To Fix the World: Jewish Convictions Affecting Social Issues

Article excerpt

Jewish responses to social issues, like those of any other group, are, in part, a function of the group's interests. As a small minority of the American population, Jews have historically supported laws, policies, and programs that guarantee the rights of individuals and minorities against those of the majority. This would explain, for example, why Jews overwhelmingly support a strong wall of separation, to use Jefferson's phrase, between religion and state; why both acts of Antisemitism and talk of the United States as "a Christian nation" engender an immediate, nervous response in Jews; and why surveys routinely report that Jews as a group are among the most liberal in supporting individual rights and protections.

Another factor that undoubtedly affects how Jews respond to social issues is their socioeconomic status. Although the median Jewish household income is higher than that of American households generally, all Jews are definitely not rich; indeed, twenty-two percent report household incomes of less than $25,000 per year, and five percent are below the poverty line. (1) Still, the fact that Jews as a group are relatively well off sometimes leads them, as David Sidorsky pointed out more than thirty years ago, (2) to take stands that other groups in that socioeconomic class take--with poorer groups of Jews taking other positions.

At the same time in many ways, it is still the case that, as Milton Himmel-farb famously quipped, "American Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans." (3) That is, although historically members of every other religio-ethnic group that became more prosperous invariably shifted from supporting Democrats to Republicans, Jews, in contrast, stubbornly remain as liberal as they had been when living in poverty. So, for example, even though President George W. Bush has been, by most accounts, the most staunch supporter among American presidents of the State of Israel, only twenty-four percent of American Jews voted for him in 2004. (Ironically, Puerto Ricans, although still among the poorest subgroups in America, have increasingly supported Republicans, against their economic interests, due to their strong Catholic or evangelical faith.) (4) This voting pattern among Jews clearly stems from factors other than group interest.

In this essay I will suggest that Jews' positions on social issues stem from their faith commitments about both how to make policy and what that policy should be. That is, they come from Jews' methods of interpretation of their own tradition as well as the content of Jewish conceptions and values as the various groups of American Jews understand and live by them. Thus, Orthodox Jews are the most likely to support the Republican agenda because of their version of Jewish faith, and non-Orthodox Jews, who constitute some ninety percent of the American Jewish community, (5) support Democratic candidates and policies due to their approach to Jewish tradition. After describing how these positions flow from the denominations' diverse understandings of the authority and methods of Judaism, I shall list a number of core Jewish commitments that also influence how Jews respond to issues of social policy.

Methods

James Packer, in his book, "Fundamentalism" and the Word of God, characterizes the varying views of Christians on how to interpret the Bible, as follows:

   For evangelicals, the final court of appeal is to be found in
   "Scripture as interpreted by itself'; "Romanists [that is, Roman
   Catholics], some Anglo-Catholics [that is,
   Anglicans/Episcopalians], and Orthodox" locate it in "Scripture as
   interpreted (and in some measure amplified) by official
   ecclesiastical sources"; and "Liberal Protestants" look to
   "Scripture as evaluated in terms of extra-biblical principles by
   individual Christian[s]." (6)

Jews who read this will immediately say that scripture cannot be interpreted by itself, that we human beings inevitably bring our own perspectives to any text including scripture, and that one's perspective is shaped by one's own biography, personality, and historical context. …

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