Judaism Is Not Conservative (or Liberal)
Eric Yoffie wrote this article as part of a symposium conducted by Mosaic Magazine, in response to an article by Eric Cohen on “The Spirit of Jewish Conservatism.”
Judaism is not conservative. A Jewish conservative trying to argue that Judaism is by nature conservative is just as pathetic as a Jewish liberal trying to argue that Judaism is by nature liberal.
Judaism is neither. It is a complex religious system that has sustained a people for three millennia by offering elaborate norms of ritual and ethical behavior and a vast compendium of legal deliberation and philosophical speculation, much of which is openly contradictory. As a Jew, one can make a case for conservative values, rooted in power, a cautious temperament, and militant national assertiveness; and one can make a case for liberal values, attempting to merge national aspirations with universal concerns. Jews have been having this argument since the beginning of Jewish history, but neither side is entitled to claim that its approach is the “authentic” one.
Eric Cohen argues for Jewish conservatism, asserting that liberalism is the enemy and that it has diluted the Jewish family, weakened the economy, undermined nationalism, and threatened Zionism. But his fundamental premise reflects not Jewish reality but his own ideological preferences.
I am a liberal. While I differ with Cohen’s economics,
I welcome strong Jewish families, affirm the riches of the Jewish tradition, believe in an activist America, and approve of a muscular Jewish nationalism.Click to tweet
Cohen is misreading the liberalism of American Jews when he describes it as an ominous threat, right alongside militant Islam and militant secularism. Yes, American Jews are pretty liberal, but they are a centrist and sensible bunch, and for most of them, Cohen’s destructive liberalism is a caricature.
His discussion of Israel is painfully off-base. He is right that Israel needs to be tough and strong, especially now, with the threat of Iran looming.
But Zionism calls for an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic, and the occupation of millions of Palestinians threatens its democratic character.Click to tweet
Somehow, this issue must be confronted. Yet Cohen does not mention “democracy” as a principle of Jewish sovereignty; to him it is apparently unimportant, an obsession of the appeasement-oriented liberals. He has forgotten that for the Zionist founders, from Jabotinsky to Ben-Gurion, a non-democratic Israel was unimaginable.
Cohen also misreads religion. Liberal Judaism has not failed, but it is struggling. So is Orthodoxy, however. I welcome a strong Orthodox community, but Diaspora Orthodoxy thrives primarily in the New York area. Its greatest growth, by far, is among the ultra-Orthodox, who are mostly poor and shun the American mainstream. Jewish conservatism cannot be built on their backs.
I join Yoram Hazony and Meir Soloveichik in calling for more text, tradition, and mitzvot. Jewish conservatism is not really Jewish without them. Still, they are wrong to assume that careful scrutiny of texts will always pull Jews in a conservative direction. Our tradition is not socialist, but much of it is truly radical. Cohen, for example, misunderstands the meaning of the jubilee year.
The jubilee year is not about rest but about preventing excessive concentrations of power by periodically returning property to its original owners.Click to tweet
Finally, Cohen subjects modern liberalism to careful scrutiny but fails to do the same for modern conservatism.
American conservatism has an ugly side that includes voter suppression and contempt for immigrants.Click to tweet
Cohen quotes Jonathan Sacks but omits that, according to Sacks, governments must provide health care to their citizens; it need not be Obamacare, but it must offer reasonable care to all. Yet for half a century, American conservatives—with the honorable exception of Richard Nixon, who was not a real conservative—have ferociously fought liberal plans for health insurance while offering none of their own.
I believe there is a place for a robust, energetic Jewish conservatism. But it must be bold, honest, and truly Jewish.Click to tweet
And it must combine the humane values of Jewish tradition with a searching appraisal of modern conservatism’s failings. Eric Cohen makes a valiant attempt, but this is not what he gives us; what he gives us is a pale imitation of the deeply flawed conservatism that already exists.