Liberalism and Jewish Values
How often have you heard liberals croon this all too familiar refrain: I agree with Republicans on economic and national security issues but I could never vote for one because of the social issues.
A similar comment was sent to me by an acquaintance in response to my "Explaining Jewish Liberalism" article:
Give me a Republican presidential candidate who can support what polls consistently show are not just liberal Jewish positions, but mainstream American positions on reproductive rights, on gun control, and on the environment.
This is the mindset of many American Jews who, although politically liberal and committed to Judaism, identify with conservatives when it comes to Israel. Republican candidates would be more palatable to them only if they capitulated on a host of policies which, it so happens, are antithetical to core conservative principles and even large swaths of the GOP platform.
These are not the JINO’s (Jews In Name Only) I discuss in "Explaining". The voters within this subset tend to be highly educated professionals, devoted to Judaism, passionate about Israel, family-centered, and civically engaged; they raise their children Jewish, attend synagogue more than a few times each year, agree with conservatives about Israel, and support Bibi Netanyahu; but, they are “liberal” on darn near every other issue, in particular gun control, drug legalization, reproductive and gay rights, the environment, healthcare, taxes, and the role of the government.
They will not vote for Republicans because their ideological views on big intrusive government, their zeal for high taxes, and their devotion to a liberal social and economic agenda, trump their concerns about national security, our relationship with allies like Israel, our commitment to NATO, and the existential threats from Iran, radical Islam, a megalomaniacal Russia, and a rising China. They will not change their vote until, for them personally, the urgency of one set of interests outweighs the importance of the other.
These conflicted Jews admit they cannot “vote for a presidential candidate who won't openly and undeniably break with Obama's policies towards Israel and Iran.” But neither can they support a Republican party that, while sharing a common pro-Israel position, is at loggerheads with their stance on just about everything else -- that “doesn't compromise [their] other core values” which, they claim, are both liberal Jewish and mainstream American values. As put by Eric Cohen in "The Spirit of Jewish Conservatism":
[W]hen Jews choose to embrace universalism or multiculturalism at the expense of Judaism, Jewish liberals seem unequipped to offer objection. Torn between love of Judaism and fealty to liberal norms, two life-shaping commitments, they are at a loss to resolve the increasingly irreconcilable tension between them.
This “irreconcilable tension” is based on the chimera that their core values align with liberal Jewish and mainstream American values. They falsely assume that that the broader American public supports liberal positions on reproductive rights, gun control and the environment; and that their brand of liberal Jewish values are actually Jewish values. As stated to me:
[T]he liberal Jewish community sees the current Republican party and its candidates as anathema for our values on a host of issues -- environmental policy, health care, reproductive rights, gun violence, tax policy. That's not rose-colored glasses, that's a deep philosophical divide between the way [we] look at these issues, as far as the role that government should play.
It is certainly no news flash that a liberal -- of whatever religious background -- will find conservative principles abhorrent. Nu? But to claim they are anathema to Jewish values is a stretch. If anything, they are consistent with longstanding Jewish law and morals and the liberal Jewish position is the one which is anathema to Jewish values.
Liberal Jewish values are virtually interchangeable with liberal Democrat policies because they are two heads of the same hydra. They grew up together during the 60’s free love movement and matured in the decades that followed. The radical ideas of the Summer of Love infected Jewish homes and synagogues just as they infected gentile homes and churches. Alinsky -- himself a deracinated Jew -- recalled the troops from the streets and deployed them to infiltrate the government, media, schools, businesses, and houses of worship. Traditional services were replaced with guitars and new folksy versions of prayers that had endured for centuries; traditional Sunday and Hebrew School curricula had been replaced with themes of "social justice", "Tikkun Olam" (healing the world) and "Random Acts of Kindness"; minor holidays like Tu B’Shevat (Arbor Day) found prominence in Sunday School celebrations; and the New Year of Rosh Hashanah, the harvest of Sukkot, and the spring renewal of Passover were emphasized more than the religious significance of such holidays.
Let me clarify -- this transformation happened predominantly within the Reform branch of Judaism -- the most popular branch of Judaism and the one in which I was schooled. It was supposed to make Judaism more accessible to and less demanding for assimilated Jews. It has no tether to Jewish law (halacha), the services are largely in English, it is completely egalitarian, G-d isn’t featured as much in the service as in other branches, and the rules on observance, being kosher, conversion, and wearing a yarmulke or prayer shawl are lax and not consistent with traditional branches of Judaism. In recent years, intermarriage, gay marriage, and abortion have become red-letter causes championed by Reform Jews -- consistent with their politics. Although some of this has worked its way into Conservative Judaism, overall, the progressive movement found in Reform Judaism the fertile ground needed to sow the seeds of liberalism which eventually took root (and informed generations of schoolchildren), and flowered into the robust blooms we see today -- the kind of blooms that have everyone scratching their heads and wondering, why are Jews so liberal?
Liberal Jews have incorporated liberal policies into their religious practice but these positions are not consistent with traditional Jewish values.
Take gay marriage. According to my former, very progressive rabbi, there can be no doubt that Judaism considers homosexuality an abomination. Not only is this of such importance that it is singled out in Leviticus, but it is highlighted in the Yom Kippur service. The biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah leaves little doubt that homosexuality and sexual licentiousness are taboo and would result in grave consequences.
Jewish biblical teaching is unambiguous: the family is rooted in one man and one woman sexually conjoined to be fruitful and multiply in order to build the nation of Israel. Gay marriage sanctified by G-d is unambiguously not permitted -- primarily because it has never been on the radar screen of biblical and Talmudic scholars or in the imagination of every day Jews. Because homosexuals cannot reproduce, such fantasy was not only contrary to the very purpose and definition of marriage, but so far-fetched that it never entered the lexicon or was even considered a choice, let alone a right.
