Judaism’s Countercultural Understanding of Human Nature

Bolstering the case for a Jewish conservatism is Jewish anti-utopianism.

A hand colored engraving of Jerusalem from 1840. Drawn by William Henry Bartlett, engraved by E. Challis. Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images.

A hand colored engraving of Jerusalem from 1840. Drawn by William Henry Bartlett, engraved by E. Challis. Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images.

April 13 2015
About the author

Yuval Levin is the founding editor of National Affairs and Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. He has been awarded a 2013 Bradley Prize for distinguished contributions in the fields of scholarship, journalism, and public service.

In his bold and challenging essay in Mosaic, Eric Cohen sets out an exceptionally ambitious project: the articulation of a coherent Jewish conservatism for America and Israel. He makes no claim to achieve that goal, only to offer an outline of what such an achievement would entail. His outline helps to highlight both why many Jews should find such a goal appealing and why they will not find it easy to realize.

Cohen implicitly models his Jewish conservatism on the “fusionist” project that an earlier generation of American conservatives (led by William F. Buckley, Jr., Frank Meyer, and others) set for themselves in the middle of the last century and largely achieved over the subsequent decades. Their fusionism aimed to combine three elements that, although making for an uneasy fit, seemed to embody the key constituent parts of the modern American right: social traditionalism, a hawkish defense posture, and market economics. Ronald Reagan liked to call this the “three-legged stool” of American conservatism.

Cohen wants a Jewish version of this stool, and his choice of the same three elements is both natural and sensible for much the same reason. Traditionalists, defense hawks, and capitalists are not merely allies of convenience, nor are they united only by some common adversaries. They are deeply linked by a common anthropology: an understanding of human nature that qualifies as profoundly contrarian in our liberal age.

What unifies the three strands of modern American conservatism is a qualified pessimism about human perfectibility. Conservatives see the human person as a fallen and imperfect being, given to excess and prone to iniquity yet possessed of fundamental dignity and of inalienable rights that demand to be respected. Given their high standards but low expectations in human affairs, conservatives tend to be deeply skeptical of all utopian ambitions—be those ambitions aimed at socializing the sinfulness out of man, at achieving perpetual peace through sweet reason, or at equalizing wealth without extinguishing its sources. Instead, conservatives’ hopes lie in the potential of the long-evolved institutions of society—traditional families and moral communities, liberal education, free markets, carefully limited government, and more—to counteract our worst excesses, habituate us to the virtuous life, point us toward the deepest truths, and make us worthy of freedom and capable of exercising and defending it.

A fusionist conservatism is therefore coherent and reasonable—it makes sense of those elements of modern liberal societies that are skeptical rather than confident about reason, social rather than technical in their means, and generational rather than messianic in their ends. But the fusionism of the earlier American right also came equipped with some pre-existent raw materials from within the American polity itself: a widespread moralistic Christianity, an aristocratic (and especially Southern) civic republicanism, and a particularly sober (often Yankee) brand of business-minded classical liberalism. These three groups, each rooted in America’s history, shared some views and hopes but were not, and are not, identical. Decades of conservative fusionism have brought them nearer to each other, and have helped them learn from one another, but have not erased the distinctions among them.


In his vision of a Jewish conservatism, Cohen seems to want Judaism to play all three roles. This will not be easy. Judaism is naturally best suited to discharge the function assumed in the American conservative project by Christian moralism. As he eloquently shows, Judaism brings to the table a rich and profound model of flourishing family life and millennia of experience in making that ideal very real under challenging circumstances. Jews have a great deal to be proud of on this front, a great deal to defend, and a great deal to teach their neighbors and fellow citizens. Some Jews have of course rejected this inheritance and called their fathers fools, but most Jews who might have an interest in a project of Jewish preservation with anything like a conservative tinge will be well positioned to serve the role that Cohen sets out for them in this respect.

