"The Spirit of Jewish Conservatism"—Day Two

Featuring today: Hillel Halkin, Daniel Johnson, David Wolpe, Naomi Riley, Jon D. Levenson, Eric Yoffie, and Shalom Carmy.

David brings the ark into Jerusalem, from the 13th century Morgan Bible. Wikimedia.

David brings the ark into Jerusalem, from the 13th century Morgan Bible. Wikimedia.

Editors’ Note: Our April essay, “The Spirit of Jewish Conservatism,” by Eric Cohen, elicited such strong 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 group are Hillel Halkin, Daniel Johnson, David Wolpe, Naomi Riley, Jon D. Levenson, Eric Yoffie, and Shalom Carmy.


Hillel Halkin: Why Widen the Rift?


I agree with most of Eric Cohen’s fine essay. Jews, as Jews, belong to a large family, or if you will, a small nation, which will remain a nation only as long as it is composed of innumerable smaller families. The assault on the family and the nation that Cohen so articulately describes as a project of contemporary Western liberalism is thus inevitably an assault on Judaism and the state of Israel—and conversely, Judaism and Israel are on the front line in the family and the nation’s defense.

And yet I see no point in emphasizing, let alone widening, the liberal/conservative rift in Israel itself. Liberalism and conservatism do not mean entirely the same things in Israel that they do in the United States, even if they share many features. Most Israelis on the left and center-left are patriots of their country, however critical they may be of its current policies, serve and encourage their children to serve in its army, and are markedly child and family-oriented. (Secular Israel has a birthrate close to 50-percent higher than that of Europe and the United States—and it has been rising.) Most Israelis on the right and center-right are for some degree of government intervention in the free market and in favor of a European-style welfare state.

The moderate Israeli left and the moderate Israeli right may clash bitterly over the settlements, the Palestinian issue, and state-synagogue relations, but much also unites them. Above all, they are united in being closer to each other than either is to the immoderate left or the immoderate right. The extremes at either end are the real political danger to Israel, which needs a strong center to keep them in check. A polarizing ideological wall running through this center would only be harmful.

Hillel Halkin’s books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath RiverMelisande: What are Dreams? (a novel), and, most recently, Jabotinsky: A Life (2014). His essays and columns have appeared in MosaicCommentary, the New Republic, the Forward, the Jewish Review of Books, and elsewhere.


Daniel Johnson: Why American Jews Will Become More Conservative


In reading Eric Cohen’s remarkable and persuasive essay on Jewish conservatism, I was struck by two things that jarred: first, that he cites Moses Hess throughout; second, that he does not cite Norman Podhoretz.

I find myself in agreement with much of what Cohen has to say on Israel and its enemies, on the preservation of Jewish identity, on the centrality of the family in Judaism, and on the particular role of American Jews—even with what, in a slightly odd turn of phrase, he calls “Jewish economics.” For all of this, however, Hess is a surprising witness to invoke. As the patriarch of two world-historical movements, Communism and Zionism, Hess certainly deserves to be taken seriously; but he abandoned the former in favor of the latter precisely because he was anything but conservative.

Rome and Jerusalem, the foundational text of Zionism from which Cohen takes his epigraph, is a revolutionary tract. Hess had been forced out of the world’s first Communist party by Marx and Engels because the “Communist rabbi,” as they sneeringly called him, rejected their dialectical materialism but not the ethical socialism that had originally inspired that cause. Zionism, for Hess and others, was preached to the Jewish proletariat as a radical, even revolutionary, answer to their poverty and exploitation. For its first century or so, Zionism was anything but a conservative ideology, as indeed Hess’s vision of “the coming regenerated state of human society” (the phrase quoted by Cohen) implies.

