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Only a day after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, a Christian acquaintance asked me the question I’ve probably been asked more than any other:
Why are Jews liberals?
While the debate rages on over whether President Trump has created our culture of virulent partisanship or was created by it, I’m taking the opportunity to revisit these thoughts from 2010. It’s worth contemplating how obsession with labels and identity politics is rapidly eroding the moral foundations of the left and the right.
Now that even the New York Times has acknowledged Barack Obama’s confrontational stance toward the State of Israel, one might wonder why American Jews have yet to demonstrate even a hint of buyer’s remorse over their ardent support for the president in the last general election. Long-time Commentary Magazine editor Norman Podhoretz wondered the same thing in a Wall Street Journal editorial last September, in which he posed the title question, “Why are Jews Liberals?”
The article — then a teaser for the author’s new book by the same name — never got around to answering its own question. Indeed, Mr. Podhoretz seemed distinctly less interested in contemplating why Jews are liberal than in pontificating about why they should be more conservative.
He has a point. For over three thousand years, Jewish society has promoted what today are called “traditional values,” those social mores that came to define “tradition” precisely because they were universally held by so many for so long. The sanctity of life, of family, of sexuality, of charity, and of prayer — all these find their origins in Torah Judaism. Moreover, throughout the Biblical and Talmudic eras the structure of the Jewish socioeconomic community was essentially capitalistic, with the free market determining business activity and the social safety net for the poor and the weak provided (successfully) by individual responsibility within a framework of communal obligation.
Why then, asked Mr. Podhoretz, have American Jews indulged their love affair with liberalism since Franklin Roosevelt (who demurred from even a token act of intervention on behalf of the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis)? Why did American Jews disregard John McCain’s long record of support for Israel and Barack Obama’s open association with known anti-Semites to vote for Mr. Obama by a margin of almost four-to-one? (And why, if the vote were held today, would the likely results be just about the same?)
Good questions. And although Mr. Podhoretz sidestepped any effort to answer them, there is an answer.
As much as all conservative values trace their origins to Jewish tradition, liberal values trace their origins to the same source — to exactly the same degree.
No one has articulated this better than the non-Jewish historian Paul Johnson: “To [the Jews] we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so a personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind.” In other words, Judaism is an ideology devoted to the betterment of the human condition based upon values and goals that are fundamentally liberal.
That being said, it may be the greatest misconception of the modern ideological divide that conservatism and liberalism must be mutually exclusive. Conservative traditionalism emphasizes the necessity of building upon the past, while liberal idealism focuses upon the responsibility to shape the future. Conservatism without forward thinking becomes calcified and reactionary. Liberalism without respect for tradition mutates into caricature and absurdity.
The corruption of modern liberalism is evident across the spectrum of political ideology. The sanctity of life has devolved into the rejection of capital punishment while simultaneously negating both the value and the rights of the unborn. The dignity of human person has been distorted to support euthanasia for both unwanted infants and the elderly infirm. Equality before the law has become a bludgeon in the hands of criminals and a straightjacket to constrain victims. Collective conscience has become the underpinning of nonjudgmentalism, whereby every form of perversion gains acceptance as an “alternative lifestyle.” The notion of divinity has vanished altogether, replaced by the self-worship of secular humanism.
Oblivious to these resounding contradictions, secular Jews have rallied to modern liberalism under the banner of tikkun olam, literally “the rectification of the world.” In its new, common usage, however, tikkun olam means something very different from what it meant when the concept was first articulated over 32 centuries ago.
TO REPAIR THE WORLD
Advocacy for saving the rainforests and for saving the whales, for developing renewable resources and for leaving a smaller carbon footprint — these are just some of the enterprises gathered by pop-Jewish philosophy under the umbrella of tikkun olam.
According to the ancient wisdom of the Torah, however, every human being is a microcosm of Creation, a world — or olam — unto himself. Yes, it is important for human beings to act as responsible custodians of the Almighty’s world, but the rectification of the universe is a process that ultimately begins and ends within oneself.
How does an individual repair himself and thereby bring his world a step closer to perfection? By cultivating moral behavior and spiritual sensitivity based upon traditional values through acts of kindness, charity, and spiritual self-discipline. When I change myself, I change the world around me, and I do so far more substantially than by trying to change others while I remain the same. My own mandate to repair the world rests upon me alone and can be delegated to no one else.
