Jewish Conservatism and Its Limits

If ever there was a time for American Jewry to consider a course change, it is the present. The current course threatens world Jewry with annihilation and American Jewry with demographic decimation. By their fervent embrace of the Democratic Party, in sickness and health, American Jews have served as the enablers of a nuclear Iran.

Seven million Jews in Israel are likely doomed to live in perpetuity under the shadow of a nuclear bomb due to President Obama’s refusal to countenance military action to stop Iran’s nuclear program, despite constant assurances to the contrary. American Jews twice voted for Obama in higher percentages than any other non-black group, despite clear indications he is, in the words of former peace-processor Aaron David Miller, not exactly “in love with the idea of Israel.”

Meanwhile, the failure of American Jewry to offer its children any coherent account of why the continued existence of the Jewish people matters, not just for Jews but the entire world, has paved the way for a headlong rush towards oblivion. Four out of five marriages involving non-Orthodox American Jews today are intermarriages, which will lead to rapid demographic decline and highly attenuated identity.

Surveying this scene, Eric Cohen, executive director of the Tikvah Fund, has issued a clarion call in Mosaic for the “spirit of Jewish conservatism.” Jewish conservatism, as described by Cohen, is a three-legged stool based on defense of the traditional family; support for the nation-state and national sovereignty, in general, and that of Israel, in particular; and a conviction that free-markets best ensure societal prosperity and individual liberty.

Tikvah advances these ideals through a number of publications and various institutes led by many of the world’s leading conservative public intellectuals. The most important of the institutes are the lengthy summer programs for Jewish high school and college students, in both Israel and America. For if there is one type of diversity to which future Jewish leaders are unlikely to be exposed on campus it is diversity of thought, in particular conservative thought.

I have participated in several Tikvah institutes, and was on the staff last summer of a program specifically designed for yeshiva students. I’m sympathetic to each of the legs of Cohen’s “Jewish conservatism.”

COHEN SEEKS TO GROUND Jewish conservatism in both the requirements of contemporary Jewish life and classical Jewish sources. That is most easily done with respect to the traditional family. Family has always served as the primary vehicle for the transmission of the tradition to succeeding generations. Morning and night, we recite in the Shema the commandment to “Teach them [i.e., the commandments] thoroughly to your children.”

The breakdown of the traditional Jewish family is closely tied to the demographic disaster facing American Jewry. The median Jewish age in America is seven years older than the national average. Jewish women are less likely to marry, and when they do, they have fewer children.

Support for the nation-state and its ability to defend itself is also well grounded in Jewish sources. The Jewish people are more accurately described as a nation than as members of a particular faith. Only the Jews experienced revelation as an entire people at Sinai, and were there entrusted with a national mission – the revelation of G-d to the world. That revelation encompasses not just religious law, but civil and criminal law as well. Halacha – e.g., the prohibition of taking interest from another Jew — repeatedly emphasizes the special concern owed by Jews to one another as partners in a common mission.

Not by accident did Jean Bodin, the first great theorist of national sovereignty, draw heavily on Jewish sources from both Tanach and Talmud. An entire field, political Hebraism, has arisen delineating the influence of Jewish sources on the development of modern political thought.

With respect to free markets matters become trickier. The traditional economies of European Jewish communities often had numerous anti-competitive features, including extensive licensing of the right to sell certain goods and services. It is impossible to read the Torah as anticipating Adam Smith. At most, certain Torah values were necessary conditions for the development of free markets: equality before the law; the high value assigned to being self-supporting from the labor of one’s hands; stress on property rights; and the absence of hostility to the accumulation of wealth.

Wealth, like poverty, is a test, and it entails extensive duties and responsibilities, but it is not an evil per se. At the same time, the Torah offers no support for the unbounded individualism of an Ayn Rand, but rather emphasizes the interlocking responsibilities and duties owed to one’s fellow.

NO TORAH JEW WOULD EXPECT to divine from the Torah the solution to all contemporary political or economic debates. The G-d-given Torah is not congruent with any humanly derived ideology or political party. At best, the latter can be judged for compatibility with the Torah.

Moreover, the Torah was given in very different circumstances than our own. It was designed to govern a single people bound by a common mission, not for country with a pluralism of peoples and beliefs, the challenge of which the American founding fathers struggled. And it was given in a period when G-d’s Providence was manifest. That period ended with prophecy.

To note the impossibility of mapping any particular economic or political structure from the Torah is not to denigrate the study of economics or the American constitutional faith. G-d instructed Adam to exercise dominion over the created world, and that includes forming communities facilitating the creation of national wealth and prosperity, in which diverse people can live together peacefully.

