Saturday, July 4, 2009

Jews in South Africa - The Fundamentalist Turn

Having just returned from a short visit to South Africa, to celebrate a traditional Jewish wedding, I find myself thinking about the Jewish experience in South Africa, from the origins of the Jewish community until the present.

The last thirty years or so have been characterized by a fundamentalist turn in the South African Jewish community. What is this all about and how do we feel about it?

The extent of this shift is debatable. To me it seems very significant in scope, especially among the young. This mirrors developments in other parts of the world. Jewish communities in America, for example, have experienced a decline in the number affiliating Conservative and an increase in the numbers affiliated Reform and the various branches of Orthodoxy, especially Chabad and the Haredi outreach groups like Or-Sameach and Aish-Hatorah. But the latter movement, toward Orthodox affiliation, is dwarfed by the numbers in Reform and the numbers opting out of Jewish identification altogether through intermarriage or disinterest. Orthodoxy remains a small minority among American Jews (maybe around ten percent). In Europe, where these denominations do not really exist, the number of Orthodox has likewise increased, but not as fast as those assimilating. In Israel there has been a noticeable increase in Orthodox affiliators, and an increase in overall religiosity, allowing for the development of Conservadox alternatives, like the Shir-Chadash synagogue of the Shalom Institute of Rabbi David Hartman in Jerusalem.

In South Africa, where Reform has always been tiny, and Conservative Judaism non-existent, the shift has been from the unique variant of South African Orthodoxy, that developed in the generation after the first main Jewish immigration, to some variant of strict Orthodoxy, like Chabad or some other black-hat type. So the shift has been almost exclusively to the right, that is, out of the center toward more stringent Orthodoxy – in contrast to the U.S.

The reasons for this shift are also debatable. Most likely the uncertainties of the South African situation (high crime, rapidly changing demographics and technologies, economic fluctuations) have something to do with it. The revealed word provides a source of unchanging comfort for many. More specifically, the precipitous and ongoing decline in the size of the South African Jewish community (from a peak of about 120,000 to around 50,000!) may be a cause as well. Emigration tends to be selective, and perhaps the more secular are also more mobile. The matter awaits more scientific scrutiny.

Whatever the reasons, however, it is real and it has completely changed the character of the Jewish community.

The founding immigration to South Africa occurred from about 1890 – 1930, overwhelmingly from Lithuania. These were mainstream, non-Chassidic, Litvaks. Many of them were religious, like my grandfather. But, very soon their children faced hard choices and made predictable decisions. Similarly to America, this generation became rapidly secularized, choosing to work on Saturday and drive on Yomtov, eschewing kosher food, etc. but nevertheless holding fast to their Jewish identities. Unlike in America, there was no melting pot, no Conservative Jewish movement, very little intermarriage. In South Africa an affiliated Jew was affiliated Orthodox, even though the vast majority of the congregants were secular. This is not unlike the Conservative congregations of America, except that the religious leadership were Lithuanian (and sometimes other East European or British) orthodox Jews. Furthermore, the religious leadership was not theologically sophisticated, like the innovative Conservative rabbis of America. In fact theology, and religion as such, played very little role in the communal Jewish life of most South Africans. It was tradition more than religion. To be sure, the rabbis did their level best to increase the sorry state of awareness and observance among their congregants. But for the latter the rabbis were not very important. Mostly South African Jews of this generation, my and my parents' generation, went to shul to listen to the chazzan and the choir, rather than the rabbi – and to be with family and friends. Some rabbis attracted disproportionate attention with their oratorical eloquence (form rather than substance) and their charisma. But it was their personal magnetism, rather than their theology that was admired. And Jewish liturgical music was key – the choir and the chazzan were the center of the service, Friday night, Saturday morning and on Yomtov.

This mixture of loyal affiliation and secular pragmatism resulted in a vibrant, fiercely Zionistic, high-achieving Jewish community. Members of this community can be found all over the world today in successful businesses, leading professions, artistically prominent positions and community leadership. Their achievements were astounding for such a small proportion of the overall population. They are generally free-thinkers, modern in their approach, requiring reasonable evidence for any claim, not particularly troubled by the schism between the teachings of their religious leaders and their own critical beliefs. They are mostly secular and liberal (in the classical sense of upholding universal individual human rights). Many of their children in South Africa have succumbed to the temptations of the evangelical fundamentalists. Many have left. More will leave.

For me this is very sad. It is the final chapter of the losses I have experienced in the four-decade long emigration process. The country, the culture and the community I left no longer exists. In its place a narrower, more doctrinaire, superstitious, unthinking mixture of alternatives has arisen. To be sure, old-style South African Jews still live there, but they seem to be in the minority – just one of the many alternatives, and their numbers may be dwindling. South Africa may well be alright. It may overcome the multiple challenges it faces and remain the hope and salvation of Africa. But the golden age of South African Jewry has passed.


Reuven said...

The return of so many South Africans to traditional Jewish life-styles makes for an interesting comparison with North America. In South Africa, the British educational system and forms of government at first gave immigrants a vision of a great Anglo cosmopolis, a public world in which they could aspire to become men in general and not merely Jews. But the increasing failure of public life, both in the apartheid years and what followed, to maintain a sense of progress has left them beached on the shore of a modern world, without a sense that they belong in their society and without hope that they ever will. For them, progress has ceased and the only compelling ideals and sources of hope are those that come from the past.