If Hess is selectively quoted, Podhoretz is not quoted at all—not even his Why Jews Are Liberals, now a modern classic. Yet Podhoretz, whose life’s journey makes him in some sense the Moses Hess of our time, is surely the prophet who deserves most credit for warning American Jews against the liberal temptation. In 2009, Podhoretz wrote: “I am hoping against hope that the exposure of [President Barack] Obama as a false messiah will at last open the eyes of my fellow Jews.” Well, the president has indeed since been exposed, but how many eyes have in fact been opened? Cohen does not address this problem, yet it is a persistent one. If the spirit of Jewish conservatism burns most brightly in the United States, how is it that such a small minority of Jews there identify themselves as conservatives? And will solidarity with Jewish statehood mean that, given the stark choice between anti-Zionist liberalism and pro-Zionist conservatism, Jews will actually choose the latter—at any rate if Israel’s survival is at stake?

The survival of the Jewish people, its ability to endure persecution for millennia, is rooted in a stubborn refusal to submit to hostile circumstances, coupled with an unyielding attachment to the law, both sacred and secular. Conservatism, if it is anything, means a politics of continuity through change. It’s a good fit. Burke, whom Cohen does invoke, might have had Jewish history in mind when he wrote: “People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.” Since biblical times, Jews have always done both.

In America, most Jews are, at least in theory, liberal precisely because they are conservative: they are loyal to the principles that have animated their ancestors ever since Lincoln. In practice, however, most Jews are, as they always have been, entrepreneurial lovers of liberty, democracy, and justice, pillars of family and community, conserving the nation in the form of religion (as Hess puts it), and upholding the biblical values that their forebears have bequeathed to Western civilization. Throughout the Diaspora, but especially in the Anglosphere, Jews have tended to be subjectively liberal but objectively conservative: reforming institutions to make them more humane and thereby more resilient.

As the left becomes ever more illiberal, we should expect to see many more Jews move in a conservative direction. That has happened already in Europe; it may happen in the United States, too—especially as it becomes clear that presidential promises made to defend Israel’s security interests are unlikely to be kept. The catalyst won’t be polemics, however eloquent, but the force majeure of events.

Daniel Johnson is a British journalist and the founding editor of Standpoint, a monthly magazine of politics, culture, and world affairs.


David Wolpe: To Persuade, Jewish Conservatism Must Do More


Beauty marries the beast, the mermaid marries the man: American society preaches that divisions do not matter in the face of love. Judaism, as Eric Cohen eloquently argues, believes in particularism and differences: nationalism, family, cultural distinctiveness. Capitalism does cut against that ethos, he concedes, but its blessings are so manifest that we must corral capitalism into the mix to sustain the vitality of our society in the U.S. as in Israel.

More is needed, however. If a Jewish conservatism is to persuade, it must not merely demonstrate that socialism is the wrong road but display a passionate concern of its own for the poor. The prophetic message is urgent and insistent: society has a profound responsibility to care for the bereaved, the bereft, the abandoned. Moreover Jewish conservatism must, in a resolutely egalitarian age, make a conservative case for full rights and inclusion—of women, of gays, of converts—into our community if it wishes to speak to young Jews particularly. Finally, it must aim to revitalize the tradition itself. The vast majority of Jews are not practicing, and it will not do simply to insist that more Jews be more observant. We need scholars and thinkers of stature who can speak to the disaffected. Without a theological renewal, there will not be a Jewish renewal.

Wealth brings many blessings, but community and satisfaction of soul come through regular gatherings and spiritual practice. The challenge of 21st-century Judaism: to create a serious, compassionate Jewish culture that is not insular or blind to great social changes, a deep engagement with Israel that is literate—the absence of Hebrew among American Jews is a scandalous intellectual abdication—and a ringing affirmation that being different is not invidious but glorious. Jews are still privileged to be charged to “seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.


