The Spirit of Conservatism

Defining things by what they aren’t is almost always unsatisfying. Negative definitions can be useful in distancing us from what we need to reject, but they don’t tell us much about the alternatives.

Applied to G-d Himself, the Rambam tells us in Moreh Nevuchim that we have no alternative to negative statements. The shortcomings of our comprehension and of human language do not allow us to speak of what He is, only of what He is not. If we wish to grow close to Him, we will have to focus on manifestations of His essence – Torah and Creation – rather than His essence itself.

For too many Jews who cannot agree on any affirmative set of principles of Judaism, the one definition that works for them is a negative one. Jews don’t believe in Jesus. The spectacular failure of such a belief system needs no elaboration; it is evident in the growing debris from the self-destruction of the non-Orthodox communities of the Diaspora, which too often could come up with no more compelling a definition of Jewishness than a statement of what it isn’t.

It should be vastly unsatisfying, then, that a growing number of Jews have broken with the assumed identity of liberalism and Judaism, yet cannot tell anyone just what they believe in and why. They, too, are stuck with a negative definition: conservatives are liberals who have been mugged.

This could have worked when Jewish conservatives were a small bunch who could cynically laugh at themselves. But this is no longer the case. Whereas just a short time ago, “neo-con” was an “N-word” regarded as odious as the other, the failing popularity of the President and his party have breathed life and respectability into conservatism. William Kristol, son of the founder of neo-conservatism, has even been cited – without derision – on the front page of the New York Times.

Who would have thought? And while some may be able to explain why, fewer can explain exactly what Jewish conservatives ought to be thinking. Eric Cohen, the executive director of the Tikvah Fund, offers a thoughtful and useful door-opener to discussion in the last month’s lead article in Mosaic. (Full disclosure: this is the same Tikvah that runs the summer program with which I am associated.)

Those completely new to this topic will find their greatest surprise in the two words that appear nowhere in the essay: “Democrat” and “Republican.” The much-vaunted Orthodox malaise with the Democratic party and its platform is only peripherally related to the more fundamental issues that Cohen – and the conservatism he advocates – considers. Cohen wants us to think not about specific issues like government spending, immigration reform, and isolationism in US foreign policy, but of the contrasting world-views and value systems that generate opposing positions on these issues.

Moreover, Cohen does not even attempt to outline a platform for contemporary Jewish conservatism, nor argue for specific planks in such a platform. True to the title of his essay, he wishes us to talk about the spirit of conservatism, not goals for the next election. What he wants us to think about are core values in political and economic thought, and how they effect us as Jews. The program for Jewish conservatives has yet to be formulated. Writing the essay is his throwing out of the first pitch, and he summons the rest of us from the dugout out to the playing field.

Discovering the spirit of conservatism, he finds not only why Jews ought to be interested in conservatism, but why neo-conservatives are interested in Jews and Judaism.

Moreover, looking at the world today, one might reasonably conclude that the fate of the West will mirror the fate of the Jews: should Israel be destroyed, should secular amoralism triumph, should the partnership of traditional religion with modern democratic capitalism come to ruin, then the pillars of Western and Jewish civilization alike will have jointly crumbled.

According to Cohen, the core values of conservatism that Jews need to embrace for their own survival are the family, the nation, and economic prosperity. Each of these, he tries to show, are threatened by a liberalism that is inconsistent with Judaism, whether in Israel or the Diaspora.

The Jewish idea of the family fully recognizes the animal nature of men and women and their powerful biological and sexual drives; rather than either unleashing or, contrarily, stifling those drives, it seeks to elevate them. The Jewish idea of the family teaches restraint, believing that sexual life should flourish within the relationship of husband and wife who together commit themselves to welcoming and rearing children, the natural fruit of their physical union.

Liberal overemphasis on personal autonomy, freedom from restraint, and suspicion of values culled from the past all conspire to endanger the family. People defer marriage or eschew it altogether, as traditional marriage and its commitments seem hopelessly burdensome.

Liberal thinking rejects the very idea of the nation with as much passion as it despises hewing to a Biblical standard of personal conduct.

