Editors’ Note: Our April essay, “The Spirit of Jewish Conservatism,” by Eric Cohen, elicited such strongly expressed reactions, both in our pages and elsewhere, that we decided to continue the debate in the form of a symposium. Over the course of this week, we’re presenting brief reflections on Cohen’s thesis by 37 leading Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers. In today’s final group are Jonathan Rosenblum, Yehudah Mirsky, Aharon Ariel Lavi, Michael Weingrad, Moshe Koppel, R.R. Reno, Bentzion Brook, and Shmuel Trigano.
Jonathan Rosenblum: Removing the Taint of Illegitimacy from the Idea of Chosenness
To merit the modifying adjective “Jewish,” a “Jewish conservatism” would have to help ensure the Jewish future. At a minimum, that means encouraging Jews to marry other Jews and produce Jewish children. While Jewish conservatism, as described by Eric Cohen in his important essay, is not sufficient for the latter task, it does serve as an antidote to contemporary progressivism with its kumbaya rejection of all assertions of difference among people as morally repugnant.
The same rejection of all distinctions among people turns the special regard for one’s own people, and with it the insistence on endogamy, into something morally degraded. Not surprisingly, the belief that Jews bear a special responsibility for one another—a concept deeply engrained in halakhah—has been disappearing among young Jews (see Stephen M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer, “Whatever Happened to the Jewish People?” in the June 2006 Commentary). As for Israel, only half of American Jews under thirty-five say they would view its destruction as a personal tragedy.
By contrast, the conservative insistence on national sovereignty and on preserving the American constitutional faith affirms the legitimacy of viewing peoples and nations as distinct and distinctive and of caring intensely about the fate of one’s own. As such, conservatism is indeed consistent with the Jews’ traditional sense of themselves as a unique people charged with a universal mission to be a light to the nations.
In Jewish thought, as Meir Soloveichik has astutely observed, love of the particular is not something debased. Only through the love of the particular—for example, the love of parents for each other and their children—do we grow to a more all-encompassing love. For that reason Judaism rejected celibacy: an unmarried high priest could not perform the Temple service on Yom Kippur.
Conservatism can help remove the taint of illegitimacy from the claim of Jewish chosenness, a claim that profoundly embarrasses almost all modern, non-Orthodox Jews. But conservatism alone cannot make that claim plausible, or explain why the continued national existence of the Jewish people is a universal imperative. And therefore it is insufficient to clarify why a Jewish young adult should care more about marrying another Jew than about marrying a fellow conservative or liberal.
To achieve the latter goal, one must abandon the futile search for a way to preserve Jewry without taking Judaism seriously—not that Cohen advocates any such thing. “Whatever you want me to be, that’s what I’ll be,” sang Carly Simon. Judaism has been sold, and trivialized, with the message that it can be whatever you want it to be, that there is no beyond the pale.
Required instead is a thorough grounding in the Jewish classical texts over which the blessing is recited: “. . . Who has chosen us from among all the nations and given us His Torah.” And similarly required is the observance of mitzvot. Only through Torah study and immersion in Jewish living can our young grow to appreciate that Judaism cannot be equated with any particular political ideology, no matter how compatible it may be. Only then can they hope to understand what is so precious about being a Jew that their ancestors over the millennia were prepared to sacrifice their lives—and frequently did—rather than abandon their connection to God.
Yehudah Mirsky: Criticism of Liberalism Must Reckon with Liberalism’s Achievements
There’s much in Eric Cohen’s well-wrought and thought-provoking essay with which I agree—and if he has convinced even one student to take a good look at Edmund Burke or Michael Oakeshott, his mitzvah is complete. But some things leave me uneasy, and more.
First, let’s define our terms. It’s long seemed to me something of a misnomer to talk about a neat divide—at least in America—between “liberal” and “conservative.” Rather, we have, among the elites, two large groupings. One is economically statist (relatively) and socio-culturally libertarian, and the other is economically libertarian and socio-culturally statist (again, relatively).
