Our Current Political Station: Might this be Modern Orthodoxy’s Moment?

Our Current Political Station: Might this be Modern Orthodoxy’s Moment?

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Chaim Saiman

We are amidst a structural transition of our politics that began well before the first ballot of the 2016 election was cast. Events of the past year suggest that divisions in our society are becoming so deep that we are at risk of losing the “glue” that binds us together as a nation. The sense that we all belong to a single body politic, rather than disparate and competing tribes, appears to be evaporating.

More troubling still is the absence of a single moral voice that more than a third of our country can hear. No single person, or group of persons, has a shot at convincing citizens of something they are not already inclined to believe. There is disagreement not only about what is true or false, but even about the means for ascertaining truth. A society that cannot agree on truth has no truth, and a society with no truth is at risk of unraveling.

Healthy political debate is like a multiplayer board game. Different groups make and break alliances to promote their interests, yet share a commitment to the rules and integrity of the game. The present moment is different: one side shows up to play chess, the other is sitting in a pool ready for a synchronized swimming meet—there is nothing to talk about. In our winner-take-all political system, the goal is not to reason with your fellow citizen, but to grasp enough of the reins of power so that you do not need to.

This can be demonstrated in many ways, but consider the following: In 1960, about 5% of the population cared whether their children married a member of the other political party. There were certainly disagreements about policy, but politics were not constitutive of identity. By 2008 this proportion grew significantly. In that year, 20% of Democrats and 27% of Republicans reported they would care if a child married a member of the other party. Polarization has continued apace; in 2010, 33% of Democrats and 49% of Republicans reported caring, and there are good reasons to think the percentages are even higher today.

Political identity has become totalizing as other forms of identity are being folded into it. Tell me if you are concerned about global warming, and I have a good chance at predicting your view on the estate tax, gun control, minimum wage, and health care.

In a sense, politics has transitioned from a debate about the best way to accomplish agreed-upon goals to fandom. But fandom, as the root word implies, is about fanaticism. There can be no such thing as a “reasonable fan.” In a deep sense, this is a contradiction in terms.

Jews have not been immune to these cultural shifts, as even Jewish identity is becoming an accessory of an overarching political identity.

For several generations, a common critique of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism has been that their religious beliefs fully conform to the liberal policies of the day: the liberal political agenda quickly becomes the latest iteration of “ancient Jewish values.”

There is some truth to this critique. It all started out reasonably enough; in the early decades of the twentieth century, Jews demanded greater access to the economic, political, and cultural mainstream, and the Democratic Party offered the easiest entry point for these aspirations. In the middle of the century, the Jewish mainstream thought it best to advocate for its own rights in the context of the rights of others. As the century progressed, the conversation shifted toward abortion rights, gay marriage, and now transgender rights. The argument was not that in a pluralist democracy, Jews are best served by staying out of these fights or even tacitly supporting these causes from the sidelines—arguments I consider defensible—but that Jewish tradition impels us, as Jews, to actively work in support—arguments that are significantly harder to sustain.

The more recent development is that the equal and opposite is true of another group of Jews—these typically Orthodox—and their relation to the Republican Party. Here too, the planks of the Republican platform are treated as though given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. Torah principles that fail to conform to these policies are marginalized or otherwise bartered away.

So what started out as principled views on the importance of personal responsibility, the centrality of religious schools and communities, and the uniqueness of the State of Israel has transformed into claims about Torah positions against gun control and the estate tax, in favor of states’ rights, and against the federal power to structure the health care markets. Moreover, we are now being asked to deny that our religion has anything to say about society’s duties toward the poor, the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow.

We are left with not one but two forms of American Jewish assimilation: one that assimilates into urban, blue-state liberalism, along with many of its tastes and cultural signifiers, and the other into red-state conservatism, with many of its tastes and cultural signifiers. This bifurcation runs so deep that these two “Judaisms” cannot even agree on the one theme that should unite all Jews, out of self-interest if not principle: anti-Semitism.

