Jewish is as Jewish does
January 15, 2014
January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ is leading a broad coalition to focus attention on the human toll of “modern-day slavery” (see related articles). It’s a noble campaign, and not one with which most people are likely to quibble — unless to ask the churlish question, “What’s Jewish about it?”
This is a question that has exercised a number of people in recent years, either because they worry that the Jewish agenda is being diluted by “universal” causes, or because they object to the liberal politics of so many Jewish groups. New York Post columnist Naomi Schaefer Riley complained last week about National Council of Jewish Women’s pro-choice, anti-gun, pro-ObamaCare agenda, saying, “Another liberal group supporting liberal causes — but what makes it Jewish?”
She goes on to raise the universalist-particularist debate (known in these pages as tikun olam vs. peoplehood) but really, like so many critics of “tikun olam,” Riley is objecting to religious liberalism. Those who object to “tikun olam” as practiced in liberal synagogues say it wrongly equates Jewish tradition with progressive politics. Critics say the Jewish tradition is not “liberal,” certainly as the word is understood by the Democratic Party, nor should Jewish groups be involved in issues that do not affect the Jews in a distinct way.
Liberals and conservatives frequently debate how the Jewish God would vote, but to me the question is moot. It would only be relevant if Judaism were a small, monolithic sect that was looking to a pope-like leader for guidance on everything from personal hygiene to how to vote (some ultra-Orthodox movements function this way) or had surrendered its political authority to a specific charter and by-laws, like the Southern Baptist Convention, or to a council of elders, like the Mormons.
In fact, the Jewish community long ago splintered — or, if you prefer, blossomed — into multiple movements, denominations, and institutions, both large and small, who interpret the “tradition” in divergent ways and differ widely on the whole notion of authority. It’s laughable, 200 years after the Enlightenment, that some pundits and Jewish leaders are still trying to put that genie back in the bottle.
NCJW can probably justify each of the positions it takes in Jewish terms — pikuah nefesh, or protecting lives, or defending religious freedom, in the case of abortion. Similarly, the CRC can point to the ways Jewish women were exploited during the immigrant era by human traffickers or can say it’s expedient for Jewish organizations to form alliances with other religious and activist groups.
But does it matter? For the liberal women drawn to NCJW, their Judaism is indistinguishable from their belief that women should control their own biology, or that reasonable limits on firearms would save lives. For many CRC activists, Judaism means a commitment to human rights.
And here’s what Riley and other critics of “questionable” Jewish agendas miss: When a Jewish community or institution decides that something is a “Jewish issue,” it becomes a Jewish issue.
The organized Jewish community had a particularist, self-interested agenda through most of the 20th century. But some of this self-interest led the majority of the community to embrace universalist, often liberal, causes, from the labor movement to socialism to the Democratic Party. And as many of these particularist challenges waned — as Jewish immigration dwindled, as Jews left the working class, as anti-Semitism faded — the agendas of these communities and institutions evolved. Some found other particularist agendas, like Jewish education or supporting Israel. Others, having been weaned on liberal politics, expressed that in wider, more universal ways. These latter institutions, like the Reform movement and NCJW, did not feel they were becoming less Jewish. They felt that that their Jewish self-definition included, sometimes exclusively, progressive politics.
Again, others insist Judaism is essentially conservative and are attacked by Jewish progressives who say that Torah is a liberal document. But to argue this by citing Torah or “tradition” or Rabbi Moshe Feinstein would be like telling an Englishman that the Magna Carta says nothing about enjoying a good cup of tea, or — maybe more to the point — telling a yeshiva bucher in Lakewood that the Torah has no opinion on wearing a black hat and a long black coat. Sometimes, and maybe most of the time, people define themselves and their loyalties by lived experience, not by authority figures or foundational texts.
So you want to argue that Judaism doesn’t equal liberalism, or “Jews don’t let Jews vote Republican,” or that the only proper Jewish agenda is one that is completely self-interested? Knock yourself out. But until the day we elect a pope or someone acquires the trademark to the word “Jewish,” the Jewish agenda will be determined by the people calling themselves Jewish.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor-in-Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. Between columns you can read his writing at the JustASC blog.