Modern liberalism has adopted the belief that change depends upon governmental and judicial activism. Ironically, by shifting responsibility for social justice from the individual to the state, modern liberals have abdicated their own responsibility to address the very injustices they yearn to change. And with the abdication of social responsibility, it requires only a short step before even the most basic moral and spiritual axioms are similarly discarded. Finally, with no moral compass to guide it, modern liberalism has embraced the amorality of ancient Greece and the bacchanalia of ancient Rome not only as lifestyles but as models in the image of which contemporary society should be remade.
In truth, the liberal impulse is not only healthy but integral to human existence in general and to the mission of the Jewish people in particular. That impulse proves beneficial, however, only when guided by fealty toward the traditional values that have become associated with conservatism. By cutting themselves off from their spiritual moorings, secular Jews have indeed become the most exuberant seekers of causes for social and environmental justice as they seek any available ism to replace the calling of their ancestral heritage. But their headlong stampede toward utopianism more often resembles the frantic race of lemmings to the sea than an effective campaign for global reconstruction.
Mr. Podhoretz wonders at the alliance of American Jews with the liberal apologists who level every imaginable indictment against the country that granted them the freedom to achieve unprecedented prosperity. In the aftermath of the Passover holiday, it is worth reflecting upon the Jewish concept of freedom. To be truly free, we have to define morality not according to passing fads and fancies but according to the precepts that determine who we are and from where we have come. Only when we fully understand and commit ourselves to the principles that have sustained us since the dawn of civilization can we truly repair the world.
Originally published by Jewish World Review
Picture credit: DonkeyHotey
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Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get.
~Robert A. Heinlein
We’ve certainly gotten our share of weather this season. Blizzards in New England, ice storms in Florida, subzero temperatures in the Midwest, and devastating dry heat in California. Whatever we were expecting from winter, this was not it.
Of course, you can always find a silver lining if you look hard enough. As humorist Kin Hubbard wrote, Don’t knock the weather; nine-tenths of people couldn’t start a conversation if it didn’t change once in a while.
It is remarkable how much we seem to delight in stating the obvious. Do we think that others won’t notice Mother Nature’s current disposition if we don’t bring it to their attention?
But the weather teaches a deeper lesson in human psychology, one first observed by the sages of the Talmud some 2000 years ago:
Everything is in the hands of heaven except cold and heat.
At first glance, it appears that the author of this remark was playing with our minds. After all, is anything less in our control than the weather? To complicate matters, this comment seems to contradict the more famous talmudic dictum that,
Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.
The meaning of the second statement is easier to grasp. As much as we human beings like to think of ourselves as masters of our own fate, the truth is that we have no control whatsoever over what happens to us.
Of course, we can choose how we act. But where our actions will lead, where our choices will take us, and what twists of fate lie lurking around every corner – about those we have nothing to say at all.
Consider these ironic footnotes to history:
The trendy, textured wallpaper invented in 1960 by Marc Chavannes and Al Fielding turned out to be a total failure. Well, not a total failure. Several years later it was put to good use. You know it as Bubble Wrap.
In 1968, Spencer Silver tried and failed to develop a super-strong adhesive for 3M laboratories. Instead, he produced a stickum that easily peels right off. His failure gave us Post-it notes.
Then there’s the story of John DeLorean, the wunderkind who rose to become general manager of Chevrolet, only to leave General Motors and start his own car company. His sleek, gull-winged, stainless steel luxury car captured the world’s imagination, and experts predicted boundless success. But production delays and a global recession drove his company into bankruptcy. DeLorean was arrested and charged with drug-trafficking, purportedly to raise the $17 million he needed to save his ailing company.
Sometimes we do everything right and fail; sometimes we do everything wrong and succeed. Ultimately, we have no more control over the outcome of our efforts than we have over the weather. What we do control, however, is how we respond to what happens to us.
When we forget where we left our keys, do we start snarling at the people around us? When we’re late for an appointment, do we curse the red light that makes us later? When we get caught making a mistake, do we try to deflect responsibility by shifting blame onto others? When a project fails, do we make excuses, or do we try to learn how to turn the experience of failure into a formula for success?
It’s the way we respond to situations of stress and disappointment that reflects the quality of our character. This is what the sages call fear of heaven.
Don’t we do a greater service to ourselves, as well as to the people around us, when we laugh at our own foolishness, admit our own mistakes, and quietly accept the inconveniences that fate scatters along our way? Don’t we make it easier for others to look for the good and cope with the bad when we model keeping perspective and priorities where they should be? Don’t we come out ahead in the end by challenging ourselves to do better than by cursing the randomness of misfortune?
