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.

eli_shulman_lpMoreover, 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.

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26 Responses

  1. mrbob says:

    “A student of mine at yeshiva tells me that his friends – all of whom consider themselves Orthodox – are celebrating the Court’s ruling as if it were a personal victory.”

    Perhaps these young people understand the idea of giving people dignity is a good idea and in line with Torah ideas. We don’t generally think its a good idea or the Torah Way to throw rocks at people who don’t follow Halacha and say drive on Shabbat or eat Trafe; most of us think its a good idea to act with dignity to those people . Maybe its not a good idea to throw (rhetorical) rocks at people who don’t follow Halacha trow being Gay.

  2. Y. Ben-David says:

    Thank you, Rav Shulman, for expressing the thoughts many of us are thinking at this time.
    I have also encountered Orthodox Jews who have bought into the whole “progressives” ideology that is behind this ruling. I was called a “fascist” by a yeshiva-trained young Orthodox Jew when I pointed out that HAZAL and the commentators like Rashi and RAMBAM pointed out that homosexuality and giluy arayot (sexual immorality) brought about destruction of entire societies. Even historians have pointed this out (read Robert Graves “I Claudius”, for instance, on the effect of this on the Roman ruling circles).
    The American Orthodox society is now going to have to do some serious soul-searching regarding their place in America now. I note that many Orthodox leaders have made alliances with politicians who are pushing the most extreme reorientation of traditional values…presumably because they are offering them money and the recipients saying “what difference does it make what the larger society does as long as we have our beit-knesset and beit-midrash. This is a VERY short-sighted view. The time has come to stop putting one’s head in the sand and see the way American society is going.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    “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 can look forward to multiple “Orthodox” spokesmen, some not so Orthodox, giving out radically conflicting opinions on this and related religious-cultural-political issues to the media. This is not new, but our increasing fragmentation can make it much more common. The lawless government can then choose among the “Orthodox” opinions, hailing the ones it likes as being authentic, while condemning and punishing the ones it doesn’t as being illegitimate, racist, bigoted, etc.

    Truly Orthodox groups that interact often with government and see themselves as insiders will find themselves shunned and all their high level contacts worthless. At that point, those among them who have flattered our enemies in high places, even becoming their unpaid PR men, will see that was for naught.

  4. Reb Yid says:

    Oh the ironies abound. Scalia now complaining the Court hasn’t been sufficiently representative? We could start by noting there are no Asians only 1 Hispanic (first ever) and only 1 African American (of whom most African Americans would be hard pressed to say he identifies with their sentiments). And only 3 out of 9 are females

    On a different subject, the European revolutions were anticlerical. The us was not. This has tremendous implications up through the current time. In this sense Israel is much more similar to Europe in how it’s inhabitants view religion and religious institutions in relation to the government

  5. shaya says:

    Excellent analysis. It is interesting to think about contemporary history in comparison with Tanakh.

    Soviet communism was like the Chanukah story, in that Jews were forcibly prevented from observing the Torah, while many Jews were drawn ideologically to Communism at the same time. As in the Chanukah story, Jews’ freedom ultimately prevailed, with many Russian Jews making aliyah and the rest having complete religious freedom.

    Nazism was like the Purim story, where they tried to kill us (and unlike in Shushan unfortunately succeeded to a large degree) but ultimately we triumphed and killed our enemies. Since then, Islamist terrorism has played out the same way.

    The Reform and Maskilim were like the Hellenists of Chanukah times, when they could trying to impose their heretical ideas on us, through state edicts, but without violence. Thus it was a subtler, less brutal recurrence of the Chanukah story.

    Today’s Hellenism is even more subtle. We aren’t facing violence because of our now counter-cultural beliefs in Torah sexual morality. We may face some discrimination, or be compelled to cater gay marriages, but ultimately this is very minor and infrequent, affecting few people, compared to what the Reform, Maskilim, Communists and original Hellenists tried to impose on us.

