Jiminy Cricket and the Jews

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Anyone familiar with contemporary talk-radio knows that the word “liberal” has become for some a slur, implying that holders of ideals like tolerance for other cultures or concern for the poor and disadvantaged are somehow inherently polluted by nonchalance toward national security, too little concern about crime and too much about the rights of terrorists.

But another word, “fundamentalist,” has likewise been made into an insult of its own, something recently noted by David Klinghoffer, the erstwhile literary editor of National Review and current senior fellow at a public policy think-tank, the Discovery Institute. (Full disclosure: Mr. Klinghoffer was a Sabbath guest at the Shafran home several times seven or eight years ago, and I consider him a friend.)

Writing in the national Jewish weekly Forward, Klinghoffer points out that the “fundamentalist” label is regularly used to cast people who hew to foundational religious beliefs as “stupid,” “obnoxious” or “backward.”

Klinghoffer’s context is the assertion by former New Republic editor and current Time Magazine blogger Andrew Sullivan that “fundamentalists” – i.e. people with deep religious beliefs – are inherently arrogant, because they believe they know what is right and what is wrong, and apply their convictions to political and social issues. Instead, Sullivan advocates “spiritual humility and sincere religious doubt” and champions “a faith that… picks and chooses between doctrines under the guidance of individual conscience.”

Klinghoffer makes the obvious point: If one’s conscience is one’s only guide, then he is “his own ultimate authority,” hardly a reflection of humility.

“That isn’t to say,” he hastens to add, “that the truth [for a religious person] is easily accessible.” An Orthodox Jew for 15 years,. Klinghoffer openly and honestly admits that there is much he doesn’t understand, and that certainty about applying Jewish wisdom to contemporary questions is not always available. It is, he explains, “in contemplating… complexities that Jews find a road to inspiration.”

But in the end, as Klinghoffer has articulated in his writings over the years, we Jews “believe our religion is true, all of it.” There are indeed Jewish verities, verities that speak loudly and clearly to Jews and to all humankind, verities that have implications for contemporary social issues, verities that Jews who claim to care about Judaism should not shy away from embracing, whether or not those verities comfortably coalesce with those Jews’ own personal feelings. The bending of our imperfect human notions to the will of an omniscient G-d is, in the end – as both Abraham on Mount Moriah and his descendants at Mount Sinai came to know – the essence of the Jewish faith.

Abraham, as it happens, is David Klinghoffer’s father, at least in a spiritual sense. The Biblical patriarch is considered the parent of all converts to Judaism. Klinghoffer lyrically and poignantly recounted his personal journey to the Jewish people and Jewish observance in his 1999 book “The Lord Will Gather Me In.” His defense of the conviction that questions of right and wrong are not ultimately answered by our own subjective feelings – reminds me that he wasn’t born into the Jewish people but rather chose to join it.

Because, although Jewish history is replete with illustrious men and women – from the Biblical Ruth to the Talmudic giants Shmaya and Avtalyon – who came to the Jewish people from other nations, there is a curious statement in the Talmud (Niddah, 13b) in which Rabbi Chalbo compares converts to “a sore.”

One approach to that pronouncement is that it refers to converts who have not adequately prepared for Jewish life and who, after joining the Jewish people, come to violate religious strictures out of inexperience. Another approach, diametric to the first, is that converts, having freely and determinedly chosen their Jewishness, tend to be so meticulous in their adherence to Jewish law that their example reflects poorly on many born Jews’ levels of observance.

A tangent to that latter approach occurs. The word for “sore” that Rabbi Chalbo uses actually refers to a sort of skin discoloration (often mistakenly identified as leprosy) spoken of at length in the Torah. Such sores, the rabbis of the Talmud taught, were divine signs – during periods of history when Jews’ closeness to G-d merited them such signs – of any of an assortment of personal lapses.

Might some converts, too, in a way, be disturbing but luminous signs for the rest of us Jews? Might the clarity and honesty of people like Klinghoffer, who have come to Judaism entirely on their own through force of observation and reason, without the peer pressures and support systems that nurture born Jews from their childhoods, be reminders to the rest of us of things we might have somehow forgotten, or never confronted?

The “sores” suffered by Jews in Biblical times entailed an element of embarrassment, to be sure. In the end, though, they were a gift, a heavenly sign of guidance. Jews who might naturally assume, like Mr. Sullivan (and Jiminy Cricket before him), that our own consciences are our best guides would do well to listen closely to people like David Klinghoffer, and come to recognize that being a Jewish “fundamentalist” is no badge of shame but a deep and abiding privilege.

(c) Am Echad Resources

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8 Responses

  1. Ahron says:

    Barry,

    The Discovery Institute does not seek to have “Creationism” taught in public schools. Anyone who has done even website browsing on this subject should be well aware that creationism is not even comparable to the framework of Intelligent Design. They are extremely different models. I do not subscribe to ID, but it terribly cheapens this debate when such obvious misinformation is spread about ID and the Discovery Institute.