I do not think South African Jews are unique in that sense but I certainly would not compare their religious situation with those of religious extremists in the developing world. The South African situation is evidence that a modern people with a sound tradition have resources to fall back on when public life fails to articulate a project in which they can become vital parts. In the developing world, religion is a political tool with which to oppose modernization. There are some anti-modern trends in traditional Judaism but they are not part of the haredi world I have seen take hold in South Africa. They are not anti-modern but they do insist that there is a vital quality in Jewish particularism that can help Jews push back against the modern tide and find a rational balance between modernity and human freedom. I do not say that this is impossible for secularists, but it requires them to become something like philosophers and that is not a reasonable option for most.

Peter Lewin said...

Thanks Reuben for this very interesting, well written comment.

I think much of what you say is true. I cannot go along with your claim that a fundamentalist base is a nice balance for modernity. I am sure Jews in SA will continue to achieve, though not to the same extent as formerly. For me this turn represents a step backwards into pre-modern obscurity - irrational belief. About these matters I understand there is no arguing. I have heard all the apologetics and metaphysics. In the end amicable disagreement is the best option.

Claims of uniqueness are impossible to prove - but I do think that SA Jews were pretty much unique. I don't know your age, but I grew up in that community. I have never seen anything identical, though Jews in Mexico and Costa Rica are very similar.

Reuven said...

You're welcome, Peter. I don't approach the question you raised from a religious perspective so I promise: no apologetics.

The question I thought you raised and that I responded to is the one lurking beneath the word 'fundamentalism'. Fundamentalism is a value term for something deemed to be 'irrational belief'. It is almost always used by those who accept the enlightenment framework as the proper one for reflecting on pre-modern religious forms.

Before the enlightenment, political thinkers always discussed the relative merits of 'irrational beliefs'. The Islamic thinkers described their own society's irrational beliefs as sacred opinion or 'revelation'. The medieval Jewish thinkers shared that approach. In any case, all political thinkers at least since Socrates (and possibly before, (depending how you read the Hebrew Bible) took revelation as not only valid basis for speculative thinking, but in some sense unavoidable. It seems there is always some body of irreducible, 'irrational' opinion that is authoritative and may not be questioned. So this takes me to the problem you raised with your use of the phrase: 'balance for modernity'.

The complete rejection of fundamentalism raises two questions for me: 1) is it really possible to organize society entirely without 'revelation' (ie authoritative, irrational belief), and 2) Is the range of assumptions underlying modernity superior in every way to revealed or traditional bodies of authoritative opinion? I raise these questions in order to probe, not to offer any answers.

Your phrase (really a question) "balance for modernity" seems to me to open these questions. Undoubtedly modernity has introduced vast improvements in human dignity and quality of life but at what price? Can we say that its value has not only improved but actually superseded the goods imparted in the traditional (ie revealed) conception of human life?

I am not raising it as an either-or question, rather I am sticking to your balancing question: how do we balance traditional conceptions of the good with the modern?

You have thoughtfully sided with the enlightenment side of the equation. I have proposed a minor amendment to the enlightenment framework and asked for a pulling back from an exclusively modern framework in order to consider both enlightenment and pre-modern values as part of the 'balance for modernity'.

And I do not presume that the two can ever be reconciled. The tension is and must be palpable if it whenever we are honest.

Peter Lewin said...

Rueven, your last comment calls for a more extensive response.
My blog presumed certain values and premises not defended. Indeed, as intimated in my last comment, I doubt these types of issues can be resolved. But let me just stipulate a few things.

1. All belief is, in some sense, irrational – not based on logic or anything else - they are ultimate values. All purposeful action is based on some ultimate values that are embraced for themselves. This, I think, is indisputable.

2. I uphold the distinction between positive and normative statements (made clear by David Hume). Positive statements are statements of fact – the world is round. Normative statements are statements of value – the world ought to be round. And with Hume I believe it is impossible to go from an one to the other – from an “is” to an “ought.”

3. I mean by Fundamentalist a worldview based on the belief of revelation and the prescription that the revealed word should determine ultimate values. (So there is a positive claim and a normative assertion here). Actually religions based on divine revelation try to bridge positive and normative statements by saying that all moral truths are revealed by God. This is a positive statement which, if true, suggests that morality is a matter of positive fact not normative belief. Of course, to repeat, we still have to add that because "morality is revealed, we OUGHT to follow the revealed word" which is a normative statement. But, leaving that aside, the claim of revelation is a matter of fact and is an extremely dubious and far-fetched claim - treated as a scientific hypothesis we would have to say it is beyond proof. I find it unbelievable.

So, yes I do reject fundamentalism in this sense, and I believe in enlightenment values in the sense you use. It certainly is possible to organize society entirely without revelation, though not without values, if that is what you mean. And I certainly do believe “that the range of assumptions underlying modernity” to be superior to revealed or traditional bodies of authoritative opinion, if, by the latter, you mean divine revelation in the usual sense. But your question is a bit incoherent, because it assumes some independent standard by which to judge both, where we are actually arguing for the ultimate nature of both. In any case, revelation is either true or false, whether or not one deems it “necessary.” It is a dubious factual claim.

