Monday, October 24, 2011

Ethics of the Jewish Left

There are two guiding axioms regarding American Jews that can be said with relative certainty: Jews tend to list to the liberal left and have certainly been a force within the political left since the days of FDR and American Jews, regardless of Israel’s political proclivity to socialism have always been supportive. While American Jews did have their misgivings about the Kibbutz and socialized medicine, they treated those phenomena as a curios, non threatening concepts, political ideas that could be studied from a distance and visited on occasion. The support for the political left in America was a genteel flirtation with left wing concepts. Political ideas such as socialism weren’t, for the most part, within that purview of Jewish left wing American politics nor would it be tolerated. Entitlement programs yes, economic safety nets yes, socializing the country including health care, no. It was ok in Israel; after all, Israel was far away, and American Jews weren’t going to settle there any time before the Messiah beckoned them. So it appears there was an inconsistency, a double standard between what was ok for the Jews in Israel and what was acceptable for the Jews in America. The American Jewish left supported Labor government and their programs which launched and supported a social democratic society, preferring socialized medicine but this same standard of care was unacceptable for American Jews. They believed that the American capitalistic system was the best and its medical/health system was the finest in the world. In the eyes of the American Jews it was ok for Israelis to compromise their health system for the benefit of the masses, but not ok for Americans to follow suit.

Over the past decade this picture has changed considerably offering on the one hand a more consistent approach by the American Jewish community to standards appropriate for Israel as well as for Americans giving a new understanding to that aphorism “what is good for the goose is good for the gander”. On the other hand this has opened up a series of existential concerns that are more relevant to American Jews than Israelis. Ironically this developing existential threat to the American Jewish community has balanced the scales by which both communities face existential threats: Israel from without and American Jews from within.

The twenty first century has dawned with a subtle but focused shift in how Americans view the world. Americans see things less through the prism of countries and nationalities, viewing our challenges on a much more massive scale: a global scale. Our economics have become global and so has our understanding and approach to politics. Americans no longer see themselves as “exceptional” Americans but as members of a “One World” community. The butterfly effect once the provenance of meteorological and mathematical theories can now be applied to global politics and sociology: what affects someone in a small African village will ultimately affect many people in across the globe. Jews have fallen in step with this reasoning as well. The more left of center one is, the more apt one is to fall into lock step with this approach. On the surface one would think that this global vision is relatively benign: the more we view our challenges as global the more effective and comprehensive the solutions will be. But in reality it is an inverse ratio. The more one sees the world as “One World”, one community, a global community, the less one sees his own people as special, unique and worthy of special treatment. This is what is happening in the United States. Exceptionalism used to be the guiding light of the American dream. It was understood by its citizens that America being blessed was a very unique place to be a part of. It was a privilege to be a citizen and defend the country when called upon. The liberal left has slowly but surely chipped away at America’s view of itself as exceptional, deriding it at every opportunity, preferring to place America on equal footing with every other country, apologizing for its past sins of excellence.

The American Jewish left, in sync with the rest of the American left has crafted for itself a new Judaism, a Judaism that can fit the times, a Judaism bowdlerized of the uncomfortable words of “asher bochar banu” (choseness), replacing it with “tikkun olam” (social justice). In so doing they have corrupted the idea and concept of those words to mean global social justice rather than internal soul searching and self-correction as it was intended by the kabbalists. By denuding Judaism of its sense of “choseness” left wing Jews have pared down the unique qualities of Judaism putting it on the same footing of the latest progressive theories of social workers, community activists, union organizers and the like.

This is a Judaism that is hardly recognizable, reinvented to suit the whim of a new global generation. This past week a woman chided me in not having any grounding in fundamental Jewish knowledge claiming that it was incredible how I didn’t know that one of the primary tenets of Judaism is social justice! To be sure Judaism has always had a place for tikkun olam but it has always been fraught with intellectual tension. Like everything else in classical Judaism, nothing is simple.This tension was best highlighted by Hillel who stated a profound truth: “If I am only for myself, who am I?” and “If I am not for myself, who will be for me”? In laying down this truth, Hillel was recognizing both the universalistic drive we ought to have as human beings but at the same time acknowledge the particularistic nature of our people, if we wished to endure as a people. American Jews need to be cognizant of this polar tension that exists within the ethical matrix of the Jewish people. We can’t afford the luxury of adopting the message of the left which promulgates a universalistic message without compromising the integrity of the Jewish people. By co-opting into that message the American Jewish community risks the danger of trivializing its own identity for the greater good of the global community. The logic of the continuum makes perfect sense. If the concern is for the universal man, than the personal needs of the particular become overshadowed, blended in, ultimately loosing its unique identity and unrecognizable from the rest.