Gay marriage is a brand new construct of a virulent form of progressivism that seeks to undermine the family and redefine marriage in order to increase the state’s hegemony over family and religion. Progressive Jews introduced this new “Jewish” value into contemporary Jewish thinking. They might as well have declared that any restraint from eating pork discriminates against pigs; therefore, it is now a Jewish value to eat pork and Jews who follow the traditional laws of keeping kosher are haters -- of pork.
As for guns and self-defense, while Jews strive to live in peace with our neighbors and pray for peace every day, we are permitted to fight if our survival is jeopardized. Self-defense and war are not only justified under Jewish law, but often mandated when our families and homes are threatened. In fact, it is a sin to stand by and do nothing when someone’s life is in danger, including your own. The commandment is not “thou shalt not kill” but rather “thou shalt not commit murder.” Killing in war or individually in self-defense is not something we relish in or are comfortable with, but it is most certainly justified. And we can do it with fists, sling shots, knives, cannons, missiles, water... or guns.
As for the environment, Judaism is very in tune with the Earth and its bounty, and the cycles of nature. We feed our animals before ourselves; we slaughter them for food in the least painful way, and we are supposed to care for the Earth. Indeed, our calendar is lunar and our holidays revolve around the seasons. But nothing suggests that we must protect animals or plants or even the planet to our detriment. If it is between survival and the last drop of water, drink. Trees are to be used for shelter. Oil for energy. It’s about respect and balance -- not the extremes.
But Judaism does not directly address global warming. The Bible and history are no strangers to flood, drought, storms, earthquakes, etc. These Acts of G-d are beyond our control and completely within His realm. However, if man is doing something to harm the world, like polluting, then as caretakers of this planet we have an obligation to fix it. If man is causing the planet to warm and if that is provably deleterious and if the behavior that causes the warming is not vital to man’s existence -- like growing food, animal husbandry, eating, breathing, defecating, building shelter, etc. -- then an argument could be made that we should alter our behavior to heal the Earth.
The Jewish approach to abortion is rife with subtleties and differs from the Christian focus on “life.” It does not fit snugly in either the pro-life or pro-choice niche. Judaism focuses on whether the fetus is a person and, since we are generally prohibited from harming another person, abortion on demand is never justified. Abortion is only permitted if the life of the mother is threatened -- at any point throughout the pregnancy. That threat can be emotional -- as might be the case with incest or rape. But the threat posed by the fetus to the mother must be “probable and substantial.” A fetus cannot be aborted to save anyone’s life but the mother’s; therefore, aborting a fetus to harvest organs or stem cells is not permissible.
When the head crowns, however, the fetus is considered a person equal to the mother. The worst case, as anyone can imagine, is when the head crowns and the life of the mother is threatened. Who do you save? Can we make that choice?
Reform Jews are not bound by Jewish law but are governed by liberalism. Therefore, their views on abortion parrot run-of-the-mill Democrat policies: on demand, at any time, and for any reason with the exception, for some, during the third trimester.
With regard to pot, I am not aware of any admonition in Jewish law to take drugs for purposes other than medicinal. We aren’t supposed to defile our bodies, which were given to us by the Creator. We were made in His image and are supposed to treat our bodies with the same reverence and respect we show towards G-d. We aren’t supposed to adorn our bodies like the pagans did, so no tattoos or piercings. Temperance with alcohol has always been a Jewish tradition.
For a more comprehensive analysis of the relationship between Judaism and conservatism and an articulation of “some of its guiding principles -- about family and morality, sovereignty and patriotism, wealth and freedom” see Eric Cohen’s "The Spirit of Jewish Conservatism". Regarding capitalism and wealth, he notes that “the Talmudic rabbis ‘favored the free market’” based on “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.”
As far as liberal Jewish values being anathema to actual Jewish values, Cohen concludes:
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.
After all is said and done, if I could find a Republican candidate who supported Israel and "liberal Jewish positions" then he or she would not be a Republican and could not win the support of conservatives. The fact is, these wavering liberal Jews want to have their Israel-supporting, national-security-hawk cake and eat it, too, with a huge helping of liberal policies.
They are looking for something that doesn’t exist. The only people who play in their sandbox are like-minded and they all reinforce one another’s Weltanschauung. What seem like mainstream viewpoints to highly educated, successful people who live amongst one another, send their kids to the same schools, play in the same vacation spots, and read the same newspapers, are actually fringe viewpoints for the real America. Not just the fly-over states, but the America where the American Dream is still something to strive for and pipe dreams are reserved for literary characters; where family, civil society and civic participation are embraced, not destroyed; where hard work and self-reliance -- even in the face of what seems impossible -- are valued, not forgotten; where self-restraint, a moral code, and even a strong faith are respected, not ridiculed; where the American constitutional principles of small government, property ownership, individual rights, and liberty are revered, not transformed; and where competing freedoms are balanced, not tread upon by one to the detriment of the other.
As for the claim that liberal Jewish values are consistent with mainstream America, as a general rule, at least half of the country holds "non-liberal" viewpoints on reproductive rights, gun control, the environment, gay marriage, healthcare, taxes, and the role of government. But the statistics actually demonstrate that the country leans conservative on the very issues that have been mischaracterized as “liberal” and “mainstream.” Given that polls are mere snapshots in time that can be manipulated, there is always room for variation, but on average, American attitudes are more in line with conservatives than progressives.
Still, if Jews who support Israel bitterly cling to their liberal domestic agenda, there may very well come a day when Israel will no longer be here, but we'll have the kind of America half this country wants with carbon taxes, gay marriage, abortion on demand, high taxes, no guns, and a big, intrusive government. Hopefully, we won't be speaking Arabic, either.