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Replacing Fundamentalism... With What?

Replacing Fundamentalism... With What?


Like most people, I am becoming increasingly disturbed by the reports of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings coming out of Iraq. The cities Falluja and Ramadi and much of Anbar Province are now controlled by fundamentalist, Al-Qaeda style militias.

I have asked myself why it is that I am so disturbed by the murderous methods the militants use. We all know that this is war, and war means that there are two sides that aim to eliminate each other. If we are honest with ourselves we would have to admit that the military aircraft, the laser-guided missiles and the Abrams tanks used by the Americans are more lethal and disturbing killing machines than a masked man with a butcher knife. So what is it about these anachronistic beheadings that offends us so much?

As a devoutly religious person, what bothers me more than anything else is the fact that the beheadings are carried out as a form of religious ritual. One of the films of such a murder is reported to show a man quoting passages from the Koran ordaining death. "He who will abide by the Koran will prosper; he who offends against it will get the sword..." And then as he performs the barbaric act he and his partners shout "Allah akbar!" (G‑d is great).

I know the intensity of the passion one feels when one is convinced that one is carrying out the will of G‑d. Seeing that same passion used in such an evil manner terrifies me.

I often wonder what my contemporaries and I would be like if our teachers had taught us that the only path to G‑d is through the sword. I am convinced that at least some of us would have accepted these barbaric teachings at face value and would have become religious murderers. Maybe the fundamentalists are ordinary people who have just been brainwashed by evil ideology.

We have to see this war for what it really has become -- a war of opposing ideologies. On the one side is the Western idea of freedom, democracy and human rights, and on the other side is a form of theocratic dictatorship where the religious authorities are given a free hand in interpreting G‑d's will. The question is whether our democratic society can ever overcome an ideology that has the lethal cocktail of religious zeal and murderous intent.

If this war is ever to be won, it has to be fought on two fronts. Certainly when people have become terminally corrupted by lethal ideas, one may have no choice but to eliminate the people who carry the ideas. However, at the same time there has to be a sincere and strenuous effort to win over young people. We must combat the ideas behind religious fundamentalism, and we can do this only if we offer a coherent and equally attractive alternative.

Fundamentalist religion offers its adherents a framework in which to live. It offers a protective brotherhood. But most of all, it adds a sense of meaning, purpose and passion to the life of the adherent. All of the above -- a structured framework, a brotherhood, a sense of meaning and a passion -- are things that Western society lacks. How is Western-style democracy ever to replace the dangerous type of Islamic fundamentalism if it is not fighting on the same turf? The Kabbalists tell us that whatever G‑d created in evil he created the exact counterpart in good. One has to present young people with an alternative religious ideology that offers the same qualities as fundamentalism but is aimed in a peaceful direction.

Judaism is an example of this type of ideology. Judaism has a built-in sense of community. It offers real direction and passion but the theme throughout is peacefulness. As Maimonides writes (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Megillah 4:14), “G‑d gave the Torah to make peace in the world as it is written (Proverbs 3): ‘Its ways are pleasant and all its paths are peaceful.’” According to the Talmud, a court of law empowered to carry out the death penalty that executes a criminal more than once in seventy years is considered a "murderous court." Throughout the Mishnah and Talmud--which were formed during the rise of Christianity and Islam--you'd be hard-pressed to find a sage who is venerated for his physical battle against unbelievers. Judaism preaches peacefulness; warmongers have no place.

Although there are parts of the Bible that if interpreted literally could seem cruel and violent, our sages interpret them in a peaceful manner. For example the Bible (Exodus 21:24) says that a violent attacker should pay "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," but the sages don’t take this literally; instead they say it means that the offender must pay the monetary worth of the eye or the tooth. Another example is the law (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) regarding the stoning of the rebellious child. Instead of widening the definition of a rebellious child, our sages narrowed it, to the extent that it is virtually impossible for the law ever actually to be applied. Many Biblical laws can be interpreted either as a license for violence or in a peaceful manner. Rabbinic Judaism exemplifies how potentially violent laws can be interpreted in a civilized and peace-loving way. In Judaism, killing and religion are as far apart from one another as the number one is from infinity. It is this peaceful model that we should be exporting.

Secularism is doubtless dominant in the West. But this may be because the religion that is currently offered lacks passion and attractiveness. What will happen if a new generation of religious demagogues rises up, passionately arguing a negative fundamentalist line? We may end up with another crusade on our hands. The only way to avert such a disaster is to offer an alternative peaceful religious model that has real meaning as well as purpose and passion. Let us hope that those directing the war realize this. The future is still in our hands. Let us shape it while we are still able.

