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The Revival of Religion and the Decay of Ethics

by Robert Gordis

Dr. Gordis is the editor of Judaism and professor emeritus of Bible and philosophy of religion at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. This article appeared in the Christian Century November 28, 1984, p. 1122. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It has been virtually axiomatic in Western society that an organic link exists between religion and ethics. In fact, those who find the tenets of religion intellectually unconvincing often defend it on the grounds that it is essential in order to preserve the moral fabric of society. This is basically the position of Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Practical Reason, and the standpoint of the friends in the Book of Job. It is therefore a striking paradox in our day that “the revival of religion” in Christianity and in Judaism has been accompanied by a sharp decline in genuine ethical concern.

Given the distinct religious traditions of Christianity and Judaism, it is no wonder that the revival of religion takes different forms in the two religious communities, exemplified by “born-again Christians” and the ba ‘alei teshuvah, “penitents” or “returnees,” in Judaism. It has not been sufficiently noted that while the divergences between the two groups are real, since they are rooted in varying historical circumstances and expressed in special lifestyles, the two movements are essentially parallel in nature. They both arise in the same postmodern society to which they react in largely similar terms, and they exhibit comparable psychological traits and ideological attitudes.

In Judaism one monstrous event has played a fundamental role: the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust, which brutally exterminated 6 million Jews -- men, women and children -- and left deep scars on the Jews who survived. The inexplicable annihilation of six out of every seven Jews living in Europe before the rise of Nazism destroyed the faith of many Jews in a righteous God, and drove some of them out of the Jewish fold completely.

For others, however, the suffering visited on the Jews was seen as a divine punishment for having strayed from the faith of their fathers. For them, the Holocaust became the starting point for a process of repentance for insufficient piety. The “new life” of the returnees expresses itself negatively in a rejection of the ideals and convictions as well as the culture and customs of the modern world, and positively in a meticulous observance of the manifold rituals in traditional Judaism. The “returnees” seek to recapitulate the lifestyle of the East European Jewish shtetl, or village, of the 18th and 19th centuries. They are to be seen in the major American cities and even in the smaller towns; the men are easily recognized by their long coats, black hats, beards and sideburns.

In addition to the direct survivors of the Holocaust and their families, there are thousands of American Jews who have been drawn to these circles because they seek a safe harbor from the stormy sea of modernism, with its fears, doubts and uncertainties. Many of them are young and all of them welcome the reinforcement provided by a self-assured, dogmatic world view, in order to break with the drug- alcohol- and sex-centered culture in which they have been immured. For them, as for their Christian counterparts, religion and irreligion are simple affairs: “Where there is no faith, there are no answers; where there is faith, there are no questions.”

Obviously, the Holocaust experience and its aftermath have had little impact on the life and thought of Christian religious groups, both mainline and sectarian. Perhaps, as A. Roy and Alice Eckardt, Franklin Littell, Edward Flannery and Rosemary Radford Ruether have urged, it should have. The fact is, however, that the Holocaust is a searing reality only for Jews and for a relatively small number of sensitive non-Jews.

The impact of the Holocaust and the special lifestyle of the Jewish returnees aside, the similarities between Christian and Jewish fundamentalists are striking. Both groups reflect the sense of helplessness felt by the average individual in seeing himself or herself crushed by the Behemoth of power represented by all the levels of government bureaucracy, the wealth of massive corporations and the ubiquitous impact of the press, the radio and television. One is overwhelmed by the new, potentially dangerous technology, and feels outraged by the unfamiliar “permissive” patterns of behavior of the younger generation today. The idea that modern behavior patterns are immoral emerges directly from the fundamentalist reading of the Scriptures. For both Christian and Jewish fundamentalism, the biblical text is the cornerstone.

The foundations of Hebrew philology and biblical exegesis were laid by Jewish scholars in the early Middle Ages, and carried forward by Christian scholars from the Renaissance to the present. Today Protestant, Catholic and Jewish scholars are united in the historical-critical study of the Bible and the use of the comparative method, which has given us a vastly enlarged understanding of the Bible, its background and its meaning.

But Christian and Jewish fundamentalists do not share in this greater understanding. They are at one in maintaining the literal character of revelation and the inerrancy of Scripture, its seamless uniformity and its universal applicability -- often with an assist by the particular interpreter. Moreover, they assert, the received text has been transmitted perfect and error-free.

