Rabbi’s Essays

Notes for the Silly Season
Jewish Thought, Governance and Politics

I. Politics and Religion

Judaism is a political expression. So is Islam. Christianity is not. And, in general, this has been good for the Jews.

These broad declaratory statements will make better sense if I provide some definitions, most particularly a definition of ‘politics.’ The word is derived from the Greek ‘polis,’ and survives in English in a number of forms. In addition to ‘politics,’ there is ‘polity,’ and terms like ‘metropolis.’ You can sense that the term has at its root the notion of a gathering of people. This idea becomes most clear when we move from Greek to Latin and wind up with ‘public.’ Politics is essentially the activities of the public.

As a result, it is a very broad and amorphous term. It encompasses issues of order, economics, security, privacy and planning. I have left out issues of ethics or morality. Politics is a human activity, engaged in by people in groups or communities. It is only as ethical as the people choose to be.

Obviously, a great deal of everyday living is touched by political concerns, but not everything is political. Politics comes into question only when the individual is operating within the context of a larger community. Further, politics is only important in life itself, the ongoing activity of the material world. Individual action and otherworldliness reside outside of the realm of politics. Christianity focuses principally on individual salvation—one’s place in the world-to-come—and therefore has little to say about politics. Judaism (and Islam), on the other hand, focuses on the individual within a community, and thus politics is intrinsic to its thought and practice.

Yet, as I said, Christianity’s indifference to politics has been mostly good for the Jews. While Christianity itself is apolitical, Christians live in a political world. Order, security, welfare and governance have to come from somewhere. Throughout the Middle Ages, the source of political organization was external to religious thought. “Render unto God what is God’s, and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Indeed, the source of governance was mostly Roman: a ruling class—nobles—often led by a hereditary monarch. The Church followed the same rough hierarchy, with its highest orders—the Archbishops, Cardinals and Pope—almost always being drawn from the noble class. The Church was therefore political, and often attempted, not entirely successfully, to exert influence on various national courts.

The medieval feudal structure began to crumble, and the Church was challenged by the Protestant Reformation. Protestants in particular, searched for alternate methods of creating polity. They turned, quite naturally, to the Bible. The Christian Scripture was not much help, but the Hebrew canon served as an excellent guide. The result, over time, was the institution of the notion of “Judeo-Christian” values. Thus, the path was cleared for Jewish involvement in the political life of a community.

II. Society and Culture

“Judeo-Christian” is a fraud. It is a useful fraud, but a deception nonetheless. What does the ‘Judeo-‘ mean in the expression? It is exclusively a reference to the use of the “Old Testament” (Hebrew Scriptures) as well as the “New” (Christian Scriptures) in establishing the roots of contemporary society. As noted above, this contention is quite true. But, what part of the Hebrew Scriptures is not Christian? It is an inseparable part of the Christian Bible, and segments of it are regularly recited and studied within churches.

Let me turn the question around: what is Jewish about the Hebrew Scriptures? The answer is Scriptures’ place in the Jewish tradition, and this is a tradition that incorporates Midrash, Mishna, Talmud, and medieval commentary. Only in this context, and in this context alone, is the “Old Testament” Jewish. Yet, none of these sources are employed in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Once more, however, the fraud is useful. While Protestants turned to the Hebrew portion of the Bible in order to establish an authentically Christian form of governance, Jews were looking for ways of separating culture from society. This distinction is very important, especially since it is more the norm than the exception that societies and cultures are co-extensive. Where, for instance, does British culture end and British society begin? Or vice versa? Yet, they are not precisely the same.

Culture is a combination of non-codified practices and activities that tend to establish the identity of a certain social and historical group. Society, on the other hand, is made up of the rules (at least some of them are actually codified) that give shape and order to a community. Culture usually contributes something to the formation of a society. And where a society is sufficiently homogeneous, the practices of the culture often become the laws or rules of the society.

Jews have a culture, but must live in a non-Jewish society. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews were mostly able to organize their own society, although always under the authority of the larger Gentile authority around them. This circumstance was good for allowing them to preserve their own culture, but their material lives were often disrupted by persecution or exile. Even in the best of times, the fate of the Jews remained subject to the whims of authorities against whom they had very little protection. For some individual Jews, they way out of their materially precarious lives were to abandon their culture.

Modernity brought secularization and the development of a concept of society that was distinct from any particular culture. When given the opportunity, therefore, Jews embraced modernity. And in those countries, particularly Central and Eastern Europe, were modernity was resisted by the traditional authorities, Jews readily participated in revolutionary movements that would try to upend the old order.

