The Work of a Generation

Today’s threats to Jewish life are many. Can a movement be formed to overcome them? What would it look like?

A haredi man prays as a man sweeps the floor next to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. AP Photo/Bernat Armangue.

A haredi man prays as a man sweeps the floor next to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. AP Photo/Bernat Armangue.

Last Word
April 27 2015
About the author

Eric Cohen is CEO of Tikvah and the publisher of Mosaic. He is also one of the founders of Tikvah’s new Lobel Center for Jewish Classical Education.

I am grateful to Yuval Levin, Yoram Hazony, Yedidia Stern, and Meir Soloveichik for their thoughtful, serious, and penetrating comments on “The Spirit of Jewish Conservatism.” All four are important thinkers; each is a leader of an important Jewish or conservative institution; and I have read, conversed with, and learned from each of them for many years. Their responses raise a variety of points, and I will try to address many of those points. But I want to focus first on what seem to me the two biggest questions: is God central to Jewish conservatism, and what is the relationship between Jewish economic thinking and conservative economic thinking?

Let me begin with God, the Beginning of all beginnings. In his response to my essay, Yoram Hazony writes the following:

I am troubled . . . by one central issue. I do not understand the absence of God and Scripture from Cohen’s list of central “values and ideas” that he wants Jewish conservatives to conserve. To me, if his ambitious vision is to succeed, these have to be positioned at the head of the line.

Well, to me, if the God of the Hebrew Bible exists—and I believe He does—He is too majestic to be described in the way Hazony describes Him. Such a God is not simply a “value” or “idea” to be preserved by us. Such a God is the divine source of all value—a God we seek, even if His ways often seem inscrutable; a God we fear, or should fear, in our quest to live the moral lives we are called upon to live. I suspect Hazony would agree with this, though his way of describing God seems perhaps too worldly and too natural to awaken the awe of Moses on the mountain or command the piety of Abraham with the knife raised up against his son.

In my view, there is nothing in my account of Jewish conservatism—in its vision of the Jewish family, the Jewish nation, and the Jewish economy—that calls into question the centrality of God, ritual, faith, and the careful study of sacred texts for those Jews whose piety and practice form the defining purpose of their lives. First things are and should remain first things. For such “Torah Jews”—ḥaredi, ḥasidic, ḥabad, modern Orthodox, national-religious, traditional—my aim is not to articulate a new theology, and certainly not to challenge the theology that defines them. My aim, rather, is to articulate a way of thinking that authentically flows from or prudentially serves their God-centered commitments: a Jewish philosophy of public life, which may help guide them in securing a culture and polity in which the practice of holiness can flourish.

Such Torah Jews often embody, in their own lives, the moral community and sacred experience of the family—but can they explain and defend the traditional family in an age that often disparages it? Such Jews are often willing to give their lives for the defense of the Jewish nation—but can they explain why Jewish nationalism is a moral good, and have they studied the arts of politics and war that are necessary for sustaining the Jewish nation in the age of militant secularism and militant Islam? To put God first does not mean that everything else is taken care of or can be taken for granted.

My contention is that God-centered Jews should be the first to embrace the spirit of Jewish conservatism, and the first to assume the mantle of its leadership. But both Hazony and Meir Soloveichik are saying something different: that only a God-centered Judaism can ground a Jewish conservative vision of family and nation. Perhaps they are right, and perhaps especially so in America. But I also know that many God-centered Jews come to know God in radically different ways—surely the Hazony theology of a naturalistic rational God is not the same as the Soloveichik theology of a God who loves the Jews within history as His elected people. Some Jews accept the biblical account of revelation; some have faith because Jewish survival within history is too miraculous and unfathomable to be explained otherwise; some see a world so ordered and so beautiful that only the God of Genesis could have created it; others yearn for the God of the Psalms because they see a world so mad, so stained by death, that only a redeeming God can make sense of it. Some begin within God, and live in accordance with His revealed script. Others live and love, and come to discover God through their own experience.

