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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Liberalism as Judaism debunked

In the process of defending Joe Lieberman from charges that he's acting un-Jewishly by opposing Obamacare, Benjamin Kerstein debunks the myth that Judaism is Liberalism.
It is true that Judaism, like all the major faiths, admonishes its people to be charitable toward the poor. The idea, however, that Judaism contains a single “ethical imperative” is an absurdity. Judaism has a series of laws and commandments that one is supposed to follow not because they are ethical but because they are the revealed word of God. Out of these various commandments, along with the admonitions of the prophets and the aphorisms of the rabbis, one can—and many scholars, ancient and modern, have— attempt to ascertain or construct an ethics or a series of ethics. To claim, however, that there is any single “imperative” about which it can be said “this is Judaism” is simply too asinine and ignorant to be taken seriously. To fault Navasky for this would be too generous, however, since he clearly knows nothing about Judaism and has no real interest in it beyond his desire to defame Joe Lieberman and to appease liberal antisemites by assuring them that good Jews like himself have no intention of forgetting their place.

Far more egregious are the misrepresentations of Judaism undertaken by openly religious Jewish groups. The most interesting of these is probably a missive from something called the Shalom Center, which has posted an open letter online that calls for Lieberman not to obstruct the health care reform bill “on Jewish grounds of pursuing justice & [sic] saving life.” The letter holds that Lieberman’s stance on the health care bill “is not the behavior of an ‘observant’ Jew” because “‘Tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice justice shall you seek,’ is among the Torah’s most important commandments.”

To get some minor issues out of the way: the statement above both mistranslates and misrepresents the Bible. Tirdof connotes “pursue” and not “seek,” the line is not a divine commandment but a prophetic admonition, and it is not from the Torah but rather the book of Isaiah; the Torah constituting only the first five books of the Jewish Bible. Needless to say, it is also somewhat ambiguous, given that people have many different ideas of what constitutes justice. Had the prophet said “health care reform, health care reform you must pursue,” there might be a point to be made; but he didn’t and there isn’t.

Having come this far, the entire missive promptly collapses into blatant emotional blackmail (while implying corruption on Lieberman’s part) declaring, “we believe your obligation of pekuach nefesh, saving life, saving the lives of the flesh-and-blood citizens of Connecticut… is an even higher obligation than you owe to your insurance-company constituents.”

Putting aside the ugly implications of insinuating that a Jew is a tool of moneyed interests, this constitutes an even more blatant distortion of Jewish law. The letter claims that the concept of pikuah nefesh in rabbinic law requires Lieberman to save the lives of other people, and thus he is required by Jewish law to vote for the health care bill. Unfortunately, pikuah nefesh refers to something entirely different. It does not, as the letter implies, refer to one’s obligation to adhere to the Torah’s commandments, but rather to the circumstances under which one may break them. Put simply, it holds that any commandment—with a few notable exceptions—can be violated in order to save the life of another human being. Moreover, pikuah nefesh only applies in cases where a specific individual’s life is immediately threatened; for better or worse, the “flesh-and-blood citizens of Connecticut” do not qualify.

The argument in bad faith is, of course, something that post-1960s American liberalism has raised to an art form, but it is especially egregious in this case, because it not only defames, trivializes, and insults an ancient and much-abused people and their tradition, but it does so in the service of the most sickening kind of hypocrisy. Put simply, it involves Jewish liberals—individuals and groups—who are more than willing to collaborate with liberal antisemitism so long as it serves their purposes or allays their fears of becoming its targets; but are suspiciously prone to sounding like crazed fundamentalists when they are called upon to admonish their own. Ultimately, however, this is sadder than it is infuriating, because what it reveals is the profound ignorance of and alienation from Judaism suffered by Jewish-American liberals. It is the right of every Jew, of course, to be as close to or as far from Judaism, Jewish identity, and especially Jewish law as he chooses; but when he does not even know what he is close to or far from, we inevitably end up bearing witness to pathetic and empty exhortations such as these, which lack even the slender dignity of rebellion.
Read the whole thing.


At 1:35 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

When Judaism is reduced to a series of this or that political allegiances what is lost sight of is the Jew's allegiance to G-d. Misrepresenting it doesn't change that central obligation. And liberalism denies the idea the world is governed by G-d or even set of universals known as morally absolute rules. Jews who accept liberalism in reality deny the precepts that have defined Judaism for thousands of years.

At 8:33 AM, Blogger David_77 said...

I've had to explain this to several people - that if a Jew is a liberal, they aren't all that religiously observant, because if Judaism equalled Liberalism, then Carl would be an EPIC Leftist. LOL, I just cracked myself up with that thought! Seriously, though, logic dictates that if following Judaism meant being a liberal, Orthodox and Haredi Jews would be the most liberal people on the planet...but they obviously aren't!

At 8:51 AM, Blogger Robin Epstein said...

There is one glaring error in the article - he says that Tzedek tzedek tirdof is not in the Torah. In fact, it is in Deuteronomy 16:20.


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