This identity of view with regard to the nature and authority of the Bible leads fundamentalists in both groups to use the same technique as they turn to the Bible for guidance on contemporary concerns. For them, the Bible is not a collection of inspired books that reflect the spirit of their authors or speakers, be they Moses or Jesus, Amos or Paul. In fact, for fundamentalists the biblical book qua book does not really exist; rather, the Bible is an unsystematic anthology of individual verses or short passages that are unrelated to their Contexts and to the larger works in which they are embedded. The Bible is a storehouse of proof texts into which the believer may dip when seeking “biblical warrant” for his or her own views on current issues.

Several decades ago a manufacturer testifying in Washington declared that the five-day week was prohibited by the Bible, which commands, “Six days shalt thou labor.” More recently, when space exploration became a reality, one influential religious leader pronounced it a violation of God’s will, since the Bible teaches, “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth has he given to the children of men” (Ps. 115:16). In the present supercharged atmosphere surrounding abortion, Christian fundamentalists find the biblical basis for their blanket condemnation of the practice in the inexplicable and palpably mistaken translation by the Greek Septuagint of Exodus 21:22, 23.

This congruence between Jewish and Christian fundamentalist approaches to the Bible is striking, but there is a difference as well. For Jewish fundamentalism, it is not the literal meaning of the biblical text that is normative, but the rabbinic exegesis embodied in the Talmud and the Midrash. Because the concern of the Talmudic sages was basically not the original meaning of the Bible, but its practical relevance to the radically changed conditions prevalent in the Greco-Roman world of their day, the rabbinic interpretation often differs widely from the “plain meaning” of the text. For Christian fundamentalism, the literal meaning of each verse may be applied to any circumstance, anywhere and always.

For both groups, scientific biblical scholarship is an enemy of true religion, a temptation to sin, a dangerous heresy to be fought and, if possible, suppressed by every available means.

Here a divergence in method also makes itself felt. Christian fundamentalism has adopted the strategy of confrontation; Jewish fundamentalism prefers the tactic of insulation. Thus Christian fundamentalists find that they cannot ignore the challenge to the literal reading of Genesis posed by evolution. They have carried on an all out battle against the teaching of the theory of evolution in the public schools. As a first step, they are now waging a war for the introduction of “scientific creationism” as an “alternative” to scientific theory. The next stage is clearly foreshadowed in Texas, where Mel and Norma Gabler are spearheading a campaign to prevent the Texas school textbook board from buying any book containing the term “evolution” or mentioning the name of Charles Darwin. And there are publishers eager to please and to profit who are surrendering to this economic pressure.

Jewish fundamentalists also reject evolution as contradicting the Book of Genesis, but they rarely subject it to a frontal attack. Instead, they prefer to insulate their adherents from any contact with ideas like historical change or psychoanalysis, and try to prevent any contact by their disciples with persons advocating such notions. They oppose their devotees’ seeking a higher secular education, except for vocational purposes. Mathematics, physics, chemistry and, above all, technology are relatively “safe,’’ but social, historical and humanistic studies are rightly regarded as most inimical to fundamentalist dogma, and therefore forbidden. In the field of Judaica, virtually every discipline is ruled out as inimical to the faith. Hebrew language and literature, Jewish history, modern Jewish theology and philosophy, even undue absorption in the study of the biblical text -- all are proscribed as evidence of defection from Torah-true Judaism.

In some modern orthodox Jewish circles, natural science is taught, with the result that the piety of these groups is highly suspect. But in those institutions, the effort is made, as a distinguished spokesperson put it, to make sure that the “science of the students is not influenced by their religion and their religion is not affected by their science.” To be sure, the tactic does not always work out as expected and defections are not uncommon; not everyone is capable of the “compartmentalized mind.” Some go over to the modernist enemy but others remain within the group, repent of their sins and develop various degrees of intellectual schizophrenia.

