Friday, September 04, 2009

Unquestioned Political Reflexes . . .

I keep up as best I can with what Jeff Jacoby, a columnist for the Boston Globe, has to say, he being in my view one of the few voices of thoughtfulness and principle at the Globe. I saw that Jacoby had contributed to a symposium for Commentary Magazine entitled "Why Are Jews Liberals?" a symposium in response to a recent book by the same name by the long-time editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz. So I decided to take a look. The other contributors were David Wolpe, Jonathan D. Sarna, Michael Medved, and William Kristol. Here are a few excerpts which have implications, not just for Jews, but for all of us.

The first is a humorous but insightful anecdote from Jeff Jacoby's remarks:
According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, only 16 percent of Jews attend religious services at least once a week, compared with 39 percent of Americans generally. Just 31 percent say religion is “very important” in their lives (vs. 56 percent of Americans).

Such data led Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, to quote a comment made by the late hasidic troubadour Shlomo Carlebach after a lifetime of visiting American campuses: “I ask students what they are. If someone gets up and says, I’m a Catholic, I know that’s a Catholic. If someone says, I’m a Protestant, I know that’s a Protestant. If someone gets up and says, I’m just a human being, I know that’s a Jew.”
David Gelernter is professor of computer science at Yale University and the author of "Judaism: A Way of Being," to be published in January by Yale University Press.

Here is an excerpt from his contribution to the symposium:
So what’s happened in Europe?

In much of Western (especially northwestern) Europe, marriage seems to be dying. (“Today . . . 0nly the lower orders and what remains of the gentry bother to marry, and everyone else takes a partner, as if life were a dance, or a business venture.” Thus the Irish writer John Banville in his 2006 novel, The Sea.) Up-to-date Englishmen on the topic of science versus religion sound, too often, like smug low-church curates in Trollope holding forth on the British Empire versus the filthy natives. (This suffocating self-righteousness ruins the novels of — for example — the contemporary Englishman Ian McEwan.) European sex (casual or not, hetero- or homo-) seems to have developed the moral significance of an ATM transaction on a street corner. The “Green party” was a German invention, the English Conservatives have recently adopted a green tree as their emblem, and European eco-priests speaking ex cathedra are generally regarded as infallible.

The strangest aspect of modern Europe is its tentative yet progressing love affair with death. (We think of Keats listening, darkling, to his nightingale.) The death wish is plain among Europeans who shrug off birthrates so low (and immigration rates so high) that their nations will be gone within a few generations. The death wish probably plays a part in the fervor some European nations (especially Germany) feel to lose themselves in the European Union, and in the outright enthusiasm in parts of Europe for assisted suicide. Modern Germany often cremates the dead with no rites and no comment, making death as humdrum as taking out the garbage.

If we sum up these tendencies, we arrive at a belief that man should be happy as an animal among animals, should aspire to nothing higher, and should be satisfied to worship the earth and himself if he must worship anything. This is a new sort of paganism but is clearly related to older types. In fact, mulling German history in particular, one wonders whether the Germans ever were more than half-Christianized, whether paganism hasn’t always appealed to the lofty German Geist. It’s not surprising that Germany should be a leader not only in the new liberalism but also the new paganism.

Will American Jewish liberalism drift by inches into American Jewish paganism? Not necessarily. But that fate will be avoided only if American Jews form a clear picture of the direction in which they are headed before they follow Europe into the anonymous pagan abyss and disappear. Jewish religious genius is capable of rearing up at any time and changing the direction of history—but only if Jewish prophets speak up loud and clear . . .
Finally, Michael Medved, a radio talk show host, offers what was perhaps the most provocative contribution to the symposium:
For most American Jews, the core of their Jewish identity isn’t solidarity with Israel; it’s rejection of Christianity. This observation may help to explain the otherwise puzzling political preferences of the Jewish community explored in Norman Podhoretz’s book. Jewish voters don’t embrace candidates based on their support for the state of Israel as much as they passionately oppose candidates based on their identification with Christianity—especially the fervent evangelicalism of the dreaded “Christian Right.” . . .

Anyone who doubts that rejection of Jesus has replaced acceptance of Torah (or commitment to Israel) as the eekur sach—the essential element—of American Jewish identity should pause to consider an uncomfortable question. What is the one political or religious position that makes a Jew utterly unwelcome in the organized community? We accept atheist Jews, Buddhist Jews, pro-Palestinian Jews, Communist Jews, homosexual Jews, and even sanction Hindu-Jewish meditation societies. “Jews for Jesus,” however, or “Messianic Jews” face resistance and exclusion everywhere. In Left-leaning congregations, many rabbis welcome stridently anti-Israel speakers and even Palestinian apologists for Islamo-Nazi terror. But if they invited a “Messianic Jewish” missionary, they’d face indignant denunciation from their boards and, very probably, condemnation by their national denominational leadership. It is far more acceptable in the Jewish community today to denounce Israel (or the United States), to deny the existence of God, or to deride the validity of Torah than it is to affirm Jesus as Lord and Savior.