The recent past has shown that each group has its own version of anti-Semites, along with a set of Jews they like and another they despise. On the left, anti-Semitism emerges from the belief in the sovereignty of the individual, such that distinctions based on family, religion, heritage, and culture are viewed with suspicion. From this perspective, there is nothing more frustrating than Jews who insist on maintaining a distinctive religious and national identity, and who, after thousands of years, have finally realized their aspirations in the Jewish state. Notably, this form of anti-Semitism has its Jewish defenders, the urbane cosmopolitan Jews that sign up in support of its program—as if it were impossible to love individual Jews and be hostile to the collective Jewish project.

By contrast, the anti-Semitism stemming from the right is based on the view that societies made up of different cultures and beliefs cannot succeed, and that there is some core, pure “American” for whom this country was designed and ought be maintained. For this group, nothing is more frustrating than the success of Jews—the perennial other—who value cosmopolitanism and universal ideals, and who want America to open its doors for others. Jews, in this narrative, represent a particular contamination of the national and moral order that threatens to homogenize society into an undifferentiated mass, dominated by a distant global elite.

And this form of anti-Semitism also has its Jewish defenders, who proclaim “but they strongly support Israel”—as if it were impossible to love the idea of Jews succeeding elsewhere while remaining contemptuous of what enabled Jews to thrive here.

The fallacy is obvious to anyone with a drop of historical awareness: Jews have long been scapegoats for anti-Semites of different stripes. These conspiracy theories show no dissonance between seeing Jews as communist, socialist liberals and rapacious, capitalist financiers. We have been accused of being pinko-hippie peaceniks; warmongering, neocon Israel-firsters; nationalist, fundamentalist, religious xenophobes; and godless, rootless, cosmopolitan Christ-killers. In the annals of our people, these are not contradictions, and once the genie is released, it hardly matters.

It is therefore exasperating to see Jews use anti-Semitic outbursts as an opportunity to score rhetorical points in an intra-Jewish conflict. Following every real or perceived manifestation of right wing anti-Semitism, Jewish liberals lash out at Jewish conservatives for enabling and sharing a political home with the extreme right. Likewise, following every real or perceived expression of left wing anti-Semitism, Jewish conservatives accuse Jewish liberals of the same.

It is no secret that this is manifestly unhelpful. People are liberal or conservative because they believe in the underlying premises of each position, despite the excesses that attends to their side. This mutual antagonism incentivizes parties to magnify the threat from the other side while downplaying the anti-Semitism of one’s own coalition partners.

The needs of the hour present a unique challenge, but perhaps also an opportunity for Modern Orthodoxy. America is in desperate need of healing, and with some hopeful optimism, there are several reasons to think that Modern Orthodox Jews are well-positioned to show leadership in this process.

First, Modern Orthodoxy already lives between the two Americas. From a demographic perspective, we seem “blue”: we tend to live in or near large, coastal cities, have high rates of college and graduate-school education at elite schools, and are well represented in the learned professions. At the same time, we also have much in common with “red” America. We are religious believers who value faith and faith communities; believe in strong, traditional families; and support Israel and its specifically Jewish identity.

Second, we are a divided community, which in this context, is beneficial. Much of the post-election analyses showed that America’s polarization is caused by the fact that we increasingly live, work, and socialize among those we identify with politically. Add in media fragmentation, and red and blue Americans simply live in ecosystems. In many ways, this applies to American Judaism as a whole, but Modern Orthodoxy is a particularly tight community that divides more evenly between liberals, moderates, and conservatives. Most Modern Orthodox Jews can identify someone who they not only know, but respect from a moral, religious, and intellectual perspective, who voted for the other candidate. And it is precisely because of this mutual respect that we can disagree without impugning the good faith and reasonableness of our interlocutors and without sacrificing admiration, friendship, and trust. In the current climate, this is both rare and valuable.

For instance, I have close family and friends who I learn with, who I went to yeshiva with, who I daven with—who voted for a different candidate than I did. The cultural tide encourages me to discount their views as either extremists or as simply mirroring the talking points of preferred media outlets. But the healthier approach, is to build on our shared reservoir of trust and common religious language to engage in a real conversation between friends. True, sometimes this will accomplish no more than heated debates on social media. But other times, points are conceded and positions refashioned and re-evaluated in light of contrary evidence and arguments. Our shared religious and communal life pulls us together, providing an opening for a less polarized form of politics.

