An overlooked enigma of political life is why there are distinct ideological groupings at all. We take the liberal/conservative divide for granted, rarely pausing to contemplate how mysterious it actually is.
The Hebrew Bible solves the mystery. The solution can be found in the unexpected context of the Torah's seemingly primitive and bizarre laws of ritual contamination. The relevant material is laid out in dense detail mainly in Leviticus, a.k.a. the stuff most Jews skip over in shul (as Christians do in church).
If you don’t see the mystery, consider the following: Doesn’t it seem equally if not more plausible to imagine a scenario where people’s opinions on the top-20 hot-button political issues formed no patterns at all? For example, there seems to be nothing that links Al Gore–style worrying about climate change with favoring state-sanctioned gay unions. Yet somehow, to us, they go together.
If you meet a partisan of abortion rights, it’s a good bet that person will be for gun control. The converse also applies. Conservatives are equally predictable. Curious, isn’t it?
With this in mind, we can turn to the Bible and so-called ritual “contamination” or “impurity,” which are two common but very dysfunctional translations of the Hebrew, tumah. The corresponding term taharah is translated, again unsatisfactorily, as “purity,”
According to the Torah, here is a list of things that will render you “contaminated” (tameh): Touching a human corpse or the carcass of certain animals; having a seminal emission; menstruating; giving birth; suffering the effects of a supernaturally induced skin affliction, tzaraat—unknown to medicine today but vividly described in Scripture.
It’s all in Leviticus, with amplification across pages upon pages of Talmud, which in turn adds other activities to the list. For example, sleeping contaminates the hands.
Modern secular Bible scholars, those geniuses, have figured out that contamination has something to do with death. That leaves much unexplained. A fuller illumination of the matter can be found in the famous Torah commentary by Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888), a German rabbi celebrated as the chief early representative of Modern Orthodoxy.
Hirsch was a contemporary of Darwin, whose evolutionary theory challenges religion with the claim that material, natural, unguided processes alone account for the development of life. Darwin’s philosophical framework was that of materialism, the view that sees man’s situation in the world as being entirely determined by material forces, not spiritual ones.
Hirsch countered that the Bible, through the ritual-contamination laws, seeks to inoculate us against exactly that spirit-denying, nature-exalting worldview that achieved dominance in the 19th century—and still afflicts us.
Here’s how that comes out. Every source of tumah, contamination, bears a resemblance to death in that it conveys an illusory message that people are entrapped in nature, their consciousness determined by material forces, rather than their being free to make moral choices. A dead body has been robbed of any possibility of making free decisions. It has been defeated by nature. So a corpse is the source of the most severe contamination.
Hirsch similarly explains all the contaminating experiences. In each—birth, menstruation, seminal emission, the weird disease of tzaraat, sleep—the person temporarily loses control of his body. Any of these conditions could leave the damaging, materialistic, and false impression that we are slaves to nature.
In the biblical view, by contrast, we are free to choose to follow God’s commandments. We’d have to be, otherwise His commanding us to do right makes little sense. Rejecting materialism is essential to the moral life.
Hirsch wrote, commenting on Leviticus (11:46–47): “All these [contamination laws] are truths which, in the face of human frailty and the powers of the forces of nature which the appearance of death preaches, are to be brought again and again to the minds of living people, so that they remain conscious of their unique position of freedom in the midst of the physical world, and remain forever armed in proud consciousness of their freedom, armed against the doctrine of materialism.”
The “cure” for tu
mah is immersion in water because this entails the free and conscious will to cleanse oneself. This is why, in Judaism, ritual hand-washing is accomplished by filling a cup with water and then pouring the water over your hands. Just putting your hands under a faucet would be too passive.
Here’s where it gets uncomfortable for Democrats.
The understanding of liberalism as the political expression of materialism will be familiar to many political conservatives. I first heard that formulation from Michael Medved, who laid it out in detail in a speech. But the Bible made the same connection millennia ago. Virtually every liberal position on a hot-button issue can be explained this way. Some lefty views emphasize, as Hirsch put it, the “powers of the forces of nature.”
Gay marriage: The implicit justification for this insists that gays are in the grip of nature. They have no choice about their sexual behavior. So let’s endorse their love in civil law.
Abortion: Here it’s women who are supposedly in the grip of nature, specifically sexual desire. The lady made a mistake and got pregnant. Liberals believe she can’t be held responsible for this, as denying her an abortion would do. The solution to unwanted pregnancy is a material one (ten minutes of vacuuming the uterus) over a spiritual one (taking responsibility for the outcome of sexual intercourse).
Gun control: A gun isn't a force of nature, but it's treated as if it were one. If this particular material object is found in the house, we are virtually compelled to abuse it, endangering ourselves and others. The only solution is to restrict gun ownership.
Global warming: We are in the grip of a vengeful, enraged nature! “Angry nature is holding a gun to our heads,” as the magazine of the Sierra Club warns.
Affirmative action: Racial discrimination, whether favoring a minority or not, is based on the assumption that people are trapped by naturally-determined limitations associated with their skin color.
Other liberal views don’t make an issue of nature as such but still implicitly deny what Hirsch calls our “unique position of freedom,” advocating material mechanisms to keep us safe and happy rather than relying on free choice.
Health care: Rather than leave health decisions up to the individual, liberals like Barack Obama would impose government-directed “universal health care.”
Health regulations: Laws banning smoking in public or the use of trans-fats in restaurant cooking take responsibility for one’s health out of the hands of the individual and give it over to the government. So long, “unique position of freedom.”
Education: Conservative education philosophy, expressed in the preference for school choice or home schooling, is all about giving freedom and responsibility to parents. Liberal philosophy transfers responsibility to the state, or to teachers’ unions.
And so on. Liberal views, far from being random, actually form the political expression of a comprehensive worldview—in Biblical terms, tumah-thinking. It was to counteract this perspective that the Bible proposed its system of ritual contamination and purification.
Notwithstanding the Jewish identification with liberalism, God established us as a people to make exactly the kinds of distinctions I’ve tried to highlight here. “For I, God, am He that brings you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God,…to distinguish between the pure and the impure” (Leviticus 11:45–46).
While of course I have simplified a bit, liberalism is the ideological faction that, of the two philosophies in American political life, is easily the more identifiable with tumah.
Which is why, looking to the future, it’s of interest that the Bible carries on with the theme of cleansing tumah. In the words of the prophets who foresaw the End of Days: “Son of Man, the House of Israel dwell on their land, and they have contaminated it with their way and with their acts.”
In the end, however, “I will sprinkle pure water upon you, that you maybe become cleansed; I will cleanse you from all your contamination and from all your idols” (Ezekiel 36:17–25).
Liberals, so it seems, will be in particular need of that shower.