Fundamentalism, in the sense I am using it, is something I find threatening because it seems to me to foreclose certain aspects of critical inquiry. It is also essentially coercive in nature insofar as it prescribes, under threat of sanction, aspects of private individual behavior, in the bedroom, in the kitchen and in every sphere of life. But, in the final analysis, these are personal matters.

Also, I believe that even most fundamentalist believers (revelation believers) are ultimately driven by their consciences - by their sense of intuitive morality - and not by the written word. They strive mightily to find acceptable reasons for what seems to be morally unacceptable religious precepts and find ways around them.

I suspect there is less between us than may meet the eye on the philosophical issues. My blog was of course addressed to a different point – the passing of the South African Jew as I knew him and loved him. I regard that as a tragedy. I fully expect those who replaced him to disagree with me.

Adam Shapiro said...

(Part 1 of 2) As per Peter's conclusion to his previous comment, I do disagree with his compartmentalisation of me, the South African Jew that has replaced his ideal. First and foremost - the word "fundamentalist" is widely accepted to be a derogatory one. The dictionary defines "fundamentalism" as - "strict adherence to any set of basic ideas of principles." Thus, to clear the air, I'd like to stress that fundamentalism is not limited to violent or negative behaviour in any way. i.e. both Adolf Hitler and Gandhi could be categorised as fundamentalists.

Throughout this article, Peter refers to the practice of returning to one's traditional Orthodox Jewish roots as a sort of clutching at straws; leaning on a crutch type effort. This is shown by his explanations of rampant crime and economic fluctuations as the key contributors to the return to traditional Judaism that prevails.

Personally speaking, as someone who decided as a mature adult to ingrain within myself the religious beliefs of my ancestors, I can categorically state that this was not the case. During my 'transformation' ;) I was a young University student, away from home for the first time and the world was my oyster. I was at liberty to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, without responsibilities and without fear of reprimand. Why then did I decide to become more active in my Synagogue and take on more obligations as an observant Jew? I can guarantee that rampant crime (thank G-d, Sea Point in Cape Town has never been terribly affected,) and economic fluctuations (a young student with bread buttered on both sides and not a worry in the world?) never entered my mind.

As Peter correctly states, the founding immigration to South Africa were main-stream, non Chassidic litvaks. This describes my Zaida (grandfather) and my great grandfather as well. However, when my Zaida arrived on the shores of SA, he was observant. After hailing from the world's premier Yeshiva of the time (being Ponevyzh) - they too had to suffer the secular nature of society around him. Nevertheless, my Zaida's father could often be found in his little shop in Bulawayo, Rhodesia dutifully binding his Tefillin (phylacteries) at the start of his day. The fact that there was no melting pot of Jews as in America has been (in my eyes, and I'm sure the eyes of 90% of SA's current Jewish population) the saving grace of SA Jewry.

It is true that during Peter's generation, Jews attended services at Synagogue to be entertained by the choir and the Rabbi's oratory skills. It was more form than content and it was more their personal magnetism, rather than their theology that was admired. It is exactly this outlook that prompted the return to traditional Judaism. It is exactly this outlook that encouraged Synagogue attendees to think more freely and wonder, "there must be something more, something deeper than a concert and a speech." In an ideal world, the cantor and Rabbi were there to attract people to the Synagogue where the volumes of Chumash and Talmud resided and where free thinking Jews could explore their heritage, uninhibited.

Adam Shapiro said...

(Part 2 of 2) I see Peter's comment - "They are generally free-thinkers, modern in their approach, requiring reasonable evidence for any claim, not particularly troubled by the schism between the teachings of their religious leaders and their own critical beliefs," as self contradictory. I believe that anyone that requires "reasonable evidence for any claim," would be considerably troubled should infact a schism exist, "between the teachings of their religious leaders and their own critical beliefs." It seems that Peter assumes that an Orthodox Jew bases his or her entire life on a leap of faith and not on rational, reasonable evidence; whilst volumes of rational, reasonable evidence do exist. The Talmud is filled with instances of evidence being disputed and granted as being reasonable.

I do take offense to Peter's comment that "Many of their children in South Africa have succumbed to the temptations of the evangelical fundamentalists." Evangelism refers to Christian doctrine and beliefs which could not be further from what Jewish outreach organisations such as the previously mentioned Ohr Somayach and Chabad institutions try to present as a viable way of life in today's day and age.

Peter is however correct when he says that, "Many have left. More will leave." I do not think that I can attribute this to SA Jewry's newfound fundamentalism but rather to a lack of confidence in political leadership - not due to policies but rather due to their incapability to lead. I would like Peter to substantiate his claim that the community has become more, "superstitious," and see a further contradiction here as Peter describes them as an, "unthinking mixture of alternatives," whilst previously describing them as "generally free-thinkers, modern in their approach."

To conclude, if Peter's title to this article - "Jews in South Africa - The Fundamentalist Turn," is accurate, I consider it to be a welcome breath of fresh air compared to the wishy washy, liberal (in the classical sense of upholding universal individual human rights), 'anything goes' attitude that permeates throughout South African Jews of Peter's generation, and would like to categorically state that it should provide a source of inspiration to the world. Even though the modern age has brought with it fantastic developments, it is also replete with deficiencies. These deficiencies are what the return to traditional Judaism is trying to combat. Therefore, let it be stated that whilst in terms of numbers the golden age of South African Jewry has passed - we are in the middle of the new golden age of South African Jewry - the age of modernity combined with a strict adherence to the values and traditions that has kept Jews who we are.

