Blog: The Ethical Echo Chamber
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 is something dark and sinister about the word compliance.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have no quarrel with being in compliance. But the way we say things matters. That’s why there’s such a strong link between ethics and communication.
To say we are in compliance presumes ethical conduct as something imposed on us contractually or legislatively. And the problem with that attitude is that we start to resent the rules of compliance as a burden and an inconvenience.
That makes us want to rebel.