Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Iyun”: Deliberations > Liberalism: Its Peril and Its Deliverance

Liberalism: Its Peril and Its Deliverance

The principles of contemporary liberalism, or “progressivism,” threaten the very existence of Orthodox Judaism in general, and that of its Charedi variant in particular. Coping with this threat requires a Torah response to the moral claims of liberalism articulated in contemporary language. An awareness and study of modern conservative thought will provide a good place to start.

Kislev 5781 / November 2020

Just last Shabbat, a friend told me that due to the coronavirus pandemic his entire immediate family – a classic Litvish clan, mostly Kollel couples along with the usual exceptions – had recently formed a family WhatsApp group. All in. I was not surprised. The massive increase in use of social media platforms (mainly WhatsApp and similar apps) is an open secret in Charedi society. WhatsApp has reshaped communication norms within Charedi families and circles of friends, between co-workers, and even between laymen and Rabbis (80% to 90% of halachic questions I receive, albeit predominantly from English speakers, are delivered via this medium). More interesting were his next remarks about the content shared on this family group. Latest hits by Israeli artists were freely exchanged – artists with precious little in common with Charedi society were exchanged – and there were even mentions of the latest on the new season of an Israeli talent show. “Something has changed,” my friend concluded.

Indeed, something seems to have changed. Just as the free market reflects the material wealth of a given society, so culture – literature, music, leisure – reflects its spiritual state of affairs. “Tell me who your hero is,” wrote Rabbeinu Yonah (my paraphrasing), “and I will tell you who you are.” It speaks for itself that Bnei Brak residents partake in Tel Aviv culture, even partially. “Jewish culture” has on the one hand made inroads into Israeli culture, while on the other Israeli culture has infiltrated into Charedi society – a parallel reflected not only in music but also in literature and cinema (via the personal computer). The question of normative judgment – “Is this good or bad?” – is something I will leave the reader to decide on. Important for our purposes is the fact itself, indicating a new circumstance, hitherto unknown.

Days of a militant secularism that seeks to destroy everything good while defying God and His Torah are long behind us; the twenty-first century is not a repeat of the twentieth

My contention in this article is that this current situation calls us to reexamine our strategy in the struggle against the liberal threat. Days of a militant secularism that seeks to destroy all things good while defying God and His Torah are long behind us; the twenty-first century is not a repeat of the twentieth. Revolutionary ideologies calling for the rejection of religion, and great movements that rallied masses in furtherance of those ideas, have given way to a single ideology, one that is simultaneously both more modest and more powerful: liberalism. Its founding principle of “live and let live,” which had its downs but also no few redeeming features, has morphed over time into a more modern and polarizing version, often called “progressivism” in American political discourse (throughout this article, I use the word “liberalism” as a shorthand for progressive liberalism).

This version of liberalism emphasizes a number of objectives, as I will describe below. Its main objective, though, is the advancement of equality in every field and at nearly any cost – equality between religions and nations, between sexes and races, and of course between different sexual orientations. This new form of liberalism is the dominant ideology in western society today, and it is virtually impossible to escape its influence. If in the past, when Charedi society enjoyed a strong degree of isolationism, it was possible to keep such ideas of the secular world at bay, today the merging of cultures has created a new kind of threat: the liberal threat.

The traditional Charedi strategy of raising the barricades is hardly a viable defense against the liberal threat; our fences can no longer keep out the influences we fear.

The traditional Charedi strategy of raising the barricades is hardly a viable defense against the liberal threat; our fences can no longer keep out the influences we fear. Conversely, the prevalent approach today – completely ignoring the issue, hoping naively that we can ride out the liberal wave and emerge in one piece on the other side – leaves us exposed to great danger. My suggestion for confronting the liberal peril – a menace that threatens to erode the underlying foundations of Charedi society, no longer just at the margins but also at its very core – is to establish an alternative worldview that can compete with the glamour and allure of liberalism. I will draw elements of this approach from conservative thought, which stands in opposition to liberalism. Other elements are waiting to be developed by ourselves; nobody else can do the job for us.

 

Absorbing the Values of Liberalism

Several years ago I taught at a program in the US operated by the Tikvah Fund (full disclosure: I am currently an employee of the Fund) geared towards English-speaking yeshiva students. Selected participants from well-known yeshiva institutions – Lakewood in New Jersey, Ner Israel in Baltimore, and even some from Israel – took part in the program, which facilitated the study and debate of central issues of policy and ideology. Naturally enough, an emphasis was placed on issues involving American and Diaspora Jewry related to halachic and communal leadership. In addition to lecturing and moderating some sessions, I attended several additional discussions that piqued my curiosity.

One such session focused on the question of same-sex marriage – a question which had caused a major storm in the US following the Supreme Court’s precedent-setting ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges (which greatly expanded the rights of the “LGBT community”). At the beginning of the discussion, the moderator asked participants to explain why they think same-sex marriage is a problem, but without referencing the Torah prohibitions involved. The response, which greatly surprised me, was complete silence. Not a single participant felt he could answer the question. When a response was finally volunteered, its primary focus (to my recollection) was to clarify that even the Torah prohibition applies only to same-sex relationships between males.

The fact that none of these yeshiva students could attempt an explanation of the problems inherent in same-sex marriage (in terms understandable to the general public) clarified something that had bothered me for a while: Many of us, even yeshiva and Kollel students, have effectively become “liberals.” Our thinking, the moral views we possess and the positions we espouse, are deeply influenced by liberal thinking, even when it contravenes Torah law. Something else also became clear to me at that session: aside from the program directors themselves, nobody seemed particularly troubled by the issue. The yeshiva students themselves lived pretty comfortably with the cognitive dissonance between the Torah prohibition on the one hand, and contemporary moral views that consider such prohibitions fundamentally immoral.

