Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by ShmulyYanklowitz CCAR Press, 448pp.
To Heal The World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel by Jonathan Neumann All Points Books, 270 pp.
One oddity that has been noted about contemporary political discourse is that conceptually unrelated positions tend to cluster together, as if bound by logical glue. Pro life advocates tend towards skepticism about climate change and opposing gun control whereas pro choice champions incline in favor of big government. Shouldn’t these issues demand entirely separate conversations? That they so frequently are yoked makes one suspect that people are identifying with their respective political teams more than they are analyzing the merits of specific questions.
This phenomenon grows more disturbing when we encounter religious embodiments of it. Politically energized Jews identify the entirety of their religious tradition either with progressive politics or with conservative Republicanism, a move that often involves some distortion of Jewish tradition. The notion that Judaism lines up precisely with all the policies of either the Democrats or the Republicans should arouse suspicion and skepticism. The problem extends beyond distortion. One of the best things about a religious tradition is its ability to serve as a trenchant critic of some of the popular philosophies and practices of the day, without regard to their party affiliation. Identifying a tradition with a current political party robs it of that crucial role as an independent perspective enabling critical evaluation of all political ideologies.
For instance, Jewish tradition could criticize liberals for promoting a sexual liberation that downplays the importance of sexual fidelity and undermines the sanctity of marriage. It could also highlight the dangers and destructiveness of a moral relativism that often reigns in liberal academic culture. Conversely, the same tradition should make Republicans question their support of a president who brags about groping women, shows no sympathy for Muslim parents whose son was killed in the American military, and who declared that John McCain, a man tortured in North Vietnamese captivity for six years, was not a war hero since, after all, he was captured. This, of course, is even without adding to the list the scandalous things Trump has done since the election.
Two recently published volumes help illustrate the perils of partisanship in shaping a political vision for the Jewish community. Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is probably the most prominent voice among Orthodox Jewish progressives. He has founded multiple social justice organizations and four of his books have the term “social justice” in the tile or subtitle. His latest work focuses his interpretative lens on The Ethics of our Fathers, Pirkei Avot. (In the interest of full disclosure, I note that Yanklowitz was my student in yeshiva over a decade ago.) The other volume we shall look at was penned by Jonathan Neumann, a writer involved in various conservative Jewish projects.
As the subtitle makes abundantly clear, Neumann has produced a jeremiad castigating Jewish progressives whereas Yanklowitz, who is more steeped in Jewish sources than Neumann, simply wrote a commentary on a mishnaic tractate. In the nature of things, jeremiads tend towards more black and white portraits of the world while commentaries on ancient texts that record different opinions generally reflect subtleties and antinomies. Nonetheless, the two volumes do share the flaw of presenting a Judaism much too aligned with a given political party.
Yanklowitz interprets the mishnah’s calling for exchanging words of Torah at the table and elsewhere (Avot 3:3-7) in a broader fashion that would include other conversations of value. “Any of our activist discourse about social change and improving the world is ‘Torah’ when discussed compassionately and for the sake of raising up others” (p. 131). This expanded notion of worthwhile conversation focuses primarily on progressive politics as opposed to other conversations of worth. When discussing the notion of indisputable facts, Yanklowitz mentions climate change and the unemployment rate (p. 236). Let us leave aside the dubious character of the second purported fact since the US unemployment rate has declined every year since 2010 and now stands at its lowest point in half a century. We are not surprised that his chosen examples of unambiguous facts do not include inconvenient truths for the left such as “robust socialism almost invariably leads to tyranny and economic collapse”.
In several passages, the author seems to have left Avot far behind. Elisha ben Avuyah taught about the difference between teaching a child and teaching an older person (Avot 4:25). Instead of using this text to stimulate an analysis of the educational advantages and disadvantages of varying ages, Yanklowitz moves the discussion towards the importance of education in third world countries (p. 265-266). Now, he is certainly correct about the worthiness of the cause but one wonders why the text of Avot is relevant to this endeavor. Along the same lines, R. Yossi ben Kisma’s declaration which insists on living in a place of Torah (Avot 6:9) turns into a call to live in a community that is inclusive, tolerant, and in favor of diversity (p. 407-408).
