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Are we left with relativism, then? They have their Judaism, and I have mine?
I don’t think so. There are still articulable values that guide how we interpret tradition — and just recognizing that fact can help get us away from “he said, she said” debates about Judaism.
Values first. Personally, as I look at the sweep of Jewish encounters with ethics, I don’t find any instances in which people ask God to be more vengeful, whereas I find many in which people argue for compassion. Abraham argues with God to be more merciful to the Sodomites. Moses argues with God to spare the Israelites when they trespass. Indeed, those biblical figures who didn’t adequately plead for mercy — Noah, Jonah — are generally despised by most mainstream commentaries.
There are, of course, outliers: God tells the Israelites not to have mercy on Amalek, and, responding to the Crusades, Jews ask God every Passover not to have mercy on the goyim. But in general, rabbinic law makes biblical law more merciful, not meaner. Rabbis edit Scripture, even audaciously, to highlight merciful “left hand” attributes over judgmental “right hand” ones. Consider the law of the “stubborn and rebellious son,” read out of enforcement by the rabbis. Or the “thirteen attributes of God,” which focus entirely on merciful qualities, and truncate a verse from the Torah midsentence in order to omit language of judgment. And so on.
Even more important than which values we choose to help us interact with tradition, though, is for us to recognize that such choices are necessary. Progressives and conservatives, Reform Jews and Orthodox ones, often say that they are acting according to “the Jewish tradition,” as if that tradition had only one thing to say. Historically speaking, this is poppycock. Even those values within our tradition that seem to be ironclad (for example, “Do not murder”) are subject to interpretation and selective reading (for example, “Killing in war does not count as murder”). There are poets, philosophers and prophets who have spoken out in favor of coexistence, and those who have spoken out in favor of ethnic cleansing.
In other words, the responsibility is ours. Meir Kahane’s Jewish roots were as strong as (if not stronger than) Bob Dylan’s or Emma Goldman’s. The reality is that the Jewish tree is very large, with branches growing in all directions and with deep root systems that support almost all of them. We cannot evade responsibility for our moral and ethical choices by claiming that they are dictated by tradition. They aren’t. Tradition supports contradictory values.
I have my approach to Jewish values that allows me to say that Eric Cantor, Sheldon Adelson and William Kristol are wrong — pluralism is not the same as relativism, after all — but what I won’t say is that they are somehow un-Jewish. “Jewish” includes too wide a range to let any political ideology claim its mantle, and we have to be sophisticated and clear-eyed in our relationships with a complicated tradition that has as many sexist, ethnocentric, superstitious, nationalistic and cruel aspects as it does egalitarian, just, compassionate and uplifting ones. What is “Jewish” is not necessarily what is right or good. How could it be, since Judaism often espouses diametrically opposed views of the same issue?
Judaism is not the answer key; it’s the question key. It sets the stage for the important questions to be asked, but accommodates contradictory answers to them. Thus, rather than inquire as to whether liberals or conservatives are “really Jewish,” we are invited to more interesting explorations. Like which ideology promotes a healthy Jewish people, a saner world, a safer world, or more compassion. Or which ideology leads to more holiness, more connection and more truthfulness with the experiences of all people. These are not the only Jewish values in existence. But they are the ones worth keeping.