To me, the Jewish conservative project should not rest upon a particular account of the divine; it should help spread the moral vision of the Hebrew Bible, and it should help protect and preserve a living Jewish civilization, one that is expansive enough to keep alive competing visions of the divine while converging on a shared vision of human nature. Man, after all, is a more knowable being than God, in all his mortal ugliness and all his mortal glory. And while the deepest truth of man is that he is a God-seeking being, there are other truths worth knowing and defending.


It is also the case, of course, that many Jews—even God-seeking Jews—seek but do not find Him. And there are some Jews whose courage, and will to action, and fierce national spirit flow from standing up for the Jewish people in a world where God is silent or God is absent. These Jewish patriots should also be celebrated for what they have given and what they can still give to the Jewish cause, and they, too, should welcome and embrace the arguments and worldview of Jewish conservatism, if for somewhat different reasons and on somewhat different grounds.

Indeed, while Soloveichik’s essay goes very far in arguing that only Orthodox Judaism can sustain the necessary belief in Jewish exceptionalism that is the foundation for Jewish continuity and Jewish flourishing, his hero is Menachem Begin, whom he enthusiastically quotes in his response:

It is not necessary to be an observant Jew to appreciate the full historic and sacred aura that enshrines this “perfect gift” called Shabbat. . . . One need not be pious to accept the cherished principle of Shabbat. One merely needs to be a proud Jew.

To which I might add: it is not necessary to be an observant Jew to be a Jewish conservative. One need not be pious to accept the cherished principles of the Jewish family, the Jewish nation, and a Jewish economics that reflects Jewish values and advances Jewish interests. One merely needs to be a proud Jew. And there are many proud Jews, thoughtful Jews, great Jews—especially in Israel—who are not so pious or so Orthodox as Soloveichik hopes they will become. And there are surely many great Jews of history—like Herzl and Jabotinsky—who fought for the Jews and died for the Jews, even as the pious prayed for Zion but did not act.

Perhaps, then, there must be in the Jewish conservative movement a certain division of labor. Human life is always limited, and it may always be that certain arts of politics, economics, and statecraft can only be acquired outside the yeshiva walls, and certain forms of knowledge and experience will almost never be acquired by those whose educations and experiences center on the intense study and meticulous observance of the rabbinic tradition. Jewish conservatism will succeed only if it can learn to celebrate both the Jabotinskys and the Soloveitchiks, the Herzls and the Schneersons, the Hesses and the Hirsches. And it will succeed only if such very different Jews can acquire enough humility to respect each other, and to focus their shared energy on the real threats that the Jewish nation now faces: the threat of Jewish liberalism from within, and the threats of militant secularism and militant Islam from without.


Let me now turn to the question of Judaism and economics. In his response, Yuval Levin writes the following:

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.

This is a very elegant and accurate formulation of what I am saying, but also one that requires careful elaboration. On the one hand, I am not saying that the Jewish tradition is simply a proto-form of capitalism—as if the Bible and the Talmud were really Adam Smith in biblical Hebrew and Aramaic, just waiting to be decoded. That is preposterous. But, on the other hand, I am also not saying that the Jewish tradition—with its rich and truthful account of human nature and the human person—is lacking entirely in wisdom about the meaning and limits of economic life. That is also preposterous.

So what am I saying?

First, I believe that any Jewish theory of the modern economy cannot undermine, whether in principle or in direct effect, the most central values of the Jewish tradition. Jewish economics must therefore strengthen the Jewish family and the Jewish nation. In these respects, the ideology of modern socialism surely fails the test of Jewish values.

Second, I believe that any Jewish theory of the modern economy cannot ignore the wisdom of the Jewish tradition about human nature. Here is how I put it in my essay:

Man is a creative being, with dominion over nature, who survives and often prospers through labor. Yet man is also a resting being, created by God, who must remember that his dominion is limited—limited in time, limited in space, limited by nature, and limited by death. Judaism emphatically does not embrace a vision of man as a capitalist alone, let alone every man as his own lawgiver. Such a vision is as utopian, and as anti-Jewish, as utopian socialism.