Reuven said...

Peter, I was tempted to give you the last word and believe me I want to do that on your blog, but your assertion that "your question is a bit incoherent, because it assumes some independent standard by which to judge both (revelation and enlightenment values)" was really the sum and purpose of all my comments.

David Hume's early formulation of Max Weber's fact-value distinction is not a philosophical proposition. It is an evasion of the problem of 'value'.

To the extent that the Hebrew Bible or the Socratic philosophical tradition have any meaning to us as moderns, that meaning is based on their relentless inquiry into the judgment of morals. Some values are superior to others. Hume reduces values to taste. Jews, in particular, have reason to be wary of that kind of relativism.

One thing I know, and it is made clear in Adam Shapiro's defense of tradition, is that the rejection of traditional belief as incompatible with modernity is in itself a fundamentalism.

Your label: fundamentalism, encompasses the outlook of people who study Yehudah HaLevi and Moshe ben Maimon. I am not orthodox but I have bright orthodox friends who engage with David Hume's work with the same sophistication and rigor that followers of David Hume engage with HaLevi and Maimon, at least when they are not hiding behind the fact-value distinction. This is not a trivial point and returns me to my minor amendment to the enlightenment and your allegation that my appeal to a standard capable of judging both is incoherent.

The standard for judging both enlightenment values and religion is Socratic philosophy. It is a path to knowledge about 'opinions'. To the extent that any religious tradition has taken classical philosophy seriously, as has Judaism, it has a place for speculative probity. That does not mean fundamentalism is impossible in Judaism, only that an intellectually sophisticated orthodoxy is a possibility.

The enlightenment attempt to relativize all values and deal only with scientific fact is an evasion of the problem. Recovery of that rational standpoint with which to judge 'values' is what I have gently pointed out may be one of the elements in our search for a 'balance for modernity'.

Adam Shapiro's expressed concern in post #2 about liberalism and universal values did not seem to me a blanket rejection of liberal democracy. Its context was the relativization of values that accompanies the modern mindset and that may require a minor amendment, ie the standpoint outside both revelation and enlightenment skepticism.

Mr. Sharpiro appears to have re turned to Judaism because the tradition is not shy about weighing and judging values. It has something to teach. It is not a mere belief system, but neither is it appropriate or desirable for all modern people. It may be desirable for some, including some exceptionally probing, conscientious people who also value truth but approach differently to David Hume.

Once upon a time philosophers did that, too. I mourn the loss of that rational tradition as much as you mourn for the loss of the secular South African Jew. Pending its return, traditional religion that is open to classical philosophy strikes me as wise option.

Peter Lewin said...

Adam and Rueven,

I am most appreciative of this discussion. Thank you for taking me to task over some of the more fuzzy areas of my blog and for providing eloquent responses to some of my points.

The discussion now deals essentially with two issues - the nature of what I call fundamentalism and its applicability to SA Jews; and the nature of a worldview based on revelation.

Concerning the latter, as I suspected, this gets rapidly into philosophical issues that I doubt can be resolved - especially in this forum. For example, I reject in the strongest terms Reuven's characterization of Hume's is-ougtht distinction. This is a fundamental (excuse the term) divide in these matters. To object against the relativization of value, seems to me to be silly. Value is alway relative - subjective - and no amount of protestation can make it absolute. Unless of course one can believe in revelation, which is the whole point. 

Regarding the former, I acknowledge that the use of the word fundamentalism is provocative - intendedly so. This blog was principally addressing my contemporaries about a shared sentiment - a feeling of alienation from our past not assuaged by the infrequent visits home, because what now exists in the homeland is hostile to that past. To us this is a fundamentalism. (I have received a number of sympathetic emails about this). To be sure, it is very different from fundamentalist Islam or even Christianity in its evangelical approach and, in the case of Islam, in its embrace of violence. The similarity is in the acceptance of a divinely revealed code that is absolute.

Yes, of course, I gladly admit that many such "fundamentalist" Jews can be and are part of the modern world and are capable of critical thinking and the acceptance of classical liberal values. (I am not sure about Reuren's attempt to marry Socrates and the Rambam however). I can reveal that my son is a Chabad rabbi and we agree on almost everything, as long as we do not discuss religion and as long as he does not tell me what to eat and when not to turn on the light in my house. Yet I do wonder what would happen if by some diabolical miracle, he were put in charge of a little Jewish colony run under Jewish law. Would violators of the Shabbat be punished (stoned)? I also wonder about the essentially "racist" core of his belief. Jews have a different psychology from non-Jews; Jews are subject to the doctrine of pikuach nefesh on the Shabbat, non-Jews are not, etc. 

Predictably I am now discussing the details of these belief systems and I am sure there is no way to resolve our differences. Perhaps, though, you will understand, how, from my viewpoint, this is an unfortunate fundamentalism.

Adam Shapiro said...