I NOTE THE DIVERGENCE OF TORAH and any particular secular ideology for two reasons. First, to avoid conflating Torah with Jewish nationalism. Dr. David Luchins, a long-time advisor to Senator Daniel Moynihan, visited Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik the night of Menachem Begin’s stunning 1977 electoral triumph. Luchins expected to find Rabbi Soloveitchik elated. But just the opposite was the case.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explained, “Until now, we [i.e., the religious Zionists] knew our place in Labor-led governments: We were a brake on a bus plummeting downhill [from all connection to traditional Judaism]. But Begin speaks our language – he speaks of Eretz Yisrael.” The Rav feared that religious Jews would be too eager to ignore the distinction between Torah and secular nationalism.

Second, it is crucial to note the limits of “Jewish” conservatism as sufficient to secure the Jewish future by offering a compelling reason for Jews to marry other Jews.

Jewish pride is at best a stopgap measure. (Cohen does not suggest otherwise.) Those for whom Jewish identity is prominent are more likely to marry other Jews than those for whom it is tertiary, and based on ethnic foods and a sense of humor. Rabbi Noach Weinberg, a pioneer of the modern ba’al teshuva movement, always encouraged Jewish activism, “fighting for the Jewish people,” as a means of encouraging young Jews to investigate more deeply what it means to be a Jew.

But Jewish pride is not readily transmitted, especially when removed from the context of close-knit ethnic neighborhoods. Compare the jubilation with which American Jews greeted Israel’s creation in 1948, with the widespread indifference of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren today. Over half of American Jews under 35 say they would not view the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy.

Clergy of the liberal branches of Judaism have long been adept at citing prooftexts from the Torah to show that whatever is au courant – e.g., a nuclear freeze, in my youth – the Torah thought of first. I doubt that a conservative version of the same will be more effective in attaching young listeners to the Jewish people. Once ideas, whether benevolent or pernicious, become the common property of mankind, shared by those of various religions or none, it makes more sense to choose one’s spouse on the basis of shared politics than shared religion.

THE MISSING ELEMENT in Cohen’s account of Jewish conservatism is chosenness. Chosenness is a recurrent theme in the Torah, which variously describes the Jewish people as: “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation,” “My special treasure among the nations,” “My son, my firstborn son, Israel.” Jews have been hated since ancient times for their fierce endogamy and holding themselves apart.

Yet modern Jews find the doctrine of Jewish chosenness an embarrassment. In a 1996 Commentary symposium on the state of Jewish belief, the heterodox clergy refused to unambiguously affirm the Jews as Hashem’s chosen people.

Only Orthodox Jews experience no discomfort with the idea. It is part of their daily reality. The Torah Jew’s life focuses around the observance and study of the Torah’s commandments. As a consequence, he knows that he has been chosen as the sole recipient of Hashem’s Torah, for the Torah’s 613 mitzvos bind only Jews. Before he begins a day filled with Torah study, he recites the blessing, “Who has chosen us from among all the nations and given us His Torah.”

Cohen is passionately committed to the future of the Jewish people. He subscribes to a Jewish ethic of power “that treats the preservation of Jewish civilization and the Jewish nation as the first and greatest moral imperative entrusted to Jewish leaders and citizens.”

But the threats from within are, if anything, even greater than those from without. And combating the threat from within requires first and foremost a deep exposure to the distinct values and commandments for which Jews have always been willing to give up their lives guided by those who would still be prepared to make that choice today.

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8 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Too many Jewish political conservatives in the public eye, including in the media, seem to value the US Constitution over our Torah. Both are necessary, and they are often remarkably consistent with one another, but our priorities have to be those of Torah. If we haven’t yet found a genuine Torah way to address all current public policy issues, we need to, quickly.

  2. DF says:

    Agreed with JR’s important point about “chosenness”, and would add this one observation: Great Britain was at the peak of its powers, when it too professed and believed in its own version of chosenness. Likewise, the USA rose to prominence on the back of its Manifest Destiny, another version of chosenness. The development of much of Africa and Asia only transpired because of colonialism – again, another form of choseness. Belief in it gave men the “shtoltz” and esprit d’corps to accomplish what they could never do without it. Decline only set in, in all these cases, when people began questioning the concept, and began asking if it was not really some form of racism. Few people had the courage to stand up and say that perhaps it was, and if so, what of it? Young people today have been trained to believe that “racism” is the world’s ugliest word. It’s as though merely by uttering the word one expects to win an argument [and for that reason, amusingly, in political theatre like the last Israeli election, both sides routinely accuse each other of it.]

