Radical, extremist, fundamentalist. These are the insults of modern politics, reserved for ideas so despicably incorrect we don’t even bother to explain why. And they are relative terms.
They are relative, and relative in a much more fundamental sense than other evaluative words such as “good” and “bad.” Different people might have different opinions on whether a given action is good or bad. But surely there are actions, such as killing people for fun, that are objectively bad, not simply evil relative to some guy’s subjective judgment.
Words like “radical” and “extremist,” though, are fundamentally indexical: just like the word “here” derives its meaning from the geographic location where it’s uttered and the word “now” derives its meaning from the temporal location where it’s uttered, the word “radical” derives its meaning from the ideological location where it’s uttered. Any belief might truly be radical according to one person and not radical according to another.
The superficial allure of these words lies in a vague sensation that ideologies exist on a continuum with some falling towards the middle and others clinging to the radical extremes. But this comforting metaphor crumbles under scrutiny: How do we measure distance along this continuum? Where do we locate the endpoints in order to then locate the middle? If there are infinitely many possible sets of beliefs, how exactly do we manage to find the center of an infinite line?
The term “fundamentalism” makes equally little sense; the idea that some beliefs are somehow, in an objectionable way, more fundamental than others, is problematized by the fact that those who label others fundamentalists tend to cling to their own beliefs as though they were no less fundamental than the beliefs they criticize.
Literal interpretation of the Quran is fundamentalist, but literal interpretation of John Locke is not? Unwavering devotion to a strict reading of the Bible is fundamentalist, but unwavering devotion to a strict reading of Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not? What exactly is the fundamental distinction here? There is none. A fundamentalist is someone who confidently adheres to an interpretation of a document that I disagree with. An extremist is someone who has taken the liberty of disagreeing with me too strongly.
If these terms are so trivial, then why do they so often creep into public discourse, masked as meaningful insults? Because compromise, open-mindedness, and seeing the other side are considered virtues. And harmonization, the simultaneous consideration of opposing concepts, is still formally fashionable. So despite their relativity, descriptors such as “radical” and “extremist” still carry negative weight, and can be used to successfully label political opponents as blindly dogmatic, too assertive, too focused on their own beliefs and unaccepting of opposing views. Of course, when I call someone an extremist I thereby reject his opposing view as much as he rejects mine, but this ironic implication is easily ignored.
YU’s motto exemplifies this formal celebration of harmonization and compromise. The concept of Torah Umadda suggests, if not a tension, at least the conjunction or communion of two disparate things, the simultaneous consideration of various viewpoints and the acceptance of multiple legitimate approaches to finding truth. It points to two sources of knowledge that are at least superficially distinct, independent ways of seeing the world, and highlights the virtue of bringing these two elements into conversation with each other.
But how descriptive is Torah Umadda? How much does it actually tell us about the people and institutions that choose to associate with it? Not much at all. In practice, Torah Umadda is not a particularly descriptive term. The phrase is often used, along with its inspired concepts, to justify all sorts of independent movements. In the larger Jewish community, and specifically within YU and its orbital media, social and otherwise, Torah Umadda and its derivative spirit inspire all sorts of “Torah plus” ideologies. Among these are Torah and social justice, Torah and environmentalism, Torah and feminism, Torah and anti-feminism, Torah and biblical criticism, Torah and traditional apologetics, Torah and liberalism, Torah and conservatism, Torah and making money, Torah and literature, Torah and kosher literature, Torah and science, Torah and pseudo-science, and Torah and sports.
Torah Umadda is a flexible concept, a customizable platform which people buy into and then personalize to suit their own interests. The “madda” half is a blank space which devotees may define at their convenience. It effectively translates as “Torah and Whatever Else You’re Into.”
Our flexible motto has the benefit of being at least superficially unifying. Any YU student not living in a windowless box knows that students here ascribe to all sorts of diverse views. But our equivocal motto allows these many types to unify under a common banner even while disagreeing fundamentally about what that banner means. Torah Umadda might be deeply ambiguous, but its ambiguity is its strength.
Though the phrase looks like a conjunction, the partnership of two separate concepts, rarely do those defining “madda” see the resulting “Torah-plus” worldview as dialectical or harmonized. Orthodox conservatives think conservative values stem directly from the Torah. Orthodox social justice advocates claim that Judaism properly understood values social justice, locating social justice imperatives in biblical and rabbinic sources.
Perhaps then the phrase “Torah Umadda” is of misleading form. If madda, however we define it, really stems directly from Torah, then there are no two separate elements that are being conjoined. There is no dialectic, no conjunction of two disparate elements. The appearance of harmonization is belied by underlying dogmatism.
The turbulent political arena similarly suggests that harmonization and compromise is only formally fashionable. For the first time in a while, the Democratic Party has been presented the opportunity to cooperate with a political movement with which it fundamentally disagrees. And their overall response has been telling – when asked to accommodate a true ideological other, they threw compromise out the window. Until two and a half weeks ago, reaching across the aisle to work with the opposing party was a virtue. Now it is a grave sin.
I don’t think this attitude is unique to Democrats. Generally speaking, we value compromise only when it’s superficial, when the opposing side doesn’t disagree with us too much. We’ll compromise with a neocon, but not with a fascist, with a liberal but not with a socialist. We’ll respectfully disagree with a Republican, but punch a white supremacist. The same holds for local Jewish politics – we’ll compromise on religious matters with a left-leaning modern orthodox Jew, and maybe even (gulp) with an open orthodox Jew, but not with a Conservative or a Reform Jew.
Looks can be deceiving. When we peel back a layer of ostensible open-mindedness we often find extremism, radical dogmatism masked by the language of compromise.