Rejoinder: In Defense of a Relationship with the Christian Right
In response to Mr. Kopel’s article, “Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, Yeshiva University, and the Jews,” [i] I must take issue with a litany of points he makes with regard to the American political-religious landscape and how it relates specifically to the Jewish community. While I cannot comment on the “Christian-centric”[ii] nature of R. Dr. Soloveichik’s public speaking engagements, I find Mr. Kopel’s overall characterization of both the “Christian Right” and American Jewry as considerably detached from reality. The argument contains both broad generalizations as well as misconceptions with regard to the fundamental views of both groups. It is this flawed understanding that may lead Mr. Kopel, as well as many others, to bemoan the political alliances Orthodox Jews are forging with factions historically hostile to their own parents and grandparents.
Let us start with the so-called “Christian Right.” Mr. Kopel’s argument rests on the repeated assumption that, in contrast with Jews, this group tries to “impose its values” on American society “to ensure that society and government abide by Christian morals.”[iii] Heaven forbid, Christians “speak about God to [their] neighbors” and may even “try to convince [someone] of His presence and role in worldly matters.”[iv] As an aside, being a religious Jew, I cannot really find anything wrong with having more people recognize God and see His hand in their lives (we even pray for it every day in Aleinu). Moreover, Mr. Kopel asserts that Christians are pre-occupied with the “nistar” (the hidden), and “perceive transcendentally that which [they] see around [them].”[v] Taken together, these characterizations of the Christian Right represent a false impression, promulgated precisely by those who lack familiarity with actual members of this group. The numerous charges Mr. Kopel levels ring untrue in light of the contact I have been privileged to have with members of this much-maligned voting bloc.
For almost all of my life, I have lived in the Deep South (Georgia), where most of my interactions with gentiles were specifically with conservative, religious Christians. My personal dealings with these wonderful people have shown me a slightly different perspective regarding those whom the media often portray as Tea Party radicals. A Salvation Army family has been our neighbors for over a decade. This past summer, I volunteered at the Good Samaritan Health Center (an overtly Christian non-profit organization), where they practice daily devotion[vi] sessions and pray for patients at bedsides. The Intown Community Church (Presbyterian) across the street from the Young Israel I attend has always been most gracious to us (even letting us park in their lot every day except for Sunday). Some of our teachers in high school were classic Southern Baptists who spoke with a drawl and wore crosses around their necks. Not once did anyone try to preach anything to me or convince me to adopt particular political positions on any sensitive subject. All I experienced were cordial people who took their commitment to religion seriously, and respected me for doing the same. To say that they are not “this-worldly enough”[vii] largely ignores all of the charitable causes Christians have undertaken and advanced. It has been shown that in America, religious participation is the single most important factor in determining the level of personal charitable giving.[viii] Practicing, religious Christians consistently volunteer more of their time and resources to bettering the societies around them.[ix]
Perhaps by “imposing values”[x] Mr. Kopel refers to the Christian Right’s political activism concerning social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and the death penalty. Personally, I see it completely within reason to use religious sentiments to inform one’s sense of morality, which in turn dictates one’s political views. Doing so should not automatically be considered an attempt to shove one’s religion down other people’s throats. If political positions are not to be based, at least partially, on one’s own moral sensibilities (which may be shaped by religion), then what are they to be based on? Take gay marriage as an example. Many of the states that have voted on the issue have voted to maintain the “traditional” definition of the word “marriage,” even those that have granted couples with same-sex unions the same, full legal rights as married couples have. Activists, unsatisfied with mere equality in the legal arena, have tried to go further and fully re-define the word “marriage.” The aforementioned voters who have altogether rejected such advances view the attempt by courts and activists to re-define the word “marriage” as an imposition on them. They see it as coercing communities to abandon an age-old definition, one that has held true in venerable, moral societies both religious and secular. To them, their vote is an attempt to defend longstanding social and religious institutions in the face of mounting pressure from the wave of secularization taking hold of the country. This shifting of perspectives to see where the other side is coming from can be done with regard to almost any social issue. Now, I am not at all arguing that as Jews we should align ourselves with particular Christian positions, nor am I judging the merits of Christian stances on any social issue. Rather, we must recognize that these individuals harbor deep moral sentiments that inform their vote, but that vote is not, in their own view, an attempt to “impose religious values”[xi] on society. It would be foolish to suspect that the Christian Right’s political motivation is to convert America into some Puritan utopia in which everyone adopts the fundamental tenets of Christianity. The sense I have gotten from my interactions with members of the so-called “Christian Right” runs contrary to Mr. Kopel’s portrayal of the motivations he attributes to them.
