One of the most interesting Jewish writers around these days is Jay Michaelson. His regular columns in “The Forward” are always provocative even when – perhaps especially when – I disagree with him. This week he’s written an important column in which he lays out something that too few politically liberal Jews understand:
Well-meaning Jewish liberals…speak innocently of “living out Jewish values” in the pursuit of liberal politics, as if ignorant that our political opponents think they are doing the same thing. Without more articulation, to say we are applying our Jewish values to issues of social justice or human rights is just a sound bite. The other side can say the same thing.
Indeed, the other side says the same thing all the time. And the other side is just as entitled to do so:
But what is the criterion by which the “real” is to be determined? Is the (right-wing, dominance-obsessed) Book of Joshua any less real than the more peaceful teachings of Isaiah? Are the Torah’s stringent death penalties less real than the talmudic rabbis’ ameliorations of them? Once again, without more articulation, this is just public relations….“Jewish” includes too wide a range to let any political ideology claim its mantle, and we have to be sophisticated and clear-eyed in our relationships with a complicated tradition that has as many sexist, ethnocentric, superstitious, nationalistic and cruel aspects as it does egalitarian, just, compassionate and uplifting ones. What is “Jewish” is not necessarily what is right or good. How could it be, since Judaism often espouses diametrically opposed views of the same issue?
I seem to be surrounded by conservative (little “c”) Jews. Some of them are good friends. I think they’re more willing to open up to me because I’m an independent, although I’m definitely more left of center on most issues. And Michaelson is 100% correct. Republican Jews honestly – and rightly – believe that they’re carrying out Jewish values just as Democratic Jews rightly believe the same thing.
As a Secular Humanistic Jew, I never look to Jewish tradition to find my values. I think this makes it easier for me to realize that one can articulate almost any political position and argue that it’s Jewishly kosher. Humanists prefer to look elsewhere for universal values, even if we do feel very comfortable using any available Jewish texts or traditions to articulate them. We try to do so honestly while acknowledging that the same Torah that argues for the care of widows and orphans also calls for the murder of little children.
Michaelson develops his argument well and I highly recommend reading the entire column. He closes with this:
Judaism is not the answer key; it’s the question key. It sets the stage for the important questions to be asked, but accommodates contradictory answers to them. Thus, rather than inquire as to whether liberals or conservatives are “really Jewish,” we are invited to more interesting explorations. Like which ideology promotes a healthy Jewish people, a saner world, a safer world, or more compassion. Or which ideology leads to more holiness, more connection and more truthfulness with the experiences of all people. These are not the only Jewish values in existence. But they are the ones worth keeping.
Leaving aside my discomfort with “holiness,” he is quite right. I would only add that the historical experience of the Jewish people (the real one, not the mythologized version) is also a vital source of questions. Those are the ones that led me to becoming an atheist rabbi.