American Libertarianism, Orthodox Libertarianism, and Lessons from Shushan
Lately, I have been haunted with the feeling that the moral stability of American society is quickly and quite substantially crumbling. Although moral norms have very arguably declined over time, such decline seems to be astonishingly accelerated at present. One of my clients recently commented the same to me, and my sense is that there is a broad awareness of acute change in the air, as the standards which have formed much of the base of American society are being rapidly chipped away.
As I read about states being required to recognize gay marriage, sodomy laws stricken down and bans on adultery repealed, and I see people all over New York City publicly smoking marijuana, I am confronted by the reality that principles are being replaced by permissiveness and moral norms are now subjective rather than objective. (Not to mention the many indictments of very public figures, including Orthodox Jews, for crimes of the worst types of unethical and immoral conduct. More on the Orthodox aspect of this discussion later…)
What does Jewish tradition have to say about such a society?
In a deep, brilliant shiur about Purim, Rav Soloveitchik addressed this issue:
The hedonic society is, more or less, a democratic Western society, in pursuit of pleasure and happiness. That society’s world philosophy and outlook can be broken into a number of component parts. This democratic society is in pursuit of pleasure, insists on minimum government interference in private life, resents controls, demands unrestricted freedom in matters which do not affect the community, particularly, maters of sexual morality, hates discipline imposed from above, not even by teachers, is opposed to any constriction, and does not like to pay high taxes.
…There is also another society. There is another path which human beings take in order to escape from the finiteness awareness and in order to engage in self-defeat, not only in an allusion but simply in a delusion. The second path, along which frightened man runs in his wild flight from finiteness and death, leads in the opposite direction… Man, traveling along the second path, tries to calm the fear of finiteness through a big lie, through convincing himself that he is more than man. This is done by intentionally magnifying, a hundred fold, and exaggerating and lying about human ability and power to solve both scientific and metaphysical problems of humanity, and by painting, in iridescent colors, the eschatological age which should be brought about by man alone, through his wisdom and creative efforts.
Then something happens… By idolizing man and setting him up as a deity, it inevitably leads to the formation of idolatrous cults, from time to time, like the cult of Stalin… Society, mankind, humanity is idolized, defined and set up as the omnipotent deity… The idol is the class, not the individual… In the name of some man-made doctrine or code, they appeal for sacrifices… Arrogant man becomes a tyrant, and the arrogant society which he establishes turns into a tyrannical society.
As a rule, orgiastic society eventually succumbs to a tyrannical, arrogant society…Orgiastic man overemphasizes the importance of freedom. He simply lacks the courage, the vision, to have the power of anticipation. He lacks the predictive element in history. He does not experience history, since he just lives for the present. Little by little, his power is eroded, and he is replaced by the irrational (tyrannical) man.
The Rav proceeds to explain that Shushan was the seat of orgiastic society, drunken with unbounded enjoyment and self-gratification. Hence does Megillas Esther give exceptional attention to the ornate furnishings of the palace of Achashveirosh, the detailed cosmetics regimen of the women, the eunuchs of the king’s harem, and so forth, so as to portray Shushan as the apex of indulgence in pleasure and hedone. Such a society, devoid of Divine morality and steeped in blind indulgence, is most vulnerable for takeover by amoral totalitarianism. Such was the transition from Seudas Achashveirosh to Haman.
I fear to ponder what will eventually happen with American society, originally structured by some sense of Biblical values, yet now quickly becoming the embodiment of unbridled permissiveness. While tyranny does not appear to be on the specter, a collapse of the values that have sustained American society, and their replacement with trends of self-gratification, do not portend the positive.
Current libertarian trends have likewise made much headway into Orthodox Judaism, as the left-fringe Orthodox/neo-Conservative denomination has begun a robust campaign for progressive sexuality, in which the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, along with a sex therapist and other women, together discuss graphic sexual topics in very public forums:
Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in partnership with Jewish Public Media and Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance is debuting our new podcast, The Joy of Text! This podcast features Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, a Jewish sex therapist, in conversation with Rabbi Dov Linzer, Rosh HaYeshiva, discussing how to relate to our sexuality in healthy and holy ways. This panoply of sex-positive goodness is facilitated by Ramie Smith, a Maharat-in-training.
Our first episode! We talk about (sexual) fantasy: is there such thing as a “normal” fantasy? What’s the history of fantasizing in Judaism? What does Jewish law have to say about it? Finally, we respond to a couple of listener questions about Kama Sutra (illustrated sex) cards and vibrators.
Q&A episode! Pre-Marital Condom Use, Sneaking Out to the Mikvah
Deep Dive: Ooohhh God! Orthodox Jewish Sex – As part of our Deep Dive series on sex and religion, HuffPost Live peers into the sex lives of Orthodox Jews. From dispelling myths to unpacking what the Talmud says about pleasure and power, how does Orthodox Judaism affect one’s sex life? Rabbi Dov Linzer and Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, hosts of the Joy of Text Podcast, talk about sex and Orthodoxy on HuffPost live – today at 2:30 PM EST!
