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Liberal Ideals Can Strengthen, Not Weaken, Judaism
And the Jewish faith’s emphasis on mitzvah is an antidote to self-absorbed individualism
The last decade or so has seen a worldwide revival of religious nationalism in liberal democracies, including Christian nationalism in the U.S., Hungary, and other Eastern European countries; Hindu nationalism in India; Jewish nationalism in Israel (that seeks not merely to provide a safe haven for Jews, but to impose Jewish practices on all Jews and drive out non-Jews); and, perhaps most bizarrely, Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar. The countries that sought to counter Islamist theocracies with liberalism, such as India, are now flirting with their own illiberal religious regimes.
Political movements usually emerge from social discontents—but they grow and flourish only when nourished with ideas. A generation of public intellectuals has emerged in each country to do just that and defend religious nationalism. Overnight in the U.S. and the West, a new ideology called National Conservatism has sprouted that considers liberalism—with its stubborn insistence on separating church and state and on grounding morality in the individual conscience—Public Enemy Number One. The champions of this ideology, such as the University of Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen, argue that liberalism’s promise that it won’t interfere with robust expressions of faith is a sham. At best, they claim, liberalism tolerates only anemic and highly secularized exercises that are pale imitations—and even downright distortions—of the true faith.
But viewing liberalism and religion as implacable foes doesn’t merely misunderstand liberalism; it also misunderstands religion. Religion serves two main purposes: It offers adherents personal meaning—telos—to be sure, but it also provides moral guidance for living in harmony with others despite differences and disagreements. The latter is a big part of the liberal project, and therefore every religion inevitably has some liberal, humanist elements at its core too.
At a time when religious nationalisms are using their faith to push rigid dogmas in order to mobilize sectarian impulses, it is absolutely vital that we retrieve and revive this liberal core. To that end, The UnPopulist is launching a series today inviting an adherent, scholar or theologian of each of the major religions to reflect on the liberal elements that animate their faith and even argue that by being a good liberal, one also becomes a better member of one’s faith.
We are kicking off the series with a deeply erudite and elegant essay on Judaism by the Jerusalem-based Elliott Malamet. A scholar of English literature who taught Jewish thought in Canada for decades, Malamet explores the tensions between Judaism and Enlightenment modernity, but notes that, ultimately, the liberal commitment to freedom of thought and rational inquiry is indispensable for understanding the true nature of the faith itself.
This series was conceived before the horrific events of Oct. 7 in Israel. But those events make this essay by Malamet, who, despite the turmoil around him, was undeterred from working with us on multiple drafts, even more poignant—and valuable.
Shikha Dalmia, Editor-in-Chief
If liberalism can be described as a philosophy of individual rights and freedoms, such as freedom of religion and equality before the law, in which the governed must first offer consent to those who rule over them, then Judaism, especially in its more conservative and ultra-Orthodox iterations, would appear to be very much out of alignment with this ideology. As the philosopher Hannah Hashkes noted not long ago:
Religion places restrictions upon individual freedom in all senses of this term. It restricts behavior by establishing structures of authority, it is based upon a fixed set of beliefs, and it interferes with individual self-determination. ... Jewish practice is particularly restrictive and all-inclusive.
Hashkes’ comments reveal the fault line in any discussion of Judaism and liberalism. Contemporary Jews are, in the main, utterly committed to the basic tenets of liberal autonomy and rights, and yet to some extent, still wish to participate in collectives of faith and Jewish identification, which are often expressed not through submission to a higher authority, but through observance of the more prosaic strictures of Jewish law or communal custom.
Can the two sets of values co-exist? Can faith survive liberalism if liberalism is, at best, indifferent to faith, even as it makes space for faith within the modern emporium of choices? And can liberalism’s individual freedoms and self-evident argument for autonomy play a helpful role within a calling to faith?
Faith’s Niche in the Modern Emporium
The answers to these questions, as one might expect, are complex and varied, but regardless of the nuances, certain truths have emerged from the onset of the 20th century that provide contours for the discourse about faith and liberalism. In 1918, sociologist Max Weber captured the essence of changing religious attitudes in modern life, observing, “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.” Weber defined such rationalization as the idea “that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.”
In the past, people took for granted the notion of God, the soul, an afterlife, and, yes, fairies and angels and demons. But today? God? OK. The soul? Maybe. Angels and demons? Well, they might be as real as soap and fire hydrants for some people, but we, as moderns, regularly reproach each other for indulging in “myth” or “giving way to fantasy.”