Ours is an age that has seen new nation-states and would-be nation-states declaring themselves seemingly every other week—even as, in the heartlands of modern Western democracy, the idea of the nation-state itself has fallen into moral and political disrepute. To the advanced intellectual classes of Europe and America, the blame for centuries of repeated conflict and carnage, culminating in the horrors of two world wars, has been placed squarely on the shoulders of the nation-state itself: the alleged incubator of chauvinism, xenophobia, vainglorious militarism, thirst for conquest, and fascism.

Judaism, Cohen argues – citing the Bible as his authority – accepts both the notion of nationhood, and the right of nations to defend themselves by force. Both of these are crucial, he says, to the legitimacy and survival of the State of Israel.

The issue of economics turns out to be more complex than the binary decisions to either accept or reject the values of family and nation.

The preservation and invigoration of the Jewish family, the Jewish people, the Jewish nation—these are the purposes to which the Jewish spirit should rally. Yet the highest possibilities in life are grounded in how we attend to the more basic necessities. How to feed oneself and one’s children, how to house and protect them, how to embellish life with comfort and beauty?

No one will deny the need for a strong economy, but liberals and conservatives cherish vastly different visions of what one looks like, and how to stimulate one.

American Jews are the conspicuous beneficiaries not of socialism—into which they have enjoyed the good luck not to be born—but of capitalism, history’s greatest engine of wealth creation: a system that, with appropriate safeguards to ensure fair competition, essential regulatory oversight, and an appropriate safety net, has proved spectacularly good for America, for American Jews, for Judaism—and therefore indirectly for Israel as well….

Israel still needs to break free of the socialist mindset of its founding fathers—a mindset that today, despite the many privatizing initiatives in recent decades, still dominates conventional thinking in government offices, university departments, and many yeshivas.

Making the wrong choice is inimical not only to prosperity, but wreaks havoc with the other two core values discussed above.

Thinkers in both antiquity and modernity have envisaged political economies that either require or lead inexorably to the dissolution of the family. In Plato’s Republic, children are raised by the state to assume their state-designated positions in society. In the Marxist vision, the family is seen as a threat to equality and an impediment to social progress; the special ties to one’s own children are the seeds of injustice, driving mothers and fathers to seek the good of their own instead of the good of society as a whole. The Marxist-universalist project is inimical to all special attachments, and no attachments are more particular or more powerful than those of parents to children and children to parents.

Danger lurks not only in liberal thinking, but in its opposite

For if Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels—with their utopian vision of a post-God, post-family, post-national society—are radically anti-Jewish thinkers, so are zealous libertarians like Ayn Rand, whose Nietzschian works of fiction pay little heed to families, recognize no need for moral constraints, and include almost no scenes with children.

Is there a middle ground that flows from Jewish sources – an authentically Jewish conservative economic policy?

In his 1998 Hayek lecture, Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, took up the challenge of articulating such a Jewish view. Why, he asked, is there so great an affinity between Jewish ideas and practices and free-market ideas and practices? His answer includes such touchstones as biblical respect for the idea of property rights; biblical appreciation for productive labor; the biblical understanding of man as a creative being; the rabbinic belief that parents must teach their children a useful trade; and the affirmative Jewish attitude toward wealth.

Not that Jews should espouse unrestrained capitalism.

It is here that Jews—and all moral societies—need to distinguish between the just defense of a free economy and misguided idolization of the capitalist system….Man is a creative being, with dominion over nature, who survives and often prospers through labor. Yet man is also a resting being, created by G-d, who must remember that his dominion is limited—limited in time, limited in space, limited by nature, and limited by death. Judaism emphatically does not embrace a vision of man as a capitalist alone, let alone every man as his own lawgiver. Such a vision is as utopian, and as anti-Jewish, as utopian socialism.

This is a seminal essay, and should stimulate much productive discussion. I have an easier time embracing the main themes, even if I cannot accept the thinking by which positions were arrived at or supported.

Citing another’s work, Cohen argues that

The rabbis understood the obligation to help the poor as a matter of righteousness, not of justice. Helping the poor—and, most importantly, helping the poor to help themselves, if so capable—is a religious obligation, and Jewish societies throughout history developed ways of fulfilling that obligation through limited versions of organized welfare. But the mere fact of poverty does not constitute an injustice, or a claim against God or society.

