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Don’t Treat the Torah as a Collection of Left-Wing Policy Prescriptions

Jan. 25 2018

“I might not know that much Torah,” a participant in a Jewish youth program once told Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, “but I certainly can’t believe that every issue in the world comes under the general heading of ‘Justice, justice, shall you pursue.’” Yet, Salkin writes, it is twisted hermeneutics of precisely this sort that have become commonplace in all denominations of American Judaism. According to this approach, nearly every standard policy prescription of the progressive left can be read into a handful of verses like the one cited above or the now-ubiquitous kabbalistic term tikkun olam (repair of the world):

The problem with this has less to do with what liberal Jews say about these matters than with how such Jews justify their positions. They tend to attach Jewish texts to the issues at hand, and to do so sloppily. . . . In citing Jewish texts to bolster political stances, liberal Jews too rarely unpack what these texts meant in their original context. More rarely still do they admit to stretching their original meanings. . . .

Take, for instance, the command to “love the stranger,” which appears multiple times in the Pentateuch:

Who was the biblical stranger (ger)? Quite simply, a non-Israelite who lived within a Jewish polity, i.e., the land of Israel. Jews had to provide for the welfare of the stranger, often an impoverished laborer or artisan, “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Let us . . . acknowledge that, as it stands, “loving the stranger” fails to offer the concrete policy prescriptions that we might want from it. That hasn’t stopped some from using the quote as a basis for [proposals regarding] immigration policy [in the U.S.]. . . . Moreover: two people might be positively disposed toward those who wish to become Americans while simultaneously disagreeing about what constitutes sensible policy on U.S. immigration at a given moment. The biblical text offers us very little guidance here, other than raising a lofty ethical standard. . . .

[I]t’s past time for us to admit that too often our political and social stances come first and are then followed by interpretations of Jewish texts that serve as retroactive justification. Today, American Jews find themselves in sociological, economic, and political environments that are wholly unlike those of the Jewish past. While we can draw on the past for inspiration, there are very few policy recommendations to be found there.

What would happen if we reversed the preferred order of the day? If we first approached the Jewish texts themselves, wandered into the rabbinic tradition and later commentaries, and then discerned what our social and political stances might be?

Read more at Commentary

More about: American Judaism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays, Tikkun Olam, Torah

 

Hannah Arendt, Adolf Eichmann, and the Jews

Feb. 23 2018

In 1963—a year after Adolf Eichmann’s sentencing by an Israeli court—reports on the trial by the German-born Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt appeared in the New Yorker and were soon published as a book. This “report on the banality of evil,” as the book was subtitled, outraged many Jews, including many of her erstwhile friends and admirers, on account of her manifest contempt for the entire preceding, her disgust for the state of Israel, her accusation that a wide array of European Jewish leaders (if not the majority of the victims) were complicit in their own murder, and her bizarre insistence that Eichmann was “not a monster,” or even an anti-Semite, but a mindless, faceless bureaucrat. While extensive evidence has been brought to light that Arendt was wrong both in her claims of Jewish passivity and her evaluation of Eichmann as the head of the SS’s Jewish section, her book remains widely read and admired. Ruth Wisse comments on its enduring legacy:

When Arendt volunteered to report on the Eichmann trial, it was presumed that she was doing so in her role as a Jew. . . . But Arendt actually traveled to Jerusalem for a deeper purpose—to reclaim Eichmann for German philosophy. She did not exonerate Nazism and in fact excoriated the postwar Adenauer government for not doing enough to punish known Nazi killers, but she rehabilitated the German mind and demonstrated how that could be done by going—not beyond, but around, good and evil. She came to erase Judaism philosophically, to complicate its search for moral clarity, and to unseat a conviction [that, in Saul Bellow’s words], “everybody . . . knows what murder is.”

Arendt was to remain the heroine of postmodernists, deconstructionists, feminists, relativists, and internationalist ideologues who deny the stability of Truth. Not coincidentally, many of them have also disputed the rights of the sovereign Jewish people to its national homeland. Indeed, as anti-Zionism cemented the coalition of leftists, Arabs, and dissident minorities, Arendt herself was conscripted, sometimes unfairly and in ways she might have protested, as an ally in their destabilizing cause. They were enchanted by her “perversity” and were undeterred in their enthusiasm by subsequent revelations, like those of the historian Bernard Wasserstein, who documented Arendt’s scholarly reliance on anti-Semitic sources in her study of totalitarianism, or of revelations about her resumed friendship with Martin Heidegger despite his Nazi associations.

At the same time, however, the Arendt report on the Eichmann trial became one of the catalysts for something no one could have predicted—an intellectual movement that came to be known as neoconservatism. A cohort of writers and thinkers, many of them Jews from immigrant families who had turned to leftism as naturally as calves to their mother’s teats, but who had slowly moved away from the Marxism of their youth during the Stalin years and World War II, now spotted corruption and dishonesty and something antithetical to them in some of their very models of the intellectual life.

They and their Gentile colleagues had constituted the only European-style intelligentsia to flourish in America. Most of them were only one generation removed from Europe, after all, so what could be more natural than for them to serve as the conduit of European intelligence to America? Arendt’s ingenious twist of the Eichmann trial showed them how Jewish and American they actually were—and how morally clear they aspired to be.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Neoconservatism, New York Intellectuals