    The necessary corollary to this article, accordingly, is a discussion on chosenness. To show that belief in it does not lead inexorably to Nazism. That one can appreciate and respect the contributions of other peoples, while still believing in our mission. It’s not that difficult to do, it just has to be done more often.

  3. Adam Block says:

    My compliments! Many sentiments I don’t agree with here, but your article is well-thought out, well-argued and much appreciated by this Obama-voting, Tikvah Fund-ambivalent Torah Jew.

  4. Steve Brizel says:

    I think that RJR is correct, but RYBS himself cautioned against pigeonholing Torah and Halacha into either a conservative or liberal POV-the same Torah and TSBP that promotes Piryah vRivya and a Mitzvas Onah also has Hilcos Nidah. Shemittah and Yovel are also two complementary sets of Halachos as is the Torah’s insistence on the primacy of property rights which is matched by a system of protecting the widow and orphan and the injured person.

    The issue of whether the Torah community is more comfortable either with the contemporary Democratic Party which supports far left views on many issues which pose a threat to the Torah observant community, as opposed to the Republican Party, which is far stronger on issues of national security, support of Israel and downsizing government and governmental regulations that threaten to strangle the American economy, warrants strong consideration as to the evolution of the Democratic Party from being anti Communist and liberal ( think of Truman, KFK, LBJ, HHH and Scoop Jackson) to a party dominated by Hollywood, labor and the Washington-NY-Boston axis of liberal PC ideas where support for Israel has become increasingly viewed as a liability.

  5. L. Oberstein says:

    Times are changing. The liberal side of American Jewry is less involved in Jewish life and the orthodox and those who are right wing and have money are more prominent .It is what it is. Right now, the real problem is not which party is in control as much as having a stable and effective governement and legislature. I don’t know what the republcians would REALLY DO if they controlled both houses of Congress, the Supeme Courst and the White House ,but it may happen. If so, will they really deal with Medicaid,Social Security, urban decay, etc. Will they really change things or is is mostly talk? i think it is the latter because the changes are so wrenching that politicians don’t want to do anything to lose the next election. There are real differences in outlook between those who are essentially in favor of government involvement in ameliarating society problems and those who believe that governement is the problem Reagan said it but did he do it, I don’t think so. Politicians talk a lot but are afraid to really upset things. And, we all know that the fat cats really are in charge and it is all a charade. That isn’t a conspiracy theory , it is the way it is.Those with the gold make the rules.

  6. mycroft says:

    “In a 1996 Commentary symposium on the state of Jewish belief, the heterodox clergy refused to unambiguously affirm the Jews as Hashem’s chosen people”

    If Quoting the 1966 Symposium- quote Milton Himmelfarb’s introduction where he maintains that if one read the articles without knowing who wrote them-one could easily distinguish between Orthodox and Non Orthodox. The list of Orthodox Rabbis included a few from the right but mainly Modern including some who many in CC refer to as OO. A reader according to Himmelfarb would distinguish Orthodox and Non Orthodox. see eg Himmelfarb from 1966 Introduction

    .” Reading the responses, one sees that the true division is between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. “

  7. mb says:

    Mycroft said
    ” The list of Orthodox Rabbis included a few from the right but mainly Modern including some who many in CC refer to as OO”
    It’s funny you should say that, but during his life, many ultra Orthodox Jews from the US assumed Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovitz(he was also a contributor the Commentary symposium) was a Conservative Rabbi and labeled him as such. I think that only changed after his obit was published.

  8. tzippi says:

    This is a very important article. While it is important to treat everyone with respect, this is especially so for those with who we work politically or otherwise. When there is so much common ground, such respect is easier. But it is imperative to spell out that while we share some common bases for our values, there is much divergence. As just one example I cite a sound bite from Governor Jindal, who, in talking about his becoming fully Americanized rather than hyphenated, quoted his mother as having said (paraphrasing here), if you’re not going to become American we could have stayed in India. Some conservative rhetoric seems to have forgotten that a few centuries ago the Pilgrims came so as to NOT have to transform themselves. (I’ll refrain from mentioning Dennis Prager’s riff on the use of ethnic names for anything but religious purposes.)

    There is the danger of the feeling of “they like us, they really like us” leading to unacceptable compromise. While we are grateful for and respectful of the conservative voice, Torah must be the prism through which we see the world.

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