Who are we and what are we doing here? Those are not existential questions. As this is the first conference of Jewish conservatives an appraisal is definitely in order. Therefore, it behooves us to ask: What in heaven’s name is a Jewish conservative?
If you ask our opponents — the secular, Jewish establishment and those even further to the left — they will tell you we’re an anomaly.
Everyone knows Jews are liberal. After all, who else has the incomes of Episcopalians and the voting habits of Puerto Ricans? Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard, writes: “Jews are associated with liberalism the way French are associated with wine: It is considered native to their region.”
Does this put us out of the mainstream and beyond the pale? Yes and no. Yes, as regards the values of the majority of secularized, assimilated Jews. No, in terms of the eternal ethos of Judaism.
I’ve been involved in the conservative movement, in one way or another, for 30 years and have the scars to prove it. Early on, I began noticing an impressive number of Jewish activists and intellectuals in the movement. However, in terms of their religious commitment and cultural identity, they were very similar to Jews on the other side of the political spectrum.
This phenomenon isn’t confined to Jewish conservatives. For most activists, politics fills the void created by the absence of spiritual values. Except for the religious right, that’s generally as true for conservatives as it is for liberals.
By and large, political people worship the deities of dogma. The secular left idolizes activist government, income redistribution, equality, multiculturalism and free-standing rights.
The secular right adores individualism, the free market, national security, occasionally culture, and the Laffer curve. Both ignore the source of life, values, rights and responsibilities.
The key question for Jewish conservatives of the 1990s thus becomes: Are we merely Jewish or are we Jews. Are we “conservatives of Jewish extraction,” or are we Jews whose souls resonate to three millennia of Jewish teaching — Jews animated by the vision of Sinai, Jews who understand that loyalty to that lofty vision requires them to be conservatives of the spirit?
In this regard, I am vastly encouraged by the fact that no fewer than five rabbis addressed this conference and the president of Toward Tradition is a Rabbi named Lapin.
We don’t need a platform or a program. The Written and Oral Law contains all the agenda we’ll ever need. What we do require is the wisdom, courage and tenacity to apply those principles consistently to the modern world.
To be true to our heritage, we can’t be multicultural or even very tolerant. Tolerance is vastly overrated. Our tradition calls on us not to tolerate the intolerable. When we entered the Promised Land under Joshua, we found a multicultural paradise, a beautiful values mosaic — and we destroyed it. We could have been tolerant. We could have said, “these Canaanites, sure they sacrifice their children to idols, engage in ritual prostitution, sodomize little boys — but, look, that’s their lifestyle, their choice. We may not understand them, but we must respect them.”
We didn’t. We smashed their temples, stopped their sacrifices, overturned their idols, and established a hegemony of our values. Jews faithful to the mandate of Heaven have been fighting a culture war for the past 3,300 years — ever since a group of nomadic shepherds stepped out of the desert and onto the stage of history and started something that came to be known as Western Civilization.
We can’t remain true to that vision if we ignore the paramount moral issues of our times.
After all, we are the people who taught humanity about the value of life. We told the Canaanites not to “make their children pass through fire.” The Greeks thought we were barbarians because we didn’t kill our children born with birth defects. Obviously, we didn’t appreciate the centrality of the quality of life.
We gave the world sexual ethics. Prior to the advent of Torah, to speak of sexual morality was a non-sequitur — it didn’t compute — like someone today talking about moral aerobics or ethical snack food.
When it came to satisfying sexual urges, the ancient near East was exceedingly non-judgmental, scrupulously respectful of lifestyles. If a man wanted to have intercourse with a concubine, a camel, another man, or a child — that was inconsequential. Women were treated as breeding stock and children were routinely exploited. It took sexual exclusivity, restraint and a commitment to heterosexual monogamy to make the family possible. It was the Jews who proclaimed to the world that not all sexual acts are equal; that only relations between a man and a woman — bound to each other by commitment and tradition — are kadosh, are holy. Everything else is wrong, to one degree or another. In so doing, we sanctified the mundane, raising the sex act from an animal to a spiritual plane. Today, we are regressing at an alarming speed. The Torah-faithful Jew (with a memory stretching back across the centuries) must ask himself: “Isn’t this where I came in?”
America allows the killing of 1.5 million unborn children a year in this country, under the guise of reproductive rights. But abortion has nothing to do with reproduction. Absent grave necessity, deliberately ending a nascent human life isn’t a right. We know who put the child in the womb. Unless and until events reveal otherwise, we must assume He wants the birth of each unborn child.
I could not put it better than George Weigel and Bill Kristol who wrote in National Review (August 15, 1994): “America cannot indefinitely sustain itself as a law-governed democracy when 1.5 million innocents are annually the victims of privately authorized lethal violence. Abortion on demand is morally corrupting in ways that gravely undermine the future of the American experiment.”
Once you accept the premise that all innocent life isn’t worthy of respect and protection, you open a Pandora’s coffin. You can’t have reproductive rights alone. Along with these pseudo-rights, come infanticide, assisted suicide, involuntary euthanasia, and the demise of the Judeo-Christian ethic.
Just so with gay rights. It is utter un-scientific, non-halachic nonsense to say that homosexuality is a genetically programmed sexual response that individuals are powerless to transcend. It defies logic to believe that God made certain people “gay,” and then (in His Torah) told them that to act according to their nature is “an abomination.”
As Dennis Prager so cogently observed in his newsletter The Ultimate Issues: “It is impossible for Judaism to make peace with homosexuality because homosexuality denies many of Judaism’s most fundamental values. It denies life; it denies God’s express desire that men and women cohabit; and it denies the root structure of Judaism’s wish for all mankind, the family.”
Why should only one type of sexual behavior be involuntary? Perhaps promiscuity is also genetically programmed. Maybe God made some people pedophiles and others sadomasochists. Try living in a society where sexuality is divorced from morality and is considered non-volitional. Try it — but you won’t like it.
Of course, the free market is vital. And, of course, limited government, the rule of law, a coherent culture and national security are essential.
But face it, you can’t have a strong economy without strong families. (Successful capitalism presupposes Biblical morality.) And you can’t have effective national defense without men willing to fight and die for families worth preserving. And you won’t have either without a society that upholds the sanctity of life and the sanctity of intimate relations.
We stand for this or we stand for nothing at all.
If this conference is to be the beginning of a movement, allow me to suggest a slogan for it by recalling the lyrics of my favorite gentile songwriter (you didn’t know there were any): “Then conquer we must when our cause it is just. And this be our motto ‘In God is our trust.'”What in heaven’s name is a Jewish conservative? A Jew who is a conservative in the name of Heaven.