How Can We Thrive Despite Moral Anarchy?
Why Torah Jews tend to be politically conservative
Wednesday, September 06, 2017
I'm just back from the fourth Tikvah Fund seminar for bnei Torah. The Tikvah Fund seeks to advance a Jewish conservative agenda: defense of freedom of religion and private education, support for the traditional family, a preference for free markets, and concern over strategic threats to Israel's security.
Tikvah programs consistently draw on some of the finest conservative thinkers to guide participants in working through primary texts in the areas under consideration, whether it be Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses of the US Constitution, or classics of modern political thought from John Locke to Edmund Burke to America's Founding Fathers.
In addition, leading talmidei chachamin give shiurim on the topics connected to the seminars — for example, Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz on the Seven Noachide Laws and their implications, and Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky on Torah economic models and the structure of the Jewish family. For the last three years, a dialogue between Rabbi Aaron Kotler, president of Beth Medrash Govoha, and Professor Robert P. George of Princeton, one of the few conservative thinkers to carve out a niche in the Ivy League, on the role of Orthodox Jews in the public square, has been one of the highlights of the seminar.
THE FEATURED TEACHER this year was Yuval Levin, America's premier young conservative intellectual. Levin is editor of the public policy quarterly National Affairs. Besides being a policy wonk, he is a political theorist. His book The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the intellectual arguments underlying much of contemporary political debate.
Any understanding of why Torah Jews tend toward the conservative side of the political spectrum, and why most baalei teshuvah move rightward politically as they become more observant, begins with Burke. Burke was acutely sensitive to the limits of unaided human reason, while respectful of the societal institutions that reflect the accumulated wisdom and experience of human societies over many centuries. Paine was the opposite. He extended no deference to existing institutions unless they comported in his mind with abstract principles of justice derived by human reason, in which he had boundless confidence. He was ever ready to "create the world anew."
But Levin is acutely aware of the limits of political theory — its "thinness" — as well. In a 2014 essay in First Things, he criticizes both left-wing theorists' concerns with limits on personal self-expression and right-wing concerns with restrictions on economic liberty for a shared belief "that advancing human progress is a matter of shaping society in a certain way, rather than of shaping the human soul in a certain way. They take the human person largely for granted." He is similarly critical of students of culture who take "the freely and rationally choosing human person for granted."
He, by contrast, is interested in how the culture and "the institutions of moral formation... shape and structure our desires rather than serve them... form our habits rather than reflect them... direct our longings rather than simply satisfy them..." as he writes in his most recent work The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism.
As he surveys American society, Levin is hardly sanguine. Of particular concern is the breakdown of the traditional family — "the core character-forming institution of every human society." American society is no longer characterized by a "general agreement about the virtues and benefits of the traditional family" and the behavioral mores on which it is based. Indeed "moral anarchy has become something like the explicit goal of some of our most influential institutions," he writes. The choice by advocates of single-gender marriage to pursue victory in the courts, and not in legislatures, required advocates to portray opponents as deeply irrational, rather than to seek grounds of compromise.
Nor should the consequences of that "moral anarchy" for the general society be underestimated. The percentage of two-parent families is the best single predictor, for instance, of economic mobility. And those denied the benefit of the traditional family experience at far higher rates a myriad of problems in school, with law-enforcement authorities, and in achieving emotional balance.
IT IS LEVIN'S SUGGESTED RESPONSE to this breakdown that is of most direct interest to Torah Jews. What is most required, Levin argues, is "attractive examples of the alternative [to the discarding of all traditional norms] in practice in the form of living communities that provide people better opportunities to thrive." He takes it for granted that most such communities will be religious communities.
Jeremiads will fall on deaf ears, even the best intellectual arguments for traditional marriage will sway few, and governmental financial incentives are unlikely to convince people to marry or "shape up for the sake of their children." But concrete living examples of moral values can sway people.
The flourishing of the communities Levin envisages will require a robust defense of religious liberty, in part, to defend against the threats in the wake of Obergefell (the Supreme Court case that sanctioned same-gender marriage) that would bludgeon defenders of traditional marriage by withdrawing tax exempt status from religious institutions, impose massive fines against businesses that refuse to affirm what their religion tells them is wrong, and bring lawsuits that allege religious discrimination.
But, warns Levin, the important struggle for religious liberty must not become "the main event." Focusing exclusively on religious liberty places believers in the position of a "plaintive minority seeking to be left alone," i.e., in a purely defensive posture. The goal, however, is to appeal to the larger society by example.
Levin offers an important insight to distinguish between multiculturalism and what he advocates, despite the emphasis of both on distinct groups. Multiculturalism leads to a balkanized society in which everyone is defined in terms of his or her self-chosen "identity." The thriving religious subcultures for which Levin pushes are based on community, not identity. Most importantly, culturally conservative communities do not center around what sets them apart, but rather around the embodiment of ideals and practices that they hold to be best for all human beings.
That, incidentally, is no less true for Torah Jews. Though we have no wish to impose halachic observance on all mankind, nevertheless we do believe that the moral code of the Seven Noachide Laws applies to all.
"By living out what we propose to our neighbors as the good life," Levin writes, we are making the greatest possible contribution to the general culture. Ensuring the success of our own smaller communities is precisely the means with which we fight for the "soul of the larger society."
Already in the early years of the republic, the most profound observer of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, noted that in times dominated by individualism, "it is precisely the moral and religious institutions that hold firm to orthodoxy that have proved most attractive — thanks in no small part to their countercultural character."
What Levin proposes will be instantly recognizable to Torah Jews. It is the classic Jewish self-understanding of ourselves as a people dwelling alone but serving as an "ohr lagoyim — a light to the nations."
And it is important that we should perceive ourselves precisely as Levin would have us. For his description of what we can be and of our crucial societal role is a challenge to us. It calls upon us to remain ever vigilant that our family lives are governed by authentic Torah values, and not those imported from the larger society, and that in every aspect of our lives and social arrangements we serve as models of a life shaped by Hashem's commandments.