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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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David Aharon Lindzon-Lindsay Toronto Ontario 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. Reply

amit January 25, 2010

shalom 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 Reply

Evan Philadelphia, PA 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 Reply

Aaron April 13, 2009

Peace HooRah for peace and tranquility in faithful fellowship Reply

Michael Makovi 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). Reply

Levi Brackman Evergreen, Colorado 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... Reply

Robert B Godwin Lacey, WA/USA 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?

Zakiah 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. Reply

Sarah Weiss 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. Reply

Peter Walters Bath, England 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. Reply

rrh October 20, 2004

alterations The Bible APPEARS to have cruelty and violence in it. And so that people don't think that this Book actually contains brutality, we have other people who help us understand it. One thing that is done, the way I understand it from this article, is to NARROW definitions. There's an example of that in this article. And I see narrowing of definitions as alterations. After all, if according to some definition a rebellious child wouldn't fare all that well, but then that child would fare well when the definition is narrowed, I consider that an ALTERATION, a downright CHANGE of something in the Book!

Anonymous October 20, 2004

Re good /evil I've given this article a lot of thought. Rabbi Brackman said: "...whatever G-d created in evil he created the exact counterpart in good." I believe that to be true in a 100% way and I also have no doubts that good will triumph. It's up to us to make it happen and we will find a way to make it happen. G-d wouldn't have created us so that we can make a dwelling place for Him down here if he wanted evil (darkness) to triumph. Reply

Janet M. October 20, 2004

Who's got it right, I wonder It's confusing to have Rabbinic Judaism and non-rabbinic Judaism. Add to that the different beliefs of Reform, Reconstructionist and a number of other "Judaisms." Which interpretation is right? Each interpretation is the right one, of course. Same with non-Jewish interpretations. Can't help but wonder who interpreted correctly. If anyone. Reply

supermind October 20, 2004

real challenge The following is quoted from "America's Big Challenge: Asia," by Fareed Zakaria, The Washington Post, Tuesday, October 19, 2004, page A23:

"The analogy is not exact. The war on terrorism is crucial; winning in Iraq is necessary; Middle East peace is important. But I wonder whether, as we furiously debate these matters in America, we resemble Englishmen in the waning days of the British Empire. They vigorously debated the political and military situation in remote areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan (some things don't change). They tried mightily, and at great cost, to stabilize disorderly parts of the globe. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the United States was building its vast economic, technological and cultural might, which was soon to dominate the world. Reply

Anonymous Queens, NY October 19, 2004

Rabbinic Vs. Biblical The premise of the article that Rabbinic Judaism "softened" the harsh literal meaning of biblical passages is pure Consrevative dogma. I think Orthodoxy believes that the Bible did not intend these harsh and crude vulgarities to begin with, and this inerpretation was given at Sinai together with the Bible. Rabbi Brackman should modify his premise. Reply

Rabbi Levi Brackman October 19, 2004

War an anathema to Rabbinic Judaism I draw the readers’ attention to the fact that in the article I specifically talk about Rabbinic Judaism as opposed to other forms of non rabbinic Judaism such as Karaism. Rabbinic Judaism is Judaism as it has been explained by the sages in the Talmud and Midrash. This point is central to my argument. Without the interpretation of the sages many of the scriptures and laws are indeed violent in nature. It is the interpretation of the sages that ensures that we do not make the tragic mistake of using our holiest book, the Torah, as a tool for murder and war. It is the peace loving rabbinic model that must be exported. Reply

yh October 18, 2004

I also disagree with the author's assesment that violence is anethema to Judaism. We have the mitzva of annihilating Amalek, and it is because Shaul failed to kill every last Amalekite, even the animals, that Haman was able to threaten to exterminate our people.

And when the Jewish people entered Israel, they offered the people living there a choice: either leave, submit to the Jews and pay them taxes, or be annihilated. Reply

Eli Federman Milwaukee, WI October 18, 2004

RE: To Anoynmous & Rabbi Backman Anonymous wrote, '"Sometimes I've asked G-d, with real anger: Have you given this little boy a chance at all? A chance to know YOU?" Has He?"' In similar vain the article stated, "Maybe the fundamentalists are ordinary people who have just been brainwashed by evil ideology." These arguments are propounded by many including some psychologists who claim people have no free will, all our actions are a product of environment, biology (i.e., XYY chromosome abnormality theory etc)…
As part of my pro-Israel activities on Milwaukee university campus, I recently attended an “end the occupation in Blata refugee camp” rally where to my horror students were condoning homicide bombings using a similar argument. Namely, these people are indoctrinated/driven to the brink of no alternative/dispossessed, blah blah blah. Yes, circumstances plays a major role in shaping peoples perception of the world around them, nonetheless, Judaism maintains that an element of free choice always exists.

Anonymous Brooklyn, NY October 18, 2004

It is up to us I believe that Hashem never denies a chance to anybody. I don't know the statistic but I am sure that there are peaceful leaders in Islamic world, and eventually they will come to their strength. We see the signs of it when, for example, Islamic courts in Nigeria refuse to stone a single mother using such a "Halachic" reason that there is no witnesses to the act of adultery. Yes, sadly, we are required to wage a war "when our enemy rises to kill us", and we do. However, the war should be fought out of love, not hatred. The ultimate goal of that war is not to bring the enemy to their knees but to give a chance to that little boy. To free the population from the oppression of terrorists and let the voice of peaceful leaders be heard.
I also believe that any religion or ideology can be directed to love and not hatred. What can give the life meaning and purpose is the Messianic notion, common to most religions, that humanity is moving towards unity, love, and knowledge of G-d. Reply

Anonymous October 17, 2004

Has He? At times I watch a mini-movie playing inside my mind. I see a little boy looking up at Papa as if he was his world. And Papa teaches him about the evil people (you and me). The little boy hears the same things from all his family and from everyone else around him, including the media.

I look at this little boy and have an overwhelming need to reach into the movie and take him out of it- and deposit him in a place where he is taught that G-d's greatness is light years removed from cruelty.

The film stops before his first hateful words (about you and me), long before any kind of beheading. It always does. I couldn't bear it if it didn't.

Yes, that little person growing up over there could be one of us, given his circumstances. Just as you said. And as I believe.

Sometimes I've asked G-d, with real anger: "Have you given this little boy a chance at all? A chance to know YOU?"

Has He?

As for the entire article (which I didn't comment on)- it's very good.