There are some capitalists among us who believe they are mini-gods on earth, and that armed with their investments and their technologies they can create a world of total human self-sufficiency. The most deluded of them believe they might even live forever—that they will truly conquer man’s estate. Such individuals, despite their flawed ideas, often serve civilization through their great achievements. Yet no wise Jew can accept such foolishness as an ideal, and no wise Jew can forget how we enter the world: as dependent beings, reliant on the self-giving love of mothers, fathers, and communities to nurture us.

Finally, I believe that any Jewish theory of economics must serve the real interests of the Jewish people as they now live in the modern world. Primary among those interests is the strength and survival of the Jewish state, which requires economic vitality and economic growth. Without real economic power, there can be no national power. And without national power, the Jewish state is doomed to destruction or decline.

This means that Jews need to learn from history and from the greatest economic minds how to build an economy that works. In this crucial respect, the science of economics is like the science of chemistry, biology, or physics; and just as no sane Jew, whether religious or secular, would build bridges, weapons, or vaccines on the basis of a faulty science, or on the basis of Jewish texts alone, no sane Jew would build the Jewish economy on the basis of a discredited economics. Which is what socialism is: a discredited economics.

Of course, the Jewish tradition—and the Jewish people—commands us to care for the impoverished, the abandoned, the weakened, the widowed, and the orphaned. We would be inhuman—and un-Jewish—not to do so. But the commandments to care—including the practical obligations of charity together with the communal structures that Jews have devised to fulfill those obligations—do not settle the specific ways in which modern societies, including modern Israel, should act on this moral duty. In truth, it seems to me that conservative economic ideas offer the most realistic way to achieve the aims of helping the poor, and helping the poor help themselves, while also ensuring that other moral goods (like the family) and moral necessities (like military power) are not directly or inadvertently undermined.


If Levin is right in describing the practical continuum of my essay as moving “from what Jews have to teach to what Jews have to learn,” I would also propose another continuum, one that moves from the necessary means of life—creating the wealth for family and nation alike to flourish—to the true ends of life—experiencing love within the family, and perhaps coming to know the divine through the very experience of the family.

To be sure, many individuals find life’s purpose in the wealth-creating work that they do; and the various heights of human achievement—in arts and culture, in sport and scholarship—are only possible in societies with enough wealth to sustain them. But in the end, those who make the pursuit of wealth into an idol, even if they may serve Jewish interests, do so without grasping the Jewish account of who we are. However high our achievements may take us, life’s true meaning is known best in the complicated, often painful, but redemptive relations of husband and wife, father and son, mother and daughter upon which the Jewish future and the Jewish way always and ultimately rest.


Now to three additional points raised by my respondents.

Yuval Levin suggests that what holds together and grounds the three legs—family, nation, economics—of the conservative stool is a shared idea of human nature: a “qualified pessimism about human perfectibility” that sees “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.” He then suggests that for the Jewish conservative project to advance, we need to articulate an authentically Jewish version of this realistic account of the human person.

I agree. But it is also crucial to remember that Judaism is not mere stoicism, and neither is it mere Madisonianism. The Jewish account of man is deeply realistic about our potential and perhaps unavoidable depravity. But it is also redemptive and even messianic; it yearns for perfection; it seeks to create a holy way of life and a holy nation. This messianic energy was central, as Levin suggests, in bringing modern Israel into being, both by sustaining the longing for Zion through centuries of exile and in mobilizing many modern Zionists, religious and secular alike, to act, fight, and often die to re-found the Jewish nation. The challenge for Jewish conservatism, it seems to me, is not simply to articulate an anti-utopian view of man—surely right and doable out of the sources of the tradition—but to do so while both preserving and moderating the Jewish yearning for redemption. If misguided messianism is dangerous and un-conservative, a joyless rejection of messianic yearning is dangerous and un-Jewish, for it is this redemption-seeking spirit that has sustained the Jewish people in the past and will, one hopes, sustain us into the future.


For his part, Yedidia Stern suggests that the Jewish future is threatened on two sides: by excessive liberalism, which accords no respect to the traditional values and commitments of particular peoples, and by extremist versions of Jewish particularism, religious and nationalist, which accord too little respect to the worth of non-Jewish peoples or modern liberal ideals of toleration. He calls instead for “temperate traditionalism and moderate nationalism.”