We can’t change the weather, but we can dress warmly against the cold and stay hydrated against the heat. That’s plain common sense.
It’s less common to remain even-tempered and upbeat in the face of life’s bumps and bruises. But it makes just as much sense.
And it’s entirely in our hands.
It happened when John F. Kennedy appeared at his presidential inauguration without a hat. One instant of astonishment, followed by men’s hats instantaneously dropping out of style.
It happened when Michelle Obama began appearing sleeveless as First Lady. A few days of disdain and mockery from the right, after which virtually every female commentator on Fox News had shed her sleeves.
And currently, it has happened with Donald Trump’s unfiltered attacks on anyone who dares to question or oppose him. After excoriating the president for his vitriol and divisiveness, his detractors on the left have used the exact same tactics in their campaign against him.
This has nothing to do with taking sides.
Events on the Korean peninsula have been a source of anxiety for a long time. But the precarious game of nuclear brinkmanship turned momentarily farcical last May, when the newly elected government of South Korea condemned North Korea for dashing hopes of peace by conducting its second ballistic missile test in a week.
In other news, expectations for perpetual motion, bi-partisan government, and the end of world hunger were also shattered. The culprit was that relentless and uncompromising bugaboo known as reality.
On October 11, 2002, former President Jimmy Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize, in large part for his role negotiating a treaty in which North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear weapons program. On October 16, just five days later, the United States announced that North Korea admitted to having a clandestine program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.
One can’t help but reflect on the classic scene in Casablanca when Claude Rains declares being “shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on” — as the concierge is handing him his winnings.
The UN vote is about more than Jerusalem and about more than an embassy
It’s depressing to have to state the obvious. But it’s too maddening to remain silent. So please forgive me if I revisit what many have said but few have heard.
Last week’s United Nations vote – which censured the United States for planning to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem – is a pitch-perfect example of human society’s collective descent into tribalism. And the heart of the matter has nothing to do with Jerusalem, the Mideast, or American foreign policy.
One could reasonably make the case that moving the embassy is ill-advised. I have had my own doubts whether or not the benefits of the largely symbolic gesture outweigh the potential for violent Palestinian reaction.
But that was not the stated reason behind the U.N. resolution.
Instead, leaders and pundits the world around claimed that the move will derail the peace process. And to that, the logical retort is: what peace process?
In the 53 years since the establishment of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (which preceded the Six Day War and Israel’s so-called “occupation” of the West Bank), the only concession offered up by the Palestinian Authority has been to remove from its charter the call for Israel’s destruction.
The concession to stop publicly advocating the extermination of 6 million Israeli Jews was a good first step, not a final offer. Negotiation requires compromise, as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak demonstrated back in 2000 when he offered to return 94% of the West Bank – an offer the P.A. refused. Since then, the only progress has been Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, to which the P.A. responded by launching missiles against Israeli civilians.
So exactly what “process” does the international community think has been derailed?
PSYCHOLOGY AND PATHOLOGY
Even more absurd is denouncing the U.S. embassy move as “illegal.” The whole world has recognized Israel’s ownership of West Jerusalem since 1947. So why should any country not be allowed to name its own capital in its own land? And why should any other country be censured for establishing its embassy in a legal foreign capital? Finally, why should longtime allies join the chorus of condemnation with absolutely no legal or moral justification?
The first two questions are merely rhetorical. It is the third question that really needs answering. Are you listening, Europe and Canada?
There are two explanations. First is the irrational Utopianism that characterizes much of the political left. Like the delusional naturalists who believe that grizzly bears and mountain lions are really peaceful creatures who will respond to human gestures of affection in kind, radical progressives fantasize that terrorists and the sponsors of terror will eagerly embrace peace once the rest of us confess our sins and beg for absolution.
It hasn’t worked yet. But the Utopians have faith, even as they remain blind and deaf to the irrefutable evidence that they themselves have become the enablers of terrorism. For all their good intentions, they have prolonged suffering on all sides by allowing corrupt Palestinian leaders to squander hundreds of millions in international aid on terror tunnels rather than easing the plight of their own people.
The second reason is that western governments are terrified that any sign of support for Israel will spark violent uprisings among their restless Arab minorities. It’s a disappointing fact of life that the politics of cowardice almost always trump commitment to justice.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
The more fundamental problem, however, is the unapologetic disregard for truth.
