I Interview Solomon Schimmel About His New Book, ‘The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth’

Listen to the interview here. Read part two of this transcript here.

I find reviews of the book on amazon.com to be all over the place.

Paul Shaviv (the principal of a Modern Orthodox day school in Toronto and father of the journalist-blogger Miriam Shaviv) writes: "Unlike the other reviewers, I was very disappointed by this book. The subject is fascinating, but the book is badly written (very long and involved sentences – sorry) and badly edited. The author is passionate, but I felt that it was disorganized, very repetitive, strong on the author’s fulminations, but thin on research. Unless you already know all about the subject, I don’t think you will really understand the content, either."

Philip Fishman writes:

In recent years a number of popular books have been written on the anti-scientific foundations of fundamentalist religious belief. What distinguishes this book from many of the others is that its author, a professor at Hebrew College in Boston, is a recognized Judaic scholar thoroughly versed in classical rabbinic texts such as the Talmud and was into early adulthood, a devotee of one such belief system, that of a doctrinaire version of Orthodox Judaism. His well argued critique of the foundational tenets of fundamentalist religion are written from the perspective of an insider who has spent many years of study in the leading yeshivas (religious seminaries) of America and Israel. He movingly describes the evolution of his own belief system from that of a fervent advocate to that of a profound skeptic. Indeed, his personal struggle with these issues is evident in the many arguments and counter-arguments he advances for and against fundamentalist religion.

While Schimmel’s emphasis is on a fundamentalist strain of Orthodox Judaism this book also has illuminating chapters providing a critical analysis of other fundamentalist belief systems including those of Islam and the more fervent branches of Evangelical Protestant Christianity. A common thread of the book is his critique of the insistence of the more extreme adherents of all three Abrahamic religions in the absolute authenticity of every word of their sacred texts as the direct word of God, despite strong historical and scientific evidence to the contrary. Both amusing and enlightening are his detailed discussions of the scriptural basis for the Christian belief in the divinity and resurrection of Jesus, the beliefs and practices of serpent handling Evangelical Protestants in rural America, and the claims of Muslim Koranic fundamentalists. To drive home his points he also provides a biting comparison with the animist religious culture of the primitive Azande tribe of the Sudan who firmly believe in the efficacy of magic, witches, and oracles.

A theme throughout this book is its attempt to understand the tenacity of doctrinal ideology in terms of underlying social and psychological factors. Schimmel, who has a PhD in psychology, devotes one chapter (Chapter 6) to a discussion of these powerful social-psychological motivators.

I regard this book as an important and pertinent critique of fundamentalist religious ideology in the first decade of the 21st century – a period when we are enigmatically experiencing the frequently tragic consequences of the dramatic rise, both domestically and worldwide, in the popularity of religious extremism, particularly in its toxic political manifestations.

Here is a partial transcript of our 100-minute long conversation.

Luke: I ask Dr. Schimmel why he wrote this book.

Solomon: "One reason was intellectual curiosity as to why highly educated and intelligent people affirm what to me are unreasonable beliefs. I’ve gone through the processes of defending one’s belief system from challenges to it that are described in the book… A second reason is that I thought there were certain negative consequences, both intellectual and moral, to insisting on the Torah from God at Mt. Sinai belief. I’m aware of the wonderful aspects of Orthodox Judaism, its many positive moral values, many that I strongly identify with. At the same time, there are certain negative implications that the Orthodox world has to address with intellectual integrity and honesty.

"For example, I was just looking at a statement from the Rabbinical Council of America, which is supposedly the most important organization of Modern Orthodox rabbis in America. They just put out a joint Catholic-Jewish statement on marriage…opposed to same-sex unions being classified as marriage… To make the claim that the reason we should support Proposition Eight in California, for example, because Genesis or Leviticus says something about sexuality and gender and marriage and therefore it should be true and binding for all citizens is a negative consequence of the belief in the absolute divinity of the Torah and the rabbinic interpretations of it. These kinds of beliefs generate considerable amounts of homophobia.

"If the rabbis and priests making this statement were to acknowledge what modern critical Biblical scholarship has demonstrated to a high degree of plausibility — that Genesis and the entire Pentateuch are human creations — they wouldn’t be claiming that God is opposed to gay marriage."

"Another negative consequence is the inequality between husband and wife in the laws of divorce in Jewish law. There are also certain negative attitudes to non-Jews in this traditional Jewish literature… I didn’t emphasize enough in my book the negative consequences of the fundamentalist view on people such as Meir Kahane, Yigal Amir, and Baruch Goldstein. This ultra-radical fundamentalist religious Zionist point of view that you don’t even have to follow the laws of the democratic state of Israel because you know that God gave the Torah and that every inch of land in Israel is sacred and therefore you can’t give up an inch for the sake of some peaceful settlement that might emerge in the Israel-Palestine conflict. I can understand that claim on security grounds but to make the claim on the basis that the Bible says so, when the Bible is a humanly-written book, is a negative and dangerous consequence of this kind of fundamentalism."