    And now we’re not dealing with the threat of attraction to European high culture of art, literature, philosophy and socialist economic-justice radicalism, as in the most recent Hellenistic episodes, but instead something that passes itself off as common sense — a secular utilitarianism in which anything anyone wants to do that doesn’t directly harm someone else in any obvious or immediate way, should be not only legal but completely accepted by society.

    In a way this is even more dangerous than ancient Hellenist, Soviet of European high cultures, because those cultures still had much brutality and coarseness (with brutal monarchies and empires, senseless wars and violence, and stark inequalities between social castes.) We need to rediscover and further develop our tradition’s powerful arguments against Hellenism, secularism and libertinism, so we can keep our children on the derech and continue to reach out to those Jews who are distant from the Torah.

  6. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    Y Ben David: “I Claudius” is fiction. Robert Graves was not a historian.

  7. susan says:

    I say what happened to the righteousness of G*d in marriage? “What is not of righteousness is sin” according to the bible. And G*d will judge all unrighteousness! If G*ds children can’t uphold the word of G*d’ where is the standard that holds sin back in the world? For a soul that sins, dies! So it appears you make your own gods, your own rules, then your not making G*d the supreme G*d he is by resurrecting falsehoods, your own rules—hence ….your saying G*d is dead ? Because his commandments are being negating by how you dishonour him by ….making civil law your guide? How is this to show truth? I’m confused- because G*d will not be mocked! Whatsoever we sow, we reap. As for me and my house we will serve
    the L*rd and not man! Marriage is not to be defiled! Its to be between one man and one woman! Marriage is a divne act of G*ds love so the earth can conceive new life to perpetuate the human race. Gay marriages do not perpetuate any life! They perpetuate sin and selfishness and more lustful acts of selfishness!

  8. tzippi says:

    mrbob, one virtual neighborhood I recently visited had a discussion about the ruling. I can begin to see why religious Jews will laud a minority getting equal rights, I think I hear this dignity angle too, but there are too many people who in their applauding this ruling are in effect condoning the behavior and the societal shift. If we are halachic Jews, I can’t see how the ruling can be so full-heartedly celebrated

  9. Bob Miller says:

    Tzippi wrote above, “If we are halachic Jews, I can’t see how the ruling can be so full-heartedly celebrated.”

    I used to think, smugly I guess, that surrender of our values and their replacement by politically correct ones, was not an Orthodox phenomenon. Maybe that’s literally true, in that those who do it are not properly Orthodox, but that offers little comfort. The fifth column is yet another hindrance to our geulah.

  10. Nachum says:


    I too am most troubled by all the ostensibly Orthodox Jews celebrating this (or shrugging it off). Something went very wrong in Jewish education at some point.

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    This is a superb analysis of the consequences of yet another example of legislation by judicial fiat.

  12. Moshe Hillson says:

    The theme in Rabbi Shulman’s article reminds me of how Rabbi Avraham Ravitz o.b.m. described the de-legimitization of non-radically liberal beliefs as “liberal terror”.

  13. Bob Miller says:

    Congress needs the will and the staffing to do all its proper functions—such as funding, legislation, and oversight—in a responsible, constitutional manner. Wishing that the Supreme Court would step in to preempt the need for Congressional action just won’t cut it anymore. While Alphonse and Gaston do their silly thing again and again, the Executive Branch grabs power. With some exceptions, both parties exist to get paid off.

  14. Jayel says:

    Ok, so let me understand. The biblical prohibition against homosexuality is what we Jews get so excited about, society is going to hell, misguided Jewish youth are even applauding the Supreme court ruling,gay people will be coming to Chinka Hall in Boro Park and to Rose Castle in Williamsburg, demanding that they be allowed to get married there. Wow, how scary.
    Orthodox Jews with beards molest young children, our jails are full of convicted fraudsters and thieves. I thought one of the 10 commandments bars theft. Well, no big deal. The kids are lying, they were not molested, the poor yid who did it can G-d forbid lose his parnassa, what about mesira, Sholom Rubashkin was a tzaddik who only made a little mistake, the judge was an anti semite, Mtzitza B’peh is our G-d given right, no kids were harmed,…….
    Orhodox Judaism has some big problems, not the least of which is selective outrage. Wake up, the Scotus ruling hardly affects us as Jews, the other things I mention here do, and in a big way. Worried about kids going otd? Let’s begin by looking at our own hypocrisy.

