious Zionists are taking into account the proclamation of Israel in May 1948 against all odds followed by a splendid victory of the Zionist Israel against its hostile Arab neighbors during a short 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel occupied the Gaza Strip, the Sion peninsula, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank of the Jordan River. The religious Zionists refer to those territories by their biblical names of Judea and Samaria.

Jewish religious fundamentalismIn order to realize the divine plan, the religious Zionists in 1967 made a focal political pressure on the Israeli Government to annex the territories, which they have been considered to be part of the so-called Whole Land of Israel promised by the Jewish God Yahveh to his Jewish people in the Book of Genesis. The geopolitical problem, however, became like the local Palestinian (Muslim) Arabs who are displaced (expelled) by the creation of the contemporary state of Zionist Israel in 1948 claim the same territories to be their historical home. Consequently, the competing Jewish-Arab claims on the same territories occupied by Israel in 1967 led to the new 1973 Israeli-Arab War followed by several minor violent confrontations and serious terrorist attacks between the new Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Muslim Arab militants. As all fundamentalists across the globe, the Jewish religious Zionists as well as reject any idea of religious pluralism, divide the world into two poles of the realm of good and the realm of evil. They believe that all Jews are possessing a „sacred spark“ and selectively retrieve the most politically useful teaching by the Orthodox Jews from the past (including and by the Vilna Gaon – Elijah Ben Solomon Zalman, 1720‒1797). Indeed, the religious Zionists selected one of the 613 Jewish ethical obligations – „settle the land“ and made it most important.

The Hasidic Jews or the Haredim are the second groups of Jewish fundamentalists. Many of them returned to Israel in the 20th century but did not participate in the Zionist enterprise for different reasons. Moreover, Haredi Jews are criticizing Zionism as an ill-advised effort by non-observant Jews who are, in fact, seeking to take God’s word into their own hands. For the Hasidic Jews, it was not Yahveh but rather human pride that inspired Theodor Herzl and other pioneers of the modern Zionist movement. For the majority of the Hasidic Jews, the establishment of the state of Israel by the secular Zionist movement was, basically, an act of rebellion against God. In their view, the Zionist interfered in the divine realm by hastening God’s return. They also believe that to force the Messiah by human deed will bring God’s wrath over them. Differently from the religious Zionists who wear jeans, work shirts, or other contemporary (Western/American) clothes, the Hasidic Jews wear the long black coats and dress of the Jewish villagers of early modern East Europe that was their traditional home for centuries.

Rising tensions

Cultural, political, demographic, and socioeconomic factors in the Israeli society contributed to rising tensions between the Ultra-Orthodox sector and the sector of the secular Israeli society. It is true, for instance, that genuine Haredim tremble and cannot be content to be simply passive in their traditionalism. They must be active in their kulturkampf, ever demonstrating the religious „truth“ to the majority who are enticed by the hedonistic pleasures of contemporary culture and who thus submit to desire.

Ultra-Orthodox (Hasidic, Lithuanian, Polish, Galician) Jews are known for their strict and unyielding adherence to the imperatives of Jewish law, charismatic folk Judaism based on feeling, piety, and human attachments. This group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews includes and Misnagdim, Lithuanian Jews who are opposing the excesses of Hasidism and maintaining a rigorous attachment to the letter of Jewish rabbinic law. Basically, the Haredim live as exiles wherever they are found including in Israel that is their religious and spiritual homeland. They are refusing to join the Israeli army or to interact socially with other Israelis. However, by contrast, members of religious Zionism (Gush Emunim) are serving in the Israeli army. In principle, Haredi Jews are selectively modern and their political parties have been established for the essential purpose to settle their internal disputes. They sought to retain their privileges in the system of the Zionist state of Israel and to promote the passage of laws in order to enforce the keeping of the Sabbath and other Orthodox Jewish norms.

Nevertheless, in principle, what is of the focal significance to all Jewish fundamentalists is not per se the right belief as such but rather the realization in the practical life of the written religious tradition. There is a German expression kulturreligion that is expressing exactly the point that biblical ideas have to be realized in everyday life. Jewish fundamentalism is, consequently, an attempt to practice their religion in an unbroken tradition that started with Moses at Mt. Sinai. Jews believe that they are the chosen (and supreme) people of God, who appeared before the Prophet Moses at Mt. Sinai to bestow upon him God’s (10) commandments for His (chosen) people. These 10 Commandments have been later termed the five books of Moses (Pentateuch), or the old Bible.

The Jewish Ultra-Orthodoxy emerged in the last decades of the 19th century in Europe, as, in fact, a reaction to and in opposition to the changes and reforms sweeping through Jewish communities as the result of the Enlightenment. Nevertheless, the Jewish communities in Europe responded to such modernization tendencies either by 1) assimilating to these changes and challenges by acculturating to the changes while still upholding certain traditional values, or by 2) resisting change by different methods. Hasidic Jews chose the resistance method of attempting to separate themselves from the outside culture, people, and world. The establisher of the Hasidic movement was Israel ben Eliezer. The most distinguishing characteristic of the Hasidic movement is that they introduced spiritualistic and charismatic elements into keeping the Jewish religious tradition which was strongly opposed by the Vilna Gaon at the end of the 18th century. Their opponents, the Misnagdim have been stressing the attachment to the written text and, therefore, focus their religious practice on the study of the Talmud and Torah. Their spiritual leaders founded their authority on the scholarship of the biblical texts but not on doing a miracle and spiritual work.

