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Home From the Rabbi From the Rabbi - January 2010
From the Rabbi - January 2010 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:

As many of you know, I teach in the History Department at TAMUCC as an adjunct faculty member.  The University has a small Philosophy Department, but offers only one course in the Philosophy of Religion.  There is no Department of Religion, but my Ph.D. is in history, so I have been included there.  One of the courses that I very much enjoy teaching is called “The History of Religion in America,” a course that is taken mainly by advanced students in the History Department.

I am beginning to prepare for this course, which will be offered again in the Fall semester of 2010, and that has led me to spend some time reading and thinking about fundamentalism, both in Judaism and Christianity.   Anyone who knows me, even a little, recognizes that I am far from being a fundamentalist, which means that understanding this kind of religious perspective is a stretch for me.  But, of course, one of the things that I treasure in my teaching is the opportunity to confront new ideas and wrestle with them.

Fundamentalism first came on the scene in American religion in the 1920s when a group of Protestants published a series of pamphlets in which they described the “fundamentals” of what a Christian was supposed to believe.  Since that time, however, it has come to mean a resistance to change, a dogged adherence to what the believer thinks are the unalterable basic tenets of the religion.  Most fundamentalists, however, go beyond simple belief; they resist any change whatsoever.  If grandpa davened by rocking from right to left, then that’s the way it has to be, forever and ever.  If we only use prune filling for hamentaschen or put raisins in the noodle kugel or take the left crown off the Torah before the right one – God forbid we should change even one iota!

In Jewish life, this kind of fundamentalism stems from the nineteenth century when a Rabbi in Hungary, Mordecai Schreiber (also known as The Hatam Sofer) announced that any change or innovation is forbidden by the Torah.  Since that time, Orthodox Judaism has become less flexible than it was before, even to the point of insisting that the adherents to various Hasidic sects wear exactly the same type of clothing that their predecessors wore two hundred years ago.

A religious stance like this, it seems to me, completely misses both historical truth and religious purpose.

First, historical truth.  When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the new leaders of the Jewish community were not priests, but rabbis.  This was a major change.  Sacrifice was no longer of animals and other agricultural products, but prayer and study and tzedakah.  The Temple was replaced by a synagogue; one change followed another all the way through the Middle Ages and early modern period.  Mordecai Schreiber inveighed against innovation precisely because Jews continued to adjust the practice of their religion to modern times.  We kept to the basics, but changed the implementation, and we continue to do so.

Second, religious purpose.  Kashrut is important, but it is a means to a greater end.  When Saul of Tarsus (aka Paul) wrote to the emerging church in Rome (Romans 14:17), he said what Jews were also thinking: “For the kingdom of God does not mean food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the spirit of God.”  Some people get so hung up on the minutiae that they forget the purposes for which religions exist.  Missing the forest for the trees is a common hallmark of fundamentalism.

In these dark days of winter, perhaps the lights of Hanukkah will continue to remind us to shine a little light on our own religious commitments and focus the beam squarely on what is really important and not on the details or transient elements.  Fundamentalism may be the choice of some people, but it’s not good for the Jews.


Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi



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