The inherent liberal tendency of these Charedi students, and others like them, is usually unthinking and unconscious. They absorb it from the various channels through which contemporary western discourse delivers its messages. Those who went to college probably received a distilled version of liberalism in academic lectures and through daily life on campus. But even those who have never set foot on a college campus or viewed Hollywood movies absorb liberal concepts through the very air they breathe – from the press (including the Charedi press), from hallway conversations, from radio shows, and from highway billboards. Nobody gives them a preface of “I am now teaching you how to think like a liberal person;” it simply happens on its own. If you ask them as to their identity, they will give you a range of answers: A Jew, a Jew loyal to God and His Torah, a Charedi Jew, a yeshiva student, a Chassid, and so on. Nobody will answer “I’m a liberal.” And therein lies the great danger: Liberalism does not threaten us from without, but from within.

Before I discuss the question of how to respond to this reality, I wish to make some preliminary remarks. First, I will explain what liberalism is and the core values it promotes. Next, I will investigate the tension between religion and liberalism, explaining why religion in general, and its Charedi version in particular, are at odds with liberalism’s moral views. From there I will move on to the penetration of liberalism into Charedi society: how it is done, and why we ought to lose sleep over it. Finally, I will offer a path that can mitigate the danger we face.

 

What is Liberalism?

Liberalism comes in a variety of packages and forms, each with its own emphases and nuances. Despite this diversity, several shared assumptions are central to a liberal philosophy, paramount of which is the value of freedom. Politically, liberalism advocates for political freedom (usually within a democratic regime), limited the power of the sovereign, equality before the law, free markets, and fundamental civil rights: freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of the press, and so on. Yet beyond its political side, liberalism is also a moral philosophy that values human dignity and freedom above all else. From this moral standpoint, liberalism derives individual rights that are not necessarily related to the political sphere, including freedom of thought, freedom of religion (and, to an extent, freedom from religion), and freedom of education. The famous “harm principle,” first proposed by John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century, is also based on liberalism’s foundations of freedom: a person may do as he or she pleases, and “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” As John Locke wrote in the seventeenth century, “Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions”.

Classical liberalism is the foundation for every modern, democratic state, and it is not an exaggeration to say that all of us, religious beliefs aside, are grateful to live in counties that implement the basic principles of classical liberalism

This description fits the ideology known today as “classical liberalism,” which has undoubtedly changed our world for the better. It is also possible to argue that there are parts of classical liberalism which coexist or even harmonize with Torah values. Classical liberalism is the foundation for every modern, democratic state, and it is not an exaggeration to say that all of us, religious beliefs aside, are grateful to live in counties that implement the basic principles of classical liberalism: places where we enjoy political freedom, limits on the sovereign’s power, and fundamental rights that every person enjoys. But when we go the extra mile to explore more current versions of liberalism, the picture becomes less rosy.

The leading moral principle of liberalism today, overriding almost any other principle, is the value of autonomy. The autonomous person possesses the power to shape his own life, to plot its course and determine its path. He is free to choose between competing definitions of “the good life,” and is able to develop interpersonal relations, initiate projects and plans in a range of fields, and devote his time to the advancement of his personal preferences. In the words of Joseph Raz, the autonomous man is “author of his own life.” Raz stresses that the definition of the autonomous person assumes the possibility of making fateful, far-reaching decisions, and that a precondition for this is the availability of a variety of competing options as well as the ability to choose freely among them. The life of the autonomous person is thus shaped by his own choices, which determine the trajectory of his life. He tells himself his own life story – nobody else has the right to do so on his behalf.

This elevation of the value of autonomy explains the obsession of contemporary liberalism with equality – the drive to ensure that all groups and people should enjoy the same level of autonomy – and with minorities specifically. Minorities, according to prevalent logic, do not enjoy the same degree of autonomy as members of the majority group, since their inherent weakness vis-à-vis the majority necessarily leads to a process of assimilation into the majority culture. Thus, minority groups must be empowered, allowing them to live their lives according to their own choices. The multicultural idea, a modern strain of liberalism (though it clearly stands in tension with classical liberalism), aims to empower minority groups in society by celebrating difference, diversity, and the human dignity that denies the “artificial boundaries” of nations, communities, and cultures, but belongs equally to all of us. Feminism, in both its moderate and extreme versions, is also deeply influenced by liberalism’s principles of freedom and equality. Today, the ongoing fight for the rights of the LGBT community, with its various and ever-changing facets, is perhaps the liveliest arena for the implementation of the same principles. Not that other arenas have been forgotten; most battles fought there have simply already been won.

Autonomy and its various corollaries, from the ultimate aim of “self-fulfillment” through state-imposed equality and including a person’s right to adopt different identities, is unquestionably in a position of power

It is worth stressing that not every person who defines themselves as a liberal will adopt such views, in whole or in part. Some see themselves as “classical liberals,” adopting the principles of individual freedom without espousing the modern liberal approaches that take those principles further afield. There are also conservative groups which believe in a conservative family model, in strong national and communal identities, and in religious and cultural truths, while also supporting individual freedom within these boundaries. But the tendency of academia, the intellectual elite, the media, and contemporary popular culture, is to adopt current liberal thinking unreservedly. Autonomy and its various corollaries, from the ultimate aim of “self-fulfillment” through state-imposed equality and including a person’s right to adopt different identities, is unquestionably in a position of power.

 

Between Religion and Liberalism

Many liberal thinkers have devoted a great deal of effort to delineating the boundaries of liberalism’s tolerance for religion. They have tried to define the extent to which, if at all, a liberal state should allow the existence of illiberal minority groups, and how religious people can be integrated into the public discourse held on liberal turf. Since they were liberal rather than religious thinkers, their natural tendency was to “include” or “tolerate” religious minority groups so long as they accept the foundations of liberalism and become part of the liberal spectrum itself. The only question they cared about was where to draw the red line on the liberal playing field: Which violations of the liberal rules of the game should lead to being excluded from the pitch?

