Review: Bondage of the Mind, R.D. Gold (Aldus Books, 2007)

Originally Written in 2009 for a now defunct blog.

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I was pursuing the otherwise vapid religion sector in one of the local big box bookstores, and I noticed a book that was endorsed by an odd variety of voices: Michael Shermer, Christopher Hitchens, Jacob Neusner, David Aaron, and Dinesh D’Souza. This is like a really complicated joke, “A skeptic, an atheist, some observant Jews, and a Catholic are entering a bar and endorsing a book….” Despite the fact I have never heard of R.D. Gold and that the premise of his book reminded me of Solomon Schimmel’s Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs, I can honestly say this is the first time a series of endorsements got me to pick up a book. Given my particular interest in both skepticism and Judaism, I was glad to pick this book up despite the fact it had two subtitles.


Gold’s polemic here is clear: a critique of textual fundamentalism, particularly biblical fundamentalism, by focusing on the group probably least discussed by many critics of literalist religion: Orthodox Judaism in both Haredi and Modern Orthodox varieties. Gold adopts a strategy in the first section, which makes up the majority of the book, of dealing with the various ways Orthodox claims don’t hold up. Immediately Gold points out the mythologized history and the question begging used in almost all fundamentalist arguments. While almost all the arguments in this section are sound, Gold relies heavily on three major sources in discussing archeology, particularly the notes to the Reform Jewish standard The Torah: A Modern Commentary edited by Gunther Plaut and the research of Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. Gold has better arguments to go to so he appears to gloss over some of the research. In the sections dealing with archeology if one is unfamiliar with the history of Judaism or ancient Israel, then this will be quite enlightening. If one is familiar, there will be much more substance discussions in the texts Gold sites than in his discussion itself.

The real meat of this polemic in the critiques of the way modern Orthodoxy—the so-called moderate brand of Orthodox Judaism—has developed its polemics and its politics since the establishment of the state of Israel. Gold starts by taking a part the logic of a dialogue Rabbi Feldman gave in his Orthodox apologetic On Judaism. Gold constructs a parallel dialogue that shatters most of the claims of superior morality or cultural cohesion. He takes apart the claim the Jewish survival is proof of a selection by God by bringing up the history of the Basques and Kurds. Then, Gold’s discussion becomes haunted by the spectre of Meir Kahen, the modern Orthodox rabbi who advocated for Ersatz Israel who as killed by rival Islamic literalists, and Baruch Goldstein, the doctor who was “martyred” in massacring praying Muslims in Hebron. Then moving aside from the terrorists attacks of Goldstein, Gold show the reader how many Orthodox faithful built a shrine around Goldstein’s grave. One could accuse Gold was using Goldstein as a strawman if Gold had stopped with this rather extreme example. Now, but Gold digs into the mainline of Orthodox Judaism, mentioning Aryeh Deri, the leader of the Sephardi Orthodox Sha party, and how

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas Party in Israel … had to say in 2000 about the then minister of education, Yossi Sarid. Apparently the rabbi was upset that Sarid wanted more oversight of Shas schools because of what could politely be called “irregularities.” Yosef was also riled because Aryeh Deri, the Shas political leader had been indicted on charges of graft and corruption… [During a television broadcast] From a synagogue in Jerusalem, the rabbi called Sarid “Satan,” and said that God “extirpated Amalek so he may extirpate Sarid… Just as he showed us in killing Haman and the vengeance done on Haman, so will vengeance be done on Sarid.” He then led his congregation in a chant of: “Accursed is Haman. Accursed is Sarid.”

The whole notion of a moral high ground starts to be clearly only operational if one accepts morality as arbitrary. Gold furthers this by noting how Orthodox Jews reacted to Jack Abramoff by decrying his sincerity. Gold points out that the cognitive gymnastics required to keep this kind of thing up take making an art of special pleading.

The second section of the book is much shorter, focusing on an answer to fundamentalism. Here again Gold stays within the Jewish traditions and goes back to talking about the early development of Reform Judaism. Gold notes, however, that Reform movement had started to move back towards some of the more irrational or mystical elements. He then mentions Mordecai Kaplan and his de-supernaturalizing of Jewish faith and identity. Kaplan founded the small “fourth way” of Reconstructionist Judaism. Gold stops there, but for me, I wish Gold had followed mentioned the person who humanized Judaism, Rabbi Sherwin Wine. Here Gold reminds me of John Shelby Spong and Karen Armstrong—one can definitely feel like he is trying to save the best of Jewish culture without totally secularizing it. Yet his arguments here are some of the thinnest in the book and I found this section to feel a little tacked on as an attempt at ecumenism.

A few of the minor criticism I mentioned above aside, this book is powerful and persuasive. It gives a context for dealing with Literalist takes on the Bible that transcends just Judaism while giving knowledge about a subject much less discussed amongst critics of fundamentalism. The book is very well-researched and one should definitely use it as a starting place to expand out into studying the history and development of Orthodox Judaism. I’d pay for the list Gold supplies in the bibliography alone. Furthermore, Gold does seem to see a model for a way for those skeptical of fundamentalist religion to expand sympathy in ways that many of the stronger voices in the field—such as the so-called “new” Atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens—may not be able to attract. Hopefully, this won’t be the last book by R.D. Gold, as I write this during the battle between Israel and Gaza, and the former high Rabbi for the Sephardi Orthodox calling for carpet bombing the occupied territories and the Hamas leadership declaring divine mandates to drive Israel into the Ocean, voices like Gold’s will be direly needed.

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