Judaism as Counterculture

What do Senator Joseph Lieberman, Attorney General Michael Mukasey and attorney Jay Lefkowitz, President Bush’s special envoy for human rights in North Korea have in common? For one, they have each come under severe verbal abuse and public rebuke for the principled policy positions they have taken.

And, interestingly, each is also an observant Jew.

Although it’s not the sort of proposition one can prove conclusively, it’s fair to speculate that their personal lives are not unrelated to their demonstrated willingness to stake out unpopular positions that they regard as morally correct and stand by them at significant personal cost.

The saga of Senator Lieberman’s transformation from Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 2000 to his current status as pariah of his party is well-known. What is given less recognition is just how strikingly unusual it is for a career politician to have risked and endured what he has – humiliating electoral near-defeat and ostracism – and yet remain steadfast, indeed, defiant, in support of the national security policy of a deeply unpopular president with whom Lieberman disagrees on almost everything else. If an updated edition of John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage were to be issued, Joe Lieberman would surely merit inclusion.

Commenting on the steady liberal refrain that Lieberman is a “hack,” incoming Commentary editor John Podhoretz writes:

To hold views so discordant with your long-time comrades and colleagues is the sort of thing that can cause even the strongest of men to lose faith in his own views. And most politicians, who must balance conviction with prudence, would go with prudence in Lieberman’s situation and work to stifle his difference with his party’s orthodoxy. . . .

By remaining steadfast on the war in Iraq when others in his party fled their vote and then blamed their inconstancy on the supposed “lies” of the administration, and by refusing to join the jackal-like feast on George W. Bush’s reputation, Lieberman earned the hatred of many fellow Democrats. That hatred caused a hugely rich man in his state to spend millions of his own money to oust Lieberman from his own party’s nomination after serving three full terms as senator.

And yet there he remained, and remains, unbending. This is the opposite of hackery. It is the antithesis of hackery. It is the quality everyone says he yearns for in Washington — principled consistency. . . .

A long –time, highly regarded federal judge, Michael Mukasey answered the call of public service to become the nation’s chief law enforcement officer and, with it, a lightning rod for attacks on a president who has been demonized to an extent that few of his predecessors have been. Despite impeccable professional credentials and a sterling reputation for fairness, moderation and independence, Mukasey was confirmed by the narrowest Senate vote margin of any attorney general in more than 50 years.

Mukasey’s testimony in January before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the interrogation technique known as waterboarding was a study in contrasts: the dignified, thoughtful Mukasey refusing to be baited by self-righteous, intellectually sloppy Democratic senators so patently angling for camera time and to out-do each other as water-carriers for their Angry Left base.

The Attorney General patiently explained that not only was waterboarding only used a handful of times on Al Qaeda operatives to avert post-9/11 attacks, and was currently officially disapproved by the C.I.A. – rendering the entire issue irrelevant – but the governing statute specifically authorized interrogators to balance the cruelty of their techniques against the life-saving value of information gained thereby.

And, for his adherence to moral principle and the rule of law in defense of our nation, Mr. Mukasey was not only dressed down by expedient politicos of half his stature, but he was also accused by the imposing-sounding National Religious Campaign Against Torture (read: a publicist with a website and fax machine) – of which the Union for Reform Judaism is a member – of having “shamed both himself and America.”

At the same time, Mukasey has been anything but a partisan appointee in thrall to the White House. Pledging at his confirmation hearing to quit should he find the president to act unconstitutionally, he has garnered praise even from past critics for distinguishing himself from his predecessor, Alberto Gonzalez, by working steadily to restore the Justice Department’s traditionally apolitical character.

Then there is the case of Mr. Lefkowitz, who was given the daunting portfolio of advancing human rights in North Korea, which is ruled by, perhaps, the world’s most inhumane regime. Frustrated by the almost total lack of progress on both nuclear disarmament and ending the mass starvation and torture of the North Korean populace, Mr. Lefkowitz made the mistake of giving a speech in January in which he noted these plainly obvious facts. (As an aside, Jews have a very specific stake in this issue, since North Korea is a major patron of our mortal enemies, having built the Syrian nuclear facility that Israel destroyed last September and arming and possibly training Hezbollah in Lebanon.)

