Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Judaism and the Limits of Liberalism

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Judaism and the Limits of Liberalism

Article excerpt

The best-known use of the word "liberalism" in Orthodox Jewish theology occurs in an essay by Abraham Isaac Kook, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, almost a century ago. He identifies three factions in modern culture: orthodoxy, nationalism, and liberalism. He defines liberalism primarily as the party of enlightenment, secondarily as the champion of universal values. All these forces are subsumed under the divine and each makes a positive contribution and must allow room for the others. Some version of this philosophy inspired the Modern Orthodoxy of my childhood.

It never occurred to me to doubt that true piety and the quest for knowledge went together. Rabbi Kook suggested that much of the bad repute of established religion was due to the Church's antagonistic attitude to modern science, and our teachers aspired to a worldview affirming science. The energy expended by our teachers in defusing the well-worn disputes about geology, evolution, biblical miracles, and so forth always seemed to me a distraction from more crucial matters, but it testified to their aspiration for a harmonious worldview. They took for granted that men and women of good will pursued overlapping goals to the best of their ability, despite differences among them about the source and the specific content of the good. The foreseeable future offered plenty of opportunities for material and moral progress, even if ultimate redemption required a convergence of belief. In a word, enlightenment was good, and universal values served a crucial, though not all-important, function in one's hopes for the future.

Three elements of Jewish history played a tacit background role in the form that this optimistic outlook took in the middle of the last century. First, Judaism was a perennial minority religion. Great claims could and should be made for the impact of Jewish teachings in advancing Western culture, but Judaism can not be expected to act alone in bringing about the millennium. The achievement of universal monotheism and brotherhood would likely require the confluence of many efforts rather than the "Constantinian" triumph of the true faith.

Second, despite the Holocaust and the threats of secularism and assimilation, modernity was regarded as good for the flourishing and morale of the Jews. The creation of Israel meant that Jews could take their place as a nation among nations, and if attacked could defend themselves. Outside of Israel, liberal values entailed the removal of barriers to Jewish equality along with the invidious discrimination affecting other groups.

Third, Zionism promised to revive the longdormant capacities of the Jewish people to engage the challenge of political power and social justice; in short, a healthy society. Whether governed by explicitly religious imperatives or by secular devolution, Zionism hoped to succeed handsomely where Western societies had so far delivered mixed results.

In college I found my religious and intellectual home in the classroom of the other dominant thinker of twentieth-century Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Though he rarely if ever uses the term "liberalism" in his theological discourses - most of his authence thought of liberalism only as a practical political program - it appears in the volume later published as The Halakhic Mind. Perhaps influenced by John Henry Newman, whose work he had studied carefully, my mentor castigated "liberalism" for subjectivity, for its failure to build theology on the objective data of revelation, and for its antinomian bent. Liberalism was guilty of confusing religion with aesthetic or moral categories.

Offhand, the pejorative characterization of religious liberalism had no more bearing on social, political, or economic liberalism than these varieties of liberalism had on each other. After all, respect for universal ethical principles seems to be the very opposite of subjectivism, and political liberalism is nothing if not legalistic, even litigious, in pursuing its agenda. …

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