This would come, I think, as a surprise to the Rambam who argues (Moreh Nevuchim 3:53) that charity is called tzedakah precisely because it is a form of tzedek, of righting a perceived injustice. (That injustice, of course, cannot be attributed to G-d, but to the inequitable distribution of wealth that leaves some people despondent and despairing.) To succeed within the Jewish community, neo-cons will have to overcome the suspicion that they are insensitive to justice-based arguments – not just righteousness-based ones – for attempting to eradicate poverty. While they may rightfully reject the irresponsible way in which some throw money at a problem rather than get to root causes, I don’t think they will be weakened by acknowledging the justice of charity.

Cohen finds that the economics of the Bible itself cannot be extrapolated to modern societies – although their ethos can and must be applied. He apparently accepts the idea that some economic assumptions in the Torah reflect the conditions of the times in which they were given. (Halacha, he says, then finds the way in which those assumptions are to be applied in changed economies.) Yet Cohen seems not to extend this thinking to the arena of politics. He looks to the Bible – and finds – support for the idea of nation-states, which have long been in the sights of progressives. But why not apply the same thinking as he does in regard to economics – that the Torah spoke the language of its day regarding nations, but fully expected mankind to move on past it?

Cohen’s essay was responded to by select authors who voice their reservations. Two of them, Yoram Hazony and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, chide Cohen for vagueness about the animating spirit of Jewish conservatism. It cannot, they argue, rest in vague shout-outs to Jewish tradition. Nothing less than the centrality of Torah and commitment to a halachic system can ensure Jewish survival.

While I would hardly disagree, I think they sell Cohen short. Fealty to Hashem and His Torah are the sine qua non of Judaism – but not everyone has yet seen the light. Part of the power of Cohen’s presentation is that the non-Orthodox might also see the cogency of his arguments. I suspect that Cohen would not be unhappy if future neo-cons discover Jewish tradition through conservative thinking, and continue on to ultimately embrace full halachic Judaism.

All our misgivings do not detract from the basic success of the essay. Cohen identifies a problem:

For too long, many Jews have put their faith in contemporary varieties of liberalism: in liberal utopianism, which shrinks from hard-headed recognition of what is required for Jewish self-defense; in liberal universalism, which deprecates or censures particular attachments and the national claims of (certain) particular peoples; and in liberal moralism, which in the name of tolerance and non-judgmentalism promotes a sexual ethic that cannot be reconciled with Jewish morality. In the effort to reach unaffiliated Jews by accommodating Judaism itself to liberal norms—the strategy followed, with disastrous results, by the Conservative and Reform movements—American Jewish leaders have been afraid to emphasize where and how Judaism differs: the only way to galvanize those with faint Jewish ties to discover meaning, value, and commitment in an as yet untried form of life. And in an effort to make peace with its intransigent enemies, Israeli leftists have demanded that Jews sacrifice their commitment to Jewish sovereignty and put their faith in international institutions and promises that have no basis in reality.

With more humility and tentativeness than certainty, he gives the reader some foundational thinking about conservative thought, and challenges him/her to participate in the shaping of a new-old way of looking at politics and economics that very well might be critical for Jews around the world. One of our problems as a community is that we are overly reactive and seldom strategic. We rarely take the time to take a look at forks in the road coming up, and ponder the attractiveness of the different routes between which we must choose. Eric Cohen’s piece challenges us to examine one of the most important issues of orientation that is already upon us.

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8 Responses

  1. Y. Ben-David says:

    While I sympathize with the goals outlined by Cohen and the others in this series of articles, in reality it is too late for this in the United States. The ongoing spread of “progressive” thinking is too powerful to be stopped. While as recently as ten or fifteen years ago it was unthinkable to support the idea of homosexual “marriage” or dropping gender as a defining characteristic of someone’s identity (leading to unisex bathrooms, men serving as women in the army and vice versa, etc, etc) which all will inevitably lead to legalizing polygamy and polyandry, plus demands to curb freedom of speech in the name of “inclusiveness” and multiculturalsm, but today, these things are now apparently accepted by society. This is in spite of the fact that the supposedly “conservative” Republican party is in control of most of the statehouses and governerships of the US in addition to both Houses Of Congress.

