October 6, 2016
The other day I sat through a discussion between Christian friends about conservatism and religion. One commented that some of the conservative theorists’ ideas about man’s imperfections come from the Christian idea of “original sin.” That’s where they lost me. Obviously I come at it from a different angle. To Jews, “original sin” is the pain we put our mothers through when they are pregnant and give birth to us — and everyone knows we believe that life begins when the kids get married and we move to Boca Raton.
Another thing we Jews believe is that we are supposed to enjoy our time on earth and the greatest joy one can have in life is connecting with G-d. And that’s why I fall on the conservative side the aisle, because liberalism, and most liberal programs, try to put a layer between G-d and man. Which is probably why, despite the reputation of Jews being liberal, polls have shown that the more Orthodox a Jew’s beliefs and/or practices, the more likely that Jew is to reject the stereotype and reject liberalism, and support politicians who are more politically conservative.
Conservative principles such as limited government, individual responsibility and traditional morals are all deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. Even the fact that America’s founders intended for the county to be led by people who based their political decisions on religious values (something that scares the heck out of most liberals) complements Jewish tradition.
It starts with the creation narrative in Genesis, which explains that man is created in G-d’s image. But we are also taught that our maker has no bodily form, so how can that be? The Torah is not teaching us that we are all dead ringers for the “big guy upstairs” — if that was the case, the pictures on everyone’s driver’s license would look the same and no one would be able to get a check cashed. And all of those crime-solving TV dramas would be boring because everyone would have the same DNA. “Created in G-d’s image” teaches us that just as G-d acts as a free being, without prior restraint to do right and wrong, so does man. G-d does good deeds as a matter of His own free choice, and because we are created in his image, so can we.
It is further understood that for Man to have true free choice, he must not only have inner free will, but he must exist in an environment in which a choice between obedience and disobedience exists. G-d thus created the world such that both good and evil can operate freely; this is what the rabbis mean when they said, “All is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven” (Talmud, Berachot 33b). G-d controls all the options we have, but it is up to man to pick between the correct or incorrect option.
When it comes right down to it, free will is the divine version of limited government. G-d picks which is the correct direction and even gives us a guide book in the Bible, but he does not pick winners and losers. It is up to each of us to pick the direction in which we want to proceed.
“All men are created equal,” means we all have the same ability to be infinitely good or wicked, or to forge a relationship with G-d regardless of intellectual capability, social background, physical strength, etc. It does not mean, as the liberals ascribe to, that when it comes to talents, predilections or natural abilities we are all equal. Nor does it mean we all should have the same big screen TV, wireless internet, or savings account balance. We all have the same right to be as successful as we can be with the cards we have been dealt.
Jewish tradition takes a positive view of both the institution of ownership and the accumulation of wealth. It respects economic success — so long, that is, as it is obtained honestly and proper respect is shown for the social responsibility that comes with it. That social responsibility is an individual duty and a job for the community led by its religious leaders, but not for the government. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong for the federal government to provide a safety net, but the primary responsibility is the individual and the local community.
The book of Vayikra (25:23) says: “If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him, proselyte or resident, so that he can live with you.” Notice it says live with you, it does not say live in a government facility. That’s because the obligation is on the individual. In rare times the community was called on to pick up the slack but it was never the community government, it was (and still is) the local rabbi who would lead the effort.
Some of the ancient sages have suggested when G-d created the world, sparks of his holiness were spread across the earth. Every time that a person makes the choice of performing a righteous act (such as giving charity) one of those sparks is purified and sent back to heaven. Through that process we become closer to G-d.
Liberal/progressive governments take away that free choice given to us by G-d. Their philosophy is that left to their own devices, mankind will do the wrong thing (or at least what progressives say is the wrong thing). So these leftist governments do their best to take over the role of G-d and take away the free will we were given. Liberalism takes away our personal choice and gives it to the government — thus retarding our spiritual development and, most importantly, the opportunity to “pick up those sparks” and get closer to our maker.
Judaism also teaches us that we cannot rely on G-d to bail us out all of the time; the responsibility to take action falls upon each of us. There is the famous story of Moses splitting the Reed Sea teaches this lesson. In Shemot Chapter 14-15, Moses sees the Pharaoh’s troops bearing down on the Israelite nation, who are trapped against the sea. Moses starts praying to G-d, but G-d says stop praying and do something!
“And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Wherefore criest thou unto me? Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward’.” That’s holy talk for “get off your arse and do something!”
The ancient rabbis tell the story that when Moses lifted his staff over the sea, the water did not part. The Egyptians were closing in, and the sea wasn’t moving. The Israelites stood on the banks of the sea, frozen in fear until a man named Nachshon took the responsibility upon himself to act. Nachshon walked into the water. He waded up to his ankles, then his knees, his waist, his shoulders, and just as the water was about to reach his nostrils the water parted.
This story teaches us that it’s one thing to have faith and believe that G-d will eventually help us, but we cannot get that help until we take personal responsibility and act on our own. This too is antithetical to liberal philosophy which teaches that government is the first place to look for help, rather than looking first within one’s self, family and community.
On the other hand, a liberal/progressive government teaches citizens that the government will always bear the responsibility of protecting you; there is no individual responsibility, just the collective bailout. Instead of each one of us assuming a personal responsibility and using our good deeds to gain closeness to G-d, we become part of an overall group in which individuals shoulder no explicit responsibility.
Many liberal Jews get very worried when they hear a political leader talk about G-d. If the political leader is a Christian (as most of them are in America) they see the person as a zealot who will eventually force everyone to become Christian. If the person is a Jew, they get angry that the Jew is wearing their religion on his sleeve.
In the book of Shemot, it is G-d who sets up the first Israelite government, he chose to have a political/government leader, Moses, and a religious leader, Aaron. Even though Moses was the governmental leader, the Torah teaches us that Moses used G-d’s law and morality to make his “political” decisions. In that first Israelite government established by G-d there was no wall separating church and state. Political leaders were expected to consult with G-d’s law in making their decisions. In fact, each of the kings were commanded to scribe a Torah during their reign.
If we are taught that a government set up by G-d was supposed to use the religious laws in their decisions, why is it not okay for a government set up by man?
America’s founders sought to guaranteed freedom of religion. But those First Amendment freedoms where not set up to protect government from religion, they were created to protect religion from government. For Jews, that should mean that the government cannot prevent the observance of such rituals as keeping kosher, circumcision, or covering heads. But it was never meant to prevent a local mayor from putting a Christmas tree on city owned property; nor was it meant for the Little Sisters of the Poor, or Hobby Lobby, to pay for birth control or abortion.
In his farewell address, George Washington proclaimed that “of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.
“In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
The Jewish picture of G-d is of a creator who instilled in us a personal responsibility to do the right thing, but he also provided us with the choice to accept that responsibility or not. There is no room in Jewish law for a government that forces its interpretation of the right thing to do down our throats. There is also little room for a government that does not include religion and morality in its consideration set when making decisions.
Political conservatism matches Jewish tradition, because when it comes right down to it, conservative principals such as limited government, individual responsibility, and traditional morals are Jewish principals.
On the other hand, progressive/liberal governments take from their citizens the greatest joy of all — finding the path that will draw them closer to G-d and feeling that closeness get stronger with every mitzvah. It is the desire to achieve that joy that makes me a political conservative.
Contact Jeff Dunetz: Columnist@TheJewishStar.com