For many Americans, the last remaining scrap of Jewish distinctiveness involves our denial of New Testament claims, so any support for those claims becomes a threat to the very essence of our Jewish identity. Many Jews therefore view enthusiastic Christian believers—no matter how reliably they support Israel and American Jews—as enemies by definition. Rather than acknowledge the key role played by Christian Zionists (prominently including Harry Truman) in establishing and sustaining the U.S.-Israel alliance, liberal partisans love to invoke 2,000 years of bloody Christian anti-Semitism. Today, however, the echoes of that poisonous hatred, complete with seething contempt for the allegedly disloyal and manipulative -“Israel lobby” in American politics, turn up far more frequently in the newsrooms of prestige newspapers or the faculty lounges of Ivy League universities than they do in Baptist churches in Georgia or Alabama.
The whole symposium is here.


Unknown said...

"To this day, religion and politics remain “braided together in my head, but as a matter of conviction I endeavor to keep them apart. The universal ideas that I learn from my tradition must be transposed into a common American idiom if they are to influence anyone other than me. Anyway, I do not value religion chiefly for its morality. There are moral religious people and moral secular people, immoral religious people and immoral secular people. And the union of religion and politics inevitably injures them both." -Leon Wieseltier

Mr. Wieseltier responds strongly to Podhoretz and the question of why Jews are Liberals here:

Mike O'Malley said...

So Moshe, what does Leon think of Norman's new book?


Thank you Gil for introducing me to this symposium. I wonder when I might have come across it otherwise. And thank you Dean for contributing that link to Leon Wieseltier's review. I thoroughly enjoyed it's dismissive light touch. Leon seems content with the status quo. He's not particularly curious about this question it seems. For Leon, Norman's new book is boring, too self referential and provides insufficient examples in Leon's view of why Conservatism does not appeal to American Jews. It's good to "vote like a Puerto Rican"! There is an old adage in American Judaism that asks: how many authoritative Rabbinical positions will you get if you put two Rabbi's together. The punch lines answer no less than five! One of the reasons I so value the Biblical Archaeology Society is that its founder, Hershal Shanks, is a very successful litigator who thrives on controversy. I find that I learn a great deal when Shanks publishes scholarly debate and controversy. Here Leon doesn't debate so much as Leon is dismissive. It seems Leon wants his readers to dismiss Norman's new book unread.

Leon does say a few rather interesting things however. One of which is: "I share Podhoretz's concern that the American Jewish attitude toward Christian conservatives too often looks like contempt". And when Leon says: "Podhoretz is not mistaken when he declares that the enthusiasm for Israel among conservatives is real and new and deep. He is also correct that what sympathy there is for the Palestinians in American politics is to be found largely among Democrats", Leon opines: "(t)he problem is that (Norman) cannot suppose that sympathy for the Palestinians may coexist with sympathy, and even love, for Israel". It seems to me the Leon's partisan blindness is that he cannot suppose that sympathy for the Palestinians may coexist and may indeed be propagated by intensifying virulent anti-Semitism in the Democratic Party and on the radical Left. It seems that Leon can't imagine that he too could be betrayed by his rainbowed mistress.


Gil, there is much to discuss in this rich symposium, so much it is hard to know where to start. Nonetheless I find myself grateful for the company of Christiano-philic Jews who offer much wisdom. At a time when various flavors of socialists and Islamofascists once again maneuver millions of Jews into an epochal kill zone we can mediate upon Girard's potent multivalent observation, that in the absence of Christ, the heirs of the Pharisees become the world's perfect sacrificial scapegoat.

Yet Providence perhaps grants unanticipated opportunity. We know more about the Bible and its formation that any previous generation including its authors and canonizers. Thanks to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls we may now begin to know of the many Judaisms that filled Israel during the Messianic Age during the several centuries before the desolation of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome and the resulting subsequent emergence of Mishnah. We can now better appreciate the New Testament as Jewish religious literature and how and why the Gospels are not anti-Semitic. And according to the Biblical Archaeological Society we can even begin to understand the formation of normative Rabbinical Judaism in the 6th through 8th Centuries AD in a Persian context. As you well know Gil the Church has risen to the occasion by stripping the vestiges of anti-Semitism from its pedagogy, it now seems time for Rabbinical Judaism to do reciprocate.