Alongside gender inequality, there is of course blatant inequality towards those who are not Jewish and therefore may not marry a Jewish spouse, to say nothing of others who may not wed at all

Despite many efforts to find a place for religion within the liberal sphere, handling a religion such as Judaism which includes practical and not just theoretical ambitions creates a range of thorny tensions. The religious view of marriage and divorce, certainly in Judaism, is an obvious example. First, the halachic approach presumes a deep inequality between men and women: The man marries and divorces, while the woman is being married to and divorced from. This difference means that a woman cannot have two partners (infidelity within marriage means a child of such a union is a mamzer), something which is not true (at least to the same degree of severity) when it comes to men. Alongside gender inequality, there is of course blatant inequality towards those who are not Jewish and therefore may not marry a Jewish spouse, to say nothing of others who may not wed at all. Discrimination against gay people is likewise inherent to the system. All such prohibitions and discriminations seem to justify Michael Walzer, a major contemporary liberal thinker, who declared that “Every religion that subordinates women—which means pretty much every religion in its orthodox or fundamentalist versions—is obviously illiberal.”

But the contradiction runs deeper than issues of discrimination and inequality. The Torah’s laws of marriage decree that the communal good, defined in religious terms, receive priority over the liberal value of self-fulfillment. This priority determines that a person born a mamzer – something which is certainly not his fault but rather the result of his parents’ actions – must refrain from marrying or bringing children into the world, for the sake of the religious-communal value of “A mamzer may not come among the community of Hashem” (Devarim. 23:3). To the same extent, and in complete contradiction to the messages incessantly penetrating our camp by means of various media and cultural channels, a man engaged to a divorced woman who discovers he is a Kohen must break the engagement and give up their dreams and their love. The value of the sanctity of the priesthood overrides the principle of self-fulfillment, even at the most personal level. Moreover, the religious system decrees that the public itself, and its representatives on the rabbinic courts, must see to it that these principles are preserved. They may not approve of a marriage forbidden by the Torah, and they must do everything in their power to separate non-halachic unions and ensure they do not take place.

The value of the sanctity of the priesthood overrides the principle of self-fulfillment, even at the most personal level

Personal status is just one field – albeit a central one – in which the contradiction between religion and liberalism is played out. According to the view of most halachic authorities, a man born a Kohen cannot become a doctor, since he is forbidden to be in contact with (or under the same roof as) a dead body. Due to various Shabbos prohibitions, a successful athlete can never compete in major international tournaments. Similar reasons could prevent a mother from attending her daughter when the latter is giving birth, and considerations of modesty will make a religious woman think twice (and likely dampen her aspirations altogether) before embarking on a career as a singer. Another prominent contradiction, often mentioned in American political discourse, is the matter of abortions: generally speaking, deciding between the pro-life position and the pro-choice position demands a choice between religious values (which consider abortions tantamount to murder) and liberal values (women’s autonomy over their bodies). The primary field that provides us with illustrations of the tension is gender roles – synagogue participation, the obligation in many Mitzvos and in Torah study, serving as a Rabbi and a Dayan, the obligations of the ketubah document, modesty laws, and so on – powerful examples by virtue of the fact that we encounter them frequently, but certainly not the only ones.

Taking a broader view, it seems the authority structure within Judaism, as described in Devarim, in Maseches Sanhedrin, and in many other places, is anti-liberal by nature. In the case of the zaken mamreh we find that even a person who is among the great Sages of Israel must bow his head and follow the ruling of the Great Beis Din: “You may not stray from the matter that you are instructed to the right or to the left.” The Torah thus tells us that communal will, in this case embodied in the uniformity of halacha, obligates the individual even in his private life – a principle maintained until today in halachic fields by Poskim and Rabbinic leaders, though they lack the powers of enforcement of the Great Beis Din. In other words, Torah morality rejects the “harm principle,” by which a person may do as he pleases so long as he does not harm another. The individual must follow the collective to which he belongs, even when nobody else is harmed by his conduct.

In other words, even if Charedim have the right to educate their children to observe the Torah and mitzvos, they must expose their children to the realistic option of secular life, so that they can choose in adulthood to live how they please. Charedi education, of course, entirely rejects this idea.

If a deep tension exists between religion and liberalism, this tension turns into a fierce conflict when it comes to the Charedi community. This is because Charedi society is built on the foundation of isolation from other groups in the country. This principle is the living soul of the Charedi community, as demonstrated by the following brief state of Rabbi Dov Landau, Rosh Yeshivah of Slabodka, penned in 2017:

Any desire to connect with the outside, secular world – its culture, values, concepts, ways of thinking, various ambitions, and its attitude towards all events, the structure of its speech and writing in all its forms, and subsequently the founding of “educational” institutions for boys and girls, and other such plans, whose purpose is one – to demolish the barrier between us and them, as far as practically possible – is an opening to the bottom of Hell, to anarchy, lies and the love of abominations, God forbid.

This element of isolationism stands in direct opposition to the liberal disposition that espouses the principle of autonomy to choose between varying options and versions of the good. Even the more moderate among liberal thinkers stress that a liberal society must ensure every citizen has the “right of exit” – the capacity of leaving a (non-liberal) community in which he was raised. According to Jeff Spinner-Halev, a leading political scientist, this “right of exit” must be assured through “a decent education, allowing people to make a reasonable living outside the community if they so choose.” Additionally, people growing up in religious communities must have a basic acquaintance with competing opinions regarding “the good life.” In other words, even if Charedim have the right to educate their children to observe the Torah and Mitzvos, they must expose their children to the realistic option of secular life, so that they can choose in adulthood to live how they please. Charedi education, of course, entirely rejects this idea. It constantly stresses that the Charedi way of life is not “one option among many for the good life,” but rather the sole option. Indeed, one of the central reasons why Charedi society rejects the introduction of a core curriculum into schools is to reduce the possibility of an easy exit – forcing Israeli jurists to tackle the legality of the Charedi educational system. Religious Judaism in its Charedi variant thus totally at odds with contemporary liberalism.