Second, the Jewish embrace of liberalism in the 19th and 20th centuries was solidly in Jewish interests. It was liberalism in Europe and the U.S. that fostered the possibility of civic equality, necessary to secure Jewish interests and indeed survival in the rough tides of modern politics. One is free to disagree with how self-described American liberalism has gone, but that criticism must reckon with its powerful historical achievements—many of which, by helping to moderate conservatism’s more atavistic and dogmatic elements, also made it more congenial to Jewish interests and values.
Third, the by-now unsurprising hypocrisies of many of Israel’s critics from the ostensible left do not get us or Israel off the hook from confronting the very real mistakes and injustices that Israel can and does commit. I am confident Cohen knows that, but the tone of his essay gives little room or space for it.
Which brings me to a final, crucial point. Cohen well notes the dangers of market idolatry—and I would extend and deepen his redeeming suspicion to all of our ideologies, Zionism, liberalism, and conservatism included. As Reinhold Niebuhr taught us and as we’d do well to remember, every political ideology is marked by our own ultimate finitude and self-interestedness. Only God stands above them all, in His place of justice, as we do the utmost we can.
All political doctrines, even the truest, are provisional attempts at realizing that justice on earth. Even the truest are at best tools for the realization of our deepest human duties: the alleviation of man-made suffering. Conservatism has much to teach us there, but only if it, too, is alive to its own inevitable partiality, the knowledge of limitation, of all our limitations, that offers the truest liberation.
Yehudah Mirsky, associate professor in the department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and in the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis, is the author of Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution.
Aharon Ariel Lavi: The Need for Small Communities
One could write a book in response to Eric Cohen’s thought-provoking essay, but here I’ll focus on what I see as a missing link in his strategy: the role of communities. Perhaps it’s been taken for granted, but it shouldn’t be. Actually, communities are essential building blocks of the Jewish people and nation. To Cohen’s tripartite structure of family, nation, and economics, I’d add this as the indispensable fourth element.
Many young Jews, in the Diaspora as well as in Israel, no longer identify with the traditional structure of Jewish communities, let alone with large-scale Jewish agencies and institutions. Among those who have not simply dropped out altogether, some, especially in Israel, are finding ways to reinvent their Jewish lives by founding small new mission-driven communities of their own. In the process, they are reknitting the social fabric of the Jewish state.
The potential viability of similar communities in the U.S. should not be underestimated, and neither should their potential value. Identity cannot really be transmitted on the national level, since most people define themselves in relation to their immediate surroundings. And families alone, as strong as they may be, cannot withstand the tidal pull of the American melting pot. While some of the decline in American Jewish birthrates is cultural, much can be attributed to economic factors as young adults, having relocated far from their parents, lack the support system they need if they are to bear and raise children while pursuing careers. A small, healthy community is a priceless support for young families, and a small, healthy, highly motivated Jewish community can simultaneously transmit Jewish values and learning.
In his discussion of Jewish economics, Cohen rightly argues against the perpetuation of discredited ideas and for the importation of the best available thinking, whatever its source. As it happens, small communities have also proved superb at providing aid to the needy—indisputably a core Jewish value—in a way that protects and promotes individual initiative and self-help rather than blocking it in the manner of large-scale welfare programs.
Small committed groups are almost the only thing that, thanks to the ripple effect, has ever really changed the course of history. In Israel the model of the mission-driven or “intentional” community has proved very effective; testing its feasibility in America is of the essence. In fact, a number of such communities have already begun to spring up spontaneously in the U.S.; in my view, they should be studied for what they can do to bolster the waning spirit of so many American Jews, and they should be encouraged.
Michael Weingrad: Waging, and Winning, the Battle of Ideas
Eric Cohen’s call for “a new Jewish conservatism” is constructive and forward-looking, which is as it should be. While it would draw from both Jewish tradition and the best sources of Western conservative thought, Cohen sees that the ideology whose contours he has sketched does not as yet exist whole and ready-made. And while his respondents Yoram Hazony and Meir Soloveichik have voiced important concerns about the precise role of religious tradition in any Jewish conservatism, I do not think it necessary—or possible—for such an ideology to solve the theologico-political question once and for all. Conservatism, after all, is as much a product of modernity as is liberalism; it is not tradition itself, but rather a project of reestablishing and regrounding tradition when it has been neglected or besieged.
