Friday, November 17, 2006

In defense of Orthodox liberalism

Cross-posted at DovBear's blog

R. Harry Maryles writes in this this post, "It is a fact that the conservative principles are generally more in line with Orthodox Judaism than are liberal principles. Although that isn’t 100% the case, I think it is true most of the time."

I care to disagree. But I should note that if Harry had begun the sentence with "It is my opinion..." rather than "It is a fact..." I would not have objected. He is entitled to his views, but they are debatable. Still, I have heard similar sentiments from many other frum people, and it is a topic worth discussing.

A large part of what has inspired the rightward shift among frum voters in recent decades parallels the influences on evangelical Christians: the "traditional values" of which the Republican Party has appointed itself the sole bearer. While those values have nothing to do with the conservative philosophy of unfettered capitalism, Republican politicians created a marriage between these two meanings of conservatism. It is an unhappy marriage. Religious conservatives were duped by Reagan, and many of them have recently woken up to the fact that they've also been duped by Bush.

I've always been amazed at the mental acrobatics of those who argue that Judaism fits the philosophy behind economic conservatism. Their rationale depends partly on the standard but inaccurate translation of tzedakah as "charity." In modern American society, charity is simply a praiseworthy act. In ancient Israel, however, tzedakah was the law of the land. The conservative tenet that we must encourage volunteerism in place of government aid runs contrary to much traditional Jewish thought.

When I raised this point on Harry's blog, Bari noted differences between the ancient Jewish system and modern liberal programs. For example, in halacha a person gets to decide which poor people to give to. When I pointed out that one of the highest forms of tzedakah is giving to someone unknown, Bari replied, "And it's theft if you take it from me to give it to someone else who I don't know. When the govt. does it, maybe it's not theft, but it's not right Al Pi Din Torah."

Bari is walking on thin ice here. Either you think that it's okay to have the government enforce donations to the poor, or you don't. If you don't, but you make an exception for Judaism's specific mandates, and you declare anything else to be "theft" or something close to it, then you're not being philosophically consistent.

Having said that, I should point out that there is a good deal more to politics than philosophy. I don't fault any frum person for taking conservative positions on particular issues. There is room in Yiddishkeit for a variety of political perspectives, once we move past ideology and get into specifics. The problem is that many of us have a hard time stepping outside our own political perspectives and acknowledging that other viewpoints have legitimacy. When we feel strongly about an issue, it is easy to fall into the trap of ascribing simplistic motives to the other side and of not recognizing how complex the issue really is. I'm sure I have been guilty of this before, but I definitely see it in frum conservatives. It is implicit in Harry's statement that "conservative principles are generally more in line with Orthodox Judaism," which almost makes it sound like we can just do a head-count of political positions and declare this one as being more in line with Torah values, that one as being less, and so on.

So let me be clear: On almost any major issue in American politics today, a case could be made for both sides without sacrificing one's commitment to Torah principles. There are possible exceptions, like gay marriage or opposition to stem-cell research. But most issues fall into one of the following three categories:

1) Issues where the Torah's view is irrelevant. One example is gun control. Occasionally I have heard Orthodox rabbis on both sides of this debate attempt to "spin" their favored position as more Torah-based, but their arguments are unconvincing, for the disagreement (properly understood) does not stem from any fundamental difference of values and has no real bearing on halacha. So too with the vast majority of American political issues.

2) Issues where the Torah's view is relevant, but where there is still rabbinic support for both sides. An excellent example is the death penalty. Harry's mentor R. Ahron Soloveichik not only opposed the death penalty but believed that every Jew should.

3) Issues where Jewish law may seem more in line with one side, but where pragmatic considerations might tilt it the other way. This category includes many "social issues" that religious conservatives focus upon, such as abortion.

In sum, I welcome debate on the specifics of any issue. At the same time, I believe that there is much in common between traditional Judaism and many core liberal ideals. It's not absolute, but then neither is the pact that R. Lapin and co. have attempted to make with the Christian Right. And frankly I think the latter poses a greater danger to our freedom as Jews than the fuzzy liberal tolerance that so many frum people claim to despise. Christian conservatives may play nicey-nice to us, but in the long run they're being disingenuous, as becomes clear in the slip-ups by the less shrewd among them (e.g. Katherine Harris). You have to be extremely deluded to believe that the Christian Right views us as an equal partner. No doubt we should stand up for what we believe in, whether economic or social, but we must also be careful not to be so blinded by ideology that we enter into an unhealthy relationship.

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