 

The Threat to Charedi Society

Is the tension between a life of Torah and Mitzvot and the foundations of liberalism relevant for the Charedi community? Some might claim this is not the case, arguing that the isolationist nature approach of Charedi society keeps liberal ideas at arm’s length and exempts Charedim from having to deal with them. But this claim is mistaken. Not only is the threat of liberalism relevant for us, but it also endangers our very existence, and we must form a proper and effective response to it. Isolationism alone, a system that worked pretty well until recently, can no longer protect us.

Not only is the threat of liberalism relevant for us, but it also endangers our very existence, and we must form a proper and effective response to it

Three reasons have led me to this conclusion.

The first and simplest of them is that there is no defensive mechanism that can protect any minority society from majority values, especially when said values are both formative and everywhere present, from radio broadcasts to billboards. No matter how successful, efforts at isolation could not entirely prevent the penetration of liberal ideas – ideas represented on our cereal boxes, in the coloring books we give to our children, and on the forms we must fill out at government offices – into Charedi society. Charedi politicians and influencers, those who deal constantly with state authorities, have long since adopted the language of liberalism and rights – initially out of necessity, but later as second nature. Just recently MK Israel Eichler called on Charedi MKs to temporarily resign from the government (due to a lockdown imposed on a Charedi neighborhood) in order to demonstrate that “the rights of the Charedi individual are not to be ignored.” Liberalism is prevalent at every walk of life in today’s world, and since we are part of this world (like it or not) we are inevitably influenced by its language and ideas.

The second reason is the relative decline in the intensity of Charedi isolation, as mentioned at the beginning of this article; isolation mechanisms are simply not as effective as they once were. This weakness is due to several accumulating factors, which have together made Charedi social walls seem rather porous. One obvious factor is the Internet – the online world and its myriad offerings that have inevitably penetrated tens of thousands of Charedi homes. In addition, far-reaching changes within Charedi society cannot be ignored: significant entry into institutions of higher education, far higher participation of Charedi men and women in the general workforce, involvement with and development of various artistic fields, and the entry of many members of Charedi society into the Israeli middle class. All these necessitate, or at the very least facilitate adopting ways of life that bring the Charedi individual closer to “the outside world.”

As a third reason, we should note the changing attitude of general Israeli society to Charedi society. Significant efforts have been made in recent years, predominantly on the part of secular Israeli society, to reach conciliation with the Charedi sector. Much effort is invested in reducing the level of hostility between societies – an effort expressed by adopting some religious and Charedi elements into the general culture, and by demonstrating an openness to include Charedi society in various social and cultural frameworks. This trend also finds expression in the presence of Charedi individuals on reality TV shows, as well as screening content that presents Charedi characters “as they are” – focusing on their simple human lives rather than on cultural and communal clashes. Aside from this novel set of Charedi-friendly content that naturally reaches many Charedi viewers, the reconciliation movement itself – the outstretched hand, which it seems will survive even the setback of the corona period – causes the walls to come down a notch.

When our moral compass falls in line with a liberal morality based on equality and autonomy, large swathes of the Torah way of life become “immoral,” and observing them becomes a gezeiras hakatuv – a directive that must be adhered despite it being incomprehensible

The penetration of liberal values into our community threatens us. As demonstrated above, a deep tension exists between liberalism and the values of religion in general, and those of Charedi Judaism in particular. When a Charedi person internalizes liberal-progressive values and adopts them as his moral viewpoint, the result is a dee[ dissonance – a contradiction between his conception of morality and his way of life as a religious and Charedi person. Over time, as he continues to internalize the liberal view of morality, parts of his way of life begin to become immoral in his own eyes, though he continues to adhere to them by force of blind compliance – whether to a Torah directive or to a Charedi social norm. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah teaches that man should not say “I cannot stand to wear shaatnez” or “I cannot stand to eat pork” but rather “I can and wish to do so, but what can I do that my Father in Heaven decreed this on me?” But as the Rambam explained (Shmoneh Perakim Chap. 6), this is the current approach to matters such as shaatnez and eating pork, but it certainly not the desired approach to moral issues. When our moral compass falls in line with a liberal morality based on equality and autonomy, large swathes of the Torah way of life become “immoral,” and observing them becomes a gezeiras hakatuv – a directive that must be adhered to despite it being incomprehensible. Sooner or later, such a shift cannot fail to influence our way of life.

The dissonance is already apparent in the particularly sensitive area of women’s role and status. In an article published in Tzarich Iyun, Esti Ohana writes with impressive candor that “It is hard for me to accept the idea that a woman is exempt from time-bound commandments because ‘she has no time.’” According to Ohana, “The natural conclusion is that men deal in the worthwhile and exalted, while women handle the less important matters.” She proceeds to ask why this bothers her so much: “I am a believing woman who accepts the directives of the Sages and tries to live by them; why then do I suddenly have such difficulty accepting their words at face value?” She answers her question by explaining that Charedi society has long since absorbed the liberal set of western values:

The influence of western values is especially prominent among Charedi women integrating into the workforce or studying for a college degree. The uncompromising conception of equality they encounter at their place of work (or during their studies) profoundly undermines their worldview. They encounter ideas of individualism and equality and ask themselves where the truth lies. The meeting with general Israeli society places a mirror in front of them and causes them to identify as modern women, in the sense of equal and free individuals. They tend to think of themselves as distinct from their secular colleagues solely in terms of observing Torah and Mitzvos (rather than in the basic values that distinguish them), and would never want to concede that they are somehow lesser on the liberal ladder, less free or less autonomous. Upon realizing that the principles of individualism, freedom, and equality they have learned to admire contradict the Charedi doctrines on which they were raised, they find themselves confused and befuddled. The foundations on which their world was built begin to crumble beneath them.