"There’s a negative intellectual consequence. By maintaining the traditional view that God gave the Torah at Mount Sinai, you are casting truth down to the ground. You are ignoring or distorting it. You are denying the fruits of serious scholarship with respect to not just the Torah but to the whole origins and development of Judaism."

"The third reason for writing the book is personal and cathartic. When those of us educated in yeshiva raised critical questions about these matters, we were disparaged or mocked or condemned by various teachers and rabbis. I had wonderful experiences with many rabbis, but there were many who were more negative. In a sense, the book is justifying these scholarly and logical claims to a broader audience. I would like the book to be of assistance to people trapped in a fundamentalist community or who are considering joining one. I have had many Orthodox people thank me for articulating many thoughts and feelings they’ve had over the years and for providing some psychological insight into the nature of the beliefs in the communities in which they live."

Luke: "You said that scholarship established that the Torah is a human work. How can any scholarship establish the lack of presence of the divine in the work?"

Solomon: "Many people ask that question, but it needs to be turned around. With so many religions claiming that their scripture is divinely inspired and the others aren’t… You certainly can’t prove that any work is not divinely inspired. You can’t prove that Harry Potter isn’t divinely inspired. We don’t assume other books are divinely inspired. The burden of proof has to be on those who claim that the book is divinely inspired… If a belief can’t in principle be disproved, it’s not a strong argument for the belief. If it is not disconfirmable, then you can say anything you want."

Luke: "Do you believe in God?"

Solomon: "I don’t believe in any personal God. I don’t know if there was a transcendent force that created the universe. I don’t know of any compelling evidence that there is. If there is a God who doesn’t get involved with what He created, such a God does not seem relevant to how I should I lead my life."

Luke: "Do you think the notion that God has eyes is morally significant, insignificant or deleterious to the way most people lead their lives?"

Solomon: "For the most part, that kind of belief can be useful in controlling people’s tendencies to engage in anti-social behavior."

Luke: "Do you believe in right and wrong?"

Solomon: "Of course."

Luke: "Wouldn’t you agree that if we don’t have a transcendent source of morality, all we have are opinions on morality?"

Solomon: "I have to agree with that, but not all opinions are equally valid or compelling."

Luke: "I assume you believe that consensual same-sex love between adults is OK?"

Solomon: "Yeah."

Luke: "How do you come to that?"

Solomon: "Why shouldn’t it be? If two people love each other and they want to go to bed together, why should I think it is wrong?"

Luke: "Do you see the moral sum total flowing from this Orthodox belief in the divinity of the Torah as more positive than negative?"

Solomon: "Yes."

Luke: "So you want to take away a belief does more good than harm, a belief that you admit in your book that once you lost the belief, you sacrificed a considerable amount of joy…"

Solomon: "I like the way you did that. My belief was taken away from me. I was exposed as a teenager to Biblical scholarship so things I was being taught did not make much sense… I was taught to think and that Orthodoxy was compatible with secular studies. What could I do? I studied Hume and evolution and the conflicts generated by ny studies led to my giving up my Orthodox beliefs. I wasn’t looking to give up my faith… There were certain positives to losing Orthodox faith and belief. I gained greater intellectual freedom. I exposed myself to all sorts of literatures that from an Orthodox point of view were heretical. I had greater freedom to engage in study. I was disillusioned by many aspects of the faith in which I was raised, which was painful, but it was also a tremendous relief and a freeing experience, opening up vistas of study which gave me a greater appreciation for Judaism and the Bible."

Luke: "Do you doubt your skepticism?"

Solomon: "Do I doubt my skepticism with respect to the specific issues addressed in the book? Not really… I don’t have any cognitive reasons to doubt my skepticism with regard to Torah min Sinai."

Luke: What have been the social consequences to you in the Orthodox community for your heretical beliefs?

Solomon: "I’ve been living in the same community (Newton, Massachusetts) since 1972. I belong to a liberal Modern Orthodox synagogue, Shaarei Tefilla. I publicized the book on the shul listserv. Several people bought the book and are discussing the book. We just had a shul-sponsored education event where authors from the shul spoke about their books to members of the congregation. I didn’t speak but my books were on display there. My book on its jacket cover says I gave up my Orthodox beliefs years ago. Yet a couple of weeks ago, I got an aliyah.

"This shul is very open and liberal in that way. The rabbi is a very open-minded, tolerant, highly-educated thoughtful fellow. He’s studying for a doctorate at Boston University in Religion and Science. Many of my friends in the shul believe as I do. I have been studying Talmud for the past 28 years with a Shabbat afternoon study group. Many of the members of that group are on the same wavelength. I haven’t felt much flack or ostracism from my shul community.

"I don’t feel comfortable going back to many of the rosh yeshivos of the yeshivas I studied at and sticking the book in their face. That would be very hurtful to them."

Luke: "Where does your book break new ground?"

Solomon: "The main contribution of my book is where I explain the reasons why, the defense strategies, that people use to defend themselves against evidence and reason that challenges their belief system."

Read part two of this transcript here.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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