The New Jacobinism
Rabbi Eli Baruch Shulman
Historians wonder about the difference in outcome between the American Revolution, which resulted in a liberal democracy, and the French Revolution, which resulted in terror and tyranny.
Why was the American revolutionary project so much more successful? Regardless of the answer, we in this country have had great reason to celebrate the American success.
Unfortunately, last Friday the American experiment lurched towards the fanaticism that we associate with the French Revolution.
First, some history: The French Revolution began with the urge towards a more equitable society, in which human dignity and the rights of every man would be respected. In its early stages it produced the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which, in exalted language, proclaimed that Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. (Ironically, the author of the Declaration later earned the sobriquet: “the angel of death”, as he became one of the prime movers of the Terror.)
But as the revolution went on it fell into a cycle of ever increasing radicalism. A spirit of fanatic intolerance – which history remembers by the name “Jacobinism” – after the Jacobin clubs in which it was nurtured – took hold. Religion was persecuted, and in its stead a “cult of reason” was set up. Power was concentrated into the hands of twelve men: the Committee of Public Safety, headed by Maximilian Robespierre, who set himself the task of creating a “republic of virtue”, basically by cutting off the head of anyone whom he thought not quite virtuous enough.
“Virtue”, he said, “must be wedded to terror, for without terror virtue is impotent”. The virtue to which he referred was not any kind of traditional virtue; rather, it was the new virtue of revolutionary zeal, the measure of which was Robespierre himself. Basically if you did not go along with Robespierre and his ideas then you were not virtuous, and the full fury of the terror would be directed against you.
Faster and faster the guillotine was put to work, consuming eventually Robespierre and his associates themselves.
The spirit of Jacobinism did not die with Robespierre. It remains the animating spirit of the radical left. The essential impulse of Jacobinism, old and new, is to proclaim oneself and a like-minded avant garde the exemplars of some new kind of virtue, and to then create a “republic of virtue” by destroying anyone who doesn’t fall into line.
The spirit of Jacobinism informed every word of the majority decision last Friday at the Supreme Court.
What did the Court rule? It did not rule that same sex marriage is a good idea. The Constitution puts Congress and the state legislatures – not the courts – in charge of legislating good (and bad) ideas. What the Court did was something far more radical. It ruled that the very idea that marriage might be exclusively between a man and a woman is so hateful and bigoted, so against reason and virtue, that any law that expresses that conception can only be an expression of bigotry and, therefore, illegal and unconstitutional.
In a blistering dissent, Justice Scalia drove home this point:
These Justices know that limiting marriage to one man and one woman is contrary to reason; they know that an institution as old as government itself, and accepted by every nation in history until 15 years ago, cannot possibly be supported by anything other than ignorance or bigotry. And they are willing to say that any citizen who does not agree with that, who adheres to what was, until 15 years ago, the unanimous judgment of all generations and all societies, stands against the Constitution.
In short, the Court ruled that the traditional conception of marriage is illegal because it is not virtuous – and the measure of virtue is not the received wisdom of mankind, or the teachings of religion, or even public consensus. No; the five men and women who signed the Court’s decision, like the Committee of Public Safety before them, decided that they themselves are the measure of the new revolutionary virtue.
Again, Justice Scalia:
Take, for example, this Court, which consists of only nine men and women, all of them successful lawyers who studied at Harvard or Yale Law School. Four of the nine are natives of New York City. Eight of them grew up in east- and west-coast States. Only one hails from the vast expanse in-between. Not a single Southwesterner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner (California does not count). Not a single evangelical Christian (a group that comprises about one quarter of Americans), or even a Protestant of any denomination. The strikingly unrepresentative character of the body voting on today’s social upheaval would be irrelevant if they were functioning as judges, answering the legal question whether the American people had ever ratified a constitutional provision that was understood to proscribe the traditional definition of marriage. But of course the Justices in today’s majority are not voting on that basis; they say they are not. And to allow the policy question of same-sex marriage to be considered and resolved by a select, patrician, highly unrepresentative panel of nine is to violate a principle even more fundamental than no taxation without representation: no social transformation without representation.
Understand that this is far worse than when individual states recognized same sex marriage. At least then we were protected somewhat by the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion. But now the Court has given same sex marriage the status of a civil right; and freedom of religion, in this country, is not a protection against the charge of a civil rights violation.
The four justices who dissented from the Court’s decision made this danger clear. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that “people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today”.
The least of the evils that may befall as a result of this decision, as the Chief Justice explicitly indicates, is that religious institutions will lose their tax-exempt status unless they fall in line.
This is not the alarmist prediction of some conservative columnist; this is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, commenting on the repercussions that might follow from his Court’s decision.
I have no doubt that the new Jacobins, in their zeal to stamp out any dissent, will make this a priority.
More generally, Justice Alito warns:
I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools…
They’re not marching anyone off to the guillotine. But make no mistake; in this brave new world, anyone who speaks against this new ukase can, in a moment, lose his livelihood and his reputation. Orthodox Jews, and people of traditional faith generally, will be viewed with special suspicion in academia, in government and in the corporate world.
There is an ill wind blowing.
Moreover, the growing dissonance between the wider culture and our traditional values is putting a tremendous stress on parts of our community. For better or worse, not all of Orthodoxy lives in a ghetto. And the tension caused by the widening cultural rift is producing strange anomalies. A student of mine tells me that his friends – all of whom consider themselves Orthodox – are celebrating the Court’s ruling as if it were a personal victory.
We have passed an awful milestone in the moral decomposition of the culture around us. One of the few redeeming values that the Gemara sees in the culture of the nations of the world has been erased (see Chulin 92b). We look for a silver lining, but all we see is “that the sky grows darker yet, and the sea rises higher”.
Yet perhaps there is some small comfort in remembering that we have always been a nation that dwells apart, and that – as Rashi tells us at the beginning of Chukas – the nations of the world have always mocked us for our beliefs and practices.
We are entering a time when the strength of our own convictions will be challenged; and let us pray for סייעתא דשמיא so that we shall not be found wanting in that strength.
Rabbi Shulman serves as a Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS, and as rabbi of the Young Israel of Midwood, in Brooklyn NY.