Caught Betwixt and Between
by Jonathan Rosenblum
June 17, 2009
Ann Bayefsky wrote an excellent piece on how President Obama's Cairo speech incorporated much of the Islamic narrative, including the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. One line in particular caught my notice: "Three times Obama defended the right of Moslem women to cover their bodies. Never once did he mention the right of Moslem women to refuse to cover their bodies."
She has a point. In classic democratic theory, the state has no more interest in a citizen's adherence to particular religious strictures than to his non-adherence – only in his freedom to choose between those two courses. President Obama chose to ignore the extent to which wearing a hijab is the result of coercion, not free choice, across the Moslem world, and even in many Moslem neighborhoods in Western democracies.
In large part, modern democracy's emphasis on freedom of conscience and thought derives from the Torah conception of bechiras chofshi (Free Will). Though the Torah makes clear that one set of choices represent "life" and the other "death," nevertheless we possess the ability to choose. Our Free Will is Hashem's greatest gift because only through its exercise can we earn His favor, rather than just receiving His beneficence as nahama d'kisufa, unearned bread of humiliation.
Still no Torah Jew would speak of his daughter's "right" to dress in an immodest manner, and if she did so, he would experience great pain. At the same time, "honor" killings, which are so widespread in the Moslem world, are unknown among Torah Jews. At most, parents might sit shiva over a child's behavior in extreme cases. Perhaps that difference results from our emphasis on the exercise of Free Will. We educate our children to make Hashem's Will their own, and we would view ourselves as having failed as parents if we had to rely on coercion, even if that course were open to us.
THE AMBIVALENT FEELINGS triggered by Bayefsky's statement are, I think, symptomatic of a larger ambivalence experienced by Torah Jews in the modern world. In the civilizational struggle between radical Islam and democracy, there can be no question on which side we find ourselves. Radical Islam knows only submission. Should Islam triumph, we will all be dead. The totalitarian ideologies of the last century – Nazism, Soviet Communism, and radical Islam – have all proven murderous with respect to Jews of all stripes.
But if our side of the battlefront between freedom and radical Islam is clear, we still must recognize that the liberty upon which Western democracy rests is primarily a negative virtue – a defense against tyrannies. That liberty easily descends into a libertinism that is anathema to every Torah value.
Freedom unaccompanied by any positive conception of the uses of that freedom drains Western societies of their will, and leaves them unwilling to even to defend themselves. Those who have never tasted tyranny have little appreciation of their own freedom, and imagine moral equivalencies between every failure, real of imagined, of their own societies and those who would destroy it..
The prevalent moral relativism of the elites renders them impotent in the face of evil. Indeed, as we noted last week, the very concept becomes laughable in their eyes. Until recently, the United States and Israel were the only two Western democracies whose citizenry was still prepared to fight to preserve its freedoms. (Western Europe, scarred by the carnage of two world wars, has long since disarmed. It would rather sell its enemies oil wells than fight them.)
Today Israelis may be alone in their determination to defend themselves. The lack of any alternative tends to focus the mind. For Israel, there are few wars of choice. And Israelis have seen evil at close range, in the form of a society that has raised an entire generation of young to believe that blowing themselves up to kill Jews is the highest goal to which a human being can aspire.
The loss of national will goes hand in hand with precipitous moral decline. The sense of busha (shame) is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Jewish people. But it is also a quality that distinguishes human beings from animals. The latter do not experience shame. Increasingly, neither do human beings. In recent years, a whole new form of entertainment has swept the Western world in which participants invite millions of strangers to watch them engage in humiliation rituals.
The Chofetz Chaim writes that as we draw closer to Mashiach time speeds up. Certainly the time clock for moral decay has done so. One by one, the lynchpins of traditional Western morality are disappearing. Fifteen years ago, the idea that any state, apart from a tiny outlier like Hawaii, might institute single-gender "marriage" seemed far-fetched. Today six states have done so, and many others are poised to follow suit. Among the intellectual elites support for single-gender marriage is the default position. Recently, a beauty pageant contestant was relentlessly pilloried for expressing the opinion that marriage is only possible between a man and a woman. What no human society in two thousand years ever sanctioned -- single-gender marriage -- has suddenly become beyond the realm of intellectual debate.
Princeton "ethicist" Peter Singer cheerfully told The New York Times a few years back he expected the concept of the "sanctity of life" to disappear from our vocabulary within thirty years. He may have been underestimating the speed with which the zeitgeist shifts direction. Charles Krauthamer has persuasively argued that the current administration's only possible solution to soaring budget deficits is a radical rationing of health care in the last year of life, when over half of a person's lifetime medical expenses are incurred. Older people will be told, "Sorry, you can't have that treatment. You aren't worth it."
The Torah Jew stands back aghast at these signs of decay, from whose impact it is impossible to escape. But efforts to batten down the hatches and shut out the outside world is only one of the responses demanded. It remains our task to offer a positive vision and of the meaning of life and a compelling example of the possibilities of human life in the image of G-d. Without that vision and example, it is doubtful that hedonist Western societies can muster the will to exist, and perhaps even doubtful whether they deserve to.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
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