Think Again: Jewish conservatism and its limits

"By their fervent embrace of the Democratic Party, in sickness and health, American Jews have served as the enablers of a nuclear Iran."

US President Barack Obama pauses during remarks at the dedication ceremony for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama pauses during remarks at the dedication ceremony for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If ever there was a time for American Jewry to consider a course change, it is the present. The current course threatens world Jewry with annihilation, and American Jewry with demographic decimation. By their fervent embrace of the Democratic Party, in sickness and health, American Jews have served as the enablers of a nuclear Iran.
Seven million Jews in Israel are likely doomed to live in perpetuity under the shadow of a nuclear bomb due to US President Barack Obama’s refusal to countenance military action to stop Iran’s nuclear program, despite constant assurances to the contrary. American Jews twice voted for Obama in higher percentages than any other non-black group, despite clear indications he is, in the words of former peace-processor Aaron David Miller, not exactly “in love with the idea of Israel.”
Meanwhile, the failure of American Jewry to offer its children any coherent account of why the continued existence of the Jewish people matters, not just for Jews but the entire world, has paved the way for a headlong rush towards oblivion.
Four out of five marriages involving non-Orthodox American Jews today are intermarriages, which will lead to rapid demographic decline and highly attenuated identity.
See the latest opinion pieces on our page
Surveying this scene, Eric Cohen, executive director of the Tikvah Fund, has issued a clarion call in Mosaic for the “spirit of Jewish conservatism.”
As described by Cohen, Jewish conservatism is a three-legged stool based on defense of the traditional family; support for the nation-state and national sovereignty in general, and that of Israel in particular; and a conviction that free markets best ensure societal prosperity and individual liberty.
Tikvah advances these ideals through a number of publications and various institutes led by many of the world’s leading conservative public intellectuals. The most important of the institutes are the lengthy summer programs for Jewish high school and college students, in both Israel and America. For if there is one type of diversity to which future Jewish leaders are unlikely to be exposed on campus it is diversity of thought, in particular conservative thought.
I have participated in several Tikvah institutes, and was on the staff last summer of a program specifically designed for yeshiva students. I’m sympathetic to each of the legs of Cohen’s “Jewish conservatism.”
Cohen seeks to ground Jewish conservatism in both the requirements of contemporary Jewish life and classical Jewish sources.
That is most easily done with respect to the traditional family. Family has always served as the primary vehicle for the transmission of the tradition to succeeding generations. Morning and night, we recite in the Shema the commandment to “Teach them [i.e. the commandments] thoroughly to your children.”
Support for the nation-state and its ability to defend itself is also well-grounded in Jewish sources. The Jewish people are more accurately described as a nation than as members of a particular faith. Only the Jews experienced revelation as an entire people at Sinai, and were there entrusted with a national mission – the revelation of God to the world. That revelation encompasses not just religious law, but civil and criminal law as well. Halacha – e.g. the prohibition of taking interest from another Jew – repeatedly emphasizes the special concern owed by Jews to one another as partners in a common mission.
Not by accident did Jean Bodin, the first great theorist of national sovereignty, draw heavily on Jewish sources from both the Tanach and Talmud.
An entire field, political Hebraism, has arisen delineating the influence of Jewish sources on the development of modern political thought.
With respect to free markets, matters become trickier. The traditional economies of European Jewish communities often had numerous anti-competitive features, including extensive licensing of the right to sell certain goods and services. It is impossible to read the Torah as anticipating Adam Smith. At most, certain Torah values were necessary conditions for the development of free markets: equality before the law; the high value assigned to being self-supporting from the labor of one’s hands; stress on property rights; and the absence of hostility to the accumulation of wealth.
Wealth, like poverty, is a test – and it entails extensive duties and responsibilities, but it is not an evil per se. At the same time, the Torah offers no support for the unbounded individualism of an Ayn Rand, but rather emphasizes the interlocking responsibilities and duties owed to one’s fellow.