Peter - apologies for the delay in posting my comment. Unfortunately I am unable to comment on David Hume's work due to being insufficiently versed on the topic. Concerning the point of "a worldview based on revelation," however, an understanding of how this revelation came about is necessary in order to understand the Torah's objective view point. Seeing that your son is a Chabad rabbi, I am sure that what follows has been substantially discussed previously. In every other religion in the world (that claims a Divine revelation) be it Christianity - Islam, these "revelations" were revealed to individuals. i.e. Jesus claimed that G-d had spoken to him directly and instructed him to announce a new testament and a new covenant that was to replace G-d's covenant with the Jews (incidentally, described as "an everlasting covenant," in the Torah. The "prophet" / war mongerer Mohammed also ascended the mountain and was secretly informed by G-d that the Jews had been forsaken and that Muslims were now G-d's chosen people - apparently. Judaism however, is different. The Torah claims that every Jewish man, woman and child alive in 1312 B.C.E. - about 3 million people, heard G-d speak at Mt. Sinai and survived to teach their descendants about the event. Please see ( - a website created by a Yeshiva friend of mine. My point here is that if revelation is claimed to have been performed in front of 3 million people, and this claim has survived the 7000 odd years since then, how can this be denied, or seen to be subjective?

Regarding you and your contemporaries' feelings of hostility towards the newfound fundamentalism that is SA Jewry - I would argue that this is not a religious argument as much as a psychological one. Being from Zimbabwe, I know what it feels like to be forced to emigrate from one's country of birth and the pangs of homesickness that this brings. Sigmund Freud categorises this feeling of homesickness as one's "longing to return to the womb" - the longing to return to that home that was for so long a place of warmth, love, safety and security. I personally do not share these feelings any longer - I would assume that the knowledge that successful Jews still live in one's birthplace would make this even more difficult, and this simply does not apply to me. I'm not sure how Freud suggests that one get over these feelings. However, it seems from previous experience that a firm cut of the cord is what is needed. :)

Adam Shapiro said...

Regarding your pondering on whether your son would authorise "violators of the Shabbat to be punished (stoned)" - the answer is simply - no. The laws of Misah (the obligation to put an offender to death) only apply when there was a Sanhedrin (council of Sages) to enforce them. This was only in the time of the Beis HaMikdash - AND WERE NEVER ENFORCED.

Unfortunately (and most liberal thinkers cannot grasp this concept {liberal -in the classical sense of upholding universal individual human rights}) people ARE different. Boys are different to girls, women are different to men, and Jews are different to non-Jews. They thus do have a different psychology. I would argue against your point that "Jews are subject to the doctrine of Pikuach Nefesh on the Shabbat, and non Jews are not" and cite Pirkei Avos 4:3 "Do not despise any man," and further, "Even a Gentile who studies G-d's Law is equal to a High Priest." A High Priest in Israel, i.e. a Jew. THE SAME thing applied to the question of proximity with G-d. It is righteousness, rather than Jewishness, that granted us a relationship with the Creator: "I call heaven and earth as witnesses: Any individual, whether gentile of Jew, man or woman, servant or maid, can bring the Divine Presence upon himself in accordance with his deeds" (Tanna Devei Eliahu Rabba 9). Thus, to counter your claim - the core of your son's belief is most definitely NOT racist.

A quick question - if you witnessed a Nazi soldier dying on the roadside during World War 2, and had the power to save his life thus possibly condemning many more Jews to death –

what would you do?

Bear in mind that for a non-religious Jew the question of Shabbos observance does not even come to the fore.

Adam Shapiro said...

Apologies - I meant to write "and this claim has survived the 3300 odd years since then, how can this be denied, or seen to be subjective?" and not "7000." ;)

Peter Lewin said...

Part 1)


Thanks for your sincere comments.

You are correct I have heard these (and many typical other) arguments before - not only form my son.

except for one point, we are now into discussing the theology of revelation, and, out of deference to the general reader it may be appropriate to take this to private email. On the other hand, while the arguments are old-hat to me, they may be interesting to anyone following this. So I will leave it up to you.

The one point that you made that still addresses my original blog is the reaction of my contemporaries to the fundamentalist turn. I suppose it is all a matter of viewpoint. I do not see them as harboring “feelings of hostility” toward the newfound fundamentalism. I see them as under siege from this worldview - which claims a monopoly of the truth and judges and prescribes their behavior at every turn. I think we differ over who is the "victim" here.

You say I am talking psychology, not religion. My blog was talking neither. It was talking history and sociology and it was addressed primarily to a sympathetic audience who accept my basic premises - which you do not. So, in this regard, there is really not much to talk about.

Peter Lewin said...

(Part 2)

You make three other points - all to do with religion as such. The first has to do with witnesses at Sinai. I am astounded at how often this is repeated. It has always seemed to me to be complete nonsense, but maybe I am missing something. I fail to see how the claim of 3 million witnesses bolsters the claim of revelation in any way. I can claim ten millions witnesses to something and get some generation of believers to believe it and it is still a fabrication. (Scientific study suggests there could never have been anything like 3 million people at that time in that place anyway - the maximum reasonable estimate is 60,000.) Folk-lore is notoriously unreliable. I cannot understand how intelligent people buy this stuff.

Your other two points fall in the category of what I call apologetics (cleverly avoided by Reuven) - they hurt your cause. The first is about enforcing the death penalty. You defend the law by saying it was never, and might never, be enforced. Why does the law need to be defended? Do you have reason to believe that carrying it out would be immoral or excessive? It is after all the word of God. Why have the rabbis invented mechanisms for avoided its implementation if it is a just law by definition? It gives me scant comfort to know, that among the revealed religions, Judaism is the most moderate because it has managed to avoid the excesses found in its core. For this I admire Jews rather than Judaism (scripture). I admire Jews for having taken the best of their tradition (judged from outside of this tradition) to become a community of intelligent moderates. I suspect that part of it has to do with never having had the real power to implement Jewish law - to establish a theocracy. What if a Sanhedrin were to be established with power to enforce its principles?