Naomi Riley: The Traditional Family is Key


One of the more startling charts in the Pew Forum’s 2013 Portrait of the American Jewish Population showed responses to the question: “What’s essential to being Jewish?” Even among those who identified themselves as Jewish by religion—that is, not only by ancestry or culture—more chose “having a good sense of humor” over “being part of a Jewish community” or “observing Jewish law”; also high on the list were “working for justice and equality” and “being intellectually curious.” That Jewish priorities are mainly indistinguishable from those of any upper-middle-class American these days is a problem—and Eric Cohen is to be commended for providing a substantive agenda for rethinking those priorities.

In some ways, his most difficult target may be renewing the traditional Jewish family. (Example: a Jewish group recently rescinded an honor to a prominent pastor and staunch supporter of Israel because he does not support gay marriage.) It is almost universally true today that fewer people are getting married, and those who do so marry later and have fewer children. Given that marriage and birth have traditionally been a signal for young people to strengthen their religious commitments, these patterns do not bode well for Jewish life.

Unfortunately, it is also true that Jewish parents, educators, and leaders have been reluctant to talk about marriage and family in the terms that other American religious groups do—that is, early and often. Much of the Jewish conversation in this area has focused on intermarriage, with reason. But if (as a survey of my own shows) intermarriage is directly correlated with later marriage, why aren’t we talking to young Jews about dating and marriage in youth groups and day schools and at Hillel? The problem is wrapped up in Jewish parents’ competing desires to ensure (a) that their children explore every educational and career opportunity before settling down and (b) that there be grandchildren. It is the latter impulse, though, that tends to guide conversations about marriage—if we even have them.

On the brighter side, more highly educated Americans, including Jews, tend to be more committed to the traditional family. While Cohen correctly notes the role of sexual permissiveness and even nihilistic impulses in reducing the size of families, the lack of Jewish energy to be fruitful and multiply may owe more to procrastination than to some purposeful revolt. Among Jews in suburban New York City, one hears that “three is the new two”; and among single young adults whom I’ve interviewed, children are something that will definitely happen—albeit in the indefinite future.

In other words, there is still a sense of joy associated with the idea of the traditional family; if that can help provide a foundation for the spirit of Jewish conservatism, so much the better.

Naomi Riley, formerly an editor at the Wall Street Journal, writes widely on higher education, religion, philanthropy and culture.


Jon D. Levenson: What Jewish Ideology Can Learn from Ancient Theology


In “The Spirit of Jewish Conservatism,” Eric Cohen makes a carefully reasoned, exceptionally eloquent, and, in my view, largely convincing case for a new direction in Jewish political thinking. Given that political focus, Cohen understandably seeks to lay out what he calls “a unifying ideology . . . that might constitute a rough consensus” for “a big-tent community of values and ideas.” In so doing, he necessarily plays down theological concerns, even as he seeks to elicit support for his political agenda from authoritative religious texts. Here my own focus will be on the cost of that move, with the biblical book of Joshua as the example.

Cohen, reading Joshua “as a work of political thought,” finds in it five “pillars of Jewish sovereignty”: “national memory,” “a particular land,” “a spirit of justice,” “a clear political founding,” and “the willingness to wage war when might alone can save us.” To be sure, he readily acknowledges that “Joshua and his men did horrifying things,” but he sees these as the inevitable costs of war, analogous to those paid by statesmen like Lincoln, Churchill, and Ben-Gurion.

What Joshua is reported to have done, however, is actually something akin to genocide. In Jericho, for instance, his forces “exterminated everything in the city with the sword: man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and ass” (6:21), with the exception of the prostitute Rahab, who had aided the Israelite spies, and her family. The victims do not fall into the category of collateral damage; Cohen’s modern analogies are weak.

In the Bible, the Israelite invasion and conquest of Canaan narrated in Joshua is mostly presented as a unique event; it should not be seen as the biblical paradigm for all warfare, Jewish or other. In rabbinic literature, one finds efforts to soften the ethical horror of these bloody campaigns. Joshua, we are told, actually gave the Canaanites the unhappy choice of emigrating, making peace, or joining war. Archaeologically informed historians now generally doubt that the invasion and conquest of Canaan ever took place; they prefer other models, more social and political than military, for the emergence of Israel.