Solutions to all contemporary political or economic debates will not be found in the Torah, as it is not congruent with any humanly derived ideology or political party. At best, the latter can be judged for compatibility with the Torah.
At the time it was delivered, it was designed to govern a single people bound by a common mission, not for country with a pluralism of peoples and beliefs, the challenge with which the American founding fathers struggled. And it was given in a period when God’s Providence was manifest. That period ended with prophecy.
I note the divergence of Torah and any particular secular ideology for two reasons. First, to avoid conflating Torah with Jewish nationalism.
Dr. David Luchins, a long-time adviser to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, visited Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik the night of Menachem Begin’s stunning 1977 electoral triumph. Luchins expected to find Rabbi Soloveitchik elated. But just the opposite was the case.
Rabbi Soloveitchik explained, “Until now, we [i.e., the religious Zionists] knew our place in Labor- led governments: We were a brake on a bus plummeting downhill [from all connection to traditional Judaism]. But Begin speaks our language – he speaks of Eretz Yisrael.” The Rav feared that religious Jews would be too eager to ignore the distinction between Torah and secular nationalism.
Second, it is crucial to note the limits of Jewish conservatism as sufficient to secure the Jewish future by offering a compelling reason for Jews to marry other Jews.
Jewish pride is at best a stopgap measure. (Cohen does not suggest otherwise.) Those for whom Jewish identity is prominent are more likely to marry other Jews than those for whom it is tertiary, and based on ethnic foods and a sense of humor. Rabbi Noah Weinberg, a pioneer of the modern ba’al teshuva movement, always encouraged Jewish activism, “fighting for the Jewish people,” as a means of encouraging young Jews to investigate more deeply what it means to be a Jew.
But Jewish pride is not readily transmitted, especially when removed from the context of closeknit ethnic neighborhoods. Compare the jubilation to which American Jews greeted Israel’s creation in 1948, with the widespread indifference of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren today. Over half of American Jews under 35 say they would not view the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy.
Clergy of the liberal branches of Judaism have long been adept at citing prooftexts from the Torah to show that whatever is au courant – e.g., a nuclear freeze in my youth – the Torah thought of first. I doubt that a conservative version of the same will be more effective in attaching young listeners to the Jewish people. Once ideas, whether benevolent or pernicious, become the common property of mankind, shared by those of various religions or none, it makes more sense to choose one’s spouse on the basis of shared politics than shared religion.
The missing element in Cohen’s account of Jewish conservatism is chosenness. Chosenness is a recurrent theme in the Torah, which variously describes the Jewish people as: “A kingdom of priests, a holy nation,” “My special treasure among the nations” and “My son, my firstborn son, Israel.” Jews have been hated since ancient times for their fierce endogamy, and holding themselves apart.
Yet modern Jews find the doctrine of Jewish chosenness an embarrassment. In a 1996 Commentary symposium on the state of Jewish belief, the heterodox clergy refused to unambiguously affirm the Jews as God’s chosen people.
Only Orthodox Jews experience no discomfort with the idea. It is part of their daily reality: The Torah Jew’s life focuses around the observance and study of the Torah’s commandments. As a consequence, he knows that he has been chosen as the sole recipient of God’s Torah, for the Torah’s 613 mitzvot bind only Jews. Before he begins a day filled with Torah study, he recites the blessing, “Who has chosen us from among all the nations and given us His Torah.”
Cohen is passionately committed to the future of the Jewish people. He subscribes to a Jewish ethic of power “that treats the preservation of Jewish civilization and the Jewish nation as the first and greatest moral imperative entrusted to Jewish leaders and citizens.”
But the threats from within are, if anything, even greater than those from without. And combating the threat from within requires first and foremost a deep exposure to the distinct values and commandments for which Jews have always been willing to give up their lives, guided by those who would still be prepared to make that choice today. 
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997 and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.