Your second point contains a series of non-sequiturs. One cannot deny that men and women are fundamentally different - though not nearly as different as fundamentalist Judaism claims. One most certainly can deny that Jews and non-Jews are fundamentally different - and I do deny this. Your remarks here amount to empty assertions using the authority of the source whose validity we are debating.

You are wrong on the question of Pikuach Nefesh, I suggest you research it. You will find that it is permitted to violate the Shabbat in order to save a non-Jew because not to do so may bring danger upon members of the Jewish community. In other words, it is apologetics, a way around an unpalatable law. (I suspect that most contemporary fundamentalist Jews, living among non-Jews like yourself, feel, in the depths of their souls, that the “right” thing to do is to save the life of a human being no matter what his religious connection.

Your question about the Nazi is irrelevant. What if it were a monstrous, serial-killer who happened to be Jewish? Actually the law probably made sense for a time when relations between Jews and non-Jews were much different and the Jews were overwhelmingly preoccupied with their own survival in the midst of the hostile goyim).

The core is “racist” in the sense of claiming “essential” categorical differences between Jews and non-Jews – I hesitate to call them biological because they extend to the realm of the Neshoma – which is beyond, but, perhaps, encompasses aspects of the biological. Jews are said to have different Neshomas – to me that is a kind of racism.

Actually, this is the kind of discussion I really welcome from those whose claim to believe in revelation. Most do not have the stomach for it. So I am very happy to continue as long as you are. I view it as an important opportunity to open minds in the pursuit of truth. Of course there is always the possibility that I may end up becoming a believer. I would not bet on it though.

Israel Bender said...

Response to Peter Lewin Blog
The prose of the blog is so eloquent that I hesitated to enter the fray. I limit my comments to Peter’s original blog, before all the Philosophers chose to comment… leaving this South African (‘Boer’) “boor” stranded!
Whilst the subject matter is certainly worthy of debate- your conclusions drawn are both dramatic and incongruous. You put your proverbial wooden spoon into the “poykie” pot and not satisfied that you stirred sufficiently you turned your spoon into a “knobkierie” to proceed to bash those searching for answers in the religious realm.
You further reveal your prejudice when you resort to labels!
Perhaps your perceived alienation from the SA you left is purely as a result of the effluxion of time or more likely perhaps due to the chasm you choose to create between your own liberal outlook and a more focused (albeit narrow in your eyes) religious world view.
Your first error is that you got South Africa’s shift to the right wrong, in your contention that ‘the shift has been almost exclusively to the right’. I contend South Africa’s social and religious transformation mirrors the rest of the world with a tendency to extreme left and extreme right away from centre and not as you perceive a marked move solely to the right.
Perhaps your view is as a result of your recent sojourn being in and around the ‘Glenhazel Ghetto’ and you lacked exposure to the religious disenfranchised ( everybody is religious some just haven’t realized it yet!) and liberal left.
But perhaps your decrying the absence of the “traditionalist” as you remember is not only a function of worldwide shifts away from ‘iffy’ liberal ideologies – but also because the leadership and direction of the SA Jewish community is today under the baton and control of Skull Capped and Sheiteld Believers. These reasonable, rational, dedicated individuals have at a very much younger age assumed the mantle of leadership and created new organizations to marshal the depleted (post emigration) resources to leave a vibrant and Dynamic Jewish Community thriving in a post ’94 democratic S.A. Despite immense new challenges in post apartheid SA where both Jewish and Zionist causes are viewed as allies of the old regime.
Is it because you saw the spokesmen and leadership of diverse organizations such as the SAZF, Jewish Board of Deputies, Hatzola, Chevra Kadisha, Jewish Day Schools and Shuls and their causes championed by Religious Upwardly Mobile Professionals, (RUMPS ….now that’s a mixed metaphor if I have ever coined one!). Or is it because The Chief Rabbi of the U.O.S has become a far greater forthright and vocal spokesman for the wider community.

We make no apologies for our religious fervour but to label this community today as fundamentalist – reflects on your nervous narrow liberal disposition as you draw unsubstantiated conclusions from your anti religious reflections.

Continue to second posting..which follows

Israel Bender said...

continued posting # 2

As a sample:- You reflect that the religious are less mobile; the contrary maybe true as the cacoon of community and religious family may provide protection at their chosen emigration destination. Whilst the absence of security and living with uncertainty may see only a minority migrate to greater Religious observance as a crutch! To tout that only the traditionalists can be “free thinkers requiring evidence for any claim, not troubled by the schism between the teachings of their religious leaders and their own critical beliefs” is tantamount to the absurd labeling of the thousands of pre and post S A Democracy Émigré’s as racist for not wishing to live in a free S.A. under a majority elected government!!!

Your blog also ignores the post holocaust religious denial and immigrant economic imperatives that turned thousands of Frum Litvish immigrants from religious to traditionalist. But once integrated and economically self sufficient, the next generation was bound to turn back to its roots (turning their backs on their previous Parev parents generation) and re-seek out religion as a chosen direction!