But if the story is not historical, why is it there?

Probably the most convincing answer is that the book of Joshua was composed for purposes of religious instruction. The real enemy was not the long-vanished Canaanite nations; it was the tendency among the Israelites themselves to worship other gods, or their own God with less than wholehearted devotion or in ways that the authors found deviant and dangerous. And if that is so, then the book is not about state-formation at all—at the end, in fact, the Israelites have no state—but about the exclusive claims of their covenantal lord and the lethal danger of neglecting those obligations.

Apart from any historical reconstruction, it is also plain that the book regards the God of Israel, not the armies, as the source of the people’s victories. In his final summation, Joshua quotes the Lord as telling Israel that the land has been won “not by your sword or by your bow” but by divine intervention. The Israelites hold lands, towns, vineyards, and olive orchards by divine gift, not by their own labors (24:12–13). As in the Bible generally, the book of Joshua is not about Jewish sovereignty; it is about divine sovereignty.

I happily concede that to make these ideas the basis of political thinking is problematic in the extreme. But if, as has been said, “politics is downstream from culture,” and culture is inextricably entwined with religion, then Jewish political thinkers can profit from a more sustained look upstream to the theology of the ancient sources.

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List professor of Jewish studies at Harvard. His new book, The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism, will be published by Princeton in October.


Eric Yoffie: Judaism Is Not Conservative (or Liberal)


Judaism is not conservative. A Jewish conservative trying to argue that Judaism is by nature conservative is just as pathetic as a Jewish liberal trying to argue that Judaism is by nature liberal.

Judaism is neither. It is a complex religious system that has sustained a people for three millennia by offering elaborate norms of ritual and ethical behavior and a vast compendium of legal deliberation and philosophical speculation, much of which is openly contradictory. As a Jew, one can make a case for conservative values, rooted in power, a cautious temperament, and militant national assertiveness; and one can make a case for liberal values, attempting to merge national aspirations with universal concerns. Jews have been having this argument since the beginning of Jewish history, but neither side is entitled to claim that its approach is the “authentic” one.

Eric Cohen argues for Jewish conservatism, asserting that liberalism is the enemy and that it has diluted the Jewish family, weakened the economy, undermined nationalism, and threatened Zionism. But his fundamental premise reflects not Jewish reality but his own ideological preferences.

I am a liberal. While I differ with Cohen’s economics, I welcome strong Jewish families, affirm the riches of the Jewish tradition, believe in an activist America, and approve of a muscular Jewish nationalism. Cohen is misreading the liberalism of American Jews when he describes it as an ominous threat, right alongside militant Islam and militant secularism. Yes, American Jews are pretty liberal, but they are a centrist and sensible bunch, and for most of them, Cohen’s destructive liberalism is a caricature.

His discussion of Israel is painfully off-base. He is right that Israel needs to be tough and strong, especially now, with the threat of Iran looming. But Zionism calls for an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic, and the occupation of millions of Palestinians threatens its democratic character. Somehow, this issue must be confronted. Yet Cohen does not mention “democracy” as a principle of Jewish sovereignty; to him it is apparently unimportant, an obsession of the appeasement-oriented liberals. He has forgotten that for the Zionist founders, from Jabotinsky to Ben-Gurion, a non-democratic Israel was unimaginable.

Cohen also misreads religion. Liberal Judaism has not failed, but it is struggling. So is Orthodoxy, however. I welcome a strong Orthodox community, but Diaspora Orthodoxy thrives primarily in the New York area. Its greatest growth, by far, is among the ultra-Orthodox, who are mostly poor and shun the American mainstream. Jewish conservatism cannot be built on their backs.