I now turn to Mr. Kopel’s analysis of the Jewish perspective on the issue. His first assumption is that Jews have not “tried to preach their religious values to the general public” or “impose [their] values or laws”[xii] on society. For my part, I have noticed a great deal of preaching coming from Jewish figures in the last few decades, mainly focusing on one theme: tikkun olam. As author Norman Podhoretz explains, Jews whose ritual observance has declined commonly supplant their concept of Judaism with modern-day liberalism and its ideals.[xiii] Incidentally, this has coincided with the uprooting of tikkun olam from its original, Tannaitic context[xiv] and taking it to mean something approximating the current social justice and humanitarian aid movements. Of course, this is not to say that Judaism does not believe in bettering society or in assisting those who need our help the most. Rather, the particular focus and means with which these goals are pursued are what many Jews have brought under the mantle of their religious values, much to the chagrin of some of their brethren. American Jews have indeed preached their values in recent times, but, having replaced traditional Jewish ideals with those of contemporary liberalism, it is only tikkun olam and the like that have been broadcasted to the wider society. This also explains why for the “last four decades the majority of Jews in this country have voted with their liberal principles,”[xv] an obvious outcome considering their choice of values with which to fill a religious void.
The article goes on to state that American Jews are “too concerned with the nigleh,”[xvi] which Mr. Kopel somewhat arbitrarily defines as a pregnant woman who wants an abortion or a death row inmate seeking a pardon. Mr. Kopel characterizes Jews as being “more attentive to the terrified pregnant woman than to her unborn fetus and more concerned with the death row inmate than with the biblical sense of capital justice that put him or her there.”[xvii] In this assertion, he is admittedly motivated by the statistic that a majority of Jews feel this way.[xviii] But why conflate Jews with Judaism? Is it true that Judaism has nothing to say in defense of the more “conservative” sides of the two sensitive issues that Mr. Kopel raises? For one, the Talmud surely places value in the unborn fetus[xix] and the positive merits of capital punishment.[xx] What a majority of American Jews think has absolutely no bearing on the objective characterization of Judaism’s position, especially given the modern-day transformation of religious ideals delineated above. In fact, Halakhah is clearly much more nuanced than that, and cannot often be said to support any one side of a political debate. I wholeheartedly believe that those on the right or the left who try to bend the Torah to support their own political agenda are committing a grave error. That being said, Mr. Kopel’s strong implication that Judaism is plainly at odds with the totality of values embraced by the Christian Right seems at best questionable, at worst downright wrong.
While I admire Mr. Kopel’s concern for fellow Jews who may not share our level of commitment, I fully understand the increasing tendency of observant Jews to politically associate with religious Christians rather than with their Jewish brethren. In the current cultural landscape, where many perceive traditional religious values to be objects of attack and ridicule from the increasingly secular left (especially as transmitted by the media), it is entirely sensible for Orthodox Jews to align themselves with the Christian Right. They see in this group committed individuals who will fight to defend values they too believe in, as both factions possess deep-seated, moral convictions stemming from their religious commitments. However, as was shown above, this in no way represents an effort by observant Jews to impose their own religious values (in this case, Halakhah) on society. Conversely, in their non-observant co-religionists, they see a movement that has distorted a cherished tradition to embody “liberal” principles either unrelated to or at odds with customary Jewish ideals.[xxi] This may sound harsh, but I think it explains the current trend of Orthodox Jews becoming more and more politically aligned with right-wing, religious Christians than with other Jews.
As Mr. Kopel states so eloquently, it is imperative that we maintain constant dialogue with Jews of other denominations to reach a consensus about the moral values we adhere to and the policy initiatives we support. Nonetheless, I wholly recognize and appreciate the political association of observant Jews with the Christian Right, so long as they do not tout Halakhah as the impetus for doing so. There is nothing wrong with political allegiances shifting over time as the ever-changing cultural backdrop in America presents fresh challenges to those who hold steadfast to their religious beliefs. Mr. Kopel presumes that we must identify with the political values of our people by virtue of their being our people, a view I consider both erroneous and imprudent. On the other hand, broadly adopting the positions of the Christian Right runs the risk of gradually causing us to discount the voices emanating from amongst our own. The values that drive us to espouse certain political views must never blind us to the fact that we will always have a special relationship with aheinu kol beit Yisrael, each and every member of the Jewish people.
Much thanks to Noach Goldstein (YC ’13), who helped me to edit this article and refine its arguments.
Akiva Berger is a senior at YC majoring in Biology.
[i] Chesky, Kopel, “Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, Yeshiva University, and the Jews,” Kol Hamevaser 6:1 (2012): p. 3-4.
[ii] Kopel, 3.
[iv] Kopel, 4.
[vi] A certain form of Christian worship.
[vii] Kopel, 4.
[viii] Arthur C. Brooks, Who Really Cares? (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2007), 32.
[x] Kopel, 3.
[xiii] Norman Podhoretz, Why Are Jews Liberal?(New York, NY: Doubleday, 2009), 280.
[xiv] See Gittin 32a, where the term tikkun olam is used as the basis for various decrees meant to thwart specific societal ills arising from shrewd halakhic activity.
[xv] Kopel 4.
[xviii] See Kopel 4, n. 5, where he bases his claim on the findings of a Pew Research Survey regarding attitudes of American Jews towards abortion and capital punishment.
[xix] See Oholot 7:6, where abortion is allowed only to save the life of the mother, and the view of R. Yishma’el, Sanhedrin 57b, who prescribes capital punishment for the murderer of an embryo.
[xx] See Sanhedrin 81b, where the death penalty can be imposed extra-legally in certain cases.
[xxi] See “The Ten Commandments of America’s Jews” by Jack Wertheimer published in Commentary Magazine http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/the-ten-commandments-of-americas-jews.