Esalen Conference on Fundamentalism: Jewish Fundamentalism Conference Summary
Judaism and Religious Extremism
Shlomo Fischer opened the conference by questioning the validity of the term "fundamentalism" when referring to radical religious Zionists.
As Fischer noted, when Hegel, for example, was translated into Hebrew, the translators used Kabbalistic terms throughout as technical equivalents for Hegel's terms. This caused Hegel to appear rather closer to Kabbalistic thought than he may in fact have been, but also caused readers to think of the Kabbalah in Hegelian expressivist terms.
Expressivism leads quickly to the ideals of self-expression, what Charles Taylor has called the "ethics of authenticity." In such systems of thought, the highest ethical ideal is to be true to one's interior self, to express in the world one's privileged individuality. As Taylor and others have noted, this ideal is a peculiarly modern one, and is all but unknown in traditional systems of thought. Fischer argued that the combination of traditional Kabbalah and modern expressivism has resulted in the radicalization of religious Zionism, often with dangerous political and religious consequences. It is too easy to say that when religious people do terrible things—plotting to blow up a sacred site, for example, or engaging in acts of suicidal violence—they are not behaving religiously. To the contrary, acts of systematic intolerance and violence are often propagated by people who are genuinely religious (or have real "religious experiences"). When religion is tied to authenticity and expression, the religious task too easily becomes indistinguishable from the call to actualize, express, or authenticate one's own personal or will (or political will to power). Moreover, it is no accident that the central issues for such groups often revolve around violence and sexuality, for if the religious task is the re-sanctify all human life, nothing requires re-sanctification more than those most primordial urges.
Politically, this alliance between expressivism and religion lends a supposedly divine justification to what are otherwise secular projects and so tends to inculcate a dangerous political extremism. Religiously, this alliance is also suspect, for it too often ends by making an idol of the individual or community's will. In modern Israel, this is most clearly seen in the way that the "will of the people" is regularly taken to express a sort of divine sanction. Here, especially, we can see the extent to which these supposedly conservative religious groups are in fact very modern. Radical religious Zionists should not be understood as regressive defenders of an idealized past, but as peculiarly modern religio-political movements. The absolutizing of the general will is an expression of secular nationalism more than of traditional religion. In modern Israel, the equation (what some what call the confusion) of national will with religious witness has given rise to the slogan: the voice of the people is the voice of God revealed to the prophets.
This Israeli version of the vox populi gets invoked constantly in contemporary Israeli politics and leads to one of two peculiarly modern political stances. On the one hand, a revolutionary populism identifies the vox populi with the discontented and disenfranchised voices of the nation and so calls for political revolution. This is a form of revolutionary modernism (think of Georg Lukacs, Henri Lefebvre, Walter Benjamin, et al.) with a Zionist twist. On the other hand, a Statist party goes further and actually identifies the vox populi with state of Israel, as such, because the state is held to be the entity most representative of the Israeli people in all of their diversity (a position mirrored in secular politics by the Hegelian right). Statist rabbis and movements may vigorously disagree with the decisions of the secular government but will, nonetheless, finally cooperate because they believe that doing otherwise would be to disobey God's voice speaking through the nation-state. The recent disengagement from Gaza, which was opposed by almost all radical Zionist parties, went so smoothly because the settler rabbis were Statists and so faithfully acquiesced to the will of the government, despite their own serious objections to the policy.
As a final practical observation, Fischer noted how this attention to the vox populi explains why radical religious Zionists are eager to dialogue with their Israeli counterparts (whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative) but see little need to dialogue with Palestinians and Arabs. Both Statists and populists see the Israeli people as somehow organically expressing the will of God and so, even if they fiercely disagree, they have to pay attention to each other. Arabs, however, are excluded from this organic conception of the nation and are thus little more than bit players in a drama that centers on the relationship between God and the people/nation of Israel. Science, Culture and Integral Yoga