It is true that every reader brings a worldview to the exegetical quest and it is also the case that Jewish tradition clearly values homiletical and creative interpretation. At the same time, we want those readings to emerge from an authentic encounter with the traditional texts, one that at the very least pays attention to the topic of the text. Otherwise, why bother with citing the text altogether. A reader who affirms the wisdom of our tradition will be looking for guidance from these texts and will not be content with artificial insertions of contemporary shibboleths into the conversation.
For an example of a more admirable interpretation, note Yanklowitz’s commentary on R. Meir’s statement: “Reduce your business activities and engage in Torah” (Avot 4:12). R. Meir conveys the twin values of not madly pursuing wealth and appreciating the wisdom of Torah; Yanklowitz’s elucidation emphasizes labor unions and the need for manual laborers to work reasonable hours (p. 224). Though his approach extrapolates beyond the mishnah, it reflects the value of a professional not becoming consumed by his work, an idea genuinely present in the mishnah.
Occasionally, the tendency toward progressive readings leads to outright misreading. Many medieval rabbinic authorities compiled varying enumerations of the 613 Torah commandments. Ramban (Nahmanides) lists a mitzvah to save the lives of Gerei Toshav, those gentiles committed to the seven Noahide laws, but contrary to Yanklowitz, Ramban does not apply this command to every gentile (p. 346). The mishnah’s highlighting the severity of abrogating “the covenant of Avraham” (Avot 3:15) likely does not relate to Avraham’s commitment to justice (p. 164) as significant as that is. With one exception (Ketubot 8b), the term “berito shel Avraham” in rabbinic literature always refers to the physical act of circumcision (see Sanhedrin 99a, Yerushlami Peah 8:6, Devarim Rabba 6:1) and the term meifer berit, abrogating the covenant, does so without exception.
Truth be told, one does not have to strain to find universalistic themes in Avot if one will just let the texts speak for themselves. “Beloved is man for he was created in the image of God” (Avot 3:18) powerfully conveys the need to treat every human being with dignity and respect. R. Yisrael Lipschutz was a nineteenth century rabbi in Desssau and Danzig who penned a classic commentary on the mishnah. In his commentary on the aforementioned mishnah, he eloquently extols the great deeds of Edward Jenner, Francis Drake, Johannes Gutenberg, and Johann Reuchlin. Note how he does not restrict himself to gentiles who saved Jews but includes those who benefitted humanity at large. R. Lipschutz’s application and expansion of this mishnah flows naturally from a mishnah about the cherished worth of each human being. It is possible to remain a close reader of the Tannaitic texts and still discover universalistic ideas.
Let us now turn to the other side of the political divide. Neumann successfully shows some of the distortions of Judaism done by Jewish liberals but his eagerness to demonstrate opposition between Jewish tradition and contemporary progressives leads him to present a one -sided and erroneous version of Judaism. Criticizing an attempt to utilize “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16) to support health care reform, Neumann states that this verse is chiefly concerned with deaths by murder (p. 71). Nothing in the biblical context supports his assertion and the rabbis applied this verse to saving someone drowning, protecting someone from a wild animal, and not withholding testimony (Sanhedrin 73a, Sifra).
For Neumann, progressives cannot use the biblical command to love your neighbor as yourself as a source for universalism since the verse applies only to fellow Jews (p. 48). Actually, many rabbinical figures, including R. Yaakov Emden, R, Hayyim Vital, and R. Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook, write of an obligation to love non-Jews (see my article in The Torah U’Madda Journal Volume 9). Either they take the golden rule in broader terms or they have different textual bases for generating the directive to love all people. For example, it may stem from the commandment to emulate God (Shabbat 133b) who cares for all of humanity.
