I’d Rather Fight Than Switch
Farewell, Forward readers. Owing to the tolerant and genuinely pluralistic editorship of J.J. Goldberg and Oren Rawls, I’ve had the privilege these past five years of speaking to this newspaper’s mostly liberal readership. I have done my best to articulate a religiously and politically conservative worldview rarely heard in the Jewish community.
Now the time has come to make way for other voices on these worthy opinion pages. But before I sign off, I thought I would spend this last column addressing a question I’ve never clarified for you. Namely, why do I fight?
The subject is timely for me. Lately I’ve come in for a fair amount of personal abuse from fellow Jews. (It wasn’t a new experience, so don’t worry about me. It all rolls off by now.)
The occasion was my noting in recent articles the indebtedness of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” to evolutionist arguments traceable to Charles Darwin’s “Descent of Man,” with its talk of how natural selection means the “civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.”
Hitler’s debt illustrates the way any picture of reality purporting to offer answers to ultimate questions inevitably suggests ethical corollaries. That’s as true of evolutionary theory as it is of Judaism, in very different ways.
This did not go down well with, among others, Forward Arts & Culture columnist Jay Michaelson. On the Web site Jewcy.com he denounced me as a “Jewish Uncle Tom.” Elsewhere I was decried, mostly by Jews, with a wild disregard for truth as a “self-hating Jew,” a “Hitler sympathizer” who thinks “Hitler was right about the Jews,” and who “excuses Christians from their role in the Holocaust.”
Oh brother. At least most conservatives are more civilized in public discourse.
So are Christians, in troubling respects, compared to us Jews. A few days ago, I spoke about the Ten Commandments at a Presbyterian church. I gave a Jewish perspective that challenged my listeners on various sensitive points where Jews and Christians differ, notably on Sabbath observance. Yet the response was entirely genial, welcoming and curious.
Frankly, why do I bother addressing fellow Jews at all, especially liberals? Apart from the obvious reason that I’m Jewish, and thus I care far more about what Jews believe than about Christians, I admit to a tendency to sheer contrariness.
My experience since college has been that a dynamic in liberalism is inclined more than conservatism to insist on uniformity of opinion. When I find everyone agreeing with me, I get nervous and bored. In arguing for Judaism, I can always count on getting an outraged argument from Jews.In this, I’m just following a teaching laid down in Jewish tradition. The wise King Jehoshaphat was able to see through the false pretenses of 400 prophets of Baal, pretending to be believers in Israel’s God.
How? Jehoshaphat observed that the Baal prophets were lockstep in their way of expressing themselves. They all said the same thing. True prophets would be less uniform in their messages (Rashi on 1 Kings 22:7).
More seriously, my children are Jewish and I care about their moral future, as I do about my own. An overwhelming theme of Jewish religious literature is that the way a culture thinks about God will ultimately determine how people influenced by that culture interact with each other, whether with respect and civility or with arrogance and vulgarity.
The increasing secularization of our culture, a phenomenon I’ve written about here many times, makes it harder for us to be as good as we have the potential to be. Remember what I said about a picture of reality necessarily having ethical corollaries.
In the pervasively influential secular worldview, people are nothing more than an aspect of nature. We are limited by nature’s “iron logic,” as a bestselling author concisely put it not long ago.
That author passionately rejected the piece of Jewish “effrontery” that says, “Man’s role is to overcome Nature!” He mourned, “Millions thoughtlessly parrot this Jewish nonsense and end up by really imagining that they themselves represent a kind of conqueror of Nature.”
The author was Hitler, and the book was “Mein Kampf,” which sold 6 million copies by 1940. He would be startled to find that today’s liberalism, Jewish and otherwise, is premised on the rejection of overcoming our nature.
This is clearest in debates where public policy touches upon sexuality. Should government endorse sexual expression of all kinds — among school kids and same-sex couples, for example, all simply acting according to their nature and their hormones — or not? Liberals who favor condom-distribution in schools and state-sponsored gay marriage disagree with conservative who oppose such measures.
But as Jewish sages have taught for millennia, to overcome your nature is why God put you on earth. The message that nature’s “iron logic” should determine our values is one that poses a danger to everyone who is tempted to do wrong — that is, to every single one of us. Myself very much included, we are seduced by naturalism to listen to our worst selves.
When I write on this theme, especially in a Jewish context, I am reminding myself and my children of a Jewish truth that we can’t afford to forget. That is why I fight. Thank you, Forward, for the opportunity to do so unimpeded in your pages.
David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is the author of “Shattered Tablets: Why We Disregard the Ten Commandments at Our Peril” (Doubleday, 2007) and the forthcoming “How Would God Vote? Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative” (Doubleday).