Think whatever you want and believe whatever you want – but defend your positions with facts and logic, not disinformation and distortion. Once reasoned debate and civil discourse become impossible – whether because of ideology or fear – civilization is sure to crumble beneath our feet.
Truth be told, it’s possible that by showing the Palestinian Authority that intransigence will no longer serve their interests, the U.S. has actually moved the peace process a step forward. If other countries begin to follow America’s example, the PA will be left scrambling to make a deal before they have no more chips left to bargain.
King Solomon says, One who trusts his own heart is a fool, but one who walks in wisdom shall be kept safe.
If we truly hope to bring about peace, we have cast off our rose-colored glasses and confront our fear. Only then might we achieve the intellectual and moral integrity that will allow us to follow in the ways of wise counsel.
Fashions change, and so do standards. John F. Kennedy attended his presidential inauguration without a hat, and instantly hats fell out of style. Female attire that’s perfectly acceptable today would have landed a woman in jail a century ago.
But there’s a difference between styles and standards. A relaxed dress code may work in the offices of Facebook and Google, but conventional businesses find that productivity drops off when executives drop their office shirts, skirts, and slacks.
So if United airlines wants to hold its employees to a more formal standard of attire when they’re flying as a corporate perk, perhaps the company should have been applauded for its professionalism.
And if that requires family members who fly on non-revenue tickets to spruce up a bit, is that such a high price to pay?
Well, you’d certainly think so after the twitterstorm that engulfed the carrier earlier this year. And since it’s the season for New Year’s resolutions, let’s think back to last March, when an uninformed bystander jumped to conclusions and — rather than investigating to get her facts straight — tried and convicted United in the court of public opinion.
Love him or hate him, you have to admire Donald Trump’s genius for manipulating the media. What’s even more impressive is the way he’s been beating them at their own game.
In his recent book, Win Bigly, Scott Adams deconstructs the president’s odyssey of extremist declarations, puerile outbursts, and over-the-top promises. The renowned cartoonist of Dilbert fame convincingly reframes the Trump campaign and presidency, not as the random escapades of a cartoonish narcissist but as the calculated strategy of a smooth and savvy operator.
According to this thesis, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric calling for building a wall, mass deportations of immigrants, and banning Muslims – together with his warning of ISIS in the Vatican and his torrent of adolescent tweets – have all been pieces of a prearranged puzzle. One can argue the extent to which he advocated these positions or intended to implement them. What seems clear is that Mr. Trump anticipated exactly how incendiary they would sound, how violently his detractors would react to them, and how staking out extreme starting positions would give him room to negotiate later on.
How could he not have sucked all the air out of the country by sparking dual conflagrations of nationalist celebration and liberal outrage?
So why exactly did this help Donald Trump? Because the constant repetition of his ideas gradually drained them of their shock value while systematically embedding them in the country’s collective consciousness.
The more we hear something – anything – the more familiar it becomes and, proportionately, the less frightening. At the same time, the very outrageousness of his early proposals allowed him to walk them back and thereby appear more reasonable by moderating his positions.
He even colored his hair more blond and tinted his skin less orange.
In short, Mr. Trump played the media like a virtuoso, conscripting their irreflective aid as they blasted his name and image across the country. With their cooperation, the electorate gradually got used to the idea of an otherwise unthinkable candidate and voted him into office.
But the media should have known better. Because they have been doing the same thing themselves for decades.
Since the 1970s, the news media and the entertainment industry have been allies in the transformation of American culture. The family-based values of the post-World War II generation did not suit the progressives who envisioned a country free from traditional conventions and unfettered by social stigma.
And so filmmakers brought us movies like Brokeback Mountain, the gay-cowboy saga that, predictably, garnered a slew of Oscar nominations. The television studios showed us clever children running circles around their clueless parents in The Simpsons, and brought a gay couple front and center in American homes with Will and Grace.
During those years, Americans grew increasingly accustomed to the withering of traditional roles, as young people were indoctrinated into the new normal and their conservative elders were worn down by the relentless force of cultural inertia.
None of this was accidental. And whether you think it has been good or bad for the country, it succeeded with ruthless effectiveness.
But what took the media decades to achieve, Donald Trump accomplished in 18 months.
But here’s the real problem. As power players become more sophisticated at manipulating the public, we slip further and further into an Orwellian future where truth becomes expendable, morality becomes relative, and civility becomes an anachronism.
As a culture, we have never believed in victory at any cost. That’s why there’s a Geneva Convention for warfare, compliance standards for business, and sportsmanship recognition on the athletic field. But nowhere is moral conduct more critical than among our leaders.