I join Yoram Hazony and Meir Soloveichik in calling for more text, tradition, and mitzvot. Jewish conservatism is not really Jewish without them. Still, they are wrong to assume that careful scrutiny of texts will always pull Jews in a conservative direction. Our tradition is not socialist, but much of it is truly radical. Cohen, for example, misunderstands the meaning of the jubilee year, which is not about rest but about preventing excessive concentrations of power by periodically returning property to its original owners.

Finally, Cohen subjects modern liberalism to careful scrutiny but fails to do the same for modern conservatism. American conservatism has an ugly side that includes voter suppression and contempt for immigrants. Cohen quotes Jonathan Sacks but omits that, according to Sacks, governments must provide health care to their citizens; it need not be Obamacare, but it must offer reasonable care to all. Yet for half a century, American conservatives—with the honorable exception of Richard Nixon, who was not a real conservative—have ferociously fought liberal plans for health insurance while offering none of their own.

I believe there is a place for a robust, energetic Jewish conservatism. But it must be bold, honest, and truly Jewish. And it must combine the humane values of Jewish tradition with a searching appraisal of modern conservatism’s failings. Eric Cohen makes a valiant attempt, but this is not what he gives us; what he gives us is a pale imitation of the deeply flawed conservatism that already exists.

Eric Yoffie, a Reform rabbi, served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm in North America, from 1996 t0 2012.


Shalom Carmy: Judaism and Capitalism—A Complex Relationship


Eric Cohen is right to highlight what traditional Judaism can and must contribute to the defense of traditional morality, especially with respect to the family. Though Orthodoxy is firmly rooted in obedience to divine revelation, it is incumbent upon us to find common language with others and to translate the goals and ideals of Torah into language that those who do not share that commitment can identify with.

I endorse Cohen’s rejection of “liberal utopianism, which shrinks from hard-headed recognition of what is required for Jewish self-defense” and “liberal universalism, which deprecates or censures particular attachments and the national claims of (certain) particular peoples.” However, to use the one-time only ethos of Joshua as a contemporary model goes against halakhah and is also guilty of the very utopianism Cohen deplores in current liberalism. A hard-headed realism about the unredeemed world we live in, coupled with an uncompromising critique of the double standard applied to Israel, would be more plausible and authentic.

I am not sure what Cohen expects Judaism to say in the economic realm. If he means to reject liberal utopianism, or the dismissal of individual accountability in order to promote reliance on government intervention while marginalizing and usurping the role of civil society and the initiatives of righteous individuals, then I am with him all the way. Yet classical Judaism no more preaches textbook capitalism than it does socialism, and the proper balance between public works and individual benevolence in our society is not clear.

Cohen’s example of the free market in the teaching profession is the halakhic exception; in general, halakhah seeks to protect established workers against intrusions on their turf. This orientation is not surprising for a religion that values the dignity of the individual without respect to his or her success at economic optimization or even satisficing; that regards material acquisition as a means to spiritual pursuits rather than an end in itself; and that does not seem to care about economic expansion.

The social and economic spheres, more than any other area, provide an arena where Cohen’s call for interaction between representatives and scholars of Torah, on the one hand, and informed secular social scientists and thinkers, on the other hand, is exciting and potentially fructifying.

“The judgments of God are faithful and justified together” (Psalms 19:10). There is a danger of one-sidedness, distortion and simple error in marketing snippets of Jewish ideas. Even greater is the danger of isolating these doctrines from the service of God that is their foundation and goal. Nonetheless, the present state of society, both in Israel and in the West, mandates the kind of program that Cohen advocates. Traditional Jews cannot stand idly by, nor can Torah fully speak to the challenges of our age, without such engagement.

Shalom Carmy teaches Bible and Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University and is an affiliated scholar at the university’s Cardozo law school. He is also the editor of Tradition, a journal of Orthodox thought.


Coming tomorrow: Ruth Gavison, Wilfred McClay, Micah Goodman, Yoav Sorek, David Ellenson, Ira Stoll, and George Weigel.

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