Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Judaism and Liberalism: Never the Twain Shall Meet?

In Israel, the inherent clash of values that the Jewish State grapples with manifests itself on an almost daily basis. This question of religion vs nationality and democracy vs faith goes to the core of so many of the ongoing debates in Israeli society. But, as more and more American Jews grow increasing culturally assimilated in Western modes of thought, it seems clear that many Jews now grapple with this issue on an internal level as well.
Writing in the Forward, a JTS student named Benjamin Resnick writes about the larger meaning of the alienation of liberal Jews from Israel. He says,
The fact is, liberal commitments and traditional Jewish commitments are in many ways incompatible. They conceptualize political freedom differently, civic responsibility differently, personhood differently and nationhood differently. The American political tradition, emerging from thinkers like John Rawls and Isaiah Berlin, generally construes political freedom as freedom from our fellow citizens (that is, as long as we don’t hurt anyone, we can more or less do as we please). But Jewish tradition, with its robust emphasis on norms of tzedakah and communal obligation, takes a more communitarian approach.
So, Judaism and American liberalism inherently clash in terms of their underlying values. He's right about this: Judaism doesn't promote the same level of personal freedom as does Western society. The Torah demands that the courts system punish people who sin publicly against God, without harming a fellow human being. Most of the sins for which a violator recieves the death penalty are מצוות בין אדם למקום - commandments between man and God, including violating Shabbat and worshipping idolatry. Can we even imagine the reaction of the Western world (and most of American Jewry) if a Beit Din even tried to enforce the halachah as passed down through the Gemara? Resnick continues,
And whereas American political life pushes us to construct our civic identities around such phrases as “I am” or “I want,” the Zionist tradition pushes us to construct those same identities around phrases like, “We need.” Good fences may indeed make good neighbors, but they make it a lot harder to construct an eruv.
(Just as an aside, if you've ever been involved in eruv construction, he's totally off the mark. Good fences make great eruvim. Bad or no fences make it a lot harder to construct an eruv. But I digress.) This point I find truly troubling. If I understand him correctly, he's saying that liberal thinkers struggle to identify with Judaism because it demands that they think of the klal before they think of themselves. This might be true, but is it a good thing? Wouldn't a liberal Jewish person reject this tenet of liberalism instead of advocating a "me-first" attitude?
Jews have, with good reason, been fierce proponents of liberal democratic states throughout history. But from the perspective of American civic participation, the communitarian, tribe-centered approach of both the religious Jew and the committed Zionist is a very radical notion. The ritually observant Jew commits herself to a life that separates socially, visually and physically from the surrounding world. And the liberal-minded Zionist, who is deeply, genuinely concerned about the welfare of the Palestinians and the fundamental “fellowship of man,” nonetheless affirms that the Jewish democratic state must maintain a Jewish majority and a “Jewish character.”
And for my liberal-minded rabbinic colleagues — most of whom hold full participation in both ritual Jewish life and American civic life as high, religious values — this tension is particularly poignant.
Basically, liberally educated Jews have been so infused with their sense of liberalism that the underlying values of Judaism - separatism, tribalism (i.e. peoplehood), and care for each-other first - now seem foreign to them. In essence, their rabbinic training contradicts the American values that they lived for the first twenty years of their lives. Then, they get to seminary and learn that rather than being all-inclusive, Judaism advocates that we be a nation that "Dwells alone." They get to Israel and find a country which strives to maintain both a Jewish character and a Jewish demographic majority, which is an insult to the American values they hold so dear.
I agree with Resnick and find his article well-written but alarming. If the rabbis of the next generation are themselves alienated from the underlying values of traditional Judaism, what about their parishiners? Of even greater concern is the fact that rather than change their core ideals to match traditional Jewish values, they will simply redefine Judaism. They will create a religion of ritual devoid of a notion of peoplehood or separateness. (see early Reform Judaism). They will insist that Judaism need not distinguish itself from other religions. They will insist that the rights of Palestinians supercedes the need to maintain a Jewish State. And, rather than bringing their flock closer to God, they will only be driving them farther away from God and His Chosen people.
Tragically, this will only hasten the almost total complete assimilation of American (non-Orthodox) Jewry that seems to have already snowballed out of control.