Can Judaism also be a force for moral realism when it comes to the second leg of the stool: namely, issues of nationalism and defense? Yes, if less obviously. It is certainly better positioned to do so than is American Christianity, in no small measure because of the history of the Jews (and of Israel) and because of the sorts of teachings that Cohen points to in the biblical book of Joshua—though, as he notes, these are also teachings that many of today’s Jews are understandably quite uneasy about.

Such a role will surely be easier in Israel, where nationalism and Judaism are deeply tied together in Zionism and are also essentially inseparable in practical terms. It is more difficult in America, where Jews are a small subculture and one not deeply connected to the nation’s martial traditions or its brand of civic republicanism. But if, as Cohen suggests, the primary duty of American Jews on this front is to articulate for Americans the reasons why America should stand with Israel, then the prospects are better—not so much because many American Jews are up to the task as because relatively few non-Jewish Americans really require the lesson. Or at least not right now: although American public support for Israel is on the whole firm and deep, Cohen is right to prioritize Jewish efforts to reinforce it.

What then of the economic leg? Here things look quite different. In the evolution of a Jewish conservatism, it is reasonable to imagine Judaism playing the part of Christian moralism, and it is even imaginable that it could articulate the case for nationalism and an assertive self-defense. But can Judaism stand in for the Yankee trader, his sobriety formed by the best of the Scottish Enlightenment and counterbalanced by a modern faith in progress? Cohen’s own argument on this front suggests he has doubts. True, he cites traditional teachings and sources intimating that democratic capitalism is not inherently incompatible with Judaism (while socialism in many respects is). But they hardly show that Judaism can itself offer much reinforcement to capitalism in the way that it plainly can, for instance, to the traditional family.

“The great challenge, both intellectual and political,” Cohen writes in concluding his section on the meaning of Jewish economics, “is to marry the Zionist ethos of national commitment with the capitalist ethos of free enterprise, and hold together reverence for Judaism’s own ancient traditions with the dynamism necessary in the modern technological age.” This suggests a need for balancing excesses. And it implies, too, that the three constituent elements of a Jewish conservatism are far from equal in character and significance.


In fact, Cohen subtly changes tack as he moves from the family to the nation to the economy. He implicitly treats the three elements as existing on a continuum that stretches from what Jews have to teach to what Jews have to learn. The case for the family is something Jews can teach the modern world; the case for capitalism is something Jews must learn from the modern world; the case for nationalism and moral realism in international affairs falls somewhere in between. There’s nothing necessarily problematic in that: if at first glance it might seem to make Cohen’s project less coherent, ultimately it points to how, as a mix of teaching and learning, the project might be advanced in practice.

But the question is what can hold the three elements together. For American conservatism, the answer has been the underlying anthropology that unites the branches of the right. That underlying unity is conservatism. Can Judaism itself play the same role in unifying the project that Cohen envisions? The way he has chosen to structure his case suggests that he thinks so, but if Judaism is to be both student and teacher, the necessary underlying glue still seems to be missing.

Perhaps what is needed is a Jewish case for the conservative disposition itself—the Jewish case for anti-utopianism and high-minded skepticism of worldly perfection. Such a case would reinforce the argument for the family by highlighting the practical impossibility of all alternatives; it would strengthen the case for moral realism in world affairs by emphasizing the permanence of evil in the human experience; and it would diminish the lure of radical egalitarianism by showing that no technocratic fantasy could do more for the poor than a market economy. But it would not ultimately be a case about the family, world affairs, or the economy. It would be an anthropological argument—a case about the human person.

The want of such a Jewish case for conservatism is perhaps especially apparent in Israel, where in some elite circles Zionism threatens to become undone by the very idealism that brought it into being. Having realized its messianic vision, and having never quite figured out how to treat its creation as an accomplishment to be preserved and treasured, Israel’s secular liberal Zionism too often seems prey to fantasies of a post-Zionist utopia beyond itself.

A Jewish case for the modern conservative disposition—a fourth element in Eric Cohen’s project—is both easy to imagine and difficult to articulate. Bringing it into being among American and Israeli Jews would require deep resources of mind and spirit and years of determined, patient work. I think I know just the man for the job.

More about: History & Ideas, Jewish conservatives