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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.
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.
Why do some songs merely entertain, where others penetrate to the depths of our souls? Why does one song leave us unmoved, where another evokes passion or joy or sorrow?
We might find an answer by framing the question differently:
What is harmony?
Any thoughtful combination of notes can produce a pleasing sound. But not all composition is inspired, not all orchestration sublime. And even then, only once in a long while does the coalescence of notes and instrumental arrangement produce a true symphonic masterpiece, one that carries us to new heights of exultation.
Add to that the poetry of artful lyrics seasoned with shrewd insight into the human condition, and you will experience the fusion of heart and mind in a glorious oneness of divine synchronicity.
There is a single word to describe this.
As fake news becomes the new normal, I’m revisiting these thoughts from 2010.
After circling the globe one and a half times, living for nine years in Israel and one year in Hungary, and teaching adolescents for over two decades, it’s only natural that I have more than a few stories to tell. So it never fails to discomfit me when friends or neighbors respond to my essays by asking:
“Did that really happen?”
Are my anecdotes so truly unbelievable? After all, I never claimed to have flown to the moon on gossamer wings, to have crossed the Alps with Hannibal by elephant, or to have led the attack against Custer’s army at Little Big Horn. No, I’ve merely plucked useful insights from slightly quirky encounters in an attempt to uncover the wisdom that resides within myriad aspects of the human condition.
And so I’ve penned essays about my white fedora, which fellow travelers reported noticing as our paths crisscrossed throughout Europe; about the Israeli gentlemen who rebuked me in an elevator for wearing an earring while sporting tzitzis, the fringed tassels worn over the belt line according to Jewish custom; and about the ragged man who stopped in his tracks on the streets of Budapest, apparently overwhelmed and overjoyed to discover a religious Jew having survived the travails of the Holocaust and assimilation; these, together with assorted episodes from my high school class room.
“I loved your article,” an acquaintance will say. And then, with alarming frequency: “Did that really happen?”
I even get it from my mother.
To be honest, I can’t say that I’m surprised. After all, narrative accuracy has seen its market value tumble over the years. As candidate for president, John Kerry described how Christmas in Cambodia was “seared in his memory.” A stirring narrative, aside from the fact that he wasn’t actually there. In the Democratic primary four years later, Hillary Clinton reported that her parents had named her in honor of Sir Edmund Hillary — an impressive feat of prescience, since Sir Edmund had not conquered Mount Everest until five years after Ms. Clinton was born and named. Even Ronald Reagan, although never caught embellishing his own history, nevertheless brought tears to the eyes of his audiences with poignant war stories that turned out to be scenes from old movies.
Popular motion pictures that are “based on” or “inspired by” true stories often undergo such embellishment that they emerge bearing little resemblance to the events they claim to portray. Tonight Show host Jay Leno, in his autobiography, reportedly included anecdotes that actually happened to other people. Mr. Leno explained that he had permission to use one story, and that he had paid for the right to use the other.
As in so many cases, the biblical injunction against speaking untruths extends far beyond the simple meaning of the words. The verse MiDavar sheker tirchak translates, simultaneously, as “Distance yourself from a false word” and as “Distance yourself from a false thing.” Jewish philosophy teaches that words are not mere symbols or labels; they possess a substance and a reality all their own. Consider how a cruel word can inflict more pain than a sharp blow between the eyes, or how a well-placed compliment can produce more pleasure than the sweetest dessert.
When does a word or a thing become false? In principle, the slightest embellishment or exaggeration constitutes a violation of Jewish values, if not Jewish law. If one is uncertain about the details of a story, it is easy enough to add “I think” or “something like” to the narrative. That small concession to veracity helps us preserve our respect for the lines between truth and falsehood — lines that grow increasingly blurred in a society descending ever deeper into moral confusion.
The Hebrew word emes, commonly translated as truth, is formed by the three letters that come, in sequence, at the very beginning, the precise middle, and the very end of the Hebrew alphabet. Before we can be certain that anything is true, we must have a sufficiently broad perspective; we must have all the information, accurately and in context; and we must have a clear understanding of the propriety of revealing that information and the consequences of doing so. Only then is it emes.
Consequently, sometimes even absolute truth may be considered false. In the case of malicious gossip, the accuracy of the information may result in harm even worse than slander by damaging relationships that would have been secure against rumor or innuendo. Similarly, details taken out of context, although factual, often imply conclusions that have no bearing on reality. They may be true, but they are not emes.
The distinction between words that are true and words that are emes easily leads us onto thin moral ice. What about “white lies” intended to spare the feelings of others, or “harmless” untruths meant to warm another person’s heart?
At first glance, Jewish tradition seems to endorse such ideas. The sages teach that Aaron, the High Priest, upon discovering that two friends had come to quarrel, ran back and forth reporting to each how sorry the other was and how desperately he longed for reconciliation, until the two parties resolved their dispute and became friends once again. The same sages tell us to always call a bride beautiful, no matter what she actually looks like.
But is it not true that true friends, divided by conflict, miss the relationship they once had and mourn their lost friendship? Is it not similarly true that every bride glows with an inner beauty projected at the moment of her greatest joy, and that she is truly beautiful in the eyes of her bridegroom? If so, is it not also true that the sages were offering us a profound lesson in how to interpret human nature?
Indeed, even if there may be cases that require us to speak some literal untruth to protect another person’s physical, mental, or spiritual welfare, such cases are few and far between. If we are honest with ourselves, we will concede that most of us will have rare occasion to bend or break the truth.
Perhaps, if we all exert more effort to ensure that all our words are words of emes, we will not find ourselves suspicious of those stories of little miracles and inspirational irony that can make our eyes sparkle and our hearts swell. And if a more profound commitment to honesty helps us become less cynical and more easily inspired, then what do we really have to lose?