By Levi Brackman
Edited by Ingrid Cranfield
Rabbi Levi I. Brackman is director of Judaism in the Foothills and the author of numerous articles on issues of the day.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Discussion (23)
October 6, 2013
As a Torah Jew I read this week's parsha with a question about the difference between the two stories as well as the sudden change in the genealogy table you'll see the same thing in Parshat Breishit as well. G-d destroys the entire human race for the cruel crimes of their day. and he points in the 2nd genealogy that Cush fathers a son Nimrod [rebeller] who creates a mass movement to build a fancy tower to oppose G-d's rule over the world. It is this fanaticism that is responsible for wars in this coming week's parsha where Nimrod is identified as the king of Sodom. If anything can be learned we as Jews must point to the 7 Noahide laws as the basis for Society to exist. The Torah is a G-D give book written in shorthand and must have an Oral tradition given in the 40 years we were in the desert. Without this Oral tradition we would be like those who murder in G-d's name.
David Aharon Lindzon-Lindsay
Toronto Ontario
January 25, 2010
Hi friends
I think that as long as Islam exists , the concept of Jihad is impossible to go. Quran and Sunnah of Muhammad are integral to Islam and a muslim, however liberal, will never reject them else he is non-muslim. And I have read quran and hadith many times and a large number of verses in these books are so horrible that promote pedophilia, violence against non-muslims and muslims too( arabs vs non-arabs ), racism, terror tactics frequently employed by muhammad and the two stages of Taqqiya " peaceful conversion " and jihad "militant conversion" both steps have to be employed to destroy non-muslims, something like good cop and bad cop. I think that islam is a menace to society and must be destroyed to enter the next stage of development of human civilisation.
I love muslims as much as non-muslims

how right some people are who said : more pious muslims are better terrorists

i am a noahide
July 6, 2009
Islam/The Fate of Israel
Levi Brackman your theories on how a peaceful fundamental ideology would eliminate the war and suffering is brilliant, I agree 100%. I just wish me & my close friends had the chutspah to help your plan be executed. I feel g-d is calling on me, as well as Jews & all riteous people to rally for peace in Israel, peace on Earth. If only it were the 60's, the hippie movement to end the war between U.S. soldiers and the Vietnamese was carried out by thousands with incredible gusto. Unfortunately this war lasted 16 years with millions of casualties. My question is will radical Muslims ever see society, Israel and the west in a different light? Does the Israeli gov't want to order more attacks on the innocent Palestinians in Gaza? If people across the world adopt to peaceful religions based reaching out to others, life could get better, but this doesn't involve politics. Government would have to get involved with this so laws could be passed, action taken. Everyone speaking out isgood
Philadelphia, PA
April 13, 2009
HooRah for peace and tranquility in faithful fellowship
January 22, 2006
Responses to other posts
Regarding the person who said that "The premise...that Rabbinic Judaism 'softened' the harsh literal meaning of biblical passages is pure Consrevative dogma...Orthodoxy believes that the Bible did not intend these harsh and crude vulgarities to begin with" -

Absolutely true. I think what Rabbi Brackman meant was not that the Rabbis reinterpreted the Torah (i.e. the Torah said and meant this, but the Rabbis reinterpreted to mean that), but rather that the Rabbis correctly interpreted the Torah (using the Oral Law) in ways that did not always follow the apparently obvious (literal) meaning of the Torah. The key words are "interpret" vs "reinterpret".

As for whether the Torah and Judaism desire violence and war, in light of Judaism's stance on fighting evil, I think the important thing is that Judaism sees fighting evil as a necessary but not good thing. We would rather than peace prevail and war be unnecessary. So Judaism see righteous war only as a means to an end (i.e. peace).
Michael Makovi
December 18, 2005
Harmonizing the “Opposing” views
Thanks so much to Robert Godwin for pointing out the apparent discrepancy between the two articles: ‘The Kabbalah of Defeating Terror’ and ‘Replacing Fundamentalism…With What.’

Indeed, as I state in ‘Replacing Fundamentalism,’ the war on terror is a battle between two ideologies: one – terror – that uses chaos as its weapon and the other – Western democracy – that thrives on order.

The article, ‘The Kabbalah of Defeating Terror’ should really state that this war is not “just” a battle between rival ideologies...
Levi Brackman
Evergreen, Colorado
January 7, 2005
Sermons' Opposing Views
In your sermon "Replacing Fundamentalism . . . With What?" you stated that this war has become ". . . a war of opposing ideologies." Freedom and Democracy versus theocratic dictatorship.

Yet a week earlier, in "The Kabbalah of Defeating Terror," you stated just the opposite: "This isn't a battle between rival ideologies. It is a struggle bwtween two types of force -- " A struggle between Order and Chaos.

How do you reconcile such polar views, Rabbi?

Or does the West represent Order, and theocratic dictatorship represent Chaos?
Robert B Godwin
Lacey, WA/USA
October 22, 2004
If we believe G-d , then we know that He gives all a choice.. But for our circumstances, we would all be tempted to believe evil men instead of our Creator. We are fortunate if we were born with the freedom to choose without deadly consequences, nevertheless, all can choose.

This article was wonderful and articulated my own heartbreak and hope very well. Thank you.
October 20, 2004
I too am convinced that at least some of us - and probably far more than just some - would be religious murderers if we had been taught what the religious murderers are taught. It's not that we don't have free choice. It's that people tend to stay on the paths they find themselves on.
Sarah Weiss
October 20, 2004
Thanks for a very stimulating article
This article made me think long and hard, as it obviously did for many others. I would not disagree at all with Rabbi Brackman's points. I will say, however, that it is this fundamentalism linked to religion that frightens many people away from any form of religion. Many Jewish friends believe that if Orthodoxy prevailed we would have a form of Taliban Afganistan but with chicken soup and bagels.

Orthodox Rabbinic Judaism has worked hard (see Chabad, for just one example) but needs to work even harder to convince non-Orthodox and unaffiliated Jews that a fully observant lifestyle is compatible with personal freedom, creativity and political democracy.

Thanks again to Rabbi Brackman.
Peter Walters
Bath, England