Your further maligning of the Rabbinate in the traditionalist era (as you refer to it) for lacking theological sophistication is bizarre for were they to have introduced greater theology into the fray …the unfortunate demise of the golden era as you view it may have come earlier. Or it rather may well be argued that they were practicing inspired religious pragmatism in keeping a generation struggling to contend with economic hardships and new world trials close. South Africa was and remains unique in promoting that the secular non religious/not yet religious would be welcome in orthodox run Shuls .For surely if it was just charismatic oratory or a musical feast or an evening with family and friends that was in demand, this surely could have been sourced outside the sphere of religious observance or in Reform? Or do I hear an acknowledgement that somehow the Shul does maintain Jewish identity! It was the Religious leadership’s forward thinking non-judgmental acceptance of people struggling with maintaining their commitment to their religion and to their proud Polish traditions that fostered their natural return made possible years later by the Ba’al Tshuva movement! Perhaps the Chozeir Bitshuva generation is as much a quiet rebellion (revolution) against the intermediate generation which turned its back on its doctrine and stood for nothing and fell for everything.

continue to posting #3

Israel Bender said...

posting # 3

The information age has also reinvigorated the burning desire of the people of the book to return to the study of the Holy Book(s) – for is that not our key distinguishing factor from the rest of the nations of the world – our quest to learn and teach the immortal word!

To further label the current community as a result of this religious revival “narrower, more doctrinaire, superstitious and unthinking” is crass and belies the immense intellectual challenges that form the backbone of Talmudic thought processed into religious orthodox practice.
The golden age of South African Jewry may well have passed as a result of shifting demography or for a variety of other reasons, none mooted in your blog. But in its place stands a community as committed to its identity and successfully building on the achievements of previous generations without apologetics for the current religious milieu which you are so troubled by, that it forms the final chapter of the losses of your 40 year emigration! Ad Kedei Kach!

My view of a numerically impoverished (post emigration) SA Jewish Community is a community which thankfully can count amongst its ranks a minority exercising their freedom of choice to religious diversity without abdication of their responsibility to actively assist in assisting with the tribulations facing the community.

Jewish South Africa 2009 is not blindly subservient to an ‘ism or liberal ideology.
Seeking the sanctuary of the Synagogue and quenching the thirst by drinking of the well of true Torah Chinuch does not a follower of evangelical fundamentalism make!!!!! A grossly unkind analogy if ever there was one!

Your blog is hurtful to those proud Frum F F B’s and Baalei Tshuva in the South African Community managing diminishing resources and still endeavoring to engage in Tikkun Haolam for the benefit of the whole community. Their contribution still facilitates a no less vibrant, fiercely Zionistic high achieving Jewish Community
No wonder S A Jewry is still viewed as one of the strongest in the world with Religious and secular institutions rivaling those in bigger Jewish metropoles.

You owe Jewish South Africa 2009 an apology!

Peter Lewin said...

[Part 1]
Welcome to the discussion Israel. I see I have provoked in you an energetic reaction. Your flowery prose suggests that there may be some anger there and, as you say, some hurt. So, first, I want to apologize for any offense I may have given. This absolutely was not my intention. I meant to be honest but not offensive and if I have failed in this I am truly sorry.

Second, some of the points you make, embedded in the metaphoric prose, seem to reflect a misunderstanding - of my meaning and my intention. So this should be my first order of business - to clear this up to the extent I can.

Third, clearly there remains some large degree of disagreement between us. I hope that friends may agree to disagree.

Peter Lewin said...

[Part 2]
So let me first clarify the purpose and meaning of the original blog entry that provoked this thread. This is my personal blog. A blog is like a public diary of sorts. I use it to vent on many diverse subjects. It is addressed to anyone who wants to read it and, I hope, think about what I say. But it is not intended as a careful scholarly discourse. Most of my entries are my impressions of domestic (US) and world events. Some, like this one, are more personal. Another in this vein that might strike you as more palatable is titled "Personal Reflections from the Holy Land." You can find it by tracking back on the blog site.

This particular blog entry could have been titled “Personal Reflections from the Old Country.” The main audience I had in mind were my own South African expatriate contemporaries. I was expressing my own emotions at developments I have witnessed over the years and finally decided to try and characterize. Quite a few of them contacted me by email, others in conversation, to say how much they appreciated it and how insightful they thought it was. My remarks resonated with their own impressions and emotions.

The three commentators on this particular blog so far are, in a sense, spectators. I was not really speaking to you – though, I was, indirectly, speaking about you – mostly the frumas from recent. So I am sorry if you dislike the labels I use. I attempted to explain carefully what I mean by fundamentalist – making a distinction between literal believers of revelation and the sanctity of the word of God, and others, like Conservative Jews in America whose faith does not have this foundation and is built on more convoluted (sophisticated) progressions for revelation (of sorts,) tradition, community, etc. That is also the meaning of my use of the term “not sophisticated” to describe the South African rabbinate of my youth. I stick by that, though there were exceptions, notably Rabbi Goss, whose subtle mind I was too limited at the time to appreciate – also the great Rabbi Rabinowitz and some others. They were exceptions. By unsophisticated I meant straightforward – fairly limited to an unsurprising framework of repertoires.

