Old Texts and Modern Politics

The Tea Party and the Talmud … do those things really belong in the same sentence?

At a recent seminar sponsored by the Institute of American and Talmudic Law — a Manhattan provider of continuing legal education courses for lawyers — two Jewish scholars explored the Tea Party movement, the law, and the principles that guide both. George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen and Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, dean of the Institute, discussed the libertarian-conservative movement’s relationship to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the movement’s moral principles in relation to Talmudic law.

Rosen received a firsthand understanding of the movement by attending a Tea Party march and a constitutional seminar, which he outlined in a New York Times Magazine article this fall. It focused on newly elected U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah, whose constitutional viewpoint Rosen described as representing in its own way a “coherent idea of the Constitution, one that is consistent with certain familiar strains of legal conservatism and constitutional scholarship but at the same time is genuinely eccentric and extreme.”

Lee, a lawyer and former Supreme Court clerk, clearly appears to be an adherent of the stream of Constitutional interpretation called “originalism,” which emphasizes the intent of the authors of the Constitution and seeks to not create new laws, but uphold the original ones. Lee is greatly influenced by the late W. Cleon Skousen, a Mormon political theorist whose works, especially the 1981 novel The Five Thousand Year Leap, were popularized by Fox News talk show host Glenn Beck and embraced by some on the right. Rosen said that Skousen, who could also be described as an originalist, had an extreme vision of faith and economics that collided to create a stance that shapes many Tea Party activists.

“Skousen was both a laissez faire anti-federalist on matters of economic policy — he believed that social security and redistributive taxation are unconstitutional — and a social conservative on matters involving the relationship between church and state,” Rosen said. “This combination of libertarianism on matters involving federal power and social conservatism on matters involving state power is coherent, if confusing to some, who emphasize the Tea Party [movement’s] libertarianism and miss its social and religious conservatism,” said Rosen.

In regard to the Tea Party movement and its relationship with Talmudic law, there appear to be some similarities, albeit painted in broad strokes.

According to Rosen, Skousen used Mormon scripture to view the Constitution as “divinely inspired” and that unalienable rights “derive from God.”

Rabbi Yaffe contended, “The Talmud trusts individuals and seeks to minimize regulation as [much as] possible. The Talmud believes all law is moral, and without a moral/divine basis, law is useless, indeed destructive.”

He added, “The Talmud seeks to minimize taxation to the extent the basic social and security needs of a populace can be met.”

This may seem resonant with Tea Party movement philosophy. But a closer look at Senator Lee’s stances on phasing out Social Security and dismantling of the federal Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development seems to show conflicts with the Talmud’s interest in meeting the social and security needs of the people.

The Tea Party movement can’t be categorized as having one particular vision or political and legal platform. However, the views espoused by Skousen and echoed by Beck do have some Constitutional basis, and can be construed as loosely similar to the Talmud because it, too, is suspicious of governments and supports free market capitalism.

Though Tea Party enthusiasts can use an originalist interpretation to defend their legal opinions, aligning them with Talmudic law is overreaching, Rabbi Yaffe said.

Judaic law supports a capitalistic economy but stands in contrast to laissez faire economics, he said. “It demands fair wages — even independent of pure market forces, mandatory insurance, consumer protection, profiteering controls, and [supports] redistribution as necessary.”

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