Friday, March 16, 2007

Is Judaism Liberal or Conservative?

I know no one who is willing to work at the current minimum wage of five dollars and change per hour, nor anyone who would be willing to work at the minimum wage when it will be increased to seven dollars and change per hour or about $15,000 a year for a forty-hour work week. I know some folks who believe that it's right to keep the minimum wage low, that it's not wrong on moral and practical grounds to pay employees less than they need to provide for the basics of food, shelter and clothing. The people I know who accept this noxious notion are not Calvinists who believe in predestination, that those who are severely underprivileged are simply fulfilling their destiny on earth. They are, in the main, Orthodox Jews who have bought the conservative ideological agenda.

This is true of other issues, including environmentalism, personal liberty and gun control. Especially among the fervently Orthodox, there is a correlation between religious conservatism and ideological conservatism. In much the same way, there is a high correlation among a large majority of American Jews between their religious liberalism - actually it is not religious at all, but secularism - and their political liberalism. It was not always this way because for a long time Orthodox Jews were aligned with the prevailing Jewish opinion. They have changed big time. There are, to be sure, political liberals among the Orthodox and political conservatives among the non-Orthodox. Overall, the two sectors are moving further apart, both on theology and public policy.

There is among the most intensely religious, whether Jewish or of another religion, a natural affinity between theology and ideology. There are major social issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, where religious teachings and law are the guide. It is not that Orthodox Jews choose to be conservative on these matters. Their theology chooses for them. This is true, perhaps to a lesser extent, of contemporary attitudes and practices where the values and lifestyle in the general society are antithetical to a religious lifestyle.

Should this divide also engender an Orthodox rejection of the significant parts of the liberal agenda that concern social justice or protecting the environment? What about civil rights? Certainly, there is no reason for any religious Jew to buy into the mantra of the loathsome gun lobby, "Guns do not kill people. People kill people." The case can be made that if religious Jewish law is not necessarily clear about these public matters, they at least tend in the direction of liberalism. Furthermore, the fervently Orthodox have benefited from a great number of liberal policies and programs, including liberal immigration policies, allocation of public resources and anti-discrimination laws. How can the embrace of conservatism be justified?

What is at work is a syndrome in which the aspects of conservatism impelled by a religious commitment induce the acceptance of an entire spectrum of conservative positions. Instead of examining each issue on its own merits, the entire conservative package is accepted, a process that is obviously less complex and less stressful than deciding each issue separately. There is the additional benefit of appearing to avoid strange bedfellows, for if the Orthodox ally themselves with liberals on questions they regard as marginal to Judaism, they would be aligning themselves with those who preach and practice much that is directly and strongly hostile to their religious beliefs. Of course, being together with conservatives creates a different set of strange bedfellows.

The Times made this point in a March 10 editorial on "Evangelical Environmentalism". It could have made the case on global warming and the ethical "responsibility to protect the earth and all its inhabitants" without referring, as it did, to the conservative Christian position on homosexuality and abortion. By bringing in these issues, the newspaper gratuitously sent the message to Evangelicals who are environmentalists that they ought not be allied with those who abhor their core religious beliefs.

Although political correctness, whether of the liberal or conservative variety, creates a comfort zone, examining issues is what intelligent and responsible people do. It is folly to embrace conservatism whole hog and it is no less folly to adopt the whole nine yards of liberalism, including the strange notion that has been disproved at a cost of trillions of dollars and yet is clung to with perfect faith that spending tons of money on a social problem is the solution to social pathologies.

Nor has liberalism become more attractive as a consequence of its hostility to much of what religious life mandates, as well as its hostility to the creative, caring and necessary role of religion in the public square.

What is needed is the recognition that Judaism is not a political ideology. Our religion is not Democratic or Republican, nor is it politically liberal or conservative. There are issues that resonate in our religious laws and religious Jews must abide by halacha. On most matters, what we favor or how we vote are individual decisions, not religious imperatives. This truth is not altered by the spreading practice of certain rabbis who attach their names to declarations saying that it is a sacred obligation to support this or that candidate.

A Judaism that eschews political ideology can still marshal its spiritual resources to support fairness toward working people, insist on respect for privacy and civil rights and civil liberties, show strong concern for the environment and identify with other positions that have been labeled as liberal. We can continue to challenge the excesses of liberalism, whether they are manifested through the debasement of values or the mistaken view that freedom does not entail limitations and responsibility.

In short by being good Jews and not liberal or conservative, there are times when we ought to be aligned with conservatives and times when we ought to be in the liberal camp.