Thursday, January 20th | 18 Shevat 5782

September 6, 2020 3:37 am

Judaism in a Divided Society

avatar by Jeremy Rosen


A Torah scroll. Photo:

The culture wars are raging around us. Anything or any person who is unacceptable to the culture police on either side is to be banned, silenced, and censored. There is no room for debate.

This culture war is pitching two world views against each other. We now have what we might call the “Betrayal of the Clerks.” The French essayist Julien Benda published, in 1927,  an attack on the intellectual corruption of the age, La Trahison des Clercs. He used the word “clerc” to mean “scribe,” someone we would now call a member of the intelligentsia. The “treason” in question is the betrayal of their vocation as intellectuals and seekers after truth by allowing only one correct opinion to become an absolute.

Sadly, politics has now invaded and distorted intellectual life. There was a time, many years ago, before the Second World War, when much of the world was divided between the Fascists and the Communists. Leading thinkers at the time lined up on both sides.

The Cold War then pitted America, as the symbol of capitalism and freedom, against the Soviet Union, the champion of Marxism and dogma. When Russia collapsed, we all thought that capitalism had won and proved itself a better model. But then China rose and showed that a totalitarian pseudo-Marxist power could succeed in raising the living standards of millions of poor as never before. And the extremes of capitalism were shown to be immoral and divisive. Even so, most people I know would rather live in a capitalist society, with all its faults, than a totalitarian one.

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America, as the most powerful nation, came to be envied and resented. If it was the leader of the free world, most of the world only cared for its largess — certainly not its moral authority. And anyone associated with her, like Israel, was tarred with the same brush. The remnant of the old Marxist Left was caught in the middle. They hated capitalism and they did not approve of Maoism. So they came up with new -isms to hate. Extremes are simplistic and more passionate. But as the Midrash says, “Hatred unbalances the mind,” as on the other hand does love.

The alternative to Marxism is often said to be liberalism. But that term now has many different flavors. So let me abandon generalizations and talk of issues. The traditional Jewish assertion is that all humans beings are created in the image of God and are therefore of equal moral worth (unless, of course, their actions declare otherwise). From this stems the idea of obligations to other human beings (rather than the later notion of rights) — that we should not rely only on the state to solve our problems, but that we should take responsibility for our own actions, for better and for worse.

The Torah, for all its laws of human conduct, wisely does not advocate any one political system. Instead, it hints at various options and variables. Yet we know that what Maimonides called “The oppression of States,” Shibud Malchiyot, is the cause of injustice as much as personal greed and egoism.

The great innovation of Greece was not so much democracy (for what was democratic for them is not democratic for us), but the Socratic method: discussion — debate and open-mindedness to other points of view. And it this that is at stake here and now.

Just because all dogmas have failed to some degree, either economically or socially, does not mean that they are all as good or as bad as each other. Refusing to hear another point of view is what Allan Bloom called the “Closing of the American Mind.” But it has become the piety of university campuses. And Bloom, once regarded as an intellectual and cultural giant, is dismissed and rejected.

And this leads me to our own culture wars that have been brewing and growing these past 50 years. The blogosphere is full of abusive, aggressive, so called Orthodox rabbis pushing their own agendas by rubbishing and demeaning anyone who disagrees with them. I will not sully myself by mentioning their names. But if you are interested, you might look up Rabbi Nathan Slifkin’s blog Rational Judaism.

These religious heresy hunters, who give Judaism a bad name, have only been able to flourish because of the prevailing mood in Orthodoxy, which is a growing witch hunt against anyone who disagrees. “Only my Orthodoxy counts. Only my halachic opinions are acceptable. Only my ideas of what is right or kosher can prevail. Everyone else is simply wrong.”

We must not be afraid of expressing our own ideas and values — so long as we do so with respect, tolerance, and a willingness to hear another point of view.

Jeremy Rosen is a rabbi and educator now based in New York.

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