Neumann portrays the prophets as primarily particularistic, conceding only that they spoke about a universalistic redemption (p. 112-113). However, universalistic themes in the prophets are not limited to the ultimate salvation. Jonah’s warning to a gentile city inspires its repentance and salvation. Multiple prophets express dismay at the calamities of gentile nations (Isaiah 15:5, Jeremiah 48:36) and several prophetic books depict the temple as a place for gentiles to worship God (Isaiah 56:7, I Kings 8:41-42). A traditional Jew need not wait for the messianic era to incorporate universalistic themes and values.
The author’s errors extend to his understanding of philosophical positions. He tentatively suggests that ethics and Jewish faith are incompatible because “ethics are about seeing and treating everyone the same, whereas Judaism is about Jews seeing themselves as distinct and having a closer relation to other Jews” (p. 203). In this passage, his notion of what “ethics” is about assumes a Kantian or Rawlsian approach to ethics but many ethical theories exist that understand the value of more particularistic loyalties like bonds of family and friendship. Lawrence Blum’s Friendship, Altruism and Morality offers just one account of such a position. The argument is particularly odd seeing as how Neumann himself refers to ethical theories that champion particular attachments in other parts of the book (p. 219).
Neumann includes Michael Walzer as one of his liberal targets. However, Walzer is a communitarian, and this view actually originated as a move against liberal individualism. Whereas liberals’ essential category is the solitary unencumbered self, communitarians contend that there is no such entity and a fundamental part of human identity is our communal attachments. Thus, Michael Sandel rejects John Rawls’ “original position” and “veil of ignorance” since there is no such thing as an individual bereft of communal ties. In fact, Walzer’s recent book, A Foreign Policy for the Left, is highly critical of leftist political mistakes.
Beyond the misreadings of Judaism and philosophy, there are misrepresentations of progressive writers. Discussing Michael Lerner’s ideas, Neumann writes: “it also invites even zanier schemes, such as the one Lerner advances, whereby, in lieu of private property, mankind establishes a sabbatical program of job rotations every six years, with every human assuming a new occupation every year and devoting the seventh year to rest” (p. 33). Indeed, the idea seems quite silly, so silly that Lerner never suggested it. Building upon the biblical concept of a sabbatical year, Lerner proposes a rotation system in which different professionals are off each year and in which individuals at some point try another profession but not that people switch jobs every twelve months (see Lerner’s Jewish Renewal p. 329).
Finally, the author cites a few examples of penetrating self-criticism on the left which makes the reader wonder if progressives really represent such a monolithic excess of one-sidedness. He cites the powerful critiques of Rabbi Arthur Wolf (p. 151), Peter Beinart (p. 193), and Rabbi Eugene Borowitz (p. 205). Wolf writes of social justice as a “strange and half-understood notion [which has become] a huge umbrella under which our petty moral concerns and political panaceas can come in out of the rain.” Beinart conveys a “harsh truth” that “for many young, non-Orthodox American Jews, Israel isn’t that important because being Jewish isn’t that important.” Borowitz writes that the idea that social justice is the essence of Judaism is “often an apparently noble rationale for Jewish assimilation.” These examples of impressive honesty on the left should give Neumann some pause in his jeremiad.
To be fair, both authors make a contribution. Yanklowitz has helped spearhead greater Orthodox Jewish interest in worker’s rights, animal rights, and in volunteering in third world countries and these moral causes should not be restricted to more liberal Jews. He has shown that his call for compassion is much more than just talk; he has saved a life by donating a kidney and he and his wife have taken in multiple foster children. For his part, Neumann does successfully highlight some of the disturbing excesses on the left including unreasonable negativity towards the Jewish state. At the same time, both are too caught up in their political skirmishes to see a broader picture. Jewish tradition is neither progressive politics nor political conservatism. It is a deeply insightful source of wisdom that helps us critique the regnant world views of civil society.