Jewish conservatives continue to spend significant amounts of effort and money to swing American and Israeli politics to the far right. Most visible is gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson, whose funding of Israeli media affected the 2009 Israeli election and who is now spending a fortune to equate American “support for Israel” with support for Israel’s far-right wing.
Similarly, William Kristol’s “Emergency Committee for Israel” plays on Jewish fears to garner Republican votes. And Eric Cantor, House minority whip, is one of the most vocal proponents of Tea Party ideology — the same social Darwinism dressed up as American populism that brought us the 2008 financial crisis.
All three, and many more, have at times related their activities to Jewish values or to their connection to the Jewish people. What has been the Jewish progressive response to these claims?
In the main, there have been two responses, neither of which has been adequate. The first response has been simply to ignore them. Well-meaning Jewish liberals, many of whom are friends of mine, speak innocently of “living out Jewish values” in the pursuit of liberal politics, as if ignorant that our political opponents think they are doing the same thing. Without more articulation, to say we are applying our Jewish values to issues of social justice or human rights is just a sound bite. The other side can say the same thing.
The second response has been to argue that Jewish conservatives just don’t get it. They’re misreading Jewish history and tradition. They’re traumatized, bigoted or confused. Whatever the reason, it may be that Jewish conservatives are just plain wrong in their interpretation of Jewish tradition.
Relatively few progressives come out and say this directly, because to do so violates a cardinal progressive principle, that of pluralism and toleration. (Of course, conservatives don’t hesitate to make these claims, painting critics of Israel as self-hating Jews, or social progressives as rebels against the Torah.) So, some make a softer claim: that conservatives get it, but get the wrong it. Yes, there are reactionary elements within Judaism, but these are just barnacles stuck onto the side of the Jewish ship. Yes, the Cantors and Kristols of the world can find some nasty Jewish traditions to draw from, but they miss the real point, which is Judaism’s progressive social agenda, or love of peace, or whatever.
But what is the criterion by which the “real” is to be determined? Is the (right-wing, dominance-obsessed) Book of Joshua any less real than the more peaceful teachings of Isaiah? Are the Torah’s stringent death penalties less real than the talmudic rabbis’ ameliorations of them? Once again, without more articulation, this is just public relations.
I’d like to articulate a third position, one that may initially seem more pessimistic, but one that I think enables Jewish progressives to clarify how we differ from our conservative co-religionists and how we can better discuss our differences: that the conservatives are at least as right as progressives are, that “Judaism” is too broad a term to be of use in political philosophy and that we must instead see ourselves as interacting in a particular way with the resources of the Jewish tradition.
Let me adopt the language of Rabbi Michael Lerner here, from his two most recent books, “The Left Hand of God” and the new volume, “Embracing Israel/Palestine.” (Many other contemporary teachers have made similar points, but Lerner’s language is conveniently clear.) Lerner observes that God is a complicated biblical character, and that “what God wants” changes. Sometimes God wants revenge, sometimes mercy. Sometimes God tells us to pursue peace, other times to annihilate all the nations in the Land of Israel. Rather than see God as always representing one set of values, Lerner proposes (following classical Kabbalah, but inverting its symbolism) that we understand God as having two (metaphorical) hands, the right and the left. The right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly; it values strength and toughness, violence and vengeance. The left hand of God is the force for loving-kindness, mercy, empathy and compassion.
Setting aside the God talk, this simply means that Jewish text and tradition reflect many (human) voices, some of whom favor “conservative” values and others “liberal” ones. You can craft an authentically Jewish reactionary politics based on the Bible, or an authentically Jewish progressive one. And not only on the Bible, but also on 2,500 years of subsequent Jewish thought. A liberal on sexual ethics can observe how the talmudic rabbis loved sexual pleasure and departed from their Christian contemporaries in celebrating it. A conservative on sexual ethics can observe how these same rabbis had very strict ideas about gender roles, keeping women subservient to men. Either reading works.