How A Jew should Look at American Politics

The Power of American Culture

American Jews live in a Medina shel Chesed – a country of kindness. American Jews have done well and feel at home. Other than on college campuses, the average American Jew does not experience anti-Semitism as a part of their daily life.  Yes, Louis Farrakhan still runs wild.  But, the average American Jew does not walk on the streets frightened that he or she will be attacked just because of his or her Jewishness.

But America is not just a ‘kind home’. The values of American society are more impactful on the Jewish paradigm than anything we Jews have ever experienced in our history, and that includes Hellenism. No wall can prevent the values of the broader society from seeping into our bones, and filtering past our consciousness. If we do not invest significant efforts in understanding an authentic Jewish position to multiple issues and values, we will naturally think like the broader environment around us, or whatever flavor (Republican or Democrat) suits our pallet.

The Phenomenal Success of the Western World

There is a good reason for this. American society inherited the mantle as leader of the Western World. Since at least the 15th Century, the Western World has been successful in so many ways. Today we have health care in a way unimaginable at earlier times and we have cures for so many diseases. We have electric lights, air conditioning, cars and planes. We have dramatically reduced infant and maternal mortality, and children are now better fed, better educated, and less abused. Workers make more money, are injured less frequently, and retire earlier.  In the Western world, fewer people are poor, and there are significant social welfare nets. Life expectancy has been rising, and accidental deaths (car crashes, lightning strikes) are in steep decline. We have substantially more leisure time. A fair system of justice has been set up; there is democracy, freedom and equality.

The Great Progress of Western Man in Values

 

But it is not just at a level of medicine, technology, and wealth that the West has been so successful. Despite the differences between Judaism and Western values, the Western world has come closer to Judaism than anything in the history of the world. Some use terms like the Judeo-Christian ethic in a desire to conflate two civilizations into one.

The whole movement towards equality, liberty and universal human rights are an astonishing leap toward some of our most cherished values about man. Corruption is kept to a minimum. Overall, everyone, including the President, is accountable.

Where did this come from?

The great political philosophers of the eighteenth century – and there are many of them – provided a secular, humanistic alternative to Judaism (all be it that they all believed in God and did not intend for a total secularization of Europe). Voltaire, Hobbes, Locke, Diderot, Hugo Grotius, Jeremy Bentham and so many others provided an incredibly profound set of ideas of how a society could be built based on the dignity of man, equality, democracy, and universal human rights. When this wave finally brought down the ghetto walls, Jews embraced the world around them in droves, usually at the expense of their Jewish identity and practice.

Principles of Selfishness and Pleasure

Western society is based on a few big ideas. Perhaps the most important is the principle of utilitarianism, created by Jeremy Bentham and later on by John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism says that society’s job is to produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And the definition of good here means happiness, so really the rule is to act to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. It is therefore just a doctrine of advanced hedonism, and John Stuart Mill acknowledged his indebtedness to Epicurus, who was the original proponent of hedonism. Translated in Democracy, the legislator is meant to represent the majority’s wishes; in other words to advance the greatest happiness of the majority, (while protecting the minority). Both Republicans and the Democrats agree to this principle.  This is a principle of how most people in the world can be selfish and still get on with each other.  “How can I be selfish, without messing up your selfishness?”

And they give this fancy names. They call it “enlightened self-interest.” Self-interest is a code name for selfishness. Enlightened presumes that I am sophisticated and cultured about my selfishness – that I will sometimes help others, but only really because it benefits me in the long run. To this we must add the harm principle, which is a code name for saying that I must not bother your selfishness.

The type of capitalism that America proposes is really based on this idea of enlightened self-interest. If you leave everybody to be as selfish as possible (i.e. don’t interfere with the markets), it will produce the greatest benefit to society as a whole (i.e. the economy will grow). It is a principle that is built into the world, as they see it.  

And that became the great American dream, the land of opportunity. Everybody who worked hard could make it (= an ideal of selfishness) and the rugged individual (totally self-centered). Trekking across the prairies became the symbol of American heroism. In addition, the dream to succeed was couched in purely financial terms. The land of opportunity was not for self-fulfillment in a moral, spiritual or character sense; it was not for moral development; it was not for anything that we talk about when we talk about the opportunity to fulfill your potential. It was to make money. “What’s he worth” became the way of assessing the value of another human.

This is why American society puts the stress on rights rather than duties. The question is always, “What do I get”, not what can I give. The American Constitution is basically telling us what is owed to us as citizens – we have the right to arms, to express ourselves freely or to keep silent, etc. The Torah, on the other hand is a Bill of Duties. We want to know what G-d wants from us, not what we can get out of the system.  When somebody does a Mitzvah we say: Tizkeh L’Mitzvot. What we mean is that, in the merit of fulfilling this Mitzvah, the person should merit to have more chiuvim (a mitzvah is a chiyuv). Our starting point is the privilege of duties, of being obligated.  It is a fundamental difference between a Jewish and an  American approach to things.

Some try to show how all the great principles of the Western world came from Judaism and indeed a lot do. Universal human rights is based on the idea that all human life is intrinsically value, which in turn is drawn from the idea that man is made in the Image of God  (Tzelem Elokim). 

In the Foot heals of the Messiah and the Moralization of the Nations.

From the time of the saintly Chafetz Chaim, there appears to be a consensus that we are in the final pre-Messianic era of history. Whether this is Ikveta Demshicha or an even later period called Itchalta DeGeula makes no difference to the argument here. What is important is that the Sages anticipated that this era would provide the most profound and powerful alternative to Judaism. For this is a time when the final clarification of authentic spirituality must take place. The stronger the alternative, the greater the final insight.

