Liberty, not libertinism
by Jonathan Rosenblum
April 23, 2004
In their new book Occidentalism: the West in the Eyes of its Enemies, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit identify a "cluster of prejudices" shared by anti-liberal haters of the West. The West in the eyes of its enemies is characterized by its crushing of every spiritual value in the mindless pursuit of material comfort, its incapacity for self-sacrifice, and its hedonism. The cenral loci of the evils they identify is the Western metropolis – a "zoo of depraved animals, consumed by desire."
These attitudes, Buruma and Margalit argue, characterize such diverse groups as Al-Qaeda, Japanese kamikaze pilots, 19th century Slavophiles and German Romantics. One might add the Southern agrarians of the ‘30s and the Robert Bork of Slouching to Gomorrah for good measure.
But any description that links together so many diverse groups ultimately loses its explanatory power. Or to put it another way, it fails to address the central question: Why do some critics of modernity – today’s Islamists chief among them – find their solutions in purgative violence while others do not?
For me at least, the latter question is not merely academic. Buruma and Margalit’s description left me profoundly uncomfortable, for many of the same criticisms of modernity are heard in the Torah world. I have personally decried, for instance, the prevalent modern view of man as but a more intelligent, pleasure-seeking animal and the widespread attempts to live accordingly.
Yet for all their discomfort with aspects of modernity, Torah Jews have a pronounced affinity for liberal democracy. For all its problematics, liberty remains an important Torah value. Jews’ central historical narrative – recently recited at the Seder table – celebrates the transition from slavery to freedom.
Slavery, in the Torah’s eyes, is an inherently degraded state. No religiously meaningful act can take place without the ability to exercise one’s free will.
That is why a Jew who extends his servitude is punished by having his ear bored.
To be sure, liberty without values too frequently degenerates into mere libertinism. Yet freedom remains a precondition for any spiritual elevation. The oppressive slavery of Egypt deprived us of everything that makes live meaningful – spouses, children, and even a moment for reflection. And the inevitable result, at least initially, was deafness to the message of spiritual and physical redemption that Moses brought.
The impulse to wreak destruction on all those one condemns is alien to the way Jews have lived for millennia. Residing in host societies based on values alien to Torah, Jews learned to shutter themselves off from external influences. They did not seek to destroy those societies. To the impurity of the world, they responded with redoubled efforts towards spiritual elevation.
That quest for spiritual perfection never took the form of martial virtues, as it did for kamikaze pilots and today’s Islamic fanatics. "Who is mighty?" asked the Sages. And they answered, "One who conquers his evil inclination," quoting Proverbs: "Better one who is slow to anger than a mighty warrior; and one who masters his passions than a conqueror of cities."
Jews do not demonstrate their attachment to transcendental values through what Professor Mordechai Nisan recently described in these pages as the shahid’s (martyrs) eagerness to die and the mujahid’s (fighter’s) passion to kill.
Holy war and world conquest have been central to Islam since it swept out of the Arabian peninsula to Pyreenes. They are equally foreign to Judaism. It is more than three thousand years since we fought our last milchemet mitzvah (commanded war), and that was limited to the Land of Israel.
More than two millennia ago, the Men of the Great Assembly taught us to perceive God’s might and awe even as evildoers exulted in His Temple and enslaved His children. Having learned not to identify G-d’s favor with worldly might, we were spared the urge to world conquest. Judaism knows no parallel to the sword of Mohammed or that of Constantine.
We were spared, as well, the sense of humiliation and burning rage of today’s Islamist, who dreams of a renewed caliphate, imposing Islamic law across the globe. Vengeance in the Torah is always G-d’s vengeance. But we are not enjoined to become His avenging sword. "Our people have entrusted to God and God alone the task of avenging the blood of their murdered fathers and brothers, wives and children," writes Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.
Judaism knows no parallel to the Koran’s call on believers to "punish non-believers for their haughtiness and stubbornness in rejecting Mohammed." "Do not rejoice in the fall of your enemies," the Torah instructs us. The great Torah commentator, Rabbi Meir Simchah of Dvinsk, points out that the festival of the seventh day of Pesach was declared to the Jews in Egypt even prior to the Splitting of the Sea, in order that we should understand the festival as a celebration of freedom and nationhood, not of the drowning of the Egyptians.
The common elements of various critiques of modernity, noted by Buruma and Margalit, then, are ultimately less crucial than the differences between them and the implications for action drawn by the critics.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
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