Jewish fundamentalism

From Academic Kids


The term Jewish fundamentalism is used to refer to religious fundamentalist religious beliefs among Jews.

The term "fundamentalism" has two technical uses: (A) As a modern phenomenon, characterized by a sense of embattled alienation in the midst of the surrounding culture, even where the culture may be nominally influenced by the adherents' religion. (B) As a way of approaching one's religious scripture; i.e. in fundamentalism one holds that one's religious texts are infallible and historically accurate.

The term "fundamentalism" was originally used in reference to certain Christian groups but today commonly refers to the anti-modernist movements of any religion based on literal interpretation of religious scriptures.


Orthodox Judaism is characterized by a fervent belief in the divine origin of the Torah (i.e., that the five books of Moses were literally given by God to Moses). Most Orthodox rabbis describe the Torah as literally being one long quote from God himself.

Most streams of Judaism (aside from Karaism) believe that the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible, Old Testament) can not be understood literally or alone, but rather must be read in conjunction with additional material known as the oral law, contained in the Mishnah, Talmud, and subsequent legal codes. As one opinion in the Babylonian Talmud recorded in Tractate Brachot (laws of Blessings) states, every statement made by every student to their teacher was given to Moses on Sinai. This opinion has been interpreted in many ways --- taken to extremes, it implies that each law within the vast literature of Jewish legal codes is regarded as sacred and infallible, (even if some believe that it contradicts others), and there are undoubtably some who believe this.

Most Orthodox Jews don't believe this statement literally, but rather apply different gradations of holiness to each statement:

  • Laws of Torah origin come from God directly (e.g., the prohibition of eating/cooking/benefitting from mixtures of milk and domestically cultivated red meat)
  • Laws of Rabbinic decree in order to better enforce Torah law (e.g., the prohibition of eating/cooking mixtures of milk and poultry or wild kosher game); these laws are held to be created by the rabbis and are perhaps divinely inspired (depending on the school of Jewish thought).
  • Rabbinic decree for its own sake (e.g., three separate decrees of Rabbeinu Gershom in the year ~1000 CE banned reading another's mail, divorcing a woman without her consent, and polygamy.), custom (e.g., the European custom against eating beans and peas on Passover), etc.

Judaism, reflects an age-old tension between the two conflicting notions of "Torah from Heaven" (the divine component) and "The Torah is not in Heaven" (the human component). Throughout history, and to this very day, these two notions continue to exist in a dialectical tension. These tensions, while they are often not the historical forces that less to the creation of modern Jewish denominations, can nevertheless help to characterize these denominations. The dialectical tensions lead to a wide spectrum of belief and practice which need not be reflected by the boundaries of the various diaspora denominations, but have nevertheless become commonly associated with them. The various positions within Orthodox Judaism, for instance, and especially in Haredi Judaism, tend towards minimizing the human contribution to Jewish law, custom, and thought (though even here too there are often striking exceptions to the generalisation). This minimizing approach affects how rabbinic texts, especially of the talmudic period, are read, raising questions such as: Are the texts literally or historically true? To what degree is the text itself divinely inspired, and to what degree may we question the accuracy of its transmission? The further the minimalist approach is taken, the more it becomes appropriate to call it "fundamentalism" by those who use the term. Nevertheless, it may be argued that the term does not do justice to the nuances of the historical and modern tensions within Judaism's rabbinic tradition.

Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism may be said to oppose fundamentalism in the sense that, in varying degrees among people within these movements (especially the latter), "The Torah is not in Heaven" (i.e. the human component) becomes the dominating force within their current ideologies, eclipsing the other end of the axis of tension ("Torah from Heaven") either partially or completely.

Fundamentalism and the Israeli settlement movement

The Israeli settlement movement in the West Bank and Gaza is motivated by both secular and religious reasons. However, many of the most controversial settlement leaders are associated with Jewish fundamentalists who support the concept of "Greater Israel".

People in this group represent only a fringe of Israeli society, albeit a fringe that is well organized and has significant political clout through religious parties. One example of a supporter of Greater Israel is Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, formerly the rabbi of Yamit in the Sinai, and now of the Temple Institute of the Old City. In this view, Jews do not have to conquer the land of Israel, but if they do come to control it, they are forbidden to give it up. This was especially relevant with regard to Lebanon after the 1982 invasion.

See the article on Israeli settlement for more discussion of this issue.

A center of the more radical settler movement is the Kiryat Arba settlement near Hebron in the West Bank.

See also


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