I would add a cheer on behalf of the supplemental task of gathering such additional materials as already exist and that are of use for a Jewish conservative ideology. In this I include valuable works by the writers whom Cohen mentions by name, such as Ruth Wisse, and, indeed, by all four initial respondents to his essay. I also include works of modern Jewish literature that dramatize keenly the failures of liberalism and revolutionary utopianism; earlier figures in the development of a modern Jewish conservatism, like Will Herberg and Irving Kristol; and thinkers from the Orthodox world, such as the recently deceased Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who have meditated upon the ideological implications of Jewish tradition. Compiling and expanding a usable library of conservative Jewish thought is not as urgent a task as the elaboration and promotion of the principles themselves, but it is part of the battle of ideas.
At the same time, it is worth remembering that the destructive Jewish love affair with progressivism is rarely based on books. It is for the most part not a philosophical position, but a reflexive one, emotive and cultural. In the case of many American Jews, liberalism is their Jewish identity, an identity that they mistakenly believe comes to them, via the shtetls of Eastern Europe, from Mount Sinai, when it is actually a relatively late, American development, an accident of modern history. To this is added the psychological liberalism of many Jews who experience political conflict as so emotionally rending that they retreat into fantasies of a world (or at least a Middle East) entirely amenable to peace processes.
Such reaction-formations are only reinforced in the unreal, thought-policed environment of today’s universities. In cases like these, it is not so much that we need to encourage Jews to think the right ideas as to encourage them to think, period.
Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University and a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books. He also writes at the website Investigations and Fantasies.
Moshe Koppel: Conservatism Is Inherent in Judaism
In his landmark essay, Eric Cohen describes conservatism as resting on three legs: strong family values, free markets, and support for nation-states like Israel. He is rightly chagrined that too many Jews have abandoned all three and he calls for a Jewish return to conservatism. I share his sentiments.
Cohen’s essay begs two questions. First, what is the common ground on which these three seemingly unrelated legs rest? Second, with apologies to Norman Podhoretz, why are Jews liberals? Let me try to answer them.
People are designed—by evolution or God, take your pick—to live in communities with thick moral traditions that come both in universal flavors—be fair, don’t be mean—and in parochial flavors—honor the community’s institutions and symbols, don’t eat the wrong stuff, don’t sleep with the wrong people. What conservatism’s three legs have in common is that each is inevitably abandoned when individuals are not sufficiently in the grip of any sufficiently thick moral tradition, as is now common in Western countries.
First, the moral gap where the community used to be is filled by the state. State planning replaces community traditions. While communities, at least the old-fashioned kind, strengthen family bonds, states weaken those bonds. There goes conservatism’s first leg.
Next, a large coercive state burdened with tasks traditionally handled by small homogeneous communities—defining standards of fairness, redistributing wealth—inevitably interferes with the free exercise of commerce. There goes conservatism’s second leg.
Finally, for those not embedded in a community, parochial moral flavors are something of a mystery, doomed to be judged solely in light of the universal moral flavors and to be found always wanting. The existence of communities—and states like the United States and Israel—that implicitly claim to reconcile parochial morality with universal morality, patriotism with fairness, is a direct challenge to this view of the world. Thus, such states earn the contempt of angry liberals (while, ironically, brazenly selfish states earn only the right to be patronized). There goes the third leg.
Conservatism is not only a natural partner for Judaism, it is inherent in Judaism. Jews have abandoned conservatism in Western countries simply because they have abandoned Jewish communities that are committed to traditional Jewish morality in all its flavors. The problem will resolve itself when most Jews belong to such communities.
Given current rates of assimilation, this is just a matter of time.
R.R. Reno: Conservatism Isn’t Only about Conserving
Eric Cohen’s cogent outline of a religion-informed, reality-oriented Jewish conservatism could serve nicely as a précis for First Things, the magazine of religion and public life that I edit. My predominantly Christian orientation no doubt gives things different shadings. (For example, as Cohen suggests in passing, Christianity has more difficulty underwriting patriotism than does Judaism.) But the main thrusts of his account of Jewish conservatism—family, national strength, and a free economy—reinforce my priorities for a Christian conservatism.
