Note: This piece is part of a symposium on “The Spirit of Jewish Conservatism” published in Mosaic magazine. The symposium kicked off with an essay by Eric Cohen, to which other contributors responded.
While I laud Eric Cohen’s effort to articulate a program for a Jewish conservatism, one key feature of his program worries me greatly. This feature isn’t any of its specific components (all of which I support), but rather the fact that, as Yuval Levin perceptively notes, Cohen’s proposal essentially seeks to map the three main strands of American conservatism onto Judaism. We already know what happens when we try to bolster Jewish identity by linking it to a Western political ideology, because, as Cohen himself observes, we’re currently witnessing the disastrous fruits of a decades-long effort to do precisely that with liberalism.
Granted, much of American conservatism—like family values and the emphasis on the nation-state—is very compatible with Judaism. But so are many aspects of liberalism, like its concern for the poor or its aspirations to perfect the world. And because Judaism has aspects of both liberalism and conservatism, it can never be fully compatible with either.
Thus if Jewish conservatism is posited as merely a Jewish version of American conservatism, at some point Jewish conservatives will be forced to choose between their Judaism and their conservatism, just as Jewish liberals have been forced to choose between Judaism and liberalism. And they are liable to make the same choice many Jewish liberals have made, allowing their political ideology to trump Judaism because their political ideology has become their Judaism.
For a Jewish conservatism to be viable, it must be built from the start on Jewish rather than Western roots. And that means it can’t be fully congruent with American conservatism: It must exclude some things American conservatism contains and include some things American conservatism lacks. This would have the additional benefit of enabling Jews to make a unique contribution to American conservatism, just as Catholics have done by drawing on their unique religious tradition.
To give one example: a Jewish conservatism ought to focus far more on obligations and duties than on rights . Unfortunately, American conservatism, like liberalism, has become increasingly focused on rights. The particular rights it emphasizes often differ (religious freedom, for instance, is now championed more by conservatives than by liberals), but the rights-based discourse is the same. Consequently, almost any cause liberals can successfully cast as a “right” soon makes inroads among conservatives; see, for instance, the increasing conservative support for gay marriage. Duties, meanwhile, are increasingly falling by the wayside: conservatives are no more eager than liberals to revive the duty to defend one’s country once embodied in the universal draft.
True, the very notion of human rights derives from the Bible’s revolutionary statement that all men are created in God’s image. Yet the Bible itself doesn’t talk about rights at all; what it talks about are obligations: man’s obligations to God, man’s obligations to his fellow man, even God’s obligations to man. And that’s because, at bottom, duty is a cornerstone of a good society. It’s impossible, for instance, to sustain strong families without parents believing they have obligations to their children that trump their own right to freedom or self-fulfillment. And it’s impossible to sustain a nation-state without citizens believing they have obligations to their country that sometimes, as in war, trump their right to freedom or even life.
Like Yoram Hazony and Meir Soloveichik, I question whether any Jewish conservatism could ultimately survive without God, the Bible, and Jewish law at its core. At the very least, these sources must be mined to create a Jewish conservatism, because no other source of unique Jewish content exists. And if Jewish conservatism is simply a replica of the American version, it is guaranteed to fail.
Originally published in Mosaic on June 1, 2015