Minds In Bondage?

Orthodox males recite a blessing each morning thanking God “for not making me a woman.”

In eSkeptic, Tim Callahan reviewed R. D. Gold’s book entitled Bondage of the Mind: How Old Testament Fundamentalism Shackles the Mind and Enslaves the Spirit and writes:

Most of us involved with issues of critical thinking are accustomed to dealing with what we think of as fundamentalism, which implies specifically Christian fundamentalism. 'Bondage of the Mind' deals, specifically, with Jewish fundamentalism. Just as evangelicalism, and particularly evangelical fundamentalism, is a potent force in Christianity, so too is modern Orthodox Judaism a potent force among Jews today.

Orthodox Judaism, like fundamentalist Christianity, claims to be the only valid form of Judaism. In the process of evangelizing Jews, particularly Jewish youth, it refers to Jews who switch their allegiance from Reform Judaism to Orthodox Judaism as returnees.

The spread of democratic ideologies in the 19th century led to a repudiation of anti-Semitism among at least some of the intellectuals of that day, as well as a reduction in legal isolation of the Jews. There was a resulting reaction to these reforms among Jewish intellectuals: the Jewish Enlightenment. Jews began to question the excessive importance laid upon such practices as the dietary laws and the peculiarities of dress affected by the encapsulated Jews. The end result was the repudiation of these peculiarities among those who became reformed Jews. Reformed Jews also engaged and integrated into the greater society around them. Some Jews among those in the reform movement felt that the degree of assimilation had gone too far and made a point of returning to such practices as maintaining the dietary laws and the study of Hebrew, though they did not return to the traditional peculiarities of dress. They became the Conservative Jews. Those Jews who did not engage the greater society, who in fact resisted all such efforts, hardened their resolve to retain all the outward signs of separation, became the Orthodox Jews. We might compare this movement to the Catholic counter-reformation, which was a reaction to Protestantism. Another apt comparison from the Christian experience would be the reaction of those who became fundamentalists to the wholehearted liberal acceptance of modern scientific views, particularly to the theory of evolution, among American Protestants.

'Bondage of the Mind' deals with the active proselytizing of Orthodox rabbis, who specifically target the youth of Reformed Jewry. In his examination of the thoughts, goals and tactics of resurgent Jewish fundamentalism, Gold focuses on three tracts commonly used by Orthodox proselytizers: 'On Judaism' by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, 'Choose Life' by Rabbi Ezriel Tauber, and 'Living Up … to the Truth' by Rabbi David Gottlieb. In the latter two titles one can see the implicit assumption of moral superiority by the Orthodox rabbis: If you accept my hyper-religious view and abandon your secularism, you will be choosing life and truth. If you disagree, you’re obviously deliberately choosing lies and death.

As in Christian fundamentalism, the Orthodox proselytizers target the youth among secular and Reformed Jews. In his book Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman, speaking of his own involvement in evangelical Christianity in his teenage years, pointed out that those proselytizing youth for Protestant fundamentalism homed in on the insecurities and uncertainties of the young. The Orthodox proselytizers do the same thing. The person fishing for converts seems very positive and very certain of his views. He affects a paternal benevolence toward the potential convert and, lo and behold, he seems to know something about the youth’s state of mind, saying, “You’re confused, aren’t you?” The youth thinks, “How did he know that?” Ehrman pointed out that, of course, he was confused. He was a teenager, after all.

Gold begins his book with a series of chapters detailing the Old Testament’s failure to live up to the Orthodox claim that it is the word of God rather than the writings of men. This begins with the failure of biblical claims to match archaeology. There is, despite exhaustive attempts on the part of biblical archaeologists — many of whom were and are either committed Christians or devout Jews — no evidence of the presence of large numbers of Hebrews in late Bronze Age Egypt (i.e. the Egyptian captivity), nor is there any evidence of either the Exodus or the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites as detailed in the Book of Joshua. Nor is there any evidence of the united monarchy under David and Solomon. Further, while the Bible claims that the army of Sennacherib, King of Assyria, which was besieging Jerusalem, was miraculously annihilated by the angel of the Lord in a single night and that King Hezekiah triumphed over the Assyrians (2 Kings 19:35–37), history and archaeology instead support the Assyrian version of events, that Sennacherib sacked and devastated every city of Judah but Jerusalem, and that Hezekiah paid a huge tribute to the Assyrians just to hang on to Jerusalem and its environs.

