We are so clear that the Egyptians, Greeks and the Romans were anti-Torah – the exiles of the past. But we are living right now in a Galus that is more powerful than anything we have experienced before. No wall can prevent it from seeping into our bones, and filtering past our consciousness. If we will not consciously work through each of the sugyas, we will naturally think like the broader environment around us.
The Phenomenal Success of the Western World
In the last three centuries, the Western world has improved life in countless ways. Today we have health care in a way unimaginable at earlier times and we have cures for so many diseases. We have electric lights, air conditioning, cars and planes. We have dramatically reduced infant and maternal mortality, and children are now better fed, better educated, and less abused. Workers make more money, are injured less frequently, and retire earlier. In the Western world, fewer people are poor, and there are significant social welfare nets. Life expectancy has been rising, and accidental deaths (car crashes, lightning strikes) are in steep decline. We have substantially more leisure time. A fair system of justice has been set up; there is democracy, freedom and equality.
So yes, Louis Farrakhan still runs wild. Jeremy Corbin has a good chance of becoming Prime Minister of Britain and the USA had its President Obama, who did great damage to the American-Israeli relationship. But, other than on college campuses, the average American Jew does not experience anti-Semitism as a part of their daily life. Whereas they do experience all the benefits, material and otherwise, that the Western world has to offer them.
The Great Progress of Western Man in Values
But it is not just at a level of medicine, technology, and wealth that the West has been so successful. Despite the differences between Yiddishkeit and Western values, the Western world has come closer to Yiddishkeit than anything in the history of the world.
We are used to hearing denunciations of America as Am Reikah, the land of Tumah; as if it is so thick with shmutz that anyone who walks around Manhattan or Pico Robinson will feel the layers of goo sticking to him. But this is not how the meforshim explain things. On the contrary, it was destined to be the closest and most sophisticated alternative to Judaism that would ever have existed in the history of the world. And indeed, the main themes of Western values – whole movement towards equality, liberty, value of human rights, universal human rights etc. – are an astonishing leap toward some of our most cherished values about man. The great political philosophers of the eighteenth century – and there are many of them – provided a secular, humanistic alternative to Judaism (all be it that they all believed in G-d and did not intend for a total secularization of Europe). Voltaire, Hobbes, Locke, Diderot, Hugo Grotius, Jeremy Bentham and so many others provided an incredibly profound set of ideas of how a society could be built based on the dignity of man, equality, democracy, and universal human rights. It is this ideological background that provided such a profound threat to Judaism and ultimately led to a situation when most of our people are assimilating.
However, if we look below the surface we will see some clear anti-Torah trends in the Western world, not least of all the removal of G-d from the picture.
Principles of Selfishness and Pleasure
Western society is based on a few big ideas. Perhaps the most important is the principle of utilitarianism, created by Jeremy Bentham and later on by John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism says that society’s job is to produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And the definition of good here means happiness, so really the rule is to act to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. It is therefore just a doctrine of advanced hedonism, and John Stuart Mill acknowledged his indebtedness to Epicurus, who was the original proponent of hedonism. Translated in Democracy, the legislator is meant to represent the majority’s wishes; in other words to advance the greatest happiness of the majority, (while protecting the minority). Both Republicans and the Democrats agree to this principle. This is a principle of how most people in the world can be selfish and still get on with each other. “How can I be selfish, without messing up your selfishness?”
And they give this fancy names. They call it “enlightened self-interest.” Self-interest is a code name for selfishness. Enlightened presumes that I am sophisticated and cultured about my selfishness – that I will sometimes help others, but only really because it benefits me in the long run. To this we must add the harm principle, which is a code name for saying that I must not bother your selfishness.
The type of capitalism that America proposes is really based on this idea of enlightened self-interest. If you leave everybody to be as selfish as possible (i.e. don’t interfere with the markets), it will produce the greatest benefit to society as a whole (i.e. the economy will grow). It’s principle is built into the world, as they see it.
And that became the great American dream, the land of opportunity. Everybody who worked hard could make it (= an ideal of selfishness) and the rugged individual (totally self-centered) trekking across the prairies became the symbol of American heroism. In addition, the dream to succeed was couched in purely financial terms. The land of opportunity was not for self-fulfillment in a moral, spiritual or character sense; it was not for moral development; it was not for anything that we talk about when we talk about the opportunity to fulfill your potential. It was to make money. “What’s he worth” became the way of assessing the value of another human.
This is why American society puts the stress on rights rather than duties. The question is always, “What do I get”, not what can I give. The American Constitution is basically telling us what is owed to us as citizens – we have the right to arms, to express ourselves freely or to keep silent, etc. The Torah, on the other hand is a Bill of Duties. We want to know what G-d wants from us, not what we can get out of the system. We say: Tizkeh L’Mitzvos. What we mean is that you should be zocheh to have more chiuvim (a mitzvah is a chiyuv). Our starting point is the zchus of duties, of being mechuyav. גדול המצווה ועושה ממי שאינו מצווה ועושה etc. It is a fundamental difference between our approach to things and America’s approach to things.
