I’ve recently encountered some extremist fundamentalist Jews . Here are my thoughts on how to deal with Orthodox radicals (if you must).
Radicals are extremely narcissistic. Which is ironic as they claim the mantle of total selflessness and commitment to God. And yet, its only to be expected. Because for the radical, there exists but one reality: his view of the world and tradition. The Radical has a total relentless commitment to himself. The way he understands things is the absolute truth.
Examples: The students of Rabbi Akiva, tragically, succumbed to radicalism. They felt that the way they see the world is the only right one and that, ipso facto, their colleagues were totally wrong. They did not have the requisite humility to understand that perhaps, someone else has a different view that works for them and is still within Orthodoxy. In fact, they cloaked this radicalism as being demanded by their religion (as is often the case). Their intolerance stemmed from their alleged “love” for the other. as their teacher Rabbi Akiva is famous for the statement: Loving your fellow is a central tenet of the Torah.
Rule: Keep pressing the point that the Radical is not selfless and in fact, is so self-centered that they think the only legitimate view of Torah is the one they possess.
The Radical is unable to listen to anyone, including respected rabbis. Many a rabbi has found out too late that the Radical was only following him while their views were aligned. The moment a Radical disagrees with a rabbi, all obedience to those the Radical claims authority for, is gone in a flash. The Radical knows no boundary. After all, he is the mouthpiece of God Himself, how can he let a human rabbi get in God’s way?
Examples: The Biryanim were the Jewish Orthodox radicals that led to the downfall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the second Temple. Although they claimed to be fighting for the Torah, they were bitterly opposed by the Sages. Of course, this didn’t bother them since to the Radical there is but one gatekeeper to the truth: Himself (See Principle #1). True, Reb Yochanan ben Zakkai, one of the greatest of our Sages, opposed their radical militant plans, but, what does Reb Yochana know? He’s just a human isn’t he? A moment before, the Radical claims that all who disobey the Sages are vile heretics whom we are commanded to destroy; the minute the Sage goes against his views, the Sage is irrelevant at best and reviled at worst.
Rule: Ask the Radical why he only views some Orthodox rabbis as legitimate while others are entirely misguided in his view. Ask him what qualifies him to make this value judgment about those more knowledgeable and experienced than him. Do not be distracted by his diversions.
Principle #2 leads to Principle #3: The Radical, often does not seek rabbinic or halachic authority for his extremist actions. The Radical, knowing only one authority ( Principle #1) and ultimately not subservient to anyone else (Principle #2), will often do as he sees fit, without any check on his behavior. This includes breaking halacha, spreading truth (lashon hara), lies (motzi shem ra), and stories (rechilus) about those he wishes to defame. This includes defaming respected rabbis (see Principle #2). The Radical never consults with a Rav to seek counsel whether he can break halacha for his goals.
Examples: The Biryonim burnt the entire foodstores of Jerusalem to force the Jews to fight the Romans instead of waiting out a siege. In doing so, they broke numerous property and monetary laws, not to mention religious laws, and yet, this gave them no pause. If disregarding Torah is required to further his agenda, the Radical does not pause. No doubt, the Biryonim never consulted a competent halachic authority whether the are allowed to damage someone else’s property.
Avigdor, one of the early misnagdim that opposed chassidus, lied to the Russians and accused the Alter Rebbe (the first Chabad Rebbe) of supporting Turkey. This led to his imprisonment and much suffering. As far we know, Avigdor did not seek counsel from the great Lithuanian rabbis of the day. Avigdor was a Radical and thus when it came to time to break halacha to further his agenda, that is precisely what he did.
Another example: the followers of Rabbi Zonnenfeld. Knowing that their teacher Rabbi Zonnenfeld disapproved of him, when Rav Kook came to Jerusalem, they put up signs defaming him and his character. They did not ask Rabbi Zonnenfeld if they should do so. After all, they really know what’s best. They are the mouthpiece of God. And Rabbi Zonnenfeld? He’s close but they really know what needs to be done.
Rule: Keep the Radical honest. If he is making claims that others are saying things that are heretical, relentlessly press the point that he is no theologian. Ask him who deemed him an expert on religious theology, theosophy or philosophy. He will seek to divert but press it home. Don’t stop until he produces several rabbinic figures willing to go on record that the alleged “heretic” is indeed saying things beyond the pale of Orthodox thought.
If he is saying that someone is espousing psychologically invalid ideas, press the point that he is not qualified to be making these claims .
If he is making cultural claims, ask him who appointed him the mouthpiece of the community? Did he take a consensus? How many people agree with him? Who are they? Stay concrete and specific.
As Principle #1 tells us, Radicals are extremely self centered. There is only one path, their own. To be sure there are paths within Judaism that are wrong; namely, ones that openly advocate breaking halacha. And Radicals will often make broad claims that you are breaking halacha. But what you’ll find is that, when you press the Radical for a concrete case of you breaking halacha, all the Radical will have is his own interpretation of what you said or did. I.e. the Radical’s claim that someone is beyond halacha is always never what the other person said or did, but rather what the Radical thinks the other person really meant or really did; always an interpretation instead of concrete fact.
Rule: Be relentless. Focus on specifics and objective fact, the domain the Radical is helpless in.
The Radical is extremely insecure and has a fragile sense of self. The Radical is unable to be honest and human about his emotions. If he doesn’t like you he will never say, “I don’t like you, I don’t like your views.” Instead he will always frame it as the Torah not liking what you represent or think. Although this partly stems from the Radical’s self-centeredness (see #1), (i.e. the Radical thinks if he feels something it must be in line with Torah,) it also comes from his lack of comfortability with himself. He is afraid to take a position with integrity and honesty about his feelings because he feels he is fundamentally invalid as a person and thus illegitimate without Torah. He therefore forces Torah into everything, even when it doesn’t fit. Often the Radical will make repeated claims that he is not emotionally invested in what he is doing and that is merely an obligation the Torah places on him, leaving him no choice. To the Radical, if he has a visceral reaction, the Torah does as well.
Rule: Force the Radical to show he is really angry and seething with resentment. Often the Radical will betray this emotional investment when you begin to show him that his position is a doubtful one. Then point out the obvious: the Radical is extremely emotionally invested in his position and usually not thinking clearly.
The Radical does not really respect the Torah itself. The Radical being unable to handle complexity of thought and nuance, seeks to make the Torah in his own image: simplistic and black and white. The Radical thus does not respect the depth of Torah and reduces it to absolutist terms. Indeed the Torah is quite absolute in certain areas of halacha but, of course, this is never the area the Radical speaks of.
Rule: Frame the debate in terms of the Radical disrespecting Torah. Place him on the defensive and create a narrative that you are the defender of Torah, not him.
The Radical never speaks in specifics, always in broad generalities. He calls those who disagree with him, heretics, apostates, destroyers of Judaism, haters of God. And yet, when pressed against the wall to back up such grandiose claims, he is left bare. Often he will then resort to interpreting your statement and position purely from his viewpoint (see #4 and #1), claiming he knows what you really think. Ultimately, the Radical condemns others based on gut feeling not fact (see #5).
Rule: Do not move past a grandiose claim. If the Radical calls someone a heretic, stay with that semantic until he is forced to admit that, indeed this person never said or did anything that halachically classifies him as a heretic. Indeed, most Radicals don’t even know where in Torah the laws of heresy are dealt with. Do not be distracted by new claims and other statements. Pick one broad claim and character assassination claim and nail him to it, forcing him to swallow his words.