Having arisen out of a profound aversion to the modern spirit, fundamentalism finds “humanism.” “modernism” and “secularism’’ all equally pernicious. Since all three terms are equally vague in meaning, they lend themselves admirably to denunciation. Yet in a deeper sense, fundamentalists cannot escape their environment. They too are “children of modernity,” though alienated children, to be sure. Many of their peers have been overcome by a sense of despair and have sunk into cynicism; others have embarked on the mindless pursuit of pleasure and physical sensation; while still others exhibit unlimited and uninhibited aggression and violence in society. Even more than their ‘‘unbelieving” contemporaries, the fundamentalists, living in a world of terrifying change, have lost hope of being able to deal rationally and effectively with their problems by their own intelligence and activity. But unlike the majority of their generation, the “penitents’’ have consciously adopted a way of life that protects them against the perils of decadence -- and the term includes virtually all modern life and thought. But not quite everything.

In one crucially important regard, the fundamentalists and their opponents are at one: in embracing the philosophy of “making it” as the goal of existence, with economic success as the highest good. In addition, fundamentalism offers a bonus: eternal life or salvation in the world to come, to be won by taking refuge in a salvific Christ who needs only to be believed in, or in an unchanging Torah that needs only to be obeyed.

Once the decision has been made, the Jewish returnees find communities of like-minded believers available and eager to receive them. The nucleus of these communities is often a remnant of Holocaust survivors. They fall under the spell of one or another charismatic rabbi (or “Rebbe”), a phenomenon for which a precedent already existed in the century-old Hasidic communities of Lubavitch, Satmar, Belz and other less well known East-European centers. Other non-Hasidic “penitents” are frequently enrolled as students in a Yeshiva or Talmudic academy, either in Israel or in the United States. Each master offers the authoritative exposition of God’s truth -- eternal, unchanging, infallible and fully available only to his own adherents.

The ideological factor is one side of the coin; the other is psychological. Modern men and women may lament the sense of alienation, loneliness and anomie that seems to be their destiny, but they often feel powerless to effect a change in this regard. These communities of believers offer a remedy. In a society increasingly technological and nonhuman, anonymous and impersonal, each sect brings to its devotees the psychological support of a closely knit community marked by a warm sense of fellowship, family love and mutual responsibility.

Unfortunately, these attractive intragroup qualities are generally accompanied by hostility, contempt and, at times, even by outright violence toward those outside the circle of true believers. This antagonism is displayed not only toward modernist groups like Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and secular Jews, but also toward those who share the same body of beliefs and practices, but look to another father figure as their leader.

Careful and not unsympathetic observers in the general community have pointed out that Christian fundamentalists manifest precisely the same attributes: a tendency to fragmentation and bitter partisanship, the result of an unshakable conviction that one’s particular group and it alone has the saving truth, and that all others, whether “secularists,” humanists or non-Christians, on the one hand, or followers of different and competing fundamentalist preachers, on the other, are either deluded or deceitful.

Christian fundamentalists are often linked to particular television preachers like Jerry Falwell or Oral Roberts, so that the sense of community is much less marked among them than among Jewish fundamentalists, for whom the community is the central fact of life. But for both Christian and Jewish fundamentalists, their faith, which is a bulwark from within, serves as a barrier from without.

Hence a concern for those outside the charmed circle tends to become muted or to disappear completely in favor of a Binnenmoral, “an inner-group morality.” This attitude is neither hypocritical nor dishonest; it is the logical consequence of the fundamentalist siege mentality which dictates the principle that “he who is not with us is against us.” Thus there emerges the paradoxical result that the revival of religion has been accompanied by a decay in ethical consciousness.

In Christianity, the tendency to downgrade ethical conduct in favor of religiosity may find proof texts in the New Testament. The classic theological argument regarding the efficacy of faith as against works as the requisite for salvation had been decided long ago in favor of faith, the Epistle of James notwithstanding. Fundamentalism builds on this foundation: since all are sinners, the precise degree of sinfulness of the individual is unimportant. Since it is only faith in the power of Christ that saves, the level of ethical conduct is secondary at best. Nor is the material well-being of men and women the first consideration; what matters is their spiritual condition.

Hence, in an age of massive social and economic problems, most Christian fundamentalists have eliminated social concerns from their agenda. Decades ago, S. Gresham Machen, who has been described as the founder and intellectual leader of American fundamentalism, publicly denounced laws that sought to prohibit child labor.

Jerry Falwell, the founder and leader of the Moral Majority, has urged the elimination of unemployment insurance: “When the bums get hungry, they’ll look for jobs,” he said. A well-known political figure identified with these groups proposed taxing unemployment benefits so as to make unemployment “less attractive” for the millions of Americans without work.