As for practical effects themselves, it is important to remember that translating an ideological change into changes on the ground is a process that takes time, and the consequences of absorbing ideas are not always immediately apparent. It seems, however, that recently emerged batei midrash for Charedi girls and women interested in in-depth Torah study – which I should note could be wonderful institutions run by God-fearing individuals – are related to the absorption of liberal values of equality and autonomy. Alongside this, phenomena such as the sharp increase in divorce rates within Charedi society, a clear tendency to seek out professions that provide “self-fulfillment” (even counselors within Charedi girls’ schools have adopted the new language), a more egalitarian and less hierarchical approach to running the household, and even fringe phenomena like the “not elected, not voting” movement, all seem related. Again, I should note that some of these initiatives could be wholly positive, and I do not mean to pass judgment on them; certain liberal values have roots in Torah principles and include an element of “Tikkun Olam.” For our purposes, I do not wish to discuss any specific phenomenon in the field, but rather the destructive potential inherent in internalizing liberal values, which threaten to undermine the existence of Torah Jewry. The phenomena we see today are unquestionably just the tip of the iceberg, with the greater part of it entirely hidden from view. Suffice to glance at the field of Orthodox feminism in the US to understand the huge mass still hidden beneath the surface.

A reading of Charedi literature dealing with parenting and marriage reveals clearly how deeply liberal messages have been internalized, often with full backing from Torah sources

Another field in which the liberal influence is readily visible is education. Liberal education, with its rejection of a clear hierarchy between teachers and students and between parents and children, has made major inroads into Charedi society. While students still stand for teachers and rabbis, this seems but a formality, and both teachers and students understand that the act falls short of defining the relationship between them, which in many cases is based more on friendship than authority. A reading of Charedi literature dealing with parenting and marriage reveals clearly how deeply liberal messages have been internalized, often with full backing from Torah sources. Even when it comes to pluralism – the question of one Truth versus multiple truths – it seems we have been deeply influenced by common liberal views. “I am a liberal and a pluralist,” say many Charedim who wish to be viewed as “open-minded” and not “fanatical.” Again, I am not arguing that the solution is to shut down our minds, just as I do not claim that all things liberal are a priori bad. Indeed, the Torah encourages diversity, debate, and variety – the “seventy faces of the Torah.” But there is a fundamental difference between “seventy faces of the Torah” and “everyone and their truth.” The point I wish to stress is that this difference is now blurring.

What matters for our purposes is not any given issue, but rather casting a light on the gap itself – the gap between the religious action performed in the context of Charedi isolationism, and the liberal mindset that holds such action in contempt. A gap of such proportions – perhaps chasm is a better word – the more so when it pertains to everyday matters that are close to our hearts (by contrast with theoretical musings over the eradication of Amalek), is unsustainable. A person cannot live with the awareness that his path is not moral and just, even if he believes the Torah commands him to walk it nonetheless. Moreover, attributing immoral actions to the Torah of God is problematic by definition. Notwithstanding the theoretical option of arguing that “whatever God commands is good” regardless of human morality, it remains a clear fact that Rabbeinu Sadya Gaon, the Rambam and his students, the Ramban, the Rama, Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, the Netziv, Rav Kook, and many others, rejected this possibility out of hand. Such a philosophy undercuts the key belief in the benevolence of God. Scripture teaches us that God is good, and this means that religious life must be synchronized with our conception of goodness and morality. Anything else amounts to a deep challenge to our religious faith, alongside raising severe difficulties in maintaining the positive view of the world that the Torah demands when it states that “God looked upon all that He had made, and it was very good” (Bereishis 1:31).

Scripture teaches us that God is good, and this means that religious life must be synchronized with our conception of goodness and morality. Anything else amounts to a deep challenge to our religious faith

Absorbing a liberal moral worldview thus undermines the foundations of religious living. The tension between liberal morality and Torah directives necessarily weakens the value of and degree of commitment to Torah instruction. A person may find – knowingly or not – that actions contradicting the Torah but embodying moral liberalism will encounter weak spoken condemnation alongside silent admiration. Over time, and perhaps with the changing of generations, efforts will be made to include liberal approaches within the Torah and halacha, including making changes – ever less subtle – in custom and established halacha. The discussion being conducted at the margins of Modern Orthodoxy regarding permission for premarital sexual relations demonstrates the slippery slope that exists between liberal moral views and the commandments of the Torah. Charedi society is clearly not in this position, but so long as liberalism is making a home for itself within our midst there is certainly no room for complacency.

 

How Can We Cope?

How can we deal with the threat of liberalism? One option I would take off the table at the outset is the adoption of liberalism wholesale. Good Jews who sought to create a mix of traditional Judaism and liberalism were quickly dismayed when these combinations became morphed into streams of “liberal Judaism”: Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Humanist Judaism, and so on. Complete adoption of today’s liberal values means the end of Charedi Judaism and even the end of traditional Judaism, God forbid – and perhaps the end of religion itself. As Spinner-Halev writes, liberal religions have difficulty surviving in a liberal world – not because liberalism is hostile to liberal religions, but because liberal religions become synonymous with liberalism itself, which means there is no longer any need to be a part of them. Sadly, this is all too true of liberal streams of Judaism.

In practice, therefore, it seems there are three potentially viable options for approaching the subject.

One option is rejecting liberal values as they appear in modern western thought while adopting the language of liberalism, effectively arguing that “We are the real liberalism.” An example of such an argument could be “Liberalism speaks of the value of self-fulfillment, which is often identified with secularism; yet the true path to self-fulfillment is only through Torah.” Another example involves the value of freedom: “Liberalism espouses the value of freedom, but we know that true freedom is reserved for those who study Torah.” Additional examples of this mode of thinking abound.

