Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is a long-standing friend of PARABOLA and he has granted us interviews a number of times over the years. Recently, we decided to try to find a way to hear from him on each of our themes and when we were told he’d be in New York this summer, we asked if he might find a moment to speak to us. Generous and gracious as always, he cleared time from his demanding schedule not to answer but to challenge and to question editors and readers alike.
What is fundamentalism? First of all, it is a new word, a 20th century word, not earlier. But what does it mean? Today it simply means anything you don’t like. What one finds in the newspapers about fundamentalism is not theoretically sound or sound in any other way.
What is called fundamentalist Islam, for example, is anything but fundamentalist, anything but. Again, fundamentalism is a new development, an extreme development, but not a fundamental one. In many ways it reflects a modern attitude. If it means sticking to the letter, to the letter of whatever tradition, it can be perhaps basic and not very developed, but is not what it is characterized, in general, by this mysterious word.
Like many political words, fundamentalism is a word you can use without really caring if you know what it means or not – you know it as something nasty and so you use it. Like many curse words, you don’t really have to think about what it is you are saying. In my own country, Israel, I don’t know if it is a handicap or a blessing, but Hebrew is called the holy tongue. And Hebrew doesn’t have dirty words. It has all kinds of euphemisms but no dirty words. So curse words in Hebrew are usually taken from other languages. You cannot say dirty things in Hebrew. You can make all kinds of dirty allusions – lots of them – but not directly. You don’t have the words.
In Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty, who is a great philosopher, really great philosopher, says about words, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean. Neither more nor less.” Because he says so. He defines them and that’s what they mean and he doesn’t care what other people think about it. Humpty Dumpty’s approach is really popular today. When you hear people, children or adults, cursing in English, they don’t need to know the meaning, and so when cursing they create all sorts of impossibilities, anatomical and biological impossibilities. They don’t know what they are saying, and they don’t care. They just know that it’s a curse. Fundamentalism has become almost the same thing. It means everything bad. We just use it without caring what it means.
If we are discussing a tree we know what it means, so we can discuss trees and write about trees. But when I don’t know what I am talking about, what am I discussing? Are the people in the American South, in the Bible Belt, fundamentalist? In what way? What does it mean? You can be a bigoted person and also be an agnostic. Being an agnostic doesn’t stop you from being a bigoted and narrow-minded person. It has nothing to do with it. It’s a frame of mind. The frame of mind is not connected to one subject in particular. Is there a fundamentalist psychoanalyst? Or scientist? Of course.People should begin their search for fundamentalists in New York, and then go to Boston. It is unconnected with religion. But you have to define it. If you are talking about professor so-and-so, and you confide to someone that “he is really a fundamentalist,” you can both nod, but what are you saying? What is it? Only if we know can we use it. Otherwise it would be very uncultured to use a term that I don’t understand.
I don’t see anyone speaking for fundamentalism. Everyone says there are millions of fundamentalists. In itself that seems strange to me. But you never meet them. Somebody should find one and have him or her defend the position. There are extremists, there are militants. This is something that can be very well understood. It is not difficult to identify what an extremist or a militant is. But we must keep asking the question: what does it mean to be a fundamentalist?