No doubt the fundamentalist hostility to social-welfare programs also derives from a belief in the myth of “the good old days.” The rugged individualism of 18th-and-19th century America now poses to us the image of a simpler and more manageable age. But in very substantial degree, the dismantling of the social-welfare system undertaken by the Reagan administration with the blessing of fundamentalist preachers and their followers reflects the atrophy of the ethical conscience and the growth of self-centeredness, the hubris of the successful and their scorn for those less adept at ‘‘making it.” Poverty, illness, squalor -- these are regarded as the just punishment for the failures in society of those who by definition are sinners.

Many of the adherents of Christian fundamentalism are themselves older people, but they and their leaders remain silent in the face of the chipping away at the Social Security system. Mass poverty and need, reflected in the millions of American families living below the poverty level, leave them unmoved.

There is a striking paradox in the fact that Christian fundamentalists, who believe in the Prince of Peace, and Jewish fundamentalists, who cite the rabbinic dictum that God’s greatest gift to the world is peace, are noticeably absent from the various peace and antinuclear movements. As Harvey Cox points out in .his book Religion in the Secular City, “In our day while the fundamentalists attack all that is wrong with the modern soul, they almost never mention the advent of nuclear weapons with their capacity to end human life on the globe. Ironically, the conservative critics do not dwell on this awful nuclear uniqueness. They leave it mainly to the radicals.”

Only two elements of traditional morality remain alive in fundamentalism. The first expresses itself primarily in a call for private charity for the “truly needy” and for the particular church making the appeal. That many of those who loudly call for “reliance on the private sector” are not conspicuous on lists of donors may be purely accidental. It suggests, however, that their slogan is a technique for arguing against the importance of child-care centers for working mothers and reducing assistance for college students of lower class or minority origins, curtailing medical care for the poor and the aged, and cutting Social Security payments down, if not out.

The second element of social morality in fundamentalism applies almost exclusively to sexual behavior. Fundamentalism, both Christian and Jewish, is dedicated to a code of rigid sexual mores, marked by a pronounced hostility to “permissiveness” as the root of all evil. Birth control, divorce, homosexuality, abortion and extramarital relations, for all their complexities and the vast differences among them, are all lumped together and excoriated as the works of the devil. It is ironic that the Jewish tradition is much more sympathetic to several of these modern practices (such as divorce, birth control and even abortion) than contemporary Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant doctrines. But this fact is carefully suppressed by the spokesmen for Jewish fundamentalism, who ignore the evidence or misinterpret it, in order to make it agree with their current attitudes. They denounce all who derive different conclusions from the sources in the tradition. Only loose sexual morals seem to arouse the concern and the wrath of fundamentalist religious leaders. One is tempted to repeat the wise comment of a Hasidic teacher: “Why do you worry about my soul and your body? Worry instead about my body and your soul!”

In contemporary Judaism, the decay of the moral sense takes yet another form. In the Jewish tradition, faith in God is expressed by the meticulous observance of the Mitzvot, which include both ethical and ritual commandments. However, since ethics is universal, being common to all people, ritual is seen as more specifically “Jewish’’ in character. Hence, scrupulous observance of each ritual prescription, rather than adherence to the ethical injunctions, is the touchstone of piety.

The “returnee” is unconcerned with broad social problems, which are human in origin, hence transient and ultimately unimportant. The major emphasis on moral conduct inculcated in biblical and rabbinic literature is ignored. The ethical imperatives are not expunged, but they tend to be applied largely, if not exclusively, to the members of one’s own circle. Isolated passages are dredged up from the Talmud to give the appearance of Halakhic legitimacy to behavior toward “outsiders” that is dubious at best and downright dishonest at worst. For all the adulation bordering on idolatry that Jewish fundamentalists lavish upon the rabbis of the Talmud, their modern disciples are light years away from the Talmudic sages who dared put into the mouth of God the prayer, “Would that men forgot Me but kept My law”!

In sum, the Jewish and Christian forms of fundamentalism, though deriving from distinct sources, are more alike than they are different. They represent the same response, at once truculent and fearful, to the challenges of the modern age. Our society, which no longer feels the need to disguise (let alone control or subdue) its aggressiveness and materialism, finds in the various fundamentalist versions of religion an imprimatur for its anti-intellectualism and indifference to human needs. Fundamentalism is a faithful expression of the goals that seem to dominate our age. That may well prove to be its epitaph.


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