The revolutions mostly failed. Even the successful upending of the Tsar turned into a failed revolution. Jews turned substantially in two directions: the U.S. and the land of Israel. Israel, through the Zionist project, allowed Jews to build a society that preserved Jewish culture. The U.S., on the other hand, was a society with no definitive culture, and therefore more hospitable than virtually anywhere else to Jewish immigration.

III. Jewish Values

Politics is essentially public decision-making. Decision-making, in turn, is founded upon a range of considerations from purely pragmatic to narrowly ideological. All of these considerations are dependent upon a set a values. What values? And how they determined?

The word ‘values’ is often preceded by an adjective: American values, Christian values, old-fashioned values, Jewish values. At first blush, however, this construction seems odd. When we hear the term ‘value,’ we tend to think about how much something is worth. Is gold, for instance, worth more to Americans than Europeans, to liberals than conservatives, or to Christians than to Jews? When it comes to values, does it matter what one’s national origin, religion or political proclivities might be?

Then again, it does seem to matter. Values do seem to vary in importance based on material need—which is more valuable to a starving person, a gold coin or a tuna sandwich or cultural tradition. Consider one’s attitude toward the American flag as opposed to the flag of Albania.

In contemporary political-cultural debate, an argument rages about values either being fixed or relative. It they are fixed, then tradition or material concerns are nearly irrelevant. If they are relative, then how can we employ the word ‘value’ in any meaningful context?

We can note first that the issue of fixed versus relative is a false dichotomy. There are some things that individuals value, a family heirloom or a personal keepsake, that would be of little or no value to anyone else. There are things that different communities value. Sociologists call them sancta, referring to both religious objects (a mezuzah, crucifix, Hindu cow, sheik’s tomb, etc.) and national/ethnic items such as flags. And then there are the more abstract values: peace, truth, human life, stability, creativity, daring, prudence, and so on.

I need to make one more distinction here, and that is between a value and a virtue. Virtues (thrift, compassion, attentiveness, courage, generosity) are ‘habits of the heart.’ They are universal qualities residing in the human mind or soul that generate certain sorts of actions. (Even though they are universal, they are not easy to determine. When, for instance, does thrift turn into miserliness, or courage into being foolhardy?) Values, on the other hand, are measurable, at least in a comparable sense. Everyone values peace, yet may be willing to disturb it for the sake of some other value. In the final analysis, this consideration is true for all values—abstract, symbolic and material. They are given to being measured against something else.

All values are thus correlative; capable of being compared one to another. Does that mean there is really no such thing as a fixed value? We are now perilously close to a slippery slope. If values cannot be fixed, then they may be relative, in which case, they may be nothing at all! At this point, I wish to bring in Jewish thought and the concept of Jewish values.

Let me start with the Jewish wedding. At the end of the ceremony, a glass is broken. There are a number of explanations for this action. Folklorists will note that a sudden loud noise is employed to scare away evil spirits. Sermonists will point out that one careless move can break something that will never be put back together again. Conventional Jewish practice relates the breaking of the glass to remembering the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Why, however, should one need to remember the Temple at a wedding?

The Temple was the location of the Holy of Holies, the direct nexus between God and humankind. It was also the house of the divine weights and measures, the basis by which values could be fixed. In the wedding ceremony, we are made aware of the notion that values are real. They are weighed and measured according to the will of God. Then the ceremony also reminds us that the Temple is no longer, and that those fixed values have disappeared from the earth as well.

Thus, as a marriage commences, the husband and wife are reminded that they are suspended between the knowledge of real, divinely appointed values, and the disappearance of those values. The decisions and determinations of married life must be made by a mutual—and necessarily imperfect—effort at trying to obtain what cannot be reached. Hence, Jewish values exist, not in their presence, but rather in the striving!

[Note: You might want to look at my essay, Medicine and Politics, on this website. There, I cite a valuable work by Martin Buber, Plato and Isaiah, which leads to a similar conclusion.]

IV. Lives Like Episcopalians, Votes Like Puerto Ricans

It is hardly a secret that American Jews tend to vote for Democratic Party candidates. It is also hardly a secret that American Jews tend to be materially comfortable. Since the late 1960s, Jews have had the highest per capita income of any American religious or ethnic group. (They beat out Episcopalians for this honor.) Only American blacks vote Democratic in higher percentages than Jews.

A teacher of mine would regularly proffer the slogan, “no one votes themselves out of business.” Analysis of different identifiable communities in the U.S. has borne out this proposition; namely, as the community became wealthier, they also became more politically conservative. Jews resolutely defy this trend. Indeed, recent surveys suggest that have become increasingly supportive of Democrats over the past four years!

