Why I’m An Orthodox Jewish Liberal; Why I’m an Orthodox Jewish Conservative
Editor’s Note: Last week at my daughter’s school, I saw a wonderful quote by Abraham Lincoln. One of his general’s said, “We should pray that God is on our side. Lincoln responded, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”
With the midterm elections only hours away and a country more divided than ever, we are attempting to find some common ground. Perhaps, what upsets me the most about the current political climate is the lack of self-doubt. We are sure that OUR side is the side of truth and that the other side is manipulative and power-hungry and will do anything to that end. We recently polled 400 of our readers and 15% told us they believe their political opponent is not just wrong, but actually evil.
But when both halves the country thinks that about the other half, what are we left with? Today, we are publishing an article co-written by an Orthodox Jewish Liberal and an Orthodox Jewish Conservative, about how they see Torah values in their political persuasion. Yes, there are power-hungry extremists on both sides, but I firmly believe that most people try to do good in this world. We don’t know if God is on our side, but we should pray that we are on His. (Please note, we are publishing the Liberal perspective first as it is more unusual in the Orthodox Jewish community and fits our tagline of “Orthodox. Unexpected.”)
Why I’m An Orthodox Jewish Liberal
By Rachel Wasserman
In my Atlanta community, I am an anomaly. I belong to the more “right-wing” Orthodox synagogue, and yet I proudly vote blue down the line and speak freely about my liberal political views. To me, the two are not incompatible, and yet people often react with surprise when they hear this is the case. There is an assumption that Orthodox Jews are all politically conservative. According to a survey by the American Jewish Committee, in the 2016 presidential election, 54% of Orthodox Jews voted for Trump, while only 13% voted for Clinton. While these may be the statistics nationally, in my Orthodox neighborhood, it seems even more imbalanced. In general, I try to avoid political discussions with members of my Orthodox community. I do not enjoy debating politics, so I find it easier to leave the subject alone and focus more on what unites us than what divides us. At the same time, I am unapologetic about my politics, which can sometimes lead to teasing from fellow congregants. While my outward reaction tends to be smiling and quickly changing the subject, these incidents always remind me about my outsider status.
I did not become Orthodox until my early 20s, at which point my political views were firmly set. By that time, I had graduated from a notoriously liberal university and was pursuing a career in social work, a field largely occupied by progressive women. I was a feminist, a humanitarian, a social activist, and now an Orthodox Jew. To me, these were all in perfect alignment. Living a life dictated by Torah commandments did not take away from any of my liberal views. If anything, being Orthodox added to my sense that making the world a better place is a duty that falls on all of our shoulders. My favorite lesson from all of Talmud is Pirchei Avot 2:21, which teaches, “you are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” To me, this is Hashem telling us that we should work every day to make the world a better place for everyone in it, which is the same underlying belief that dictates my liberal politics.
I am hard-wired to be progressive. To me, it was never a choice. Liberal political values feel natural to me. I believe that it is society’s responsibility to care for the disadvantaged, and that the government must ensure basic human needs are met and that people live with dignity and equality. I think our government is uniquely positioned to care for its citizens and that human rights and civil liberties must take priority over individual rights. We see these lessons repeatedly in the Torah as well. The Book of Exodus provides guidelines for taking care of orphans, widows, and strangers. In Leviticus, we learn about leaving the corners of our fields for the poor.
I have always valued having a diverse group of friends, and as a child my closest companions were racially, ethnically, and religiously different from myself. However, it wasn’t until I was in my 30s and moved to Atlanta that I formed close friendships with people who have different political views than my own. While my Orthodox friends and I do not regularly discuss politics with each other, we have been able to gain respect for each other’s opinions and put a face to the “other.” In the tense political climate that has enveloped us for the past few years, I find extreme value in this.
There is no one mold when it comes to Orthodox Jews. We dress differently, we talk differently, and we vote differently. What unites us all is our belief that the Torah is the word of Hashem, and that we are duty-bound to accept its commandments. Outside of that, we have the freedom to express our individuality. For me, my politics and my religion are seamlessly married, and while I do sometimes feel like a minority within a minority, I wouldn’t change any of it for the world.
Why I’m an Orthodox Jewish Conservative
by Yali Elkin
Conservatism – as it was once taught – is a philosophy that protects the individual from tyranny of the majority. It is based on the idea that citizens are independent enough to make their own life choices and live with the consequences.