A disenchantment with the world combined with a scientific or technocratic approach to problem-solving are hallmarks of modernity in general, and not liberalism in particular. But Weber’s conception of the calculating and considering self as the sole arbiter of what constitutes the real, and of the shift from the universe as a divine realm of awe to a problem to be explained by science, signifies a fundamental change regarding the question of authority. This attitude thus connects broadly with liberalism’s emphasis on freedom of religion, as well as its suspicion of imposing the received commands of a “higher power,” be it a cosmic entity or simply that of a state religion. Religion can no longer assume any form of automatic deference, but rather must itself be authorized by us, with all of the attendant implications for its gravitas. As Rabbi Michael Wasserman has described it, “If truths are claims that we can rest on, then our truths, to the extent that we are masters of them, are not truths at all. They are, in the end, words that we say to ourselves.” The irony of post-modern faith, then, is that if we refuse to cede authority to a higher power, and thus screen all truths through our own filter, we will paradoxically never fully trust the truths that we authorize, knowing that in the end, they are projections of our own, human vantage points.
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Jews, among other sets of believers, now exist in the “afterwards,” the remnants of a taken-for-granted faith that was barely conscious of itself in pre-modernity and is now operating in a deeply fragmented, highly self-conscious mode. To choose faith today, is just that—a choice, as opposed to a given or inevitable result of one’s milieu and cultural inheritances. The shift has been remarked upon by many key figures in the modern discourse of religion, from sociologist Peter Berger, who called this “the movement from fate to choice,” to philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who described the result bleakly in his book After Virtue: “We possess simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions [such as “right and wrong”]. But we have—very largely, if not entirely—lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.”
Macintyre’s dystopia finds an interesting parallel in the changing arc of modern Judaism. The package of tenets and moral imperatives that were taken for granted by pre-modern Jewry, if rarely ruminated upon—belief in God both as Creator and Redeemer; Jewish chosenness; the Torah as a divine document; the binding nature of halacha (Jewish law)—has given way to various bits and pieces of Jewish seeking and practice. In an age of modern liberalism, Judaisms abound: cultural affiliations like eating Jewish food or celebrating Jewish comedians and artists; political identifications like Zionism or left or right-wing American politics; or adaptations of core Jewish religious practices, such as the phenomenon of “tech Shabbat,” in which people stop looking at screens for 24 hours from the onset of Friday night, but don’t otherwise observe the traditional restrictions of Shabbat.
Judaism Outside the Delicatessen—and the Fortress Walls
These hybrid forms of Jewish faith are in many ways perfectly compatible with liberalism’s ideals of private expression and noncoercion. But from the point of view of the survival and thriving of North American Judaism, the picture is far more complex.
The operative and nonnegotiable standards of what a Jewish life meant for thousands of years—Jewish inmarriage; maintaining a kosher home; keeping a halachic Shabbat—are not a priority for many North American Jews. Given the choice between deserting liberalism and forsaking the faith, the decision has already been made. It is John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau who are the rabbis in charge, not Maimonides and Rabbi Akiva. At the other extreme are the ever-defiant resisters of the zeitgeist: ultra-Orthodox Jews, for whom the solution lies in simply thickening the walls of their cultural fortress to repel the modern invader and liberal pluralist contamination at all costs.
The question then becomes whether a third alternative exists between a ghettoized Jewish community that shuts out modernity and a watered-down “Judaism.” Perhaps the answer for those wishing to retain a substantive Jewish faith free of fortress life lies in viewing liberalism neither as a threat to be parried nor a messiah to be embraced, but rather as a source of ideas that could actually elevate one’s Jewish faith.
To begin with, the modern liberal mindset can teach the believer to take seriously the possibility of other possibilities. Just because I believe in a Jewish vision and praxis does not make my belief an automatic truth. This was put succinctly by the modern Jewish philosopher Eliezer Berkovitz:
That Torah is ’from heaven,’ so I believe: but I cannot help recognizing that the fact that I so believe does not make my belief a faith that is itself from heaven. The Torah is from heaven, but my faith that it is so is not; neither is my interpretation of the meaning and consequences of that faith from heaven.
For the 12th century philosopher Maimonides, Jewish believers have a sacred responsibility not to turn away from reasonable arguments just because they seem to threaten one’s outlook on religion. In his introduction to the Guide of the Perplexed, published in 1190, Maimonides reviews the potential catastrophe for one who feels he must reject human progress and advances in thinking in the name of dogmatic but erroneous beliefs (in this case Biblical literalism): “He would be left with those imaginary beliefs to which he owes his fear and difficulty and would not cease to suffer from heartache and great perplexity.”
Eventually, Maimonides infers, not only would the unreasoning believer suffer emotional distress, but would also be prone to a disavowal of, and defection from, the faith. A primary example of rejecting biblical literalism came in Maimonides’ consistent reinterpretation of any instance where the biblical text suggests divine corporeality. That God had a body was widely accepted in the Middle Ages, but for Maimonides this belief was unacceptable because it conceived of God as simply a bigger, stronger version of us. That crossed a theological red line which portended a complete disintegration of the monotheism upon which Judaism is founded. Maimonides recognized that “God is One” equals divine uniqueness, which would be completely subverted by a god with arms and legs and a voice.
