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Day 3: Is Social Justice the Soul of Judaism?

From: Steven I. Weiss To: Daniel ‘Mobius’ Sieradski Subject: Why Maimonides Would Beat You, and Your Woman


I’ll certainly agree with you that Jews didn’t invent morality, though I’m not sure how this reinforces your argument that social justice is the “soul” of Judaism.

Anyway, in my opening letter yesterday, I explained how Judaism has never produced a society that looks a whole lot like what social justice types call for. I left off with three questions: why, if this message has been around all along, nobody noticed it until now; why has no Jewish society ever come out socially just; and whether citations of chapter and verse from Jewish texts is just cherry-picking. You didn’t respond to them.

You cite Kook and Maimonides as discussing a sort of continual revelation meant to guide Jews in the proper direction. This, you say, is your proof that Judaism is guiding you to your own moral notions of social justice.

The thing is, if you’re going to take Kook and Maimonides as your teachers of how to live a proper life, there won’t be much room for a social justice agenda. Both Kook and Maimonides laid out rather strict definitions of what a proper life includes. Maimonides’ taught men how to properly beat their wives; for Kook, notions of essential Jewishness (pintele yid) place you and I on a higher plane that our fellows of other religions can’t reach.

You’ll probably claim that you’re only taking from Kook and Maimonides their models of inspiration. That may well be, but then you’re only citing a couple sentences from among the lifetimes of work they put together. As much as you’d like to hitch your social justice wagon to them, if they were here today they’d smack you upside the head and tell you to go re-read their work.

And this gets at something you wrote yesterday. You suggest that at each point in Jewish history, its laws and thought were “a radical departure from the mainstream behavior of the time,” and “incredibly progressive in the context of its creation.” That’s not true. As the simplest example, the Chanukah story was about a bunch of fundamentalist Jews taking on Hellenism and all it represented—art, science, athletics, and philosophy.

Your examples of progressiveness are particularly laughable. Yes, you acknowledge, Judaism traditionally condemned gays to death—but how progressive that rabbinic courts refused to slaughter them! It's also worth noting that this allegedly progressive movement still puts murderers and gays on the same footing.

“For every example you brought, I can find a counter-example which states the very opposite,” you wrote. I’d say you need some book-learning on the definition of “opposite.” Failing to slaughter gays isn’t quite the opposite of intolerance.

These last three paragraphs and the Kook/Maimonides discussion all indicate that you’ve conceded the broader thesis: social justice isn’t the soul of Judaism. The best you can muster are isolated instances where a social justice agenda may find a perch.

What this all boils down to is that the Jewish tradition is a set of rules. That’s why, whenever a new social justice cause arises, even the most liberal movements debate whether specific interpretations of Judaism can find room for supporting it.

You want to say, based on relatively few passages amidst the libraries of text, that the Jewish tradition has come down to you today with an essential message that magically coheres with your political principles. Maybe, but I’d likely be able to find the same kind of instruction from the works of Shakespeare or Fitzgerald, if granted similar interpretive permissions.

While I’m sure there are plenty of literature professors who’d shout me down from such an attempt, I’m not going to say that you may not read the Jewish tradition as you choose; I’m just not that much of an asshole. But to assert that a tradition that overwhelmingly rejects many of your political principles is actually, at its heart, all about your political agenda, is plainly ridiculous.

Now, as I said yesterday, that doesn’t mean there’s no room for social justice in Judaism. I’ve argued in the past that even based on Orthodox principles, Jews should advocate for gay marriage in the United States. And when the Jewish tradition doesn’t tell you what to do about certain policies, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any worse of a Jew for taking your own approach. Indeed, there are some instances (charity comes most prominently to mind) where a social justice agenda coheres pretty well with a Judaic one.

There are some areas of the social justice agenda, however, that I think make one a worse Jew, and a foul human being. When I was at Yeshiva University, Peter Singer was moral enemy number one. His idea that
the value of animal life is greater than that of impaired humans struck many students as profoundly repulsive, and wholly antithetical to what we’d been taught all our lives—both in Judaic classes and everywhere else.

Sure enough, his basic arguments about the value of life resting in its owner’s intelligence came up with the social justice crowd recently, as the liberal end of America advocated Terri Schiavo be starved to death. Her lack of brain function was said to render her life worthless, and the inherent value of human life—a Jewish notion throughout all time—was rejected as chauvinistic.

And therein is part of the danger of conflating Judaism with social justice. I might suggest that finding the social justice agenda at the heart of Judaism is intellectually dishonest, but I’ll state clearly until my dying day that turning Judaism into an endorsement of that brand of social justice is an absolute crime.


Thursday: Liar, Liar, Soul on Fire

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