Does Jewish tradition support my politics? (3 of 7)

Thursday, July 29, 2021 | 20 Av 5781


Dear All,

There was the first time I went on this thing called Facebook.

It asked my religion, so I wrote “Manchester United.”

It asked my politics, so I wrote “Jewish.”

We can talk some other time about commitment to Manchester United as an ancient familial tribal religion. 

But in this email, I want to reflect a little about Jewish tradition and politics.

Is Jewish tradition conservative? Well, yes. It’s a slow-moving tradition, it’s generally against change, its strong instinct is: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Is Jewish tradition moderate? Yes, strongly it is. It’s a very on the one hand / on the other hand tradition, almost definitionally so.

Well then, is it liberal? Yes, of course it is, in a few senses of the word. It’s strongly open to new ideas. And Jewish thinking has been deeply interwoven with the evolution of civil liberties, democracy, the rights of the individual, and free enterprise. 

Is it radical? Yes, strongly so. The notion that every human being is made in the image of (this unimaginably powerful) G!d –  is in and of itself, in a fundamentally unequal world, incredibly radical. Jewish, Muslim, Israeli, Palestinian, rich, poor, young, old, and so on and so on.

So can we try not to assume – or to suggest – that Jewish tradition somehow agrees with our political perspective?

I especially want to ask Jewish conservatives not to somehow suggest that to be Jewish is, necessarily, to be a conservative (or a Conservative, or a Republican, or a neocon, or a Likudnik).

I especially want to ask Jewish progressives not to somehow suggest that to be Jewish is necessarily to support Bernie Sanders or AOC, or for that matter Tamar Zandberg or Merav Michaeli.

Jewish tradition should inform our politics. It should deeply influence our values, who we are, and how we act in the world.

But we should allow for its strangeness. We should allow it to be counter-cultural, which it is, very strongly. And, most of all, we should see it not as encouraging us, but as chiding us, provoking us, goading us, critiquing us.

Now that we’re through Tu B’Av, the next stop on the Jewish calendar is Rosh Chodesh Elul. (The chagim are early this year. The first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul starts on Saturday night, August 7th – a week from Saturday. A week from Monday we start to blow shofar. How can this be? Hasn’t summer just barely begun?) And my point is: Elul comes to critique us. Or, more precisely, to create the space and the intention to critique ourselves. Were we our best selves this year? In what ways did we let other people down? How did we let ourselves down? Where are we too critical of others, and too soft on ourselves?

I love the line that’s attributed to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg – I don’t care what denomination you’re from, so long as you’re ashamed of it…

And I want to see us apply this to our political denominations also.

Progressives: Are we really served by current identity politics, or with a certain closing down of actual argument, or by ignoring antisemitism on the left, even as we declaim it on the right?

Moderates: Can we justify moderation, when the world is on fire? What kind of moderation is it, if people are homeless, if people don’t have healthcare, if there are more guns in this country than in any other Western democracy, if far, far too many people are in jail for not much more reason than the color of the skin or something unfortunate they did as a teenager?

Conservatives: Did Bibi Netanyahu advance Israel’s security, if he took a bipartisan consensus and blew it up? And if you support Trump: are the things he said and did (and continues to say and do) consonant with any modicum of honesty or responsibility? And if you’re a conservative and you don’t support Trump – could you have done more to try to defend a nominally honorable American political party from a descent into untruths and dog whistles?

Again, let me reiterate my first email in this series. I’m in my own glass house, so I have no grounds to throw stones. I’m embarrassed at all the things that I didn’t do well enough, or haven’t done that I should have done. I’m not writing this to suggest that I’m better than anyone else.

But I am writing this to argue – frankly, to beg – that we stop applying Jewish tradition willy-nilly to defend our predetermined perspectives, especially political ones. Jewish tradition should critique our positions and it should critique us. It should strengthen our muscles of criticism. It should encourage and enable us to debate, to disagree, to engage.

I’m more and more persuaded that one of the deepest teachings of the tradition comes in this famous text in Eruvin 13b (adapted from the Steinsaltz/William Davidson Talmud on Sefaria):

Since both these and those are the words of the living G!d, why were Beit Hillel privileged to have the halakha established in accordance with their opinion? They were agreeable and forbearing, and they would teach their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements, in deference to Beit Shammai.

In plain English: they would say,
this person that I disagree with [Ayelet Shaked / Peter Beinart / Bret Stephens / Michelle Goldberg…] is arguing such-and-such.
And this is a strong argument, for the following five reasons.
However – ultimately – I think they’re wrong, for the following 17 reasons…

These muscles have attenuated. We take them for granted at our peril. It is far too easy to assail Western liberal democracies – genuinely the least bad of the available alternatives that we have, paraphrasing Churchill. If we were Uighurs right now we’d not take these rights for granted. If we lived in Hong Kong we’d be scared witless at the possibility of losing these rights.

So let’s allow the great strangeness of Jewish tradition to prevail, and to wash upon us.
The Western world today is all about rights. My right to this, your right to that.
Jewish tradition, by contrast, stresses responsibilities. In so many ways, the rhythms of Jewish tradition cut so sharply against our contemporary world. Just a few examples:

Jewish tradition has no interest in “the pursuit of happiness.” It stresses ol malchut shamayim – accepting the burden of heavenly obligations, and a wide range of concomitant human behaviors that are required of us.

Or: there are very few prisons in Jewish tradition. Joseph is thrown into a prison – but Joseph is the good guy in the story, so that’s not a defense of prisons. If we take Jewish tradition seriously (including a belief in teshuva, in repentance), how can we allow people to be in solitary confinement in this country? How can we give people multi-decadal sentences, with no possibility of parole?

And I will write separately, in this series, on shmita. But one of the reasons I find shmita so incredibly important is that it is, frankly, astoundingly provocative. It is not soft, it is not friendly, it is not easy. It is challenging. It provokes us to think through the notion of ownership. It obligates us to help others not from our kindness but because what we think of as ours isn’t really ours in the first place. It places land and wild animals on close to the same plane as human beings, and thus critiques the anthropocentric presumption that is so deep in us that we hardly know how to stand apart from it. (And when I’m teaching about shmita, as at least some people on this list know, I’m not starting from how amazing it is. I’m starting from, e.g., holy moly – how would you like it if you’d lent someone some money and now you knew that debt was about to be erased, merely by the ticking of the clock? How would you feel?!)

If you want some fresh provocative reading, I commend… this week’s Torah portion.
It includes the three words from which, for twenty centuries, Jewish people have blessed our food after eating. It’s the portion in which we’re described as a stiffnecked people. It includes the words that became the second paragraph of the sh’ma, enjoining us to keep the commandments, and then Devarim (Deuteronomy) 11:16-17“watch out that your heart is not misled, that you don’t turn away and worship strange gods or bow down before them. And the anger of G!d will be roused against you, and G!d will close the heavens, and there will be no rain, and the ground will not give its produce, and you will perish quickly from the good land…”

So… you get my point. If we open up some space for the radicalness of the tradition it will be like the proverbial cool breeze on a hot day. It will let us breathe. It will slow us down a bit. It will help us to see the perspectives of others. It will loosen our thinking. It will unsettle our certainties. It will provoke us to kindness. And I hope it will thus, in small ways and large, make us better people, and help build a better world for all.

Shabbat shalom,