    There is no turning back in the US. Almost 50% of all children are born to single mothers which will mean the inevitable spread of the “nanny state” and everyone’s sense of entitlement resulting in an endlessly increasing burden on the national budget, leading to the loss of individual initiative and enforcing state-enforced mediocrity (“no one should feel excluded” even if they are not learning anything in school) . This will mean the loss of the very characteristics that gave America its social and, more importantly, economic vitality for so long.

    These negative factors effect EVERYONE in the US, even highly ideological groups like the Fundamentalist Christians who were growing in the 1980’s but who are now losing a lot of their children to the pervasive outside “progressive” culture, plus the spread of a “Reform Judaism”-type -form of Evangelical Christianity which also adopts the Leftist platform that says you can’t judge anyone for whatever lifestyle they adopt and which is also very anti-Israel.
    Of course, even insular groups of Orthodox Jews will be affected as well . I once pointed out to a young Orthodox Jew attending an Orthodox institution of post-high-school education that the Torah does not recognize any such concept as homosexual “marriage” and what I got in return was his statement that I was a “fascist” for saying that. I have encountered numerous Orthodox Jews who are big fans of Obama and the Democrats and their social agenda, and these are NOT “Open Orthodox” types which is more explicit in accepting the “liberal” agenda.

    Thus, Hazony and Rav Meir Soloveitchik are on the right track…without a DEEP commitment to Torah, a Jewish “conservatism” can not succeeded, but they left out one point….true Jewish values can ONLY be implanted in society in ISRAEL. There is no longer any long-term hope for the United States, no matter who is elected President in 2016.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Lately, I’ve seen many examples of the Republican leadership’s love-hate relationship with conservatives. They love the support but hate to keep promises. The Democrats, of course, are beyond making such promises.

    It remains to be seen hoe far gone the US now is. It would be unfortunate to sit back and watch if positive results are still possible.

  3. Jacob Suslovich says:

    “To succeed within the Jewish community, neo-cons will have to overcome the suspicion that they are insensitive to justice-based arguments – not just righteousness-based ones – for attempting to eradicate poverty. ”

    What exactly is the difference, theoretical and practical, between a Justice and a Righteousness basis for combating poverty?

    [YA – I’ll start you off, and you can do the heavy lifting yourself. Think of a frum person and the mitzvah of tzedakah. If he sees it as righteousness based, he/she will give, but some days he may not be feeling so righteousness-oriented. OTOH, when pressured to give because of social commitments, he figures, “I have to get rid of my maaser anyway, so what difference does it make?” When that same person develops a justice-based outlook (i.e. the money wasn’t mine to begin with; HKBH gave it to me only to distribute it to the aniyim who are its proper owners), he finds it easier to give consistently. At the same time, he becomes more vigilant about whom he gives to, knowing that he has, so to speak, a fiduciary responsibility to disburse the funds wisely on behalf of the true owners. Now extrapolate to communities and societies.]

  4. Raymond says:

    Since reading the above article several hours ago, I have been thinking about and thinking about whether there can be an enduring, viable, civilized society run completely according to secular law. And I just do not see that happening. In the spirit of being a citizen of the world embracing all peoples, I tried to imagine a society perhaps built on the more secular aspects of the Seven Laws of Noah. Could a society exist having rules against stealing, adultery, theft, and unnecessary cruelty to animals, but not necessarily with G-d as the source of those ethics? I think that the history of the human race would indicate that cannot be the case. For once one removes G-d from the equation, humans are then left to define things for themselves, and humans have a way of redefining things in a way that suits themselves, inevitably leading to the abandonment of the moral aspect of the Seven Noachide laws. In our own society, for example, tens of millions of people no longer think anything of the slaughtering of millions of helpless, unborn babies. Homosexuality has become an alternative lifestyle that we are no longer allowed to oppose out loud, and are even expected to approve of them marrying one another. The horrific videos I have seen of the terrible cruelty done to animals both in this country and in places like China and India, is enough to give nightmares to any person with a beating heart. The point is, that society cannot last without a G-d based moral system, which basically means following the Seven Laws of Noach.

