Skip To Content

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe
Back to Opinion

It’s Time To Put A Stop To Purity Tests. Jewish Values Contradict Each Other

There’s a new move floating around discussions of Jews and Israel that’s as effective as it is pernicious. You’ll recognize it immediately, as it has become all too pervasive in the blood sport we call public discourse. It consists of posing questions like “Is the Jewish State truly committed to Jewish values?” “Do Jewish values really mean anything to American Jews?” “Does J-Street have any idea of what Jewish values even are?”

The goal of these questions is to accuse one’s opponent of infidelity to, ignorance of or conflict with Jewish values. It is an insidious move because it insinuates that whoever falls foul of the Jewish values test is not a good Jew or perhaps not really a Jew at all.

What this amounts to is a purity test of the worst kind. It’s something we desperately need to be saved from. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, Jewish values are human values and human values are Jewish values.

No one knew this better than Sir Isaiah Berlin, a very good Jew and a very good Philosopher. Though he’s seldom discussed in today’s public space, his teachings can save us from the destructive nature of the “Jewish values” purity test.

The Oxford philosopher never took much of an interest in Jewish texts; he once famously questioned the relevance of the Talmudic “bull that gored the cow” to, well, anything at all. But he did provide us with some of the most important insights into human values – insights our current discourse is acutely in need of. In The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Berlin makes the argument that the values espoused and cherished by humanity are many and variegated, “a vast variety […] seldom predictable and at times incompatible.” Values like justice, freedom, truth, beauty, and peace are all dear to the human heart, and yet they also come into conflict with each other. As Kant might say, the timber from which humanity is made is too crooked to make anything completely straight, and our values are liable to clash in their application.

And there’s the rub – liberty, equality, fraternity are each are fine and dandy, but you can’t have them all, at least not without one compromising the other. Complete freedom for all means injustice to some. Equality for all means some will pay with their liberty. “No Justice – No Peace!” boom today’s radical protestors. The slogan captures the Berlinian understanding that peace can encroach upon justice and justice can disrupt peace.

Much of Berlin’s work is dedicated to denouncing “utopian ideologies,” that is, those ideologies that claim they have found the algorithm for combining and harmonizing all human values in a way that avoids the painful trade-off between them. Berlin believed this to be a most dangerous illusion, one which has led to intolerance, persecution and violence.

And it is this same danger that is present in the presumption that one has found the one unique and authentic yardstick of Jewish values with which to measure one’s ideological rivals. Doing so makes the false and perilous assumption that there is one narrow and ideologically consistent set of values that is alone authentic to the Jewish tradition.

In fact, Jewish values, like Jewish people, are a motely, diverse and cantankerous bunch who seldom agree with one another. Is “Justice Justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20) more or less Jewish than “Seek Peace and Pursue it” (Psalms 34:14)? Is the biblical insistence on rejecting idolatry more or less Jewish than the biblical refrain of loving the stranger? Is the obligation to honor one’s parents more or less Jewish than the obligation to honor the Sabbath? Is the steadfast attachment to the Land of Israel more or less Jewish than the call of the prophets to share your bread with the hungry and bring the destitute to your home? One may very well find some of these values more appealing than others. One certainly has to prioritize and exercise preference between them. But one must never mistake that preference for authenticity or even pride of place in the Jewish tradition. For in truth, they are all authentically Jewish.

It is a short and toxic step from excluding genuine Jewish values from Judaism to excluding genuine Jewish persons from Am Israel. We have always had among us individuals who have no greater joy than cutting up the Jewish tribe into ever smaller and more ideologically or religiously pure clans, conveniently making themselves ever bigger fish in ever smaller ponds. Isaiah Berlin’s masterful surveys of the history of modern ideas shows what shockingly bad company these clan chieftains are in.

The alternative to the purity test is not to embrace all Jewish values equally, nor to agree equally with all Jews (a feat that would require a most acute from of schizophrenia). It is rather to continue prioritizing values and disagreeing with those who prioritize differently, while at the same time recognizing that they are no less rightful citizens of the Jewish civilization than the values we embrace and the people with whom we agree.

This attitude of value pluralism was at the very heart of Isaiah Berlin’s mission as one of the 20th century’s greatest prophets of tolerance and liberalism. This fall will mark 20 years since Isaiah Berlin’s death. We could use him now more than ever.

Shimon Mercer-Wood, is the Spokesperson of the Consulate General of Israel in New York. He recently completed a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.