  15. Chana Siegel says:

    This was impressive, and actually showed some original thinking. Yes, the bizarrely vicious attacks on those who disagree with the ruling, as blogger Matt Walsh pointed out (“Why don’t you die?” “I hope you burn in a fire”, “You are a despicable human being”), followed by #LoveWins. Yes, this does echo what happened after the French Revolution.

  16. Steve Brizel says:

    Jayel-whether the Torah observant world deals sufficiently with OTD adolescents, an issue that deserves discussion in its own right, has no bearing and is quite irrelevant to the issue at hand- the SCOTUS judicially declaring that there is an amorphous constitutional right of “dignity”, which lacks an explicit textual basis, let alone a reasonable inference from the Bill of Rights, and in one fell swoop, views free exercise of religion as an insufficient basis to object to same gender marriage and any and all challenges to normal heterosexual relationships that have been and will always be defined by the institution of marriage as the emotional and physical committment of a man and woman hopefully to raise a family, but if not to serve as the Ezer Knegedo to each other-an issue that was always left to the states to define-Judicial creation by fiat of legal definitions has always led to some of the least intellectually and social problematic decisions of the SCOTUS in American history. This decision ranks with Dred Scott in that pantheon of poorly considered decisions.

  17. Steve Brizel says:

    It is a telling sign of the lack of awareness and/or abandonment of the fact that adherence to Issurim such as Gilui Araypos ( and Maacalos Asuros, both of which RYBS pointed out , comprise Sefer Kedusha in the Yad) lead to people educated in the Torah observant world who R”L celebrated the decision in question.

    Jayel-take a ride to any Federal Penitentiary-those who are incarcerated due to their being convicted for white collar crimes are hardly limited to any one sector of the Torah observant world.Where were you when a prominent member of a Chasidic community was convicted in Supreme Court, Kings County on grounds of child abuse?

  18. dr. bill says:

    I lump this with a whole set of issues that are often confronted very generally, intellectually, in theory, abstractly, etc. I would suggest that some of the statements made about a merciful God and homosexuality by those on the right AND the left, the effectiveness or desirability of various therapies, why this is now attracting different response in various communities, etc. etc. is best left unsaid in public pronouncements. Instead let orthodox rabbis, educators and psychologists who must deal with specific LGBT situations in their normal roles in the community, decide on courses of action that they believe are sanctioned by halakhic guidelines. Imagine what we might learn in a few decades or centuries; until then, more caution is suggested.

  19. tzippi says:

    Jayel, I definitely agree that there is a lot to take care of. And it’s the rare person – if he or she even exists – who at the very least doesn’t know someone who has been impacted by such abuse or hypocrisy.
    But why should that hold back the very necessary conversation we need to have about how society is shifting? We who are giving our kids the tools to become truly fine people, the kind who would never dream of dishonesty, abuse and the like, also have to give our kids a vocabulary to deal with these changes. And we may have to deal with the fallout on a more immediate level too, in dealing with coworkers and family.
    I’m not going to comb the CC archives now but I would bet that there are more than a few articles dealing with integrity (or the lack thereof) and other ills in our community. There are also good, reputable sites such as that you may find heartening (if not heart-breaking at times).

  20. Micah Segelman says:

    A very well written and fair piece by Damon Linker at The Week also makes the comparison to the French Revolution. Let’s hope that moderate voices like his prevail against the voices on the hard left. Both on this issue and regarding Israel and BDS, we need to be able to differentiate between the open minded left and the dogmatic, hard left.

  21. DavidF says:

    Comments like those by Jayel entirely ignore the fact that there is absolutely no segment of Orthodox Judaism that condones, let alone applauds, the behaviors to which Jayel refers to. Stealing, lying, molesting, OTD and everything else has been loudly and roundly condemned and many efforts have been made to stem such behavior. Pretending otherwise is foolish and adds nothing to the conversation.