In the abstract, who can disagree? No conservative, Jewish or otherwise, should celebrate extremism. But the real danger is that in the name of moderation, the Jewish people and the Jewish state will cede too much ground to the anti-Jewish forces that surround us: in America, a secularist culture and politics that now seem committed, as Meir Soloveichik writes in his response, to “declaring that the idea of the family central to Judaism and Christianity for millennia is irrational, bigoted, and constitutionally unfounded”; and, in Israel, truly extremist enemies who seek to annihilate the Jewish state.

In the face of these challenges, our first mission is to inspire passionate commitment to the Jewish cause and the Jewish way of life, and to stand up for ourselves and our people. Ruth Wisse, in her book on “the liberal betrayal of the Jews,” puts it best:

Jewish nationalism is a force for liberty because the will to be Jewish implicitly defies totalitarian hegemony. . . . Whatever its intentions, the universalist impulse contributed to the consolidation of totalitarian power, whereas the determination to remain Jewish at all costs kept alive [and keeps alive] the cause of liberty and justice.

If we are going to err in the current age, Jews should err on the side of tough-minded particularism—not extremist, yet not soft. We should judge ourselves and our democracy not first by our generosity to the neighbor, crucial as that is, but by our capacity to perpetuate Jewish civilization and the Jewish state in a region and in an age that seems marshaled zealously against it.


Finally, Meir Soloveichik describes, powerfully and beautifully, the crucial role that Jews can play in America, especially modern Orthodox Jews who are both fully committed to the Jewish way of life and deeply grateful for American liberty. It is a summons worth quoting here at length:

In the teachings of Judaism, a faith and a people that have endured, even at times prospered, in cultures pagan, Christian, and Muslim, there is an alternative model. People of faith, Rabbi [Joseph B.] Soloveitchik argued, must be prepared to embody Abraham’s identification of himself as a ger vetoshav, a stranger and a neighbor, aware of what makes them different while engaging the world and, like Abraham in Canaan, speaking candidly and eloquently about why they are different. Traditional Jews can show other faith communities how to succeed in a joint project to safeguard an America that will allow all of us to be “strangers and neighbors”—to fight for our religious freedom and distinctiveness, to make it ever easier to create religious schools, while also articulating a conservative vision of the American idea, what it meant to the founders, and how it serves as the basis of a political worldview. We can work, in other words, for conditions in which our children can be raised to become adults who are at once apart from and part of society. If we do all that, then we can be confident that religious communities will continue to procreate and grow and transmit their traditions—which, after all, is what religious communities do.

Centuries from now, historians studying the American Jewish community will surely be struck by how much, in terms of wealth, power, and civic comfort, this community achieved under conditions of unprecedented freedom. They will surely also be struck by how many chose to utilize that freedom to discard the heritage that their ancestors had sacrificed to conserve, even as others held fast to all that was right and true in it. But they will also ask: what did Jews do for America? When so many American Christians devoted themselves wholeheartedly to the well-being of the Jewish state, did Jews return the favor by supporting and fortifying the struggle to withstand a secular culture that had become hostile to so much that traditional theists believe in? America has been a blessed haven to the Jewish people; did Jews work to preserve, and sustain, the vision of its founders? If the answer to these questions is yes, one will know that the mission of Jewish conservatism has succeeded.

In Israel, the challenge of Jewish conservatism seems clear, if hardly easy: to bring religious and secular alike into a conservative movement that aims to strengthen the Jewish family, defend the Jewish nation, and reform the Israeli economy. In America, the mission of Jewish conservatism is perhaps more puzzling, if no less important. Its challenge is to strengthen Jewish communities, to deepen the Jewish contribution to America, and to sustain the American and Jewish-American commitment to Israel.

These are, or should be, responsibilities we can shoulder and challenges we can meet. Doing so will require articulating a clear Jewish conservative agenda and building a truly Jewish conservative movement. In both America and Israel, that is the work of a generation. But it seems to me that, for the Jews, no mission could be more important.

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