Well, as a Wall Street Journal editorial put it, “[Heaven] help a diplomat who tells the truth.” As reward for his forthrightness, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice berated Lefkowitz at a press conference as someone who “doesn’t know what’s going on in the six-party [disarmament] talks, and . . . certainly has no say in what American policy will be in the six-party talks.” In fact, Rice said, she “would doubt very seriously that [the Chinese and Russians] would recognize” Lefkowitz’s name. Noting that Secretary Rice’s current policy course is setting President Bush up to spend his final months in office “begging Kim [Jong Il] to cooperate by offering an ever growing and more embarrassing list of carrots,” the Journal suggested that Mr. Bush “listen to Mr. Lefkowitz, while ordering Ms. Rice to introduce him to the Chinese and Russians.”

Three devoted public servants, three principled stands that have earned them opprobrium and disavowal — for Mr. Lieberman, by his own party, for Mr. Lefkowitz, by his superiors for doing the job they entrusted to him; and for Mr. Mukasey, by those for whom political point-scoring outweighs the law and our national security. And it seems reasonable to suggest that the lives these men lead have prepared them well for these sorts of ordeals.

Authentic Judaism is, after all, countercultural in its very essence. Ever since, millennia ago, our forefather Avraham made a radical departure from the prevailing systems of idolatry and human sacrifice and took up his position “across the river,” Jews have been, to borrow William F. Buckley’s phrase, “standing athwart history yelling “Stop!” It has always been so, and continues to be so for that segment of our people which, despite the slings and arrows of scoffers from within and without, continue to uphold and live the truths of Torah.

Only in the last two centuries have many Jews, tragically, given up their privileged G-d-given role of providing a moral counter-example to their host societies, and opted to forsake the perpetual “opposition” for the comfort and complacency of the “establishment.” Some did so through assimilation or conversion, while others chose to create artificial Jewish movements whose express purposes were to mimic either non-Jewish religions or national movements. Yet others discarded the teachings and practices of Judaism while holding onto a vestige of its revolutionary message, channeling it instead into utopian projects of the Communist or other variety; ironically, most of these revolutionary movements eventually morphed into “establishment” regimes that, in turn, suppressed those revolutionaries seeking to be free of their rule.

It is quite the irony that non-Orthodox American Jews are entirely orthodox – nay, ultra-orthodox! — in their unquestioning allegiance to the prevailing moral catechisms of both American high and low culture and liberal Democratic politics. It is their observant brethren in Orthodoxy who challenge these reflexive assumptions at every turn and unabashedly march to a different drumbeat, one that’s been playing since Sinai.

Orthodox Jews are, of course, acutely aware that we are part of a profoundly countercultural movement; it’s the reality of our daily lives. The sundry heterodoxies, however, have never truly faced up to this basic truth; indeed, as noted above, much of their very formation is attributable to the impulse to merge into, or seek detente with, the majority culture rather than exist as a perpetual challenger to it.

The failure of these movements to promote a Judaism that is oppositional (in a positive sense) rather than accommodationist is responsible in large measure for their moribund state. Even the ballyhooed mile-wide-inch-deep revival in Reform, such as it is, is based largely on a dalliance with ecstatic “spirituality,” which is itself a type of countercultural alternative to the crass materialism of American society.

One particular casualty of the heterodox failure to understand Judaism as counterculture manifests itself in regard to gender issues. Reb Avi Shafran recently noted on this site that a “soon-to-be-released report entitled “The Growing Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life,” by Brandeis University sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman, will present statistical evidence to confirm what has been widely suspected in recent years: males in non-Orthodox communities are opting out of religious activities.”

Prominent Reform clergyman Jeffrey Salkin, then of Port Washington and more recently of The Temple in Atlanta (which pulpit he recently quit, if memory serves, because he was unwilling to perform intermarriages) wrote about this in Reform Judaism in 1998:

Let’s face it. The great, unspoken crisis facing modern Judaism is the disengagement of men in large numbers. . . . On any given festival morning, 90 percent of the worshippers in my synagogue will be women over the age of 70. . . . In sixteen years in the rabbinate, I have converted hundreds of women but no more than five men.

Salkin goes on to discuss what he considers some of the causes of this crisis. The last one is that

[S]pirituality itself may have gotten a bad name. Men of all faiths often associate spirituality with so-called “feminine” characteristics: inwardness, openness, vulnerability, and nurturing. By contrast, American masculinity connotes independence, industriousness, and competition. Spirituality? Religion? No time, no need, no way.

Then, he delivers the kicker:

“Real” Jewish men need to recognize a powerful truth: Judaism is a counterculture. “Real” Jews have a different way of praying, learning, studying, and seeing the world. Being a Jewish man is — or should be — different from simply being a “generic” man. For generations, Jewish men have found their “macho” in mastery of Torah, in heartfelt worship, and in feats of loving-kindness and charity. Jewish men have typically rejected the culture of “sowing wild oats” and “boys will be boys.”