Keeping politics “between the 20s” and away from the extremes is also a matter of Jewish self-interest, as anti-Semitism tends to thrive at the extremes. Therefore, when faced with anti-Semitism from either the left or the right, rather than calling out coreligionists on the other side of the aisle, we should encourage and support them in confronting the worst instincts within their political home. After all, the people in the best position to quash left-wing anti-Semitism are those with institutional and ideological credibility on the left. Likewise, Jews with longstanding conservative credentials are best positioned to limit the influence of the alt-right and other expressions of right-wing anti-Semitism. We need not sacrifice the passion for our political beliefs to recognize that the best defense against radicalization is having well-meaning members of our community enmeshed in positions of influence in each party’s structure.

We are divided, and it does no good to pretend otherwise. But to help revive the conditions that made America great—and great for the Jews—we will need to draw upon our covenantal and communal bonds and view Jews on the other side of the aisle not as traitors to our religious values, but as an important moderating force against the worst impulses of our political culture. The Modern Orthodox community, which has succeeded in preserving admiration, respect, and solidarity despite sharp political disagreement, can lead the way on this front.

Finally and most importantly, it is in our spiritual DNA. Our greatest teachers, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, were rarely fans or fanatics, but almost always strove to embrace opposing principles that seemed in conflict. Modern Orthodoxy is characterized by its commitment to dualities such as Torah and science, yeshiva and military service, wisdom and piety, particularism and universalism, worshipping God and acting on behalf of man, individual and society, and so on. Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rabbi Lichtenstein taught that at the fundamental level, each side expresses a true and compelling value. It is only at a second stage, when these come into conflict, that we must employ local and contextual factors to mediate between them. From the philosophical perspective however, we aim to live both rather than vindicate one at the expense of the other.

While these great rabbis initially formulated their approach in the context of Talmud study and then extended it to religious thought, I have come to see its relevance in the political realm as well. Serious discussions about politics involve balancing values. Environmental policy, for example, centers on tradeoffs between our long-term ability to survive on the planet and the more immediate needs of jobs and fueling economic growth. In consumer finance, the core tradeoff is between offering cheap yet potentially harmful products that can land consumers in inescapable cycles of debt, versus fewer but safer products that may lock some out of credit markets entirely. Almost any policy debate can be similarly discussed in terms of the costs and benefits of competing values.

But unlike our current political culture, which demands that one pick a side and then defend it to the end of the earth, a dialectal analysis does not assume one side is always right and the other wrong. Rather, each side reflects a truth about the world, and we should always seek the optimal balance in light of the evidence and arguments in the individual case.

Moreover, Rabbi Lichtenstein often taught that to the degree that we balance the interests in one way on issue A, we should strive for counterbalance on issue B. This is not only for pragmatic reasons, but because, spiritually and existentially, we cannot assess a matter honestly unless we identify with each of the competing values.

Thus, our spiritual heritage guides us away from extremes and towards moderate approaches willing to see the value of each position. This is not because we lack clear convictions. Quite the opposite, because we passionately believe in so many of them, we strive to live them all out.

At present, Modern Orthodox Jews are assimilating into American culture by folding their Jewish identity into a political one. I have tried to argue that this runs counter to our sociological identity, which shares commonalities with both “red” and “blue” value systems; counter to our demographic reality as a politically divided community; counter to our self-interest, in that polarization fosters extremism, and anti-Semitism tends to flourish at the extremes; and counter to our spiritual DNA, which guides us to embrace plural, opposing values.

I am not naïve. Within our community, and certainly amongst the American public, political differences will remain acute and acrimonious for the foreseeable future. And yet, what happens next is not predetermined. It will be based on decisions we make individually and how they aggregate.

Small as it may be, Modern Orthodoxy is poised to exemplify behavior that can bring us together and maybe point a way forward. We are well positioned to play a leading role in this effort. It is our time to become an or la-goyim, a beacon of light for the United States of America.

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