Virtual Talmud

Virtual Talmud

The Dangers of Certainty

Rabbi Stern, it strikes me, doth protest too much.

It is true that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews are not extremists who will take matters into their own hands to enforce their own social and religious agenda. It is also true that Judaism has produced fewer crazies and extremists than certain other religions. I never argued otherwise.

What I did say–and what I have not seen a convincing response to–is that extremist behavior among Orthodox Jews in Israel, while still small, is on the rise.

It’s not just (just!) Yigal Amir and the rabbis who supported him as Rabbi Stern writes. It’s Baruch Goldstein, who massacred Muslims at prayer in Hebron, killing 29 and wounding more than 150. And it’s Moshe Levinger and his followers who sought to blow up the Dome of the Rock to clear the way for a Third Temple. And it’s the Haredi rabbis who pronounced the pulsa d’nura curse against organizers of the gay pride march and against police who would attempt to hold back demonstrators. And it’s those who take matters into their own hands, hurling invectives and stones at those who don’t conform to their idea of proper modesty, proper prayer, or proper Shabbat observance.


The larger question here is why it is Orthodoxy that lends itself to such forms of extremism, and not other branches of Judaism. The answer, I believe, is directly related to the reason Rabbi Stern doesn’t supply for Orthodoxy’s attractiveness: certainty.

Any Orthodoxy–Jewish or other–is rooted in certainty that its own approach, its own understanding of the world, is the correct one. That’s the meaning of the word “Orthodox”–from the Greek for “correct belief.”

Certainty can be attractive and useful but it has its dark side as well. When people spend too much time with others who look, act, and think only like themselves, they often become absolutely certian that their way of looking at the world is the only way of looking at the world. And when a community becomes too sure that its own way is the only right way, perhaps even physical violence seems an acceptable means to silence those who disagree.

As the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel becomes ever more insular, certainty will continue to provide the blinders that make it ever easier to lash out at the world rather than engage it.

Comments read comments(3)
post a comment
Chana Silverman

posted January 11, 2007 at 3:42 pm

Dear Rabbi Waxman, I respectfully disagree and I also agree. First, there is no such thing as “certanity”. but I guess that may be a prob with the Ultra O. I am Orthodox and the only thing I am certain about it there is a G-d, and I am a Jew. Fear may be a big part of the prob also. Fear of the different, of the unknown; However, if “fear” of G-d is first than fear of hurting a fellow human being, another Jew should be next, don’t you think? As for correct belief, or correctness is one’s beliefs don’t we all mature and change, (hopefully), and our beliefs evolve? Other- wise why the emphasis on continued learning, why study of Torah, why study of Talmud? Maybe to cement a certain way of thinking for some I guess, for others a drawing closer to HaShem – Avoda, maybe? Personaly, I think there is more emphaisis on correct BEHAVIOR in the Orthodox. Yet in the Chabad movement, of which I am a part, I find great tolerance and acceptance for all levels of observance and may I add, love for all Jews. Engaging in the world in is not forbiden at all as respect and tolerance is taught and important. Engaging and remaining a Jew is where the emphasis is. We engage in business, and at the supermarket. How can we not engage? But than this is America. And I have enjoyed reading your engaging blog. Shalom, Chana

report abuse


posted January 13, 2007 at 6:08 am

Gee,there is a big rise of violence among the Orthodoxy in Israel;gee,I wonder why?Could it be,they’re very scared of being wiped out by rockets,terrorists,and Iran next to them,attacking them?(as Iran is doing that.) And that a lot of them ARE being killed by terrorists,bent on destroying them and wiping out Israel?Say,if Americans had terrorists constanly attacking them,sending rockets,and killing a big amt. of the population,bombing whole restaurants,and killing their kids and babies,they’re be paranoid as Hell too!!In fact,THEY would directly attack the nation that was attacking them.You bet they would!!They would drop an atom bomb,and wipe them all out. Yes,they WOULD.

report abuse

Chana Silverman

posted January 14, 2007 at 4:52 pm

Good point D. I think we American Jews forget that.

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

The Task Is Never Finished
It has been heartwarming to read the warm responses to Rabbi Waxman's post asking Beliefnet to reconsider its decision to cancel Virtual Talmud. Virtual Talmud offered an alternative model for internet communications: civil discourse pursued in ...

posted 12:31:46pm Apr. 03, 2008 | read full post »

Some Parting Reflections
Well, loyal readers, all good things must come to an end and we’ve been informed that this particular experiment in blogging as a forum for creating wide-ranging discussion on topics of interest to contemporary Jews has run its course. Maybe ...

posted 1:00:29pm Mar. 31, 2008 | read full post »

Obama's Lesson and The Jewish Community
There are few times in this blog’s history when I have felt that Rabbi Grossman was one hundred percent correct in her criticisms of my ideas. However, a few weeks ago she called me out for citing a few crack websites on Barak Obama’s ...

posted 12:09:08pm Mar. 31, 2008 | read full post »

The Future of Race Relations
As a post-baby boomer, it is interesting to me to see how much of today’s conversation about racial relations is still rooted in the 1960s experience and rhetoric of the civil rights struggle, and the disenchantment that followed. Many in the ...

posted 4:04:41pm Mar. 25, 2008 | read full post »

Wright and Wrong of Race and Jews
Years ago, as a rabbinical student, I was one of a group of rabbinical students who visited an African American seminary in Atlanta. My fellow rabbinical students and I expected an uplifting weekend of interfaith sharing like we had experienced ...

posted 12:50:11pm Mar. 24, 2008 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.