The Sephardic Ultra-Orthodoxy movement came into force in the 20th century. Mass immigration of Sephardic Jews of Spanish or North African descent to Israel and their political and social discrimination by the Ashkenazi establishment of the Jews from Central and East Europe, propelled this group to form its own religious movement. What is making a difference of them compared to the Misnagdic movement is that the rank and file of the Sephardic stream cannot be described as full-blood Ultra-Orthodox. In fact, what is keeping together this movement is their common interest founded on their ethnic background versus the Ashkenazi political and social hegemony in Israel.

Nevertheless, all Jewish fundamentalists in Israel are sharing their counter-acculturative position toward the secular culture of Israeli society. They are strongly attached to traditional conservative Judaism but in particular, to the type of it practiced in East Europe. They as well as reject the idea of the freedom of the individual as the focal feature of the modern liberal world.

Christian fundamentalism (I)

In Protestant Europe, the leading Reformation fundamentalists have been from Switzerland Ulrich Zwingli (1484−1531) and John Calvin (1509−1564). In Zürich, U. Zwingli required that law and policy have to be founded only on a literal rendition of holy scripture and argued at the same time that, in principle, the holy scripture could only have a single but not multi-meaning. For him, biblical rules demanded absolute obedience. It meant that other laws could demand none. J. Calvin became to most influential among all Protestant reformers who advocated religious authorities. He was insisting that, since God was sovereign, all bishops, rulers, and other political leaders could not demand obedience. He was de facto a ruler of Geneva and as such imposed his theocratic views by which he integrated the Church with the civic authorities assuring at the same time that the clergy would play a leading role in politics, and employing the law to impose an austere morality on Geneva’s citizens. In addition, Calvinism as well as significantly influenced early American settlers from 1609 on. For instance, God and secular authority have been enshrined together in Puritan Plymouth and its Congregational Church.

Anti-evolution books on sale in Dayton, Tennessee, during the Scopes Trial, 1925

The modern Christian fundamentalism is, basically, a British and American Protestant reaction from the 19th century on to all kinds of modernist readings of the Bible which have been challenging the literal truth of the supernatural and miraculous parts of the history written in the Bible as a holy book. The Protestant Christian fundamentalists as well as have been protecting the status of Holy Scripture as a direct and unchallengeable revelation of the word of God. However, all Christian fundamentalists are resisting especially the teaching of Darwinian evolutionary science (theory) in public schools. It was, for instance, the famous „Scopes Monkey Trial“ in Tennessee (the USA) in 1925, in which a teacher was convicted under a state law that forbade the teaching of Darwinism. However, although the fundamentalists won this trial, they have been depicted as superstitious rubes and hicks being discredited on the national level. After campaigning against Roman Catholic presidential candidate Al Smith in 1928, the Christian fundamentalists withdrew from the American cultural and political mainstream living in a kind of cultural separatism.

The Christian fundamentalists believe that the Bible, quite bluntly, is a workable guidebook for politics, government, business, families, and all of the affairs of mankind. The Bible is taken as infallible by fundamentalists as its contents are expressions of the Divine Truth. The Christian fundamentalists believe in the divinity of Christ and the possibility of the salvation of one’s soul through the acceptance of Christ as a personal savior. They are committed to spreading their message and converting those who have not yet adopted the same beliefs.

It was Curtis Lee Laws, editor of the Baptist Watchman-Examiner, who in 1920 started to use the term „fundamentalist“ for the purpose to describe the evangelical Christians of North America who have been willing to do „battle royal“ in defense of the fundamentals of the Christian faith. To remind ourselves, evangelical Christians are Protestants who believe that the sole authority in religion is the Bible followed by the conviction that the sole means of salvation is a life-transforming experience wrought by the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ.

Since around 1900, when the evangelist fundamentalists emerged from the Protestant churches, they have been angry for the reason that new secular ideas and methods were threatening to discredit traditional Christian beliefs. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of random mutation and natural selection was, in fact, denying God’s providence in creating and sustaining the world. The angry evangelist Christians reacted by selecting certain traditional beliefs like Christ’s birth to a virgin, blood atonement for human sins by dying on the cross, bodily resurrection, and anticipated second coming in glory. They fortified those beliefs with a new way of describing the authority of the Bible. That was, actually, the 5th fundamental – the strict inerrancy of the Bible which gave guarantees that everything taught in holy scripture, including science, history, and religion, is absolutely true without qualification.

The Christian fundamentalists in their struggle against Darwinism, in particular, support the theory of Creationism. That is a view that the universe and all things in it have been created directly by God but they are not the result of a long evolutionary process, in contrast to the theory of evolution established by the Englishman Charles Darwin. The immediate ancestry of Creationism is coming from the inter-war time in the attempts of Christian fundamentalists to get state laws passed which would ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. Creationism emerged more specifically in the 1960s when its supporters required equal time for the teaching of creationism. There is even the Creation Research Society which supports the publication of creation science papers.

Practically, however, adherence to the doctrine of strict inerrancy was serving for the purpose to segregate the true believer from the moderate or merely conservative evangelical, whose judgment presumably was clouded by the seductive appeal of the prestigious new science. Evangelical fundamentalists were named „come-outers“ when they fled the mainline denominations and established their own independent churches for the very purpose to worship apart from their „corrupted“ brethren who fell into amorality. In response, Christian fundamentalists launched a moral crusade and even for some time aligned themselves with the Roman Catholics and other Protestants for the political purpose of campaign for laws banning the manufacture and/or sale of alcoholic beverages in the USA. This effort, however, culminated in the passage of the 18th Amendment by which Prohibition was implemented in 1919.

To be continued

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