Gold also details the failure of the biblical claim of divine retribution and the failure of biblical prophecies. A spectacular example of the good being punished, while the bad obviously get off free is to be found at the end of 2 Kings. Manasseh, the evil king of Judah who worshipped other gods, and consulted soothsayers and wizards, enjoyed a long and peaceful reign (692–639 BCE, 53 years), while King Josiah, the greatest among Judah’s reformers was killed in battle when he was only 37. Josiah was only eight when he took the throne. He reigned from 638–609 BCE, a total of 29 years, much of it when he was in his minority. So why did the evil King Manasseh prosper, while the good King Josiah was cut off in his youth? The Bible explains it this way (2 Kings 23:25–26):

And like unto him there was no king before him, that turned to the LORD with all his heart, and all his soul, and all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him. Notwithstanding, the LORD turned not from the fierceness of his great wrath, wherewith his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations that Manasseh had provoked him withal.

So, there you have it. According to the Bible, God kills the good for the sins of the evil and punishes the people for wrongdoing on the part of their king. It reminds one of the old vaudeville routine: “The act before me was so bad, the audience was still booing when I got off the stage.” Apologists, both Christian and Jewish, have wrestled with the passage above, often indulging in bizarre convolutions of logic to explain why it really makes sense and shows that God is good and just in killing Josiah, while not punishing Manasseh.

Gold next takes on the Orthodox dogma of the unique survival of the Jewish people, one of their main arguments for the Jews being God’s specifically chosen people. The argument goes like this: No people in history has suffered the way the Jews have. By all rights, the Jewish people should be extinct by now. Yet, not only have they miraculously survived the Holocaust, but, against all probability, they have returned to Israel and revived their ancient nation. Gold points out that the Jews aren’t the only people with an ancient pedigree to survive into the modern age.

Nor is the survival of the Jewish people for thousands of years the unique phenomenon the Orthodox like to claim that it is. The Basques, for example, have been around a lot longer than the Jews have. In fact, the Basque presence in the Pyrenees predates recorded history. The most recent genetic evidence suggests that they have survived in place for some forty thousand years, more than ten times the duration of an identifiable Jewish culture. And in (for them) modern times they handily survived violent passages of Carthaginians, Romans, Moors, Franks and Nazis.

Gold goes from this example and others into a detailed argument pointing out that, while the survival of the Jews in the face of diasporas and pogroms is remarkable it can be explained without divine intervention.

After pointing out that Western society, despite its problems is still the one in which men and women enjoy the greatest personal freedom, Gold turns his attention to the problem of what values Orthodox Judaism would replace the secular freedoms we currently enjoy. First, he points out the intolerance of the Orthodox for other forms of Judaism. In 2001 Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that Israeli citizens converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis were to be registered as Jews. This hardly seems a radical move; but the response from the Orthodox was that the decision was scandalous and disastrous.

Gold then examines the position of women in Orthodox Judaism. Not only are women excluded from participation in religious services, they aren’t likely to be treated as fully human outside that context either. Gold relates the nature of an interview given to Deborah Sontag by Rabbi Menacham Mendel Taub in 2000. Questions and answers were related through a secretary, since the rabbi didn’t take questions from women, and assistants placed a barrier between Sontag and the Rabbi, so he wouldn’t have to even see her. Orthodox males recite a blessing each morning thanking God “for not making me a woman.” One of the great reforms of the Jewish Enlightenment was to give women the right to an education.

Gold goes on to point out examples of virulent Orthodox rage against any opposition, making an excellent case for the comparison of these rabbis and their followers to Muslim theocrats. Common to both groups is an implicit, and sometimes explicit, hostility towards democracy. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that, should their views overwhelm opposing viewpoints in Israel’s pluralist society, that nation would, in short order, be converted into a theocratic state, not unlike Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Christopher Hitchens said that “R. D. Gold is a fresh new voice, a witty and mordant guide through the moral and intellectual chaos of the tribalism and special pleading that is Orthodox Judaism - and, by extension, all religious fundamentalism. I enjoyed this book immensely. You will, too.”

Dinesh D'souza agrees saying “Bondage of the Mind is a strong, original, and very readable book that addresses an important topic in a clear and convincing manner - and it could not be more timely. It is not only for a Jewish audience or a liberal audience. I am a conservative columnist and former editor of a Catholic magazine, and I found the book captivating. Bondage of the Mind provocatively confronts issues of interest to everyone.”

Are orthodox Jews in Bondage?

Posted April 10, 2008