In the Messianic era, all anti-Torah values won’t be simply destroyed. They will be transformed. They will become a part of the good. We will know (- and there will be a universal consensus-) how to channel capitalism and socialism and rugged individualism and so many other values into the Jewish paradigm. All that energy we see in American society will be harnessed into revealing God’s oneness.

Democrats and Republicans

Overall, both Democrats and Republicans are operating within the consensus of Western values we described above. In bottom line values, the differences between the Republicans and the Democrats are small. The might be couched in mighty terms like internationalism verse nationalism (America first), but looked at from the outside their common language is far greater than their differences. The arguments about the environment or abortion or gun control are all done within the consensus. Overall, the differences between the parties are very small: a little bit more taxation, a little bit less; a little bit more governmental influence, a little bit less; a little bit more pro-immigration, a little bit less. Barak Obama would have been within the consensus of most French presidents or Belgium, Dutch, Swedish or Finnish prime ministers. Trump is way to the left of the European right wing parties. In America, it’s all just a question of degree.

Secondly, and more substantially, in my opinion, the general trend in American society, for as long as I have been tracking it, is that there are liberal and then conservative swings back and forth over each period of a few years. But, the conservative swing, in reaction to a prior liberal swing, never restores things to where they were before. The end result is that even at the end of a conservative swing, comes backlash – the overall position of American society is still more liberal than it was before. So, positions having to do with gay rights, the definition of marriage, abortion, euthanasia, after all the swings back and forth, is in a liberal direction. The most significant of these issues is the value of the family as a core and centerpiece of Western society. A half a century ago, there was a much greater alignment between the average sensitive Jewish person, than today. The gradual erosion of marriage and family is the single greatest values clash between Judaism and contemporary society.

It seems so novel to say that Americans are operating out of the same culture when they are so passionate about their disagreements. Vociferous debates about gun control, abortion, the death penalty, taxation, illegal immigration, emission levels and all kinds of other issues are daily bread and butter for talk show hosts and millions of others.

But all of this passion takes place within a specific Western paradigm. Even socialists like Bernie Sanders are only addressing the undeniable widening gap between the rich and poor and claiming that raw capitalism on its own (the trickle-down effect) will not solve this.  The Sanders agenda is single-payer universal health care, equal rights for women and ethnic and sexual minorities, a fifteen-dollar minimum wage and guaranteed employment. It may well be that Bernie Sanders is more consistent with Torah-principles than other approaches. Without a close look at Jewish values we cannot know. Without a search through authentic sources, we cannot begin the discussion.

It is a lot of work to tease out an authentic Jewish response to each issue. Has the #MeToo movement brought society closer to Judaism or further away? What about the recognition of transgender individuals? But, we are required as Jews to develop an understanding of a Jewish approach to things, issue by issue. Sometimes, this position will be closer to the Democrats’ position and sometimes closer to the Republicans. Sometimes we will feel that Bernie Sanders gets it, and sometimes Hillary Clinton and sometimes Donald Trump.

Jew are not Democrats and can never be Democrats. We are not Republicans and never can be Republicans. This does not mean that we should not vote in election We should take into account the candidate’s attitude to Israel. We should decide whether a candidate is likely to be good for America, as a whole. But voting and identifying are two different things. The idea that as Jews we are more liberal or conservative is anathema to real Jewish thinking. It is to become just another hyphenated American. This is not where Jewish genius lies.

We as Jews have to learn how to redefine political issues into moral issues – to get to the values behind the people and the issues. This is not only for ourselves. We need to become a light firstly to our fellow Jews and then to the broader world. To do so we need to act out of deep spiritual motives, and find a way of articulating, in a profound and relevant way, the Jewish position on any issue.

How does One Go About This?

We will not always know what our position ought to be and we don’t have to. But we do have to know how to begin. We have to know what questions we ought to be asking. We need to search for original sources. For example, if the issue is the appointment of a Supreme Court judge, we could take a look at the criteria and process for the appointment of someone to the Sanhedrin.

To be eligible for the Sanhedrin, a Sage had to have a broad range of character traits and integrity. He had to have wisdom, humility[1], and fear of heaven[2]. He had to be non-materialistic, a lover of people, well-liked[3] and in good standing in the community[4]. A Beit Din of 3 had to have these 7 qualities as well, even though they did not have to have the other qualities.[5] As leaders, members of the Sanhedrin had to energetically and passionately be willing to accept responsibility,[6] stand up to people and be outraged by oppression[7] and all manner of untruth and moral perversion.[8]

Perhaps we will be hard pressed to fill the Supreme Court by these standards. But as Jews, we must make a stand. Our moral voice – even if it is often just the voice of protest – must be heard.

 

[1]Nachmanides, Exodus, 18: 21

[2] Exodus, 18: 21

[3]    Nachmanides, ibid

[4] Maimonides, Laws of Sanhedrin Chap. 2, Law 7

[5]  Ibid

[6]  Nachmanides & Iben Ezra, Exodus, 18: 21

[7]  Nachmanides, ibid

[8]  Nachmanides, ibid

About the Author
Rabbi Avraham Edelstein is a Founder and Director of the Ner LeElef Institute for Leadership Training and a Founder of and Senior Advisor to Olami; He sits on the boards of numerous Jewish educational organizations around the world; He writes extensively on the interface of Judaism and the modern world
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