Yet I do not find myself wishing to dwell on our shared vision. Instead, Cohen’s call for a Jewish conservatism has provoked in me misgivings about my own.
Like progressivism, its antinomy, conservatism as a self-conscious disposition has currency only in the modern era. Pained by erosion and loss, conservatism theorizes our perennial and fitting impulse to hold the sand of time in our hands, preserving as best we can the beauty, honor, and integrity of dying worlds. As American conservatives we often fail to recognize our twilight agony, because what we want to preserve is an older American dynamism, confidence, and self-reliance. But it’s there.
As Cohen works to his stirring conclusion, distinctively conservative notes become explicit: “Jewish survival” and the imperative of “self-defense,” facing “necessities” with “resolve,” the need to protect and preserve. In the penultimate paragraphs, the atmosphere is grim-faced and teeth-gritting. Conservatism assumes the responsibilities of adulthood, recognizing hard truths. Grownups must put their shoulders to the work of defending against puerile, irresponsible dreamers.
That’s often my stance. How many columns have I written defending marriage? Defending traditional moral norms? Defending patriotism? Defending free markets? Defending American power? I don’t think I’ve been wrong to do so—or that Cohen is wrong to call for Jews to do the same, and to do so in a particularly Jewish way.
But, but, but: “Hark, your watchmen lift up their voices, together they sing for joy” (Isaiah 52:8). God does not promise survival. It’s redemption He has in mind. This redemption preserves creation, of course, but it does so by way of consummation. The Christian and Jew do not look back to the first day of creation. We look forward to the triumph of the seventh.
“Arise, shine,” says the same prophet. Given what we believe, the world will call us conservative. This is our place in the modern political imagination, a necessary place, a noble place. But as conservatives let us enter into the Lord’s presence so that our faces will shine with His glory. We need to be prudent and practical in political life—conservative. But let us remember we do not live in a twilight time. Ours is the gray of the hour before dawn.
R.R. Reno is the editor of First Things.
Bentzion Brook: Torah is Primary, Ideology Secondary
Anyone committed to Jewish life owes thanks to Eric Cohen for “The Spirit of Jewish Conservatism.” In this essay, Cohen portrays the existential threats to Jewish society in the modern world—threats that he locates in an almost religious idolization of liberalism. To meet and overcome those threats, he calls for a big-tent community of values and ideas that can “help spread the moral vision of the Bible and . . . help protect and preserve a living Jewish civilization.” Its guiding principles would be formed (partially) on the basis of values grounded in Jewish moral thought and tradition.
Such an approach could certainly be seen as compatible with that of the Torah, and maybe even as in its spirit. Given, however, that the goal ultimately is Jewish survival, one has to ask: is this enough? Will a moral vision merely compatible with Torah ultimately succeed in preserving our people, or must it be Torah-based? And, more importantly, what should be the primary focus of such a vision, and what secondary? How we answer these questions will demonstrate what we regard as the most vital element for Jewish survival and continuity.
In one of his many letters, the Lubavitcher Rebbe touched on this issue:
The Jewish people is one of the oldest in the world, and in its long history as a nation it has gone through various conditions and circumstances, mostly very unfavorable. . . . If one wishes to know the secret of Jewish survival under circumstances that have obliterated larger and stronger nations, one has but to apply the same scientific method as in other cases [and] find the common factor, or factors, in all the various periods of Jewish history, which would then have to be taken as the basis of Jewish survival. . . .
Now, going back to the long history of our Jewish people over a period of some 3,500 years, it will be seen that there has been only one factor that has preserved Jewish identity and survival throughout the various periods of our history. This factor was not language, or country, or anything else which is often associated with nationhood and nationalism, for in all these things there have been radical changes from one period to another, as anybody familiar with Jewish history knows. The single factor, and, I emphasize, the one and only factor, that has preserved our Jewish people throughout the ages, under all kinds of circumstances, has been the fulfillment of the mitzvot in day-to-day life, such as the observance of Shabbat, the putting-on of tefillin, and the Torah education of our children. These and all other mitzvot are already embodied in the Torah and have been observed by Jews since the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, and they have been observed in the same way throughout the ages, without change.
