Friday, December 14, 2007

Political Ideology is Not Judaism

It is understandable that Orthodox Jews – of course, not all – have gravitated toward conservative political positions. There is a high degree of congruence between their religious teachings and obligations and conservative opinion on key public issues. This is evident regarding gay marriage and abortion and, more generally, in attitudes toward contemporary culture and societal trends. Our religious life mandates restraint and modesty, while the powerful contemporary tendency is to expand the zones of permissiveness. Social conservatives are the primary force resisting this dynamic development and since Orthodox Jews are traditionalists, it is natural that they be in the same camp.

There is, however, nothing in our religious laws mandating an across the board embrace of right wing views. Environmentalism is one area where observant Jews should feel comfortable with what is primarily identified as a liberal viewpoint, if only because preserving the environment is inherently a conservative commitment. Gun control is another area where Orthodox Jews do not belong in the same camp with right-wingers. We Orthodox should be concerned about global warming and we should support gun control without feeling that it is wrong to reject what most conservative Americans advocate and without feeling that it is wrong to be in the same bed as liberals.

Unfortunately, the Orthodox drift toward right-wing positions seems to bring an instinctive acceptance of conservative political doctrine, as if it is a religious obligation to resist efforts to curtail the availability of harmful weapons or to protect the environment. There are Orthodox writers with no scientific knowledge who apparently believe that it is a mitzvah to accept the debunking of global warming warnings. There is no such mitzvah. Rather, those who cling to all that the right wing advocates are worshiping a false god.

Of course, buying into an ideological label, whether liberal or conservative, makes life easier. There is no need to reflect and choose. A self-ordained pattern of obedience serves as the substitute for a weighing of known information. Yet, allegiance to ideology exacts a cost. A case in point is Iraq. As an aspect of their strong endorsement of President Bush, many Orthodox and, notably the fervently Orthodox, enthusiastically supported the Iraq invasion, although from the outset it should have been apparent that the action would be harmful to Israel. Iraq is the catalyst for what the Bush Administration is intensively striving to achieve in its final year as it pressures Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians and to make additional concessions. This upsets many Orthodox who as yet do not recognize that there is a direct linear link between Iraq and Washington’s stance that Jerusalem should be divided.

Religious Jews should stop taking their political cues from conservatives. Nor should they take their political cues from liberals. On some issues we have good reasons to side with one or the other point of view. On the current red hot issue of immigration, including what to do about the illegals who are here, we Orthodox should pause to consider that xenophobia is not a mindset that has turned out well for Jews.

I do not advocate that the Orthodox become born again liberals and I know that there are some who never defected from this camp. Liberalism has been stained and not only by an approach to social issues that too often is antithetical to our religious values. What also undermines liberalism is the foolish notion that Plan A to deal with just about every pressing problem or pathology is to constantly increase governmental expenditures, as if throwing money at a problem solves the problem when underlying social causes continue to fester and even flourish. The throwing around money approach has been tried for decades, at a cost of perhaps trillions, and failure has not induced sufficient liberal reflection on the efficacy of the approach.

Further enervating faith in what liberalism advocates is its antagonism toward what is referred to as faith based initiatives that rely heavily on voluntary activity and have shown significant efficacy in meeting vital needs and ameliorating social pathologies. Too many liberals think that religion is bad and this attitude is bad for the liberal cause. Like it or not, at bottom the liberal attitude amounts to the proposition that it is better for needs to be unmet and pathologies to fester than to recognize the healing capacity of activities that are faith-based.

For the Orthodox, there is the additional factor of liberal opposition to government aid to religious schools, a stance that has harmed Jewish day schools and, probably more critically, harmed hundreds of thousands of minority group school children.

Although liberals give religious Jews reasons to be upset, there is no justification for the increasingly worshipful attitude toward conservative ideology. We have what to worship in our own tradition and outside ideology is not part of our liturgy. Each issue should be judged separately in terms of our interests and our values and not anyone else’s ideology.

It is noteworthy that on issues that they tend to embrace, liberals and conservatives can show a high degree of affinity. This is true of liberal acceptance of gay marriage and conservative opposition to gun control. Each of these positions is predicated on the notion that people should be free to do what they want to do. They should be free to engage in same-sex marriages and they should be free to walk around with guns.

This is a broad definition of freedom. It happens not to be our religious way. Each of our mitzvahs and obligations imposes restrictions and mandates obedience and these obligations are the primary exhibit of why no political ideology is a code word for Judaism.