Similarly my use of “evangelizing fundamentalism” was not meant to analogize the Christian evangelists. You are out of context. It was meant literally according to my intended meanings of those words. That is exactly what Chabad, and the black-hat outreachers are. They are dedicated to the bringing of wayward Jews back into the fold of true (fundamental) belief and practice (especially practice). My American audience would understand it perfectly. They would understand it as a term of disapproval, but not as insulting. So please understand the blog in this context, using terms that connect with the intended audience in a different way than they strike you.

Peter Lewin said...

[Part 3]
Again, I was reflecting my own impressions and emotions. For better or worse, I find the world in which you live stiflingly different from the world I grew up in. You may not like that, but that is the way it is and I was, and am, saying so. That was really my only purpose. From where I sit, that new world is one in which people believe things for which there is no plausible evidence (worse, evidence to the contrary). They say things as if they were facts, which appear to me to be absurd. They throw these claims back and forward and they get reinforced by the numbers who espouse them. There is a palpable lack of critical inquiry on issues related to the Jewish religion. I am sorry but I don’t like it. To me it is a retrogression. I do see it as a narrowing of vision and intellect, with superstitions to boot.

You are much exercised over my speculations of the reasons for this turn, however we characterize it. In truth I don’t know what the reasons are. I did note the diminishing population. We seem to agree that this is a factor, though you take exception to the conjecture that the secular may be the more mobile. Ok, maybe they aren’t (though I would not be surprised to find that they are), it doesn’t really matter for what I was saying. Let’s just stipulate that we don’t know the reasons. You may find more noble and enervating explanations. Mine might be more objectionable from your perspective. But it is not really part of this discussion.

You object to my thinking that South African Jews have moved from the center to the right but not to the left, saying, that in this regard they are like the rest of world. Maybe, but I doubt it. I do not see, for example, an explosion of Reform Judaism and rampant intermarriage and assimilation that is characteristic of the U.S. To me it seems as if the remnant South African Jewish community is overwhelmingly more fundamentalist (in the way I mean it) than it was.

Chazonus, could have been sourced elsewhere? No I don’t think so. It derives from the East European Ashkenazi tradition. The fact that it appealed to secular traditionalists in no way enhances or detracts from the validity or power of the religious framework in which it was developed – though, it must be admitted, a full understanding of its nuances require an understanding of that linguistic and theological framework. This understanding is probably better developed from within, but could also be developed to some extent from without – that is, without a sharing of the fundamental belief system. That is my understanding of how most of my contemporaries who share my love of this musical heritage approach it. Sadly, appreciation of it as an art form seems to be on the decline.

What more can I say? I am very surprised at the vociferousness of your reaction and your call for an apology to SA Jewry. I doubt that what I say is so important that all of SA Jewry would care. And I certainly will be happy to apologize for any personal offense given. I would hope that my remarks go some way toward clarifying my limited purpose. But the content of what I said is something I stand by. I understand that those whose beliefs and lifestyles I am characterizing in disparaging terms may not like my characterizations. Frankly I don’t like the way they frequently characterize those who disagree with them – though I understand it from their perspective. And, surely, they are aware that a large part of the world thinks of them in this way. I would find it surprising if what I say about them is news to them. If it is then their vision is narrower than I feared. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “would that I had the power to see myself as others see me” or words to that effect.

So maybe its time to put this discussion to bed. I welcome the comments even though I never intended to get into theology, such as the discussion as I was having with Adam – maybe more appropriate to private email. If my remarks provoke some critical thinking I consider that an unintended plus. But, for the rest, I have said my peace.

Peter Lewin said...

Webster English Dictionary:

fundamentalist: One entry found.
Main Entry:
fun•da•men•tal•ism Pronunciation:
1. often capitalized : a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching b: the beliefs of this movement c: adherence to such beliefs
2: a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles “Islamic fundamentalism” “political fundamentalism”

evangelist: One entry found.
evan•ge•list - Pronunciation:\i-ˈvan-jə-list\
Date:13th century
1. often capitalized : a writer of any of the four Gospels
2: a person who evangelizes ; specifically : a Protestant minister or layman who preaches at special services
3: an enthusiastic advocate “an evangelist for physical fitness”

Adam Shapiro said...

Peter - I am thinking about penning a response to your and Israel's comments, however, I'd just like to say that I appreciate the opportunity to blog this way rather than use private emails. The reason being that a full spectrum of concepts and ideas will be available with full disclosure, rather than individuals missing out on points that were expressed in private emails. Would you agree?

Peter Lewin said...


OK, no problem at all. Perhaps there are sufficient interested readers, in which case, I am happy for the wider forum.

Peter Lewin said...

I see that at the end of Part 3 above, I typed "peace" instead of "piece." Maybe that is appropriate.

David Shapiro said...

Hi Peter,

Pending my detailed comments to your blog, I just thought that I'd let you know, in case you hadn't already heard, that Gill Marcus - a well known ANC activist has just been appointed as Governor of the Reserve Bank.

Gill is a proud Jewess who fostered a close relationship with the late Chief Rabbi Harris.

Another dark moment in the lost Golden Age of South African Jewry.

Peter Lewin said...

Hi Dave,

I look forward to your detailed comments, ---- I think.

That is great about Gill Marcus. Good for her and for South Africa that her parents encouraged her to get a broad secular education.