It became popular amongst certain mekarvim to show how all the great principles of the Western world came from Yiddishkeit. The only one that I can find that’s based on Yiddishkeit is universal human rights which in turn is based on the idea that all human life is intrinsically value (Tzelem Elokim). Even though we say that Klal Yisrael is Adam; Pirkei Avot says: חביב אדם שנברא בצלם and the mefarshim say there that this applies to non-Jews as well. They make a difference between Adam and HaAdam.
But even that is not so simple. (For if so, why are we not allowed to save a life of a non-Jew by breaking Shabbos, מעיקר הדין).
Ikvesa Demeshicah and the Moralization of the Nations.
It was to be wholly expected that in our time of Ikvesa De’Mashicha that Galus Edom (= the Western World), would provide the most profound and powerful alternative to Judaism. This is the סוף ברור הטומאה when, as the Daas Tevunos explains, the greater the force of the Tumah the more powerful will be the גולוי יחודו thereafter for it will be shown to be more powerful and hence to reveal itself against the strongest alternative. At this time there will be a Hitgabrus Hara and this will be to show that even the strongest ra is not strong enough to withstand the giluy Yichudo of HaKadosh Boruch Hu. When I think רע, I do sometimes think of the Iranians and our other enemies. But mainly I think of the clash of values between Judaism and the Western World.
More than that, the רע of the world won’t be simply destroyed. It will be transformed. It will become a part of the good. All that energy we see in American society will be channeled into revealing G-d’s oneness.
Democrats and Republicans
Both Democrats and Republicans are operating within the consensus of Western values we described above. In bottom line values, the differences between the Republicans and the Democrats are small. The arguments about transgender, or abortion or gun control are all done within the consensus. The differences are very small: a little bit more taxation, a little bit less; a little bit more governmental influence, a little bit less; a little bit more pro-immigration, a little bit less. It’s all just a question of degree.
We need to know that there is an intrinsic tension between Judaism and those values. Hence we are not Democrats and can never be Democrats. We are not Republicans and never can be Republicans.
We have to begin to think like Jews and develop an understanding of a Jewish approach to things, issue by issue. (It is a lot of work to tease out an authentic Jewish response to each issue.) This will lead to a very significant difference between our position and the position of the Republicans, which is the most popular party amongst the Orthodox today.
Secondly, and more substantially, in my opinion, the general trend in American society, for as long as I have been tracking it, is that there are liberal and then conservative swings back and forth over each period of a few years. But, the conservative swing, in reaction to a prior liberal swing, never restores things to where they were before. The end result is that even at the end of a conservative swing, comes backlash – the overall position of American society is still more liberal than it was before. So, positions having to do with gay rights, the definition of marriage, abortion, euthanasia, after all the swings back and forth, is in a liberal direction.
The most significant of these issues is the value of the family as a core and centerpiece of Western society. Forty-five years ago, the beginning of the ba’al teshuva movement, there was a much greater alignment between the average sensitive Jewish person, who was then generally from the Conservative Movement and we, as mekarvim. Today we have to understand that there is a much greater distance between us and the average American on a whole range of issues and this distance is only increasing. We are dealing with Galus Edom and there is no hava amina that any positions representing Edom is going to be somehow consistent with Yiddishkeit. Galus Edom is the final biur hatumah and hence we can expect the greatest gap between Torah and the positions of the world than we have ever experienced before in our history.
It seems so novel to say that Americans are operating out of the same culture when they are so passionate about their disagreements. Vociferous debates about gun control, abortion, the death penalty, taxation, illegal immigration, emission levels and all kinds of other issues are daily bread and butter for talk show hosts and millions of others.
(This is in stark contrast to Europe, which truly fits Daniel Bell’s “End of Ideology” thesis. The Europeans aren’t passionate about much at all. They couldn’t care less whether chemical weapons are used in Syria or there are floods in India. They cannot conceive that anyone wants to solve anything by war anymore and they are therefore singularly unprepared to fight the great evils. The vast majority of Europeans do not identify with religion of any sort. They are so jaded that they cannot understand why the Americans get so passionate about all the issues that they do. All that is left is the rights of the individual to do whatever he can do or wants to do, without harming somebody else.)
But all of this passion takes place within a specific Western paradigm. Even socialists like Bernie Sanders are only addressing the undeniable widening gap between the rich and poor and claiming that that raw capitalism on its own (the trickle-down effect) will not solve this. The Sanders agenda is single-payer universal health care, equal rights for women and ethnic and sexual minorities, a fifteen-dollar minimum wage and guaranteed employment. It may well be that Bernie Sanders is more consistent with Torah-principles than other approaches.
Liberal democrats are very optimistic about mankind as a whole; Republican conservatives less so. Liberal democrats prefer internationalism over nationalism, Republican conservatives the opposite. But centrist Democrats and Republicans pretty much agree on these issues as well.