    Now, what is noteworthy about the Seven Noachide laws in this discussion, is that really, all but one of its laws are negative ones. The only positive law, is enforcing the six negative rules. In other words, we Jews do not really demand that gentiles do anything for us or for the world, but only that they refrain from certain negative behaviors. To me, that sounds a whole lot like the comment made by the 19th century American thinker Henry David Thoreau, who famously said, “That government which governs least, governs the best.” And indeed, that was part of the genius of this nation’s Founding Fathers. They created a government designed to basically protect its citizens from physically harming one another, or stealing from one another, but really in all other aspects, the government is to leave us alone. Within the framework of such freedom, let Jews be Jews, Christians be Christians, and so on. And that to me is what political conservatism is all about. This contrasts very sharply with the Leftist view of things, which seeks to take away virtually all of our individual freedoms in the name of complete equality. Their goal is to make everybody be exactly the same, even if that means the government taking over every aspect of our lives. As Jews, I would think that that is the last thing we would want.

  5. Jacob Suslovich says:

    To R Adlerstein. I feel that you are using categories that are not those of the Torah and halacha. A categorization that would be more consistent with traditional Jewish thought would be between Din and Lifnim Meshuros Hadin with the latter indeed allowing more flexibility than obligations that are based on pure din.(see the famous essay By R. Aharon Lichtenstein “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakhah” and the lengthier treatment in what in my opinion should be the famous book “The Halacha and Beyond” by R Zecharia Fendel). I am not opposed to studying secular political and ethical philosophy but I think one most be careful not to end up forcing a square peg into a round hole.

  6. Jonathan says:

    I think he plays with fire. In the US, I would favor a liberal tolerance and non-judgementalism that allows me to practice my faith as I see fit, and not impose another’s morality upon me. Let’s advance a Jewish political ethic that’s eschews the liberal/conservative labels entirely.

  7. tzippi says:

    I have an easier time reading in print than on the screen which is why I only got around to reading this now. I had to bite the bullet as it won’t appear in Yated anytime soon 😉
    There is a line between respecting respectable people’s values, and becoming blindingly enamored of a value system and I wish the Tikvah attendees clarity.

    Rav Hirsch has a marvelous piece on Ethics of the Fathers, 5:13, about the four ways of reacting to others’ and one’s own property. (Especially marvelous in light of the socio-political backdrop of the time of his writing.) A salient snip:
    [T]o abolish all private ownership and institute the common holding of property, is likewise based on deplorable ignorance. For its practical implementation would not only cancel the sanctity of the individual’s right to own property and thus his one possibility for true independence, but it would also deprive man of the opportunity to practice mercy of his own free will…Justice is the foundation of society, and mercy is its finishing touch.”

    This week’s Torah portion mentioning the agricultural laws of leaving some of the fields for the poor, it’s no wonder that there is an innate appreciation of a government that has some safeguards for our most vulnerable, rather than leaving it to the communities, who may not always step up to the plate. I’m glad I’m not the one making these policies.

    (For anyone who wants to read a chronicle of extreme detachment from capitalism, you can read The Man Who Quit Money. Have some Tums ready.)

  8. tzippi says:

    Since we can’t edit posts, I want to amend something. Having just got around to reading R. Adlertein’s post on the Tikvah summer program, it looks like the attendees will have a lot of help and direction as far as clarity goes, so that’s one reservation I can probably shelf.

    I mentioned a comment from Governor Jindal on hyphenated Americans. This is a meme I’m hearing more and more on RW radio (yes, et tu, Dr. Bennett) and it’s a bit disconcerting. True, those saying it are referring to a cultural, national identity that should be subsumed by being purely American, i.e. they feel it’s not productive to identify as Indian-American, Latin-American, etc. What about other hyphens, such as Jewish-American? This is not a part of my identity I feel I should be sublimating.

    Now if I would bother to call any of these shows they’d probably say that that’s not what they’re talking about. That they would defend my right to identify by my religion, just not my right to identify more fully as a Lithuanian/Polish-American than an American. But if this rhetoric heats up, I don’t know if I could count on that. And to be fair, I would also tell the new immigrants not to feel they need to throw out their cultural heritage either, especially if it contributes to the best parts of their core identity.

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