The man speaks the truth. I just don’t if he even he realized just how subversive a concept — in Reform terms — he was presenting and its possible ramifications for his movement if taken “too far.” Written ten years ago, his words don’t appear to have much slowed Reform’s headlong rush to into the embrace of the culture it’s supposed to be countering.

A condensed version of this piece appeared in the May 28 issue of Hamodia.

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9 Responses

  1. Baruch Gitlin says:

    A very good article, but another irony the author did not mention is that within the Orthodox world itself, or at least within the Israeli haredi Orthodox world, such figures as Rav Nosson Kaminetski and Rabbi Natan Slifkin are hounded by the establishment for expressing opinions that deviate from the norm, even though according to many respected Orthodox rabbaim, these opinions are within the parameters of acceptable Orthodox Jewish belief. I think we should consider this situation carefully before we pat ourselves on the back too hard for our intellectual honesty and courage.

  2. Dave Weinstein says:

    Let me get this straight.

    A torture technique invented by the Spanish Inquisition is defended using the same arguments that Nazi Interrogators used during their War Crimes trials, and you find this praiseworthy?

  3. Ori says:

    Orthodox Jews aren’t the only ones who see their religion as counter-cultural. The same can be said for Catholics and evangelical Protestants.

    Any religion that takes itself seriously will be counter-cultural in a society that isn’t predominately of that religion. Orthodox Judaism isn’t counter-cultural in Bnei Brak, for example.

  4. Gershon Josephs says:

    “And, interestingly, each is also an observant Jew.”

    Observant, but not OrthoDOX (as has been reported about Lieberman for example). You think this too is a “Demonstrated willingness to stake out unpopular positions that they regard as morally correct and stand by them at significant personal cost”?

  5. Asher Heber says:

    הלכות ממרים פרק ג הלכה ג
    אבל בני אותן הטועים ובני בניהם, שהדיחו אותם אבותם ונולדו במינות, וגידלו אותן עליו–הרי הן כתינוק שנשבה לבין הגויים וגידלוהו הגויים על דתם, שהוא אנוס; ואף על פי ששמע אחר כך שהיה יהודי, וראה היהודיים ודתם–הרי הוא כאנוס, שהרי גידלוהו על טעותם. כך אלו האוחזים בדרכי אבותיהם שתעו. לפיכך ראוי להחזירן בתשובה, ולמשוך אותם בדרכי שלום, עד שיחזרו לאיתן התורה; ולא ימהר אדם להורגן

  6. Asher Heber says:

    הלכות ממרים פרק ג הלכה ג Rambam
    אבל בני אותן הטועים ובני בניהם, שהדיחו אותם אבותם ונולדו במינות, וגידלו אותן עליו–הרי הן כתינוק שנשבה לבין הגויים וגידלוהו הגויים על דתם, שהוא אנוס; ואף על פי ששמע אחר כך שהיה יהודי, וראה היהודיים ודתם–הרי הוא כאנוס, שהרי גידלוהו על טעותם. כך אלו האוחזים בדרכי אבותיהם שתעו. לפיכך ראוי להחזירן בתשובה, ולמשוך אותם בדרכי שלום, עד שיחזרו לאיתן התורה; ולא ימהר אדם להורגן

  7. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    #2 Dave Weinstein: Do you really believe that the use of a similar technique to one used in the Inquisition is morally equivalent? Here there is public oversight and media watch. Here the ultimate objective is information rather than to torture the “sinner” to near death and then hand him/her over to the secular executioner. Are you so slow on the uptake as to believe what you are saying or (I hope) have you just let your rhetoric get away with you?

  8. evanstonjew says:

    They also have the common feature that they support Bush’s mistake in Iraq and his go it alone foreign policy. I would conclude that if Orthodoxy is a counterculture it is a counterculture on the extreme right of the spectrum in alliance with similar countercultal Evangelicals. If Orthodoxy was a counterculture as such one would expect equal representation on both sides of the political specrtum. After all for the last eight years and for many years before under Bush1 and Nixon, America has been undergoing a right wind resurgence. If Orthodoxy is a standing up to the established powers where have therthodox been all these years? Being machshir Guantanamo for Bush is not exactly radical.

  9. Dave Weinstein says:

    It isn’t a “similar technique”.

    It is the same technique.

    It is a torture technique that the United States has prosecuted people for going back at least as far as the Spanish-American war.

    And yes, I consider torturing people (and there is considerable evidence that the US inquisitors have in fact tortured some people to death) morally equivalent to torturing people.

    The fact that you don’t is something I find particularly sad.

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