Who Do We Identify With?
As Orthodox Jews, we may vote this way or that, but that does not identify us with a particular party. A Jew should never declare that he is a Republican or a Democrat. It is true that we take into account the candidate’s attitude to Israel. But the G’dolim have also said that part of our cheshbon should be whether that president will be good for America, as a whole.
However, as a mekarev, whom you voted for should be a closely guarded secret. If somebody asks you what you believe in, you’d have to say that Judaism has a very deep and profound approach to things that is neither Democrat nor is it Republican. On some issues it is closer to the Democratic view, and sometimes it is closer to the Republican view. But it can never be said to be one or the other.
You should never be tempted to talk politics – to express what you think about this policy or the candidate or, as it is today, the latest presidential tweet. What you can discuss are moral issues. And the more you can show your sensitivity to the issue itself, the more you can gain resonance with your students. But, there is no benefit that can come from people knowing your political beliefs, whatever those beliefs are. You are not going to get any student closer to Yiddishkeit by expressing political beliefs.
This is not just because of the pragmatics of the fact that most of the people out there are to the left (most of our students) and most of us are to the right, but because even if they were all pro-Trump, you job is to mekarev them to Yiddishkeit – to talk Torah.
As mekarvim, we have better begin to understand that Sanders has a lot of support. In 2016, the Institute of Politics, at Harvard’s Kennedy School, polled people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine, and discovered that support for capitalism was surprisingly low. Fifty-one per cent of the cohort rejected capitalism; thirty-three per cent supported socialism. I wouldn’t be surprised if the percentage of Jews (in this age-bracket) who supported socialism is even higher.
Learn How Not to Answer Questions
To sustain this you have to know how NOT to answer questions. Here are some examples:
“Who did you vote for, Rabbi?”
“If I told you, that would not make it a secret ballot.”
“How come so many Orthodox people voted for Trump?”
“I don’t know; I’m not in touch with the people who voted for Trump or for those who voted against Trump, to be able to represent them or to know why they did it this way or that way. I simply don’t know.”
In the end of the day, people are mekareved through other people. And, your students are going to be mekareved through you and it’s going to be your position, not the position of the broader Orthodox Community that’s going to be a part of their determining whether or not they can relate to Yiddishkeit. Your position has to be not one of neutrality, but one of not expressing an opinion. Your stated reason for not talking about politics is that your role is a spiritual one. You are not meant to be a guide to politics and your opinion is worth no more than any other opinion on the street. As a rabbi, you simply never get involved with expressing opinions of that sort.
What Can You Talk About?
You might invite your students to explore some of these issues with you using original sources without you taking positions. For example, you can discuss the qualifications of a president with the Nasi (who was really the equivalent if the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court).
In order to become eligible to be a Nasi, for example (we’ll use that same term), you had to be elected to the Sanhedrin. In order to be elected to the Sanhedrin, you had to be a Talmid Chacham. Such a person had to have very refined values. Maybe Abraham Lincoln and maybe, just maybe George Washington had such values. We would certainly be in trouble if our post-World War presidents were held to this standard.
The important thing here is that it was completely democratic in that anyone could become the Nasi, but he had to be up to snuff – there was an entry criterion. To be eligible for president, you have to pass an ethics test.
The situation here is more complicated. On the one hand, it is the responsibility of mekarvim to defend the State of Israel, in light of the fact that the excuse of anti-Semitism, especially the anti-Semitism of the left, is to be anti-Israel, in particular as expressed by the BDS movement. And hence, we have to understand that whatever our feelings are, each individual to his own about the State of Israel, this has become an issue that we all have to take on to some degree. It doesn’t mean that you have to become a political activist, but we cannot tolerate a situation where the legitimacy of the State of Israel is being questioned, whatever our hashkafic views on that subject might be, because in the eyes of our enemies, that is one step removed (or not even) from questioning the right of the Jewish people to exist.
On the other hand, the current generation of even somewhat identified Jews are further away from identifying with Israel by a long shot from their parents. In the past, one could use love of Israel as a way to access Jewish identity. Even today, Birthright is often the catalyst for a search for Jewish identity. But love of Israel is no longer the starting point for most Jews in their relationship with Yiddishkeit and hence the subject is best not talked about at those stages.
Once someone is on his/her way, however, the connection with Israel increases. (Even a Birthright trip does that for most students). At that stage you can talk about issues having to do with the Israel-Palestinian conflict, provided that you really do know what you are talking about and that you do not have very right-wing anti-Arab views, and that you understand that this is sooooo secondary to your primary job to talk Torah. I must caution you that I have had students at Neve who had Muslim friends and in one case a Muslim boyfriend – and what seemed like a mild statement by a teacher was not viewed that way by the student.
Certainly, even if you do go this route (of discussing Israel), it should be done in private. You cannot afford to be branded as the person who defends Israel. You must be branded as the Tzadik and the Sage. That is what we should all be striving to become.