(Hyperlinks intentionally omitted.)
While many of these issues require private counseling with personal mentors, public airing of them is another story. Yet, much of the literature published by the left-fringe Orthodox/neo-Conservative denomination on this subject points to its desire to “demystify sex”. Taking that which is most intimate and parading it in the open media in the name of the Orthodox rabbinate is reflective of the chipping away of the most basic components and standards of our mesorah (tradition). The mesorah that discussion of matters of personal intimacy must be conducted very privately has been grossly trampled upon. (Readers are reminded of the YCT rosh yeshiva’s pre-Yom Kippur lecture this year, in which he professed and graphically described his understanding of the Yom Kippur Avodah in the Beis Ha-Mikdash as symbolizing an act of sexual intercourse.)
The libertarian notion of rejecting authority (and the foundational role of Halacha, in Jewish terms) has been displayed further by the left-fringe Orthodox/neo-Conservative denomination, as evidenced in a recent post by the Chair of the Department of Talmud at YCT:
Rashi got it wrong. Misled by the way things are ordered in the Bible, where the narrative precedes the laws, he assumes (as he says explicitly in his first comment on the Torah) that the narrational section of the Torah is the preamble and the legal part the climax.
As he himself repeatedly points out, the Torah is not a linear text. In this case the order is actually inverted, the law is the introduction and the narrative the content.
For Rashi, observance is the essence of religion, but that is not necessarily true. Religion is theology, not jurisprudence. Halacha is the mechanical means which allows religion to achieve its vibrant spiritual end. Laws do not have intrinsic religious value. They are there to provide the framework in which our spiritual narrative can grow and blossom.
Further bolstering the idea that Halacha is of lesser import than values, this same rabbi, by misrepresenting Halacha and thereupon introducing the remedy toward its reconciliation with contemporary values, postulates that classical halachists have “reinterpreted” Halacha to conform to modern mores:
The first Mishna in tractate Kiddushin is the modern Jews’ bête noir. A pshat read of the mishna implies that a married woman is chattel, the property of her husband.
Using sophisticated legal concepts that were developed during the 19th and 20th Century, traditional scholars reinterpreted the mishna in a way that makes it less jarring to the modern ear.
A group of left-fringe Orthodox/neo-Conservative clergy in the Washington, D.C. area has just started its own rabbinical vaad. This vaad, comprised of male and female clergy, aims to weaken standards.
Members of this vaad will individually perform conversions “without the need to work through a centralized rabbinic body”. The vaad will offer kosher certification to establishments not certified by the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington, which has for decades served as the local community’s kosher certification agency, and it will further a pluralistic agenda toward non-Orthodox clergy and movements.
What should be done in the face of these historic challenges to the foundational values of American society and Orthodoxy?
Rav Soloveitchik, after asserting that man cannot escape his finiteness awareness that drives him to become inebriated with indulgences and pursue unbounded personal freedoms, and subsequent to explaining that man can never ultimately fathom the mysteries of the universe, writes:
Man cannot, and must not, legislate the moral norm. Man should be ready to either accept morality from God, or give up any attempt to lead a moral life. Imposition of a secular, finite and relative code upon society is in vain and is worthless. In my opinion, that is exactly what the original sin of the Chet Ha-Kadmon consisted of. Adam tried to impose and legislate norms of good and bad. He brought disaster upon himself and mankind. Irrational man does that with arrogance and ends up with the law of immorality: l’hashmid, laharog u-le’abed, to decimate, kill and destroy.
Man’s insecurity lies at the very root of prayer. Without the finiteness awareness, without man’s insecurity, there would be no prayer… Prayer, whether of Biblical or Rabbinic origin, bears witness to one inalterable fact, namely, that man is always in need… The act of praying is the religious response to need, to the experience of Tzarah, of distress, of existential straits and narrowness, of Min Ha-Meitzar, when man is defeated…
Prayer in Yahadus is not just a recital. It is more than that. It is a world outlook… You translate prayer into daily life, into deeds… Prayer is the answer to the insecurity of man. When I am with God, I feel secure… Life must be saturated with the philosophy of prayer and the metaphysics of prayer.
What is the way of life which prayer reflects? The prayer life signifies first, the consecrated life. Yahadus believed that each man has an assignment in this world. A man is born, not cast, as the existentialists say, into this world in vain and for no purpose. He is burdened with an assignment. Each man, in the opinion of Yahadus, is anointed, not appointed, by the Almighty to contribute something to redemption, toward the arrival of the eschatological age, to the great redemption…
Casting aside the Divine moral norm in favor of subjective human norms, and replacing Judaism’s motif of submission to God with libertarian values, even in the name of Orthodoxy, bring about ruination.
Acceptance and embrace of the values of the Divine, reliance on Him and humble realization of one’s holy charge, are the authentic approach and antidote of the Jew.