In his March 10 New York Times column, “The Limits of Relativism,” David Brooks explains his recent turn away from politics and policy and towards a focus on spirituality and morality. “It’s in part because we won’t have social repair unless we are more morally articulate,” he writes, “unless we have clearer definitions of how we should be behaving at all levels.”
Brooks’ turn has been heavily influenced by an unlikely source, the towering 20th century Modern Orthodox leader Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Several recent Brooks efforts have approvingly cited Soloveitchik’s 1965 essay, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” in contexts ranging from then-NY Knicks breakout star Jeremy Lin to a 2014 TED Talk.
One column describes his impression of a Brooklyn kosher supermarket:
For the people who shop at Pomegranate…obedience to the laws is the primary obligation. They go shopping like the rest of us, but their shopping is minutely governed by an external moral order. The laws, in this view, make for a decent society. They give structure to everyday life. They infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance. They build community. They regulate desires.
Tellingly, the language Brooks employs to describe the shoppers tracks almost precisely with Soloveitchik’s depiction of “Halakhic Man,” the prime archetype and hero of his 1944 essay and worldview :
When [he] approaches reality, he comes with his Torah, given to him from Sinai, in hand. He orients himself to the world by means of fixed statutes and firm principles. An entire corpus of precepts and laws guides him along the path leading to existence.
However, when Brooks applies his new, Soloveitchik-tinted focus to the issues of poverty and social inequality, it turns out that he can not offer solutions so much as render judgments. For those of us who value Modern Orthodox discourse, this is greatly concerning.
In “The Limits of Relativism,” Brooks discusses the findings of Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids,” noting that nearly 70% of children born to non-college graduates live in single-parent households, as opposed to only 10% of those born to college graduates. Furthermore:
High School-educated parents dine with their children less than college-educated parents, read to them less, talk to them less, take them to church less, encourage them less and spend less time engaging in developmental activity.
The result, Brooks writes is “multiple generations of people caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown,” for which more than a policy solution is required. Instead, we need to reintroduce “norms.”
Perhaps thinking back to Pomegranate, Brooks laments that, “there are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.” In American life, these norms have been largely “destroyed in a plague of nonjudgmentalism,” but Brooks is only too happy to bring back the judgment. For example, his 2014 column, “The Inequality Problem,” argues that particular “behaviors” among the poor, in particular single-motherhood, damage long-term income prospects by “fraying” the social fabric.
In fact, though, the phenomena that Brooks describes are the results of poverty, not the causes of it. In other words, Brooks is blaming the victims. In a direct response to Brooks, The New Republic’s Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig cites multiple studies that indicate how “reducing poverty through infusions of cash appears to correct many of the behaviors poor people are regularly maligned for, including neglectful parenting and unhealthy lifestyles…”
Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi argues that Brooks’ tendency to adopt a language of judgement and blame demonstrates a lack of empathy.
It’s impossible to have empathy without contact. It’s easy to blame someone you’ve never met. Not one of us is perfect in this area, but you have to at least try, and it doesn’t seem like David tries.
This is a significant critique, as it mirrors one of the central critiques of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s legalistic worldview.
In their 2011 “The God Who Hates Lies,” David Hartman and Charlie Buckholtz highlight a dramatic moment at the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) Convention of 1975. Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman, then Provost of Yeshiva University and Rabbi of Manhattan’s prestigious Fifth Avenue Synagogue, proposed a daringly innovative solution to the plight of agunot, women “trapped” in failed marriages while their estranged husbands withheld the get (writ of divorce) they would need to remarry in order to extort favorable settlement terms – if not from pure spite.
Rackman proposed extending a rarely-utilized Talmudic precedent giving rabbis certain rights to abrogate a marriage, based on the assumption that if a woman knew that her partner was capable of such cruelty and insensitivity, she would never have married him in the first place.
Soloveitchik forcefully responded to Rackman in his own address to the Convention. His rebuttal centered on a Talmudic assumption (hazaqah) that a woman would rather be married, even to a grossly unsuitable partner, than to not be married at all. He stated:
..The hazaqos (assumptions) which the traditional sages have introduced, are indestructible. For the hazaqos which the Rabbis spoke of rest not on trenchant psychological patterns, but upon permanent ontological principles rooted in the very depth of the human personality – in the metaphysical human personality – which is as changeless as the heavens above…because it’s not a psychological fact; it’s an existential fact.
As a result, Soloveitchik argued, it is impossible to annul even a broken marriage because all women, by definition, really prefer even this hopeless situation to being single. Soloveitchik’s opposition carried the day, and Rackman emigrated to Israel two years later to become President of Bar Ilan University. His solution for agunot was never again seriously considered in mainstream Orthodox circles.
For Hartman and Buckholtz, Soloveitchik’s victory represented a defeat for reality itself, claiming that he was actually asking his audience to see contemporary, empowered women as unchanged from their talmudic-era predecessors, insisting that their own lived experience must give way to a 4th century assumption. They note the attractiveness of working within “an eternally valid system, offering the security of one who stands outside of history. But it is a security born from blindness…a denial of what one sees and knows.”
The Soloveitchik-Rackman confrontation still reverberates powerfully in Modern Orthodox debates, in particular around the evolving role of women in public religious life. But it is worth pointing out that if a closed, ahistorical halakhic system is attractive and secure, then so is a closed, ahistorical sociology. There is not much difference between insisting that all women would rather be married and insisting that broken, low-income homes are the result of poor morals. Both are assumptions and generalizations about people in distress, rather than first-hand knowledge of the people, themselves.
Soloveitchik never “judged” women for making bad choices, though he felt their “existential” nature potentially doomed them to life as an agunah. Brooks, though, does take that extra step. He holds poor people at fault for making choices that create ongoing cycles of poverty that “society,” ie, people like himself, are powerless to halt.
It is no coincidence that Brooks’ turn towards morality and spirituality has coincided with several appearances in prominent synagogues and collaborations with leaders including Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Meir Soloveichik and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. As Pew Research confirmed, the American Modern Orthodox community is affluent, educated, and politically to the center-right – Brooks’ core demographic, and the people he knows best.
We should generally be concerned when a leading public intellectual conveys such little empathy for the unjust suffering of real people. We should be especially concerned when, in the process, he is so clearly and articulately speaking our language.