One could argue that the liberal tendencies are in response to liberal trends in Judaism. Is Judaism however really liberal? This question cannot be answered with any certainty. Yes, there are definite liberal trends in Jewish thought, but there are definite conservative ones as well. Jewish tradition comprises literature that extends from the Bible to modern thinkers: over three thousand years and many thousand authoritative writers. The economic philosophy of the early rabbis (the age of the Mishna), for instance, tended to be communistic and egalitarian (at least with respect to men). The Talmud and later material, however, tends to introduce capitalistic and entrepreneurial concepts. As I have asserted before, Judaism is the ‘ism’ of the Jews. It is a conservative religion to those who are personally conservative, and a liberal religion to those who are liberal.

The liberal tendencies of American Jews therefore cannot be explained by resort to a particular understanding of Judaism. This is true not only because there is no definitive political theory in Judaism, but moreover because American Jews generally do not refer to their religion as a basis for their political attitudes. If it is not Judaism that leads to liberalism among Jews, then what does?

I think we need a practical meaning of ‘liberal.’ One political scientist, Jean-Luc Nancy, has provided a clear and succinct definition. He wrote: ‘Liberal’ means, at very least, that the political is receptive to what is at stake in community. On the other hand, ‘conservative’ means, at least, that the political is merely in charge of order and administration.

It is not only that this definition strikes me as true, but it also serves to explain the Jewish persistence in remaining liberal, even when more conservative policies might be in the interest of many Jews. Being Jewish—religious or secular—lead most individuals to be acutely aware of their minority status. Further, most Jews are aware that no amount of material comfort or personal identification with the mores and history of the society (in this case, the U.S.) reduces that primary awareness of being a minority. When politics is conceived primarily in terms of order, Jews recognize that the order being considered is not Jewish order. Community, on the other hand, is everybody, Jew and Gentile. The narrow self-interest of an economic policy that helps preserve wealth, is therefore forsaken for the larger self-interest that preserves the Jews’ place in society.

Of course, there are politically conservative Jews. The minority status of the Jews is discounted, either because the idea of the individual is so much more important than the idea of any community, or because the eternal conflict between Jew and Gentile is considered to be so ingrained and permanent that no community beyond that of a Jewish community can be contemplated. Jewish conservatives, of course, continue to represent a relatively small minority among America’s Jews, but please note that there is nothing inherently natural about being a Jewish liberal. Throughout history, Jews did tend toward conservatism, precisely because there was no hope or expectation that they could or should be integrated into a larger community. It is the pluralistic promise of America that induces the Jewish liberal spirit.

V. Special Interests

The science of economics exists—as any economist will note—because there is scarcity. If there were enough goods and produce to satisfy fully the needs of every person, there would not be a need to discuss how to distribute them. Since there is not enough to go around, at least to the satisfaction of every single person, we have economics. The science of politics exists because the world is unredeemed. If we lived in a world where both our material and spiritual (psychological, intellectual, emotional) needs were met, we simply would not need politics. Politics comes into our lives precisely because some things are missing and we wish to have them, or some things are threatened and we wish to preserve them.

The ‘things’ we wish to have or keep are particular to ourselves, our community or our tradition; they are a “special interest.” All politics, thus becomes a mediation of special interests, and all identifiable constituencies become, virtually by matter of definition, special interest groups. The Jews, as one would suspect, are a special interest group. What then is their special interest?

I have already suggested that one interest is the general concern of being able to participate in American society while preserving a particular Jewish culture. Beyond this issue, which is so abstract that it defies articulation in specific or practical political agenda, Jews tend not to be a special interest group, except for one overriding interest: Israel.

Since Harry Truman had the U.S. vote in the U.N. for the creation of the Jewish State, all American Administrations have been more or less consistent in their support of Israel. (Dwight Eisenhower’s pressure placed on Israel, along with Britain and France, after their action in 1957, against Egypt’s nationalizing the Suez Canal, is a rare exception.) Of course, Jews have their varied opinions with respect to which Presidents have been really good for Israel. In this regard, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton and perhaps the current George Bush, are usually given high marks. Johnson and Nixon, whose administrations were overwhelmed and tainted by Vietnam, are not as esteemed. Ford, Carter and the first Bush tend to be treated with suspicion.

These assessments are created by impressions we have developed regarding these men as personalities. The first four had (and have) been expansive in their expressions of admiration of the Jewish State, and relatively harsh on the Arab nations. Johnson and Nixon have always been perceived as dark souls. Ford, Carter, and Bush pere appeared to be cool regarding Israel. Appearances do not always comport with reality.