This resonates profoundly with many Torah Jews. Such a society requires a high moral minimum, as the United States’ founders acknowledged. For this grand experiment in self-governance to succeed, they noted that the people must be virtuous and educated. Conservatism opposes an encroaching state, and protects our right to worship, study and live as Jews while enjoying the full rights of citizenship.
Conservatism is rooted in an intellectual humility about the limits of the government, a case underscored by the repeated, embarrassing failures of overly-ambitious government undertakings (such as certain anti-poverty measures or educational policies that have done nothing to improve their targets). This colors my approach to emotionally-fraught issues like the environment, abortion, and gun rights, but it also informs my views on the very role of government to begin with.
The Torah teaches that we were given dominion over the balance of creation and told to be fruitful and multiply, filling the earth and subduing it (Genesis 1:28). This is at odds with the liberal fears of population crisis. Similarly, the apocalyptic predictions of environmental disaster seem somewhat alarmist when I read “the world stands firm, it cannot be shaken” (Psalms 93:1). The same goes for rising ocean levels when we read Borchi Nafshi (Psalm 104) every Rosh Chodesh.
Of course, this is not to say that we should be wasteful or wantonly destructive. We are explicitly commanded to be faithful stewards of the earth. We cannot destroy trees for no reason, and even in a siege, fruit-bearing ones are protected. But neither our precious children’s nor our use of resources threatens G-d’s handiwork in creating the world.
While abortion-as-contraception is halakhically forbidden, there are Torah thresholds of life, viability and maternal health that differ from legal definitions. Abortion-on-demand has become more common, as the number performed in the US each year is daunting. One can sympathize with the minority of mothers who need one for exigent medical circumstances while weeping for those that seek them for convenience. The Torah perspective on this aligns much more with conservative values than with liberal ones.
Prominently featured in America’s DNA is the individual’s right to keep and bear arms. America won independence through armed farmers defending their homes against the most intimidating army in the world. The instruments of their victory were enshrined in the Second Amendment and it is something unique to anyone familiar with Jewish history. Since the destruction of the Temple, Jews have been subjects, not citizens. But since 1789, we have always been full citizens of this great country, trusted to keep and bear arms like everyone else. An armed society is a polite one and a polite society respects individual rights. Owning guns is both in total harmony with halakha and, quite possibly, a good idea to anyone familiar with Jewish history. Yes, they are weapons created to kill, but what matters – like with cars, knives or other inanimate objects used in crimes – is the intent and capacity of the user. They are, in fact, used more to prevent crimes than commit them.
Conservative policies empower people and protect our freedoms and liberties. But for such a social vision to flourish, it requires citizens to be charitable, educated and engaged. Handing off these responsibilities to the government is to court disaster (and does not satisfy our obligations to give tzedakah or to educate our children). This is something that many committed, educated and observant Jews like me celebrate and embrace. The power of the state has undermined and threatened Jewish rights for centuries. It is something we should seek to minimize.
Lastly, conservatives still subscribe to moral absolutes. To be conservative is to have the confidence to make value judgments about culture and to celebrate – and build on – what’s best about ours. It takes a modicum of such moral clarity, for example, to identify Israel as wholly deserving of America’s support and friendship on the one hand, and the nihilistic Arab terrorists who want nothing more than Israel’s destruction on the other. This used to be a simple and undeniable bipartisan reality. Unfortunately, it has become a wedge issue, with the average conservative politician today being a more ardent supporter of the US-Israel alliance and friendship than the most pro-Israel liberal. On this point alone, I believe, the sides could not be more clearly defined.
As Margaret Thatcher famously noted, “the facts of life are conservative.” This is why I vote the way I do.
About the Authors:
Rachel Wasserman is a social activist, working mom, feminist, and writer and speaker about women’s leadership and philanthropy. Rachel received her bachelor’s from Brown University in Psychology and Judaic Studies, her master’s in Social Work from Columbia University, and her master’s in Jewish Studies from The Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She is a Jewish communal professional who grew up on a farm in Lexington, Kentucky and now lives in Atlanta, Georgia. These views are her own and do not reflect the beliefs of her employer.
Yali Elkin is a CFO and avid reader who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey with his wife and children.
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