    ID and the Discovery Institute pay a great deal of attention to scientific data, something that “Creationists” generally do not (except to assert that the data are wrong). ID is more of a judgment, based on mathematical and scientific criteria, of the observed scientific data. It is by no stretch equivalent to creationism.

  2. Avi Shafran says:

    Dear Barry,

    I don’t recall if the topics were broached back when I had the pleasure of David’s company, but you can rest assured that both he and I are well aware that the Torah is often not literal. If you are interested in my take on evolution, you can check out a previous Cross-Currents post and the comments thereon at

    Rabbi Avi Shafran on Intelligent Design

    In a nutshell, while I don’t consider acceptance of a G-d-driven evolution of species to be beyond the realm of possibility, neither do I feel that the faith in species-to-species evolution having occurred countless times, considering our inability to mimic that “random” happening, is anything at present but a blind faith.

    If that skepticism constitutes a rejection of “Darwinianism”, as you put it, and “a little odd” well, then, I suppose you’ll have to consider me (along with the 600 scientists who have signed on to the Discovery Institute’s “Dissent from Darwinism” document) odd fellows.

    Still, though, please try to keep an open mind.

  3. Barry says:

    Ah! The Discovery Institute. I hadn’t realized that Klinghofer earned his living there. I wonder if you ever discussed creation and evolution during your Shabbat dinners.

    To me, someone who rejects modern Dawinianism out of hand is a little odd. An organization of people who not only rejects Darwin but seek to have Creationism taught in public schools as science instead of or an equal scientific basis as Darwin is more than a little dangerous. And if they insist that creation happened exactly as written in the Torah never read last week’s parasha.

  4. Avi Shafran says:

    Thanks to Mr. Lennhoff for his interesting suggestion (if the word sapachas can be authoritatively connected to what we call a scab the understanding will certainly be a pithy one).

    And thanks, too, to Mr. Frisch for his criticism. To clarify, though, while there is certainly little in common between, on the one hand, Jews who believe in the divine origin of the Torah and, on the other, those called “Christian fundamentalists” or “Muslim fundamentalists,” (and much difference, for that matter between the latter two groups), Mr. Sullivan and others like him lump together as “fundamentalists” all who dare claim that a religious tradition trumps contemporary sensibilities.

    Far from a straw man of my (or Mr. Klinghoffer’s) making, Sullivan clearly considers, for instance, Catholics who maintain the Church’s attitude toward homosexual expression as fundamentalists, and surely considers Jews with similar counter-contemporary-mores tendencies about that topic (or abortion or any of a number of other moral issues) to be similar primitives. He (and most people today) do not use the word “fundamentalist” to mean “Biblical literalist” but rather to mean “a believer in certain fundamental, unchangeable religious tenets and laws.” Reading him (and others) makes this all too clear.

    So while we must indeed always try to make the important and obvious distinction between ourselves as believing Jews and the (deeply misguided, we feel) “true believers” of other faiths, at the same time, we must expose the intolerance of those who would throw our own baby out with others’s bathwater.

    We may not think of ourselves as “fundamentalists,” and indeed have little if anything in common with others who proudly wear the label. But neither do we subscribe to letting one’s conscience be one’s guide. And all who reject that latter approach are what Sullivan calls the former.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    Like it or not, we do have certain fundamental beliefs which are encapsulated in the concepts of Malchuyos, Zicronos and Shofaros. When some masquerade as MO and essentially shunt these concepts to the sidelines in the interest of pluralism, inclusiveness, interdenominalist and ecumenical loveins, we should remember that the Rov Gufei Torah that are included in these basic concepts are non-negotiable under any circumstances.

  6. Fern R says:

    Henry–If you’d ever read Andrew Sullivan’s blog then you wouldn’t be accusing the author of this piece as setting up a straw man. Included in Sullivan’s definition of “fundamentalist” is any Jew who thinks Israel has a Biblical claim to land in the West Bank and, for that matter, pretty much any Orthodox interpretation of Judaism. The only authentic form of religion in Sullivan’s mind is one that puts love and charity and social justice before anything else. Even Conservative Judaism might be too fanatical for Andrew Sullivan.

  7. Henry Frisch says:

    Why defend Fundamentalism? I seriously doubt it was Sullivan who defined the Fundamentalist as anyone with deep religious views. Once again the two friends of this article choose to create a straw man for their own purposes.

    Only if you choose to understand the term as being applicable to a Torah Bal Peh mode of thought would you worry about Fundamentalism. And there is absolutely no reason for those who read this blog to feel tied to the term. Karaites perhaps and any others who are absolutely literal in their understanding of Torah would fit the Fundamentalist frame of reference. We who believe, for example, that Ayin Tachas Ayin means Kesef, are not Fundamentalists.

    Let’s stay away from being in bed with bedfellows our forbears would have been keen to avoid at all cost.

  8. Larry Lennhoff says:

    Another translation for the word ‘sore’ is ‘scab’. When I think of the body of Am Yisrael bleeding from its losses due to persecution and assimilation I think of converts as the scab that comes to cover the wound, stop the bleeding, and begin the healing process, before it is in its turn absorbed into the body.