These profound words make it very clear where any project aiming to preserve the Jewish people needs to focus its primary energies. Anything else, including all forms of Jewish power, whether political or economic, however important, are secondary. Moreover, in attempting to establish certain worldviews as compatible with Torah, one must be very sensitive to the opposite danger: using Torah as a platform for one’s own ideas.
Eric Cohen is right. For Jews, there cannot be a more important mission today than the one he describes. Precisely for this reason, it is critical to insist on first things first. If we compromise our uniqueness for the sake of a broader popularity, we risk losing the one vital component needed for the task. Ultimately the success of any such project will rest upon our otherness, not our sameness.
Shmuel Trigano: The Enemy Is Postmodernism
The most important idea I retain from Eric Cohen’s paper is what Meir Soloveichik defines rightly as “a call to arms.” We are those, however few, who believe that we live at a turning point in both Jewish history (the age of political sovereignty) and world history (globalization). What is at stake is clear. Eric Cohen defines it as “the fate of the Jews as a people”—or, as I would put it, the fate of the Jews as a nation in Israel and as a community in the Diaspora. This threat, moreover, is both external, to the political and physical survival of the Jewish state, and internal, to the unity and solidarity of the Jews.
The new landscape demands a new strategy, whose purpose must not be only to safeguard and protect what exists but also to seize the initiative and prepare not just for battle, in whatever guise and on whatever ground, but for victory. And this in turn depends on a restoration of Jewish morale and a definitive break with centuries of still-unshed habits of submission and subordination.
Must this fight be led under the aegis of conservatism? The term conveys different meanings in different contexts. Cohen cites and defends what he sees as certain core conservative values—family, nation, economic freedom—and a case can be made for each of them. What’s clear, in any event, is the identity of today’s main adversary of those values. That adversary is postmodernism, the dominant mentality among the power elites in the democratic West: a mentality that has developed on the wave of globalization with its false promise of universalism, cosmopolitanism, and multiculturalism.
For the Jews, as we can see most saliently in France and elsewhere in Europe, this false promise has already ushered in an age not of democratic freedom but of, in Cohen’s words, “destruction, disappearance, and demoralization.” Indeed, from this viewpoint, the ideological battle between conservatives and liberals within the Jewish world echoes the battle between defenders and antagonists of democratic freedom and the democratic nation state at large, the political formation most under attack today by postmodern “deconstructionists” in both the West and the East.
In the present situation, I believe an effort must be mounted to redefine and reshape the role of Judaism itself. We can’t simply “return to the sources.” What’s needed is a new age of Jewish creativity, in the spirit of the Torah, and of thinkers prepared to grapple with the true significance, for all Jews, of Jewish political sovereignty: the biggest revolution in 25 centuries of Jewish history. In response to this actuality, we need new principles and new policies that at the same time will not relinquish what I call the “Levitical function,” and what others might refer to as the element of the transcendent, of revelation and of law.
Regrettably, it seems to me that Orthodoxy today—and, incomparably more so, liberal Judaism—lacks such a creative force. And this in turn implies the need to form and educate a new Jewish leadership. To give a name to this new cadre of leaders, I’ve turned in my own writings, as does Cohen in his essay, to the biblical book of Joshua and coined the term “disciples of Joshua.” I have in mind the great strategist who made possible the Israelite kingdom by linking the science of government with the global vision of the Torah. That is the need of the hour.
Shmuel Trigano, a professor of sociology at Paris University, is the author of 23 books and the founding editor of Pardes, a journal of Jewish studies, and of Controverses, a journal of political ideas. His books in English translation are The Democratic Ideal and the Shoah: The Unthought in Political Modernity and Philosophy of the Law:The Political in the Torah.
Coming next week: Eric Cohen’s final reply.
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