  22. Yonah ben Shlomo says:

    The Torah doesn’t tell us what policies would be good for the various nations we find ourselves in. We have our own policies. So strange that the right wing frum Jews who normally want little to do with secular/national governments have taken their cue on this issue from evangelical Christians (who very much do have universal governmental aspirations). The issues of our national society at this moment in its decline (giluy arayos, etc) are so much bigger than gay marriage, and frum Jews quite properly respond by fortifying their own internal culture. So why come out to this open field, declare this national policy wrong and evil, against our values, etc etc when this only leads to impotent indignance and hillul hashem?
    Jews will continue to be able to do what they do in this country, thank Gd. And if the country wants to legalize gay marriage (as many of the States suggested and the Court confirmed) then, boy, what an interesting development, and we will surely continue to be privy to the unfolding of this story on the public stage. What is the reason to be angry? Many many policies do not accord with Jewish values, and the divorce rate is over fifty percent. That is where this nation is at present, may G-d protect it from degradation and destruction.

  23. Meir Bulman says:

    Excellent piece, thank you, Rabbi Shulman.

    Rav Shulman writes: “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.”

    According a Gallup Poll, 60% of Americans support the SCOTUS decision – a precipitous rise from 44% in 2011.Taken at face value,it seems that the public consensus’ measure of virtue is actually on the court’s side, the 5/9 vote in direct consonance to the public’s opinion according to the Gallup pollsters; Scalia’s claim of a “Strikingly unrepresentative panel” notwithstanding.

    This is in fact far more unnerving than 5 rogue Supreme Court Justices, whose decision, at least in theory, can only last as long as their tenure as Justices. The “growing dissonance” and “cultural rift” is already here, and is a gaping chasm. How will this affect Frum outlook and behavior? I suspect that within the next 5 years we will see same-gender marriages sanctioned and officiated by “Open-Orthodox” rabbis and rabbahs; the mainstream of Modern Orthodoxy may be forced to become more inward focused as Rav Shulman seems to imply. One wonders how the cognitive dissonance will affect the Frum groups that on one hand have barricaded themselves already against the secular zeitgeist, on the other hand continue to consort with politicians who have helped the zeitgeist reach this point.

  24. tzippi says:

    Yonah ben Shlomo wrote: The Torah doesn’t tell us what policies would be good for the various nations we find ourselves in. We have our own policies. So strange that the right wing frum Jews who normally want little to do with secular/national governments have taken their cue on this issue from evangelical Christians (who very much do have universal governmental aspirations).

    Over Shabbos I’ve had time to think and read and I’ve come to some conclusions that I’m embarrassed not to have sooner. I don’t think it’s strange, I think it’s sad. Having read from the 4 dissenting justices (who aren’t evangelical Christians FWIW, at least most of them aren’t) I will not let myself get caught in the trap of America/our community has bigger, more pervasive ills to address. This is the one of the moment, and I will do so unabashedly, whether from the Constitutional angle, or yes, averring that my religion cannot let me be silent. My non-silence might be on the quiet side; even though it’s the week of Pinchas, I’ve always found that kanaus (zealotry) isn’t a trick for laymen to try at home. But it will be more confident.

  25. Bob Miller says:

    Meir Bulman wrote above, “One wonders how the cognitive dissonance will affect the Frum groups that on one hand have barricaded themselves already against the secular zeitgeist, on the other hand continue to consort with politicians who have helped the zeitgeist reach this point.”

    What is the point of consorting with these politicians? I suspect that a large part of this involves the increasing dependence of many such groups on the ever-expanding welfare state. Instead of striving as hard as they can to pay their own way through gainful employment and entrepreneurship, some such groups engage in frenzied rent-seeking at all levels to entice government to fund noble goals with taxpayer money not volunteered by the taxpayers. Despite the admiration many frum publications have for such behavior, this does not look good to the rest of society! (even to those hypocrites out there who do it themselves and should be the last to complain)

  26. mrbob says:

    I don’t see how this sanctioned secular gay marriage will lead to anything other than more dignity

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