Oz Torah: Ask the Rabbi – Fundamentalists.

OzTorahQuestion.   What can we do about Jewish fundamentalists?

Answer.      The Mishnah B’rachot tells us that one may not enter the Temple mount with a “funda”, a money belt. From this word of Latin derivation comes the notion of a fund.

A related word gives us the word and concept of a foundation or a fundamental.

It denotes something basic. A fundamentalist espouses what he/she sees as the basics, and has a fear of change or modernity.

Popular usage limits fundamentalism to religion, but there are fundamentalists in every area of human life – economics, politics, art and science, for example. In religion there are certainly fundamentalists, but fundamentalism differs from one faith to another.

In Judaism the term does not really apply at all. We have no blind faith in the things of the past and have always interpreted our teachings and practices in the light of the knowledge and challenges of the times. The vast responsa literature is an expression of the way in which halachah has constantly encountered and assessed the modernity of every age.

Certain other religions lack our degree of intellectual sophistication, but probably none totally rejects modernity. Even if we limit our discussion to technology, there can hardly be a religious person who does not use modern methods of transport and communication, though some – including certain Jewish groups – are hostile to computers, the Internet and smart phones, and will not allow television into their homes.

Other people may find some such attitudes bizarre, but there is no problem so long as the principle is “each to his own”.

The problem arises when other groups are disdained and threatened. Both sides can be guilty: the modernists of deriding the traditionalists, the traditionalists of condemning the modernists.

The answer is a policy that clearly says, “I am sure I am right, but I have no intention of forcing my ways upon you”.


Question.    How can I get over my feelings of guilt?

Answer.       You can’t, whether the guilt is genuine or you are masochistically punishing yourself. The real question is how you face up to your guilt and live with it. The best way is to try to make amends, preferably without a song and dance, but that’s not always possible.

What is always possible is to use the guilt constructively instead of obsessing, recognising where you went wrong (or think you did) and using that knowledge to do right.

If you sinned with your words, use your mouth to speak positively to and about other people. If you sinned with your feet, maybe by going to places where you shouldn’t have been, use your feet to walk towards good causes, to keep company with good people. If you sinned with your money, become a generous supporter of those who need help. If you sinned against God, try to listen more attentively to His Word.

If you sinned against your own better self, don’t tear yourself apart by minimising your self-worth. Say to yourself, “I am fundamentally a decent person; I can and will pick myself up and do better in future”.

It is said that when Jacob Epstein was a boy he crushed a bird to death in his hands. Using his shame and guilt constructively he used his hands to become a famous sculptor and to be Sir Jacob Epstein.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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