It is interesting to find such an expression in a letter penned by Rav Elazar Menachem Shach zt”l , who referred to democracy in the sharpest of terms: “And we pray to the Master of the World: Please exempt us from the curse of the new democracy which was sent to the world, whose spread is just as the spread of a cancer – for only the Holy Torah is true democracy.” For Rav Shach this was presumably a turn of phrase along; others, whether in kiruv organizations or on internal Charedi forums, raise this argument as essential apologia.

In my view, this is a path of little promise. Nobody has authorized us to define the nature of “real liberalism,” and statements like “Judaism is the real feminism” are thus effectively meaningless. There may be self-fulfillment in Torah observance, but its meaning is entirely different than the liberal one, so that the point of copying liberal semantics into the field of religion is lost on me. Not only is this path not particularly helpful – it can even be harmful, since it is often the case that claims of this type are simply false, and their falsity may be easily discovered by a discerning listener. One could perhaps claim that Judaism concerns itself with the proper status of women, but this falls far short of arguing that “Judaism is feminist” – when in fact feminist arguments are (generally speaking) distant from traditional Judaism.

The liberal field and language are appropriate for the values of liberalism; they do not tolerate arguments contradicting liberalism itself. A California lawyer, asked to explain the state’s interest in prohibiting same-sex marriage, learned this the hard way when he responded to the judges with “My answer, your honor, is that I don’t know; I don’t know.” In order to avoid such embarrassing situations, we should avoid fighting battles on the liberal field itself. There is no chance of winning them.

The second option is ignoring the issue, alongside the familiar strategy of raising the barricades and isolating ourselves to the last possible degree. We have survived tougher fights in the past, say those who espouse this approach – we will make it through this one too. This path has of course its attraction; it allows us to go on without changing the ways of our fathers and rabbis, which certainly renders it the Charedi default position. Furthermore, it cannot be written off backhandedly. Sometimes the best defense against a storm is to weather it and suffer the cost. Yet, I believe that this is not the case for the challenge we face from liberal society. Unlike the situation of yesteryear, we can no longer place our trust in raising the barricades; I have already explained why in today’s environment and circumstances barriers cannot be effective in blocking liberal influences. Although they can continue to prevent the permeation of permissive norms to a reasonable degree, they certainly cannot prevent the penetration of the ideological world we all live in.

As for the argument that “we’ve made it through worse,” I would offer two responses. First, this is true – we have made it through difficult times, even very difficult ones – but we have also paid dearly for them. Yes, “the eternity of Israel will not lie,” but history teaches us that this has not prevented enormous destruction of bodies and souls, which of course we ought to do everything in our power to prevent. Second, we have albeit made it through difficult periods, but we managed to make it through precisely because of people who adopted human means and became partners to God in preserving the covenant between Him and the Jewish People. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch would not have succeeded in fighting the German Haskalah had he adopted a passive, hands off approach. The serious threat of liberalism requires that we take human action.

The third option, which I consider to be the golden mean, is that of education and internal discourse. The reason we are so threatened by liberal moral views is that we live in a vacuum: lacking our own moral-human language, we adopt the foundations of liberalism, only later understanding the depth of the challenge they pose to a Torah life. Oriah Mevorach, a student of gender and open critic of many elements of contemporary feminism, has said that some of her most challenging audiences were specifically Charedi women. To her surprise, they had absorbed feminist values so thoroughly that they were quite unwilling to hear any criticism thereof. How have we reached a point at which Charedi women have so internalized liberal feminist values that they have difficulty criticizing them? The answer is the lack of a competing moral language, of the sort that supports the Torah and Charedi ways of life. Lacking an alternative, liberalism has found an open door into the hearts of many Charedi men and women.

But there is a moral human alternative to liberalism, whose aggregated thought system is generally referenced as “conservatism.” Conservatism is a political system that, like liberalism, offers a comprehensive moral human approach. This approach espouses the preservation of tradition alongside a sober approach toward the future. It is unwilling to view human society as a tabula rasa on which human reason can be freely inscribed. Thus, it respects human experience, including received tradition from previous generations, no less than the insights of human reason. It does not reject changes but treats them with suspicion and caution, willing to implement them precisely out of an adherence to tradition and a respect for the social institutions built with great effort over many years. It supports religion, both because adherence to religion allows for a functioning and healthy society (a-la the verse “only there is no fear of God in this place and they will kill me for the matter of my wife”), and because religion is deeply rooted in human nature. It espouses the value of freedom but believes it cannot be realized outside the naturally occurring boundaries of family, community, and nation. It thus removes the radical sting of freedom that threatens the basic institutions of society: religion, family, political institutions, and so on. Like liberal thought, conservative thought also contains different opinions and emphases regarding both political policy and moral approaches. But I believe that the points I mentioned are supported by almost all conservative thinkers throughout the ages.

In the face of the myriad threats the Jewish faith faced over the generations, our Gedolim – the great leaders whose exclusive goal was to maintain tradition – knew how to adopt thought tools to rebuff threat external and internal, and ensure the strength of our faith

Conservatism, without a doubt, is not Judaism; the two should be by no means be conflated. However, there is much in the conservative conception of the good that could serve as important tools for the believing Jew to validate his belief in the Torah, providing a vital alternative to liberalism’s conception of the good. While obviously not a substitute for belief in the Torah, conservative thought can provide fortification for the Torah way of life, utilized in the same way that Torah leaders of the past made use of the philosophy and thinking of their time to strengthen the Jewish religion. Examples include philosophical proofs of God’s oneness borrowed by Rishonim from the Muslim thinkers of their time; advice for improving virtues taken from wise men of the nations; and even the Kuzari’s famous “witness argument.” In the face of the myriad threats the Jewish faith faced over the generations, our Gedolim – the great leaders whose exclusive goal was to maintain tradition – knew how to adopt thought tools to rebuff threat external and internal, and ensure the strength of our faith. Today, in the face of a liberalism threatening to weaken Jewish adherence to the Torah, I believe it would be wise to enlist conservative thought.