Be a tail among lions rather than a head among foxes, teaches the Talmud. Good leaders benefit all who follow them by raising the standard of personal conduct. But one who attracts followers with fox-like craftiness by appealing to the darker side of human nature will inevitably leave chaos in his wake.
Every community rests on a foundation of civility and ethics, a foundation that needs constant reinforcement to remain steadfast. But when a society is overtaken by the politics of personal ideology and personal power, the most solid foundation can be eroded in no time at all.
The art of dealing is a given in the jungle of the boardroom. In the halls of government and the chambers of civic discourse, the diplomacy of character, discipline, and nobility is the only formula for lasting success.
Photo Credit: Max Pixel
It was Joseph Tainter who warned that the more complex our society becomes, the more vulnerable we are. This became painfully obvious when hundreds of thousands of ransomware victims around the world faced the prospect of having to pay extortion money to get back the use of their own computers.
Some of the victims were corporations. But others were hospitals, whose patients lives were endangered by the virus that crippled emergency and diagnostic equipment.
This raises all kinds of ethical questions:
There’s nothing like becoming a grandfather. Normally pulled in all directions by the endless jobs on my to-do list, I forget all about them every time I hold my three-month-old granddaughter and stare into her eyes.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking? I ask her silently.
The answer is: yes.
According to a study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, making eye contact with an infant causes the brain patterns of both you and the baby to fall into sync with one another.
A similar phenomenon has been observed among high school students working collaboratively in the classroom and among adults who reach agreement in discussion. Of course, it’s fairly predictable that by thinking alike people cause their brain waves become synchronized. What the new research shows is that the same thing happens independent of any exchange of ideas or information.
This kind of sympathetic connection can be wonderful when it brings people together by forming a common bond. But it can also be enormously dangerous.
And it provides a profound insight into the historical backdrop behind the Festival of Chanukah.
The battle against Greek domination was only one of many struggles against oppression in Jewish history. The Babylonians tried to cut off the Jews from their spiritual identity by destroying the Temple in Jerusalem and exiling the nation from its land. Under Persian rule, the wicked Haman hatched his plot to exterminate every Jewish man, woman, and child. The Romans combined the tactics of all the oppressors who came before them in a relentless campaign that lasted for centuries.
But it was the Syrian-Greeks who employed the most insidious stratagem: cultural assimilation. In the language of the sages, their objective was to darken the eyes of the Jewish people.
The culture of Greece dazzled the world with its entrancing beauty and magnetic sophistication. But it was essentially a culture of form over substance. The Olympic games celebrated physical prowess over inner character. The art of sophistry revered oratorical elegance over soundness of argument. Greek society idealized both the human form and the human mind, elevating humanity to the level of deification.
In contrast, Jewish thought asserts that Man is a perpetual work in progress, always incomplete by design, always striving toward self-improvement, always with a mission defined by an Authority greater than himself. As such, every tenet of the Jews and their philosophy was anathema to the thinking of their Greek overlords.
But the glittery aestheticism of Greek culture was irresistible to some. The Jewish Hellenists looked into the eyes of their masters and imagined a meeting of minds, a new syncretism whereby the most attractive aspects of Judaism and Grecianism might be blended into harmonious unification.
This was their undoing. A culture that values inner truth and substance can never merge with a culture that places the highest premium on external form. And a society that worships itself will never suffer a people who affirm loyalty to a Higher Power.
It was inevitable, therefore, that some Jews would give themselves over entirely to the ways of Greece and abandon their heritage, and that others would open their eyes and recognize that they could only survive by turning away from the seductive sparkle of Greek secularism.
Herein lies the compelling symbolism of the Chanukah candles. There is nothing more blinding than brightly flashing lights before our eyes that overwhelm our senses and bewitch us with their intensity. Ultimately, we descend into the most dangerous kind of darkness, the kind in which we lose all awareness that we cannot see.
The antidote is to turn away from the enticing light, to look into the darkness, to search for the source of faithful illumination that can guide us along the path of spiritual integrity. Like the canopy of heaven whose glory only reveals itself far from the city lights, the flames of the Chanukah menorah shine bright out of the deepest darkness, when the days are shortest and the cold of winter has descended.
In a world ablaze with the deceptive light of moral anarchy and empty icons, the Chanukah candles remind us that the light of enduring truth can still be found by turning away from the glitter and by gazing into the hidden sources of timeless wisdom.