Preliminary reflections on politics and religion
by Jonathan Rosenblum
June 18, 2010
Lately I've been thinking about how Torah relates to contemporary politics. The initial trigger for my reflections was the retirement, after 40 years in the House, of Congressman David Obey (D.-Wisc.), one of the most powerful men in the House and one of the most anti-Israel. As a college freshman, I worked on his first campaign, just one of many youthful mistakes.
The second trigger was the receipt of a parashah sheet for Behar-Be'Chukosai produced by a ba'al teshuva of even older vintage than myself. The parashah sheet began with the assertion that the institution of Yovel, during which the Land returns to its original owners, is "essentially socialist." What followed surprised me even more – a three-page critique of the inequalities and injustices of liberal capitalism, which could have dropped out of a '60s time warp, dedicated to the author's socialist mother.
Because almost all ba'alei teshuva tend to grow more politically conservative the longer they live in the religious community, I was struck by the apparent bifurcation between the author's ability to write knowledgeably on Torah subjects, on the one hand, and his having remained with his youthful politics, on the other. But then I asked myself whether there is any inherent inconsistency between the two.
The political conservatism of most (but by no means all) Torah Jews is at least as sociological as ideational, and has much to do with changes on the Left in recent years, most prominently its attitude towards Israel. Contemporary expressions of anti-Semitism tend to take the form of delegitimization, demonization, and double standards applied to Israel. And the most vociferous exponents of those 3 D's are primarily found on the political Left.
Thus those most intensely identified with their fellow Jews, and therefore most concerned with the physical security of the six million Jews in Israel, find the political Left ever less congenial. For many who began their political journey on the Left, the discovery that those whom they considered their intellectual guides have feet of clay with respect to Israel led them to reject those guides entirely. A second factor pushing Torah Jews to vote Right is the wide panoply of the so-called social issues on which the standard liberal position is dogmatically opposed to that of the Torah.
Still, it would be a mistake to identify the Torah with any particular economic philosophy. On the one hand, the Torah has nothing of early Christianity's bias towards socialism: it does not disdain the acquisition of wealth or treat spending on anything above basic necessities as degraded. The rich man is not assumed to be morally inferior to the poor man. Historically, the economic organization of traditional European Jewish communities was decidedly not socialist (though it was not free-market capitalism either.)
On the other hand, proponents of left-wing economic views can find Torah sources to cite in favor of a certain egalitarianism, including the Yovel and the ownerlessness of agricultural produce during the shmittah year. Long before FDR, Jews in Europe were attracted to the Left, largely because the Right was identified with their political and economic oppression. Socialism, not love for the Czar, made significant inroads into the yeshivos of Eastern Europe. Even today, the social welfare programs associated with big government have made long-term learning possible for many, whether in Lakewood, Gateshead, or Yerushalayim.
THERE IS, HOWEVER, one respect in which the Torah and contemporary liberalism are increasingly at odds: the latter's downplaying of personal moral responsibility. Man's responsibility for the exercise of his free will is central to the Torah view. Free will, and the possibility of earning our relationship to HaKadosh Baruch Hu that goes with it, constitutes Hashem's greatest gift.
Modern liberalism fosters a mindset in which people cease to be treated as responsible, choosing beings, and are defined instead as products of socio-economic or religious groups. For example, the reflexive assumption of many on the Left that Islamic terrorists are acting out of frustration with their depressed economic circumstances is both exculpatory of evil and wrong in fact. The leading 9/11 plotters were from upper-middle class backgrounds and well-educated.
When black conservatives like Justice Clarence Thomas or economist Thomas Sowell are pilloried by liberals as betrayers of their race, based on the assumption that all blacks should think alike, their individuality is denied. Liberal commentators who attribute criticism of President Obama to racism, rather than to legitimate debate over major shifts in America's social and diplomatic policy, similarly reduce human thought to racial categories.
The author of the parashah sheet in question provided another example of this tendency to define people in class or racial terms, not as individuals, when he wondered why Red State voters are more conservative than more affluent Blue State voters. That question assumes that economic class should determine one's values, and that those with below median incomes should automatically support high taxation on the well-to-do.
But Americans traditionally place a higher value on liberty (dror), which is also celebrated in parashas Behar, than equality. The Torah regards servitude, which ends with the Yovel, as a degraded state for a Jew. Our free will should be subject only to Hashem's commands, not to any human master. The modern welfare state bent on equalizing economic outcomes can only do so by continually restricting individual liberty and initiative.
The author of the parashah sheet admits that the European social democracies he most admires are hostile to Israel, a fact which he attributes to their large Muslim populations. He ignores, however, that the cowardice of citizens of those social democracies, in the face of radical Islam, may itself be a reflection of the passivity engendered by a state that increasingly restricts liberty in the name of social justice. The greater the percentage of the citizens working in government jobs and the higher the percentage of personal income coming from government transfer payments, I would wager, the more passive the citizenry and less willing to defend it's freedom.
Torah cannot determine how any individual Torah Jew votes – that ultimately depends on the weighing of numerous factors and balancing ideals that live in a certain tension – but Torah ideals do have an important influence.
Related Topics: American Government & Politics, Biographical - Jonathan Rosenblum, Jewish Ethics, Social Issues
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list