Day 5: Is Social Justice the Soul of Judaism?

From: Steven I. Weiss To: Daniel ‘Mobius’ Sieradski Subject: Jettisoning Judaism Dan, Nachmanides, not Maimonides. Sorry, my bad. It doesn’t matter much for the purposes of this discussion: either one of them would smack you. After all, do you take … Read More

By / January 19, 2007

From: Steven I. Weiss To: Daniel ‘Mobius’ Sieradski Subject: Jettisoning Judaism


Nachmanides, not Maimonides. Sorry, my bad. It doesn’t matter much for the purposes of this discussion: either one of them would smack you. After all, do you take all of Nachmanides’ dictates to heart? Surely not.

You find the items that fit your political ideology and you embrace them. Where they don’t fit, you reinterpret them to match your political ideology. The liberation of a slave after seven years in ancient Judaism does not indicate support for a liberal political agenda today; you think that it does only because you wear blinders as you wade through the Jewish tradition. Your saying that Judaism's tradition of slavery is consistent with contemporary liberal politics is like someone finding support for affirmative action in the fact that his plantation-owning grandfather allowed the slaves to bathe in the main house.

Which brings up a larger point I’ve been wanting to get to: does Judaism do any good for social justice?

I don’t really like referring to my liberal politics as "social justice." To do so is, I think, fundamentally insulting of the Right in a way that’s not fair or appropriate.

Anyway, as I said in my last e-mail, if I adopted your intepretive permissiveness I could probably draw the same messages from a number of other significant texts from history. And lots of people quote famous texts when making political speeches, certainly. But to my mind, most of those quotes are just intellectual masturbation.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t do anything positive for the social justice agenda to say "if you read the Jewish tradition this way, deny the continuing relevance of these elements, carry the 2 and add the square root of a vengeful God, well, you’ve got the Democratic Party platform."

People can have a real political discussion about morality and the best way to research or institute a given social policy, or they can get sidetracked interpreting Leviticus. The former will lead to some kind of progress, and the latter will lead to arguing about the Bible.

More so, there’s a certain danger to adding the God-approved certitude of religious philosophy to politics. If I support the earned-income tax credit because it works, when it stops working I’ll have good reason to stop supporting it; if I support it because I think God told me to do so, at what point am I permitted to stop?

And of course, religious support of a specific political agenda can have far more disastrous consequences than an element of the tax code.

I mentioned in my first e-mail that the Reform movement is probably the best example of a denomination attached at the hip to the liberal political agenda. And sometimes that’s been a very, very bad thing.

Like when Rabbi Stephen Wise, one of the biggest figures in Reform Judaism, was an outspoken advocate
of eugenics in the early part of the 20th century. His liberal politics were grotesque, and any moral person should have said so, though few on the left did. Perhaps they’d have had an easier job doing so if he didn’t claim God was on his side.

Wise also chose to basically ignore the ongoing Holocaust in favor of Zionist advocacy. In advocating for Zionism, he was far from alone on the left. He was also far from alone among Jews.

Today, he’d have lots of company among Jews in supporting Israel, but next to none within liberal political circles. Soon, Jews will have a pretty stark choice: stick with the overwhelming Jewish support of Israel, or subject themselves to wherever liberal politics of the day takes them.

Liberal politics are a somewhat random assemblage of policies that further a malleable agenda. Look at the past fifty years of liberal politics in the United States and try to find a consistent thread on immigration, the death penalty, interventionist warfare, or welfare. It’s pretty tough, because liberal politics have been all over the map on them. At each point, there was almost assuredly some liberal rabbi, somewhere, saying that the liberal position on the issue at that moment was what the Jewish tradition endorsed. And at some point later, a new liberal agenda had a tougher time gaining traction because it had all that theological baggage from before.

There’s a reason why that happens, and it’s not only because some people will always chase after political fashion with their religion. It’s also because religion and politics are both immensely complex, so using one to translate the other involves so many variables that you can’t blame people for coming up with immensely different results.

The Jewish tradition supports certain notions of charity. Does that mean it supports the federal income tax? There isn’t a one-to-one relationship here.

Which is why it’d be so much nicer if the liberal end of the Jewish political spectrum would exercise more theological humility, just as they are always demanding that fundamentalists do.

If God speaks to me in November 2008, which lever will He tell me to pull? I wouldn’t begin to pretend that I know, and I’d find it hard to believe, standing there meekly in the voting booth, that the overwhelming message of the Jewish tradition so obviously leans one way or another. But I do know where my politics take me, and that I can vote any way I think is just without feeling like a heretic.


Next: Today's standards of social justice would not exist without Torah

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