Reflections: Liberalism as a Jewish value

Those who see so many Jews voting for Trump as a positive change fail to see that the liberal orientation of Jewish Americans is really the essence of Judaism.

Ultra-Orthodox men with Trump signs in Hebrew (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Ultra-Orthodox men with Trump signs in Hebrew
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The election of Donald Trump has highlighted the deep division in American Jewry between the vast majority who voted against him, identify themselves with liberal causes and vote Democratic, and the minority who voted for him, identify themselves with the Republican Party, and with conservative and ultra-conservative groups and ideas. The latter group is to be found almost entirely among the ultra-Orthodox, including Chabad and Satmar, and the Modern Orthodox, while the liberals are identified with either Reform, Conservative or unaffiliated.
Some commentators see so many Jews voting for Trump as a positive change, as if the liberal orientation of American Jewry has really been a deviation from Judaism. They posit that as Jews become more religiously observant, they return to the values of Judaism as opposed to Western values that are alien to Judaism.
To my mind this is a dangerous distortion of the truth, and a misunderstanding of what Judaism stands for.
To see Jews turning away from liberalism as a return to “true Judaism” – as if the liberal tendencies of the vast majority of Jewish Americans were somehow the antithesis of true Jewish values – is a misunderstanding of Judaism. If anything, the opposite is the case. Those Jews who espouse the values of the extreme Right are actually the ones who are abandoning the teachings of traditional Judaism, and ignoring the basic values taught by the Torah and rabbinic tradition.
When the government of the world’s greatest democracy will be controlled by individuals who intend to destroy universal health care, to roll back regulations concerning environmental concerns, to enact tax cuts that will benefit only the super-rich – does this represent Jewish values? When the new president takes as his role model the former KGB man who rules Russia with an iron fist and has managed to eliminate his political rivals and the free press, prides himself on not paying income tax, has never – unlike some other American billionaires – been generous in donating to good causes, and speaks crudely about women and minority groups – does he represent the value of the Torah and the prophets? Judaism devoid of concern for social welfare and human equality is exactly what the prophets warned against – an artificial division between ritual and ethics, as if ritual observance were the essence of Judaism and ethics were of lesser significance. Jeremiah warned that Judean society would be saved only “if you execute justice between one man and another, if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow…” (7:5-6). Coming to the Temple without acting justly was of no value.
So-called liberal values, the concern for social welfare and the care of the poor and underprivileged, are rooted firmly in the Torah and in all subsequent Judaism. They are not “liberal” values – they are Jewish values. This is the very essence of the Torah’s teaching. It is the Torah that thousands of years ago introduced these values to the world, creating a revolution in the way in which human beings were to treat one another and calling for love of neighbor and love of the stranger.
It would be tragic indeed if there were to develop a dichotomy within Judaism in which ritual observance devoid of social concerns and belief in human values would be seen as true Judaism, when the two can and should go hand in hand. One should not have to choose between Jewish observance and social justice. On the contrary, the Torah’s deepest concern is for the care of the poor and those in greatest need.
Time and time again the Torah tells us to care for the stranger, the widow and the orphan, those members of society who are without protection. In one of the first codes of law given to the Hebrews after leaving Egypt we read, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I [the Lord] will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans…” (Exodus 22:20-22).
There is no other ancient law code that cares for the needy and gives them rights in the way that the Torah does. It legislates, for example, that they have the right to glean in the fields. This is found in Leviticus 19:9-10, repeated in Lev. 23:22 and again in Deuteronomy 24:19-22. The Psalms also stress the care of the needy and the stranger. God “secures justice for those who are wronged, gives food to the hungry… makes those who are bent stand upright… watches over the stranger, gives courage to the orphan and widow” (Ps.146:7-9).
The prophets also join in these demands.
Isaiah urges us “to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them…” (58:5-7). Amos warns “Ah, you who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground. And make the humble walk a twisted course! (2:7). Zechariah warns the returning exiles “Do not defraud the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor” (7:10).
The values of the new American government are the very antithesis of what Judaism stands for. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that I view January 20 as a dark day in the annals of America and of the world.
The writer is a Jerusalem author and lecturer who also writes regularly for the Post. His most recent books are The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights) and Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (JPS).