Are You a Fundamentalist?

When does religious devotion cross the line and become fundamentalism? This question has a simple answer: IF you are certain that your belief system is the only truth AND you decide that you must make me believe the same truth that you believe, THEN you are a fundamentalist.

The corollary adds the following: anyone who doesn’t welcome the good news that they are going to adopt my belief set and behavioral rules will be killed by me and/my buddies in the name of our absolutely correct beliefs.

There are Christian fundamentalists (such as evangelical millenarians in the U.S., Muslim fundamentalists (such as the Taliban), Jewish fundamentalists (such as the Haredi in Jerusalem), and many other minority extremist sects of mainstream and other faiths. While different flavors of fundamentalists may believe in different things, every fundamentalist shares a lack of self-doubt about their faith. In fact, they doubt very few things.

The murderer of Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin of Israel was a Jewish Orthodox fundamentalist; Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers are fundamentalists. the Hamas and Hezbollah organization members who preach murder, suicide bombings, and refuse to recognize the existence of Israel are fundamentalists. But these are the easy ones to spot. What about the fundamentalists who hide behind dogma and don’t actively preach murder?

Fortunately, I don’t personally know any radical fundamentalists, but I have met more than a few religious fundamentalists recently, and I find them deeply disturbing because their approach to life is based on changing the way I live my life and abrogating the freedoms which define Western society. Ironically, fundamentalists are happy to use democratic institutions to end democracy—note the democratically elected Hamas government and its current path of devolution into chaos.

To be clear, I have no problem with orthodox worshippers of a given faith until they try to make me into one of them. That’s what it means to be a religious pluralist—to respect the belief systems of others, though I may not agree with those beliefs (or I may agree with some portion of their beliefs), and to expect to receive the same respect for my own beliefs from them.

Religious pluralism celebrates diversity, welcoming the common elements that bind so many of us to each other, and, at the same time, respecting those things that divide us.

You can be orthodox and a religious pluralist, and most orthodox Jews that I know are certainly not fundamentalists. A high profile orthodox Rabbi who lives in Jerusalem and is also a Member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament) fits this description. His name is Rabbi Michael Melchior, and I had the privilege of meeting with him in private for the second time (and introducing him to my wife and children) a few weeks ago in Jerusalem.


Rabbi Melchior proves the point that you can be an orthodox leader without being a fundamentalist. A friend of mine who is well-versed in religious practice and a strong advocate of modern Jewish orthodoxy around the world describes Rabbi Melchior as someone “who defies all stereotypes.” Anat Hoffman, who leads the official lobbying arm of the Reform Judaism movement in Israel through the Israel Religious Action Center, states simply that “he is a friend of Reform Judaism.”

I asked Rabbi Melchior why he chose to enter politics, and his answer was grounded in real experience as well as theology. A proponent of peace and of coexistence with the Palestinians, Rabbi Melchior was a close friend of Itzhak Rabin and was supposed to be seated next to him at the rally that occurred the night of Rabin’s assassination. Rabbi Melchior was unable to attend due to the bar mitzvah of his youngest son. When he learned that Rabin had been assassinated by a Jew who acted “in the name of God”, that night he decided to become active in politics. Why? “Because”, he explained, “when a man kills another in the name of religion, he puts himself ahead of the Torah, ahead of God, and this cannot stand.”

I asked Rabbi Melchior if he would refer to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, leader of the Reform Judaism movement in the United States, as “Rabbi”? Rabbi Melchior answered “yes”, and he added that, while he does have disagreements with Reform Judaism over interpretation of the Torah and over interpretations of Halakha (this means Jewish law), that this does not prevent him from recognizing a fellow Rabbi and a fellow Jew.

As I reflect on these straightforward but profound statements of Rabbi Melchior, I am disappointed by the fact that Rabbi Melchior is a rare man as a leader with both great vision and great compassion. Recognizing the evolution of his own position over the past several years, Rabbi Melchior acknowledges only that he is, today, “less popular” with orthodox groups.  He also possesses enough self-awareness to see that he does not have all the answers.

The older I get, the more I realize that no human being has all the answers. Greater experience does give one greater perspective, but nothing worries me more than when a person has so much conviction about the accuracy of their belief to the exclusion of others that they see no possibility of being wrong. There is so much more to learn about different cultures and about the history of different societies– through travel, through reading, and through just living life, that we must always remain open to evolving in our thinking.

When you ask yourself what you believe in, are you convinced that it is the Truth? Do you have any doubts? Ask yourself if you feel that everyone needs to believe what you believe to be the Truth. Ask yourself if you feel compelled to make people believe what you believe. How far are you willing to go to accomplish this?Are you a fundamentalist?

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