Liberal values can help inform a biblical understanding of just action as well. Although the Bible certainly has commandments that speak to the need for human dignity and equality, such as the injunctions to love “your neighbor” and “the stranger,” these seemingly modern mores are soberly countered by much with which liberals would feel more than uncomfortable: for example, mandating the death penalty for sexual relations between men and the mass killing of non-Jewish populaces who occupy the Land of Canaan. Thus the contemporary values of equality and fairness, as well as liberalism’s advocacy for the dignity of the individual, may be the very recipe that religion requires in an age of extremist violence and the inability to listen to others. What seem like challenges to Judaism may in fact be great aids to faith. For Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine, such a proposition was a deep spiritual reality. In Arpalei Tohar, he wrote:
From the perspective of the higher divine truth there is no difference whatsoever between conventional religious belief and heresy. Neither of them offers the truth. But from our point of view [that of the traditional Jew] belief appears closer to the truth and heresy to falsehood, and we therefore see good and evil as deriving from these two opposites. … But with respect to the light of the Infinite One, all is the same. Heresy too is the manifestation of a life-force, encompassing a higher illumination within it.
The spiritual humility which Rabbi Kook is advocating seems to dovetail with a particularly modern pluralist hesitation to affirm beliefs with total certainty. It is not Rabbi Kook’s faith in a Jewish truth which is in question, but rather that he recognizes the limits of human cognition and claims to a higher understanding, which should commend us to allow for alternate conceptions, something that was also argued by the late Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book The Dignity of Difference:
Truth on the ground is multiple, partial. Fragments of it lie everywhere. Each person, culture and language has part of it; none has it all. Truth on earth is not, nor can it aspire to be, the whole truth. … In heaven there is truth; on earth there are truths.
In fact, Rabbi Kook might well have incorporated liberalism as a central component of faith. In Orot Ha’emunah, he states:
There is a heresy that amounts to an affirmation of faith, and an affirmation of faith that amounts to heresy. How so? A person may affirm that the Torah is from “heaven,” but the picture of “heaven” that he envisions is so weird that nothing of true faith remains. And how might heresy amount to affirmation of faith? [When] a person denies [belief in] Torah from heaven, but his denial is based on what he has absorbed of the picture of heaven construed by minds filled with ludicrous and nonsensical thoughts, … this `heresy’ is akin to affirmation of faith and it progresses towards affirmation of faith at its root.
If “heresy” can amount to an affirmation of faith, then liberalism’s freedom of thought can indeed serve Jewish believers.
Judaism and Liberalism: Meaning and Freedom
Perhaps a liberal reading audience might now consider how Judaism could benefit liberalism.
Are there purposes that might transcend even the cherished values of freedom and rights? Surely it is a lack of purposefulness that at the end of the day afflicts the souls of many moderns. A remarkable book on humanitarianism, An Imperfect Offering, highlights the kind of paradigms that represent a new vision of Jewish identity. On July 3, 1994, one of the final days of the Rwandan Genocide, in a hospital in Kigali, Dr. James Orbinski was amputating the leg of a 14 year-old boy who had stepped on a land mine. There were no instruments left for this procedure; all the hospital’s surgical blades were broken. The only available tool was a hacksaw.
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As Orbinski writes in the book, he shaved off the boy’s leg above the knee and then stitched and shaped the tissue. The boy’s leg was gone, but he was alive. “It was,” says Orbinski, “an imperfect offering.” Indeed, “all we have are imperfect offerings,” writes Orbinski, “with imperfect outcomes.”
What compelled him to undertake a life of difficult and “imperfect service”? At the age of nine, living in Montreal, Orbinski saw a television program on the Holocaust with images of bodies and arms with tattooed numbers. The next day, his mother took him to the Jewish section of the city to buy him new shoes. A very kind old man helped him with the shoes, and Orbinski, who is not Jewish, noticed the number on the man’s arm. As Orbinski grew older, he knew that what he wanted to do was to help alleviate the suffering of others. Orbinksi speaks of something he calls “living your question,” which he defines as entering into what really draws you in life, what calls you.
In a life of Jewish faith, that “question” must include self-transcendence. Jewish life revolves around the practice of mitzvah, and while this word has often been translated into English as “good deed,” it in fact derives from the Hebrew root for “command.” Judaism can teach modern liberals that obligations are as central as freedoms, and that a life focused only on the rights of self will lead to narcissism. Without the purposefulness provided by serving others, the self often becomes virtually the only magnet of our actions, and a dispiriting self-absorption inevitably follows.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein movingly wrote: “An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it.”
Faith is not science. There are no “proofs” for God or angels or souls. But that does not mean that Jewish faith and the particular message that mitzvah has for the denizens of liberal democracies cannot play a vital role in the age of liberalism. Liberalism, in turn, can play a significant role in reengaging Jewish faith both for believers and skeptics alike, in reminding us of what is at stake when we eschew rational thinking and the sacred call of fairness and human equality.
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