By way of illustration, which relates to an issue already discussed above, the following quote is a brief passage from a defense filed by the state of Virginia, dealing with the constitutionality of the prohibition on same-sex marriage:

Traditional marriage is rooted in the acquired cultural wisdom of citizens and cannot be impeached by the opinions of a few elite experts. The traditional definition of marriage is a reflection of the community’s understanding of the human person and the ideal ordering of human relationships. These are deep questions of identity and meaning that are not easily subject to measurement.

These short and somewhat unassuming sentences present a simple example of a conservative moral argument, in a language we would do well to learn. Certainly, it demonstrates that the alignment between conservative arguments and Torah principles is imperfect; the Torah does not refer merely to “traditional marriage” in the public sense but also deals with questions of good and evil in the personal and private realm. The greats of conservative thought wrote in specific contexts: Edmund Burke in the context of the French Revolution, warning of its dangers and explaining the divergence from England’s Glorious Revolution; Alexis de Tocqueville described the advantages of American democracy in terms of its administrative, ethical, and cultural aspects; and Roger Scruton devoted much of his conservative energy to fighting socialism. Their context was not the struggle of God-fearing Judaism against invading liberal perceptions of the good. The task of adapting that thought – of giving it articulation within a Jewish context and a language worthy of men and women of Torah – falls to us.

A project along similar lines is that of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch’s 19 letters, published in 1836 as Igrot Tzafon, which made a tremendous impression on German Jewry. Rabbi Hirsch succeeded in representing Orthodox Jewry in a modern, intellectual language, in accordance with the specific challenges of German Jewry at the time, wielding the broad tools of thought available to him to successfully defend fundamental religious principles. I believe that this is precisely what we lack today: an intellectual project that can provide “moral translation” of Torah ideas into a modern and human language accessible to Torah Jewry. Notwithstanding reservations, a thorough acquaintance with the language of conservative literature can grant us some useful tools for such work, just as Rabbi Hirsch took his from the University of Bonn. But these are only tools; the real work, of course, awaits us.

I do not mean to argue that every Charedi individual needs to take a course in Burkean thought. I am arguing that Charedi (and generally Orthodox) involvement in this body of thought, as I try to realize at our Chomaschem Ubinaschem seminar programs (run under the auspices of the Tikvah Fund in Israel), can be productive in promoting an effective defense of religious Jewish life against the conception of the liberal good so pervasive in our surrounding society. Study programs of this kind are particularly vital for those who study at secular colleges, which have become centers for exporting liberalism around the world. But alongside involvement in conservative thought, we need to strive toward the creation of a new “Torah library” that will address the range of fields in which Torah Judaism is challenged by liberal thought. These and similar initiatives will help to remove the sense of moral inferiority that some of us feel when facing a liberal world and strengthen the resolve of the followers of the Torah as they walk the path of God.

***

Gertrude Himmelfarb, a brilliant, award-winning American Jewish historian, who became famous as a witty critic of contemporary liberal culture, liked to tell the following anecdote from her experience as a Professor at New York University. At the end of a class on Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution, which fiercely criticizes the excesses and distortions (in Burke’s eyes) of the French revolutionaries, a Charedi female student approached her and apologized that she could not make it to the previous class. She added her appreciation of the course and noted that “(Burke’s) book made her rethink Judaism” – the Charedi Judaism she belonged to. Himmelfarb noted that this student could have found a defense for her way of life in traditional Jewish sources, but explained that Burke granted universal validity to her own tradition – the heritage of her forefathers – without falling back on an assumed commitment to Torah.

Himmelfarb noted that this student could have found a defense for her way of life in traditional Jewish sources, but explained that Burke granted universal validity to her own tradition – the heritage of her forefathers – without falling back on an assumed commitment to Torah

Himmelfarb’s student suffered for the same reasons I have laid out in this piece. Her studies at an institution of higher learning made her encounter contemporary liberal worldviews, creating a dissonance between her Charedi way of life and the liberal conception of the good. The equation by which maximal autonomy equals maximal morality means that religious society generally, and Charedi society specifically, suffer from an inherent moral failing. Himmelfarb’s student found a remedy for this dissonance in the conservative thinking of Edmund Burke – a man who belonged to the liberal political wing of his time, but who became one of the great expositors of the conservative thought and the founder of the movement. His writing assisted her to feel confident in her path, breaking free of the inferiority she felt vis-à-vis liberalism’s lofty values of freedom and equality. What Himmelfarb managed to do a few decades ago for the unusual case of a Charedi student studying at a secular university must now be replicated on the communal, public level of Charedi society.

A couple of years ago year Rabbi Tzvi Winter published an article in Tzarich Iyun expressing wonder at the “absence of moral voice on the intellectual Right in our neck of the woods.” The liberal Left, so he argued, seems to enjoy a monopoly on the moral good, while the Right is presented as amoral at best. He sensed intuitively that many of the Left’s ideas are morally impoverished – “On issues like the attitude towards the family and identity, gender roles and issues of the male-female relationship, and so on, I and many like me sense the Left’s position to be inherently immoral.” While his intuition matches the Torah values as noted above, Winter describes how the lack of a moral voice on the Right creates a paradoxical situation: “My moral intuition is with the Right, but the moral voice of the Left sounds persuasive to me.” He concludes by stating that the absence of the moral voice of the Right has significant consequences: “It is no wonder that leftists are disrespectful of the beliefs and traditions the Right defends, denying them all legitimacy.”

In this article, I sought to clarify how airing the moral voice of conservatism is indeed a vital challenge for religious and Charedi society. But unlike Winter, I believe we should not wait for others to air that voice. Instead, it is we who are tasked with doing so, developing a “Jewish conservative language” – alongside the “Israeli conservatism” movement that has been picking up speed in recent years. Some will accuse me of being self-contradictory: Surely introducing non-Torah studies into Charedi society, even of the conservative variety, is a departure from accepted social norms, and therefore in opposition to the conservative sentiment. But Edmund Burke has already taught that sometimes we need to change in order to preserve, and I think our situation provides an excellent case in point in requiring a new articulation of our own religious principles. The sooner we do so, the better.