I personally believe that the best measure of an administration’s performance regarding Israel is not in the President’s rhetoric or demeanor, but rather in the fortunes of the Jewish State itself. Undoubtedly, the United States hardly controls everything that happens in Israel or the Middle East, but it is such a dominant presence in the region that over the course of a presidential term, the general drift of Israel’s well-being can be associated with American policies.

[An aside. The late political scientist, Daniel Elazar, talked about the influence of American policy on Israel in this way: The State’s founders—particularly David Ben Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and Menahem Begin—were greatly influenced in their thinking by the Jewish defeat to Rome in 70 C.E., which brought an end to independent Jewish nationhood until 1948. They drew two lessons from that event. One was that the Jewish people must always strive for some general unity of purpose. The second—and most germane—was that a Jewish State must never run afoul of a dominating major power. Since 1967, when the Soviet Union broke off relations with Israel (even though its Labor government was a member of the Socialist International well into the 1970s), the Jewish State has been careful in assuring that its foreign policy never strays far from the interests of the U.S.]

In the last thirty years (since the Yom Kippur War), then, when has Israel enjoyed general good times? The answer is during the Carter and Clinton administrations. During those years, Israel had net immigration, a growing economy, relative peace and increased diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, for all of their genuine positive feelings toward the Jewish State, have had administrations in which Israel mostly lost what gains it enjoyed in the previous years.

VI. Jewish Influence

Israel, however, has not been a dominant issue in Presidential campaigns for years. Actually, the question of the Jewish vote—while of great interest to Jews—has not been a particularly compelling factor in over twenty years. There was a time, I would suggest from FDR to the first Reagan administration, that Jewish influence was a factor. Jews, I have noted, have been substantially Democratic since Roosevelt. For many years, however, Republican campaigns would give thought to how large a proportion of the Jewish vote they would need to win in order to assure overall victory. Ethnic campaigning and explicit appeals to their record or attitude on Israel thus represented an important element of both parties’ strategies. All this, however, has changed.

The Jewish vote in America is no longer as influential as it used to be. Before describing this circumstance, let me note one area where Jews continue to have some strategic importance. Jews, as an overall community, are not only wealthy, they are politically active and generous. Political donations by Jews remain way out of proportion to their slice of the electorate. To this extent, attention to the Jewish community has not disappeared altogether.

The past disproportionate influence of Jews in Presidential elections, however, drew from electoral politics. Jews have never been much more than 2-3% of the total population. Since they have been considerably more attentive and involved in elections than other groups, they might represent closer to 4-5% of the actual votes. This is still a pretty small figure.

The influence was rather drawn from the concentration of Jews in large States. Through the 1970s, Jews mostly lived in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois and California, where their representation in the popular vote could be 10% or more. These States provide a large chunk of the electoral votes. Indeed, it is very difficult for a presidential candidate to win without capturing at least a few of these States. The percentage of Jews one candidate or another could garner in any one of these States could spell the margin of victory. And campaign staffs were well aware of this circumstance.

Since the 1980s, however, the demographics have changed. Yes, Jews still vote in percentages disproportionate to their population, but they are not longer as concentrated in the critical large States. Jews have become more scattered throughout the nation, and thus their influence has been diluted as well. Ronald Reagan drew nearly 40% of the Jewish vote in 1980, but his success dropped rather dramatically in 1984. He won more handily in that year. Campaigns, neither Republican nor Democratic, need take special care in attracting Jewish voters any longer.

* * *

As a group, American Jews will continue to have two overriding concerns within the American body politic: the maintenance of a society that accommodates multiple cultures, and well-being of the State of Israel. Fundamentally, they are actually the same issue, as both represent the safety and security of the Jewish community, both here in America and world-wide. Sometimes religiously and/or politically conservative Jews decry the ongoing liberalism of the Jewish community as an abandonment of particular Jewish interests in favor of universal human concerns. In reality, Jewish liberalism has essentially been a strategy for ensuring a fundamental Jewish self-interest; namely, the preservation of an identifiable Jewish community within a world that so easily slides into the attitude that Jews are superfluous. Liberalism is not necessarily the only strategy; some thoughtful Jews may even argue that it is not the best. It is, however, the method that the vast majority of American Jews have chosen, intentionally or not.

The waning of the Jewish influence, at least in presidential politics, should give us pause. As a community, we certainly still have a voice in national public affairs. Increasingly, however, in order to maintain that voice will have to include coalitions with like-minded groups. As long as the community tends to be liberal in their political outlook, the coalitions should be with other liberal-minded groups: blacks, portions of the Hispanic community, mainstream Protestant churches, a segment of the Catholic Church. Coalition building is, however, difficult, time-consuming and often fragile. It is a political-sociological-theological discussion for another time.