13 thoughts on “Liberalism: Its Peril and Its Deliverance

  • Rabbi Pfeffer
    Thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking article.
    It seems that you are trying to bisect liberalism. You accept liberalism up to the point where it is no longer “good for the Jews”. Chareidim in Israel and America are now treated and even admired due to that liberalism. But you stop at the point where we are asked to accept everyone’s right to choose their own way of life. Universalism is great, until it forces us to rethink our own particularism.
    I do believe that excellent arguments can be make for a conservative “moral voice” in defense of Jewish religious teachings while at the same time respecting the wishes of those who disagree with us. This would take a degree of empathy for others outside our group and a great deal of critical thinking by our members. Unfortunately, as recent events have shown (ie. the Chareidy lack of trust in Covid experts and the support of Trumpian politics) I am not convinced that Chareidim are possessed of such empathy for others or of the necessary critical thinking necessary for making that argument.

  • An excellent and thought provoking article.
    Perhaps we assume too much in our acceptance as to what “liberalism” is: the freedom of the individual. We ignore (by the lack of equal emphasis ) responsibilities to others: for example a parent deserting a family to follow a passion for self-fulfilment or self-realisation. His /her desires are harming the family he (usually) or she deserts. Effects on the children can last for decades and possibly by the example given, generations.

    Some societies especially some in the East and traditional societies put family responsibilities as the prime objective and self-fulfillment second. This is certainly illiberal on its extreme definition but provide a better outcome in most (but not all) cases for families.

    In other words liberalism like all factors, needs qualifications and shading and context. Life is rarely experienced in black and white but in shades of grey and trade-offs.
    Leading thinkers like Rabbi Lord Sacks zt’l stressed taking individual responsibility.
    Liberalism should not be presented on its own but as one aspect as to the qualities required of individuals for a healthy society.

  • Thank you for your thought-provoking article. Could you clarify one sentence. You wrote: “Similar reasons could prevent a mother from attending her daughter when the latter is giving birth”. Why would a mother be prevented from attending a daughter? Did you mean to say …a husband from attending his wife? If not, I am curious what you meant by that.

    • The reference was to simple cases in which concern for Shabbos prohibitions (driving, making phone calls, etc.) can prevent a mother from attending her daughter’s birth. These will of course depend on the circumstances of each case, and I didn’t mean to get into the halachic discussions, but only to point out that such cases are plausible and fairly common.

  • At the beginning of the discussion, the moderator asked participants to explain why they think same-sex marriage is a problem, but without referencing the Torah prohibitions involved. The response, which greatly surprised me, was complete silence.
    ————————–
    IMHO this goes to the heart of the matter. Both the liberal and conservative philosophies you describe flow from man’s internal (gut) definition of ethics and morals (evolving over time). Once you remove the concept of divine command, how can you tell someone else their definition is faulty for them or anyone else?
    Kol Tuv

    • I hear your point and wonder what Rabbi Pfeffer would respond to his own question…? The entire article, correctly, frames everything in Torah perspective and thus does not address the original question as asked
      I have had similar discussions with some young MO family members and it’s scary to hear their passionate defense of what they have come to see as ‘normal’.

  • Torah and mitzvahs define Judaism. Burke and the Charedi lifestyle are not to be mistaken for what consitutes Judaism.
    The author writes, with seeming disapproval, that Charedi women in the workplace tend to think of themselves as distinct from their secular coworkers in terms of Torah and mitzvahs. Thank G-D.

    • Interesting, the simple reading of the author’s words are exactly the opposite of your understanding. He writes of Haredi women what upon entry into the general workforce “They tend to think of themselves as distinct from their secular colleagues solely in terms of observing Torah and Mitzvos, and would never want to concede that they are somehow lesser as individuals, less free or less valued.” Meaning, the author is saying that they are not distinct enough – they see themselves as distinct only in the fact that they perform mitzvos, and not in their entire value system.

  • Inspirational article – thank you.
    There are plenty of educational resources in baal teshuvah yeshivos to teach FFBs what to answer / and so teach themselves first

  • Fascinating, thoughtful article, but I am surprised that no reference is made to the venerable Jewish traditional literature of taamei hamitzvot which, although it will not address all issues, does address many of them.

  • Fascinating article We have to fight and confront today’s challenges but not with yesterday’s weapons The Maginot Line did not stop the Blitzkrieg

  • R Pfeffer wrote in relevant part:

    “There are also conservative groups which believe in a conservative family model, in strong national and communal identities, and in religious and cultural truths, while also supporting individual freedom within these boundaries”

    “This approach espouses the preservation of tradition alongside a sober approach toward the future. It is unwilling to view human society as a tabula rasa on which human reason can be freely inscribed. Thus, it respects human experience, including received tradition from previous generations, no less than the insights of human reason. It does not reject changes but treats them with suspicion and caution, willing to implement them precisely out of an adherence to tradition and a respect for the social institutions built with great effort over many years. It supports religion, both because adherence to religion allows for a functioning and healthy society (a-la the verse “only there is no fear of God in this place and they will kill me for the matter of my wife”), and because religion is deeply rooted in human nature. It espouses the value of freedom but believes it cannot be realized outside the naturally occurring boundaries of family, community, and nation. It thus removes the radical sting of freedom that threatens the basic institutions of society: religion, family, political institutions, and so on.”

    All of the above WADR are IMO the keys to such a approach. However, if we look at our own sources, it can be argued very cogently that Halacha focuses on what is the obligation of the individual within the framework of the community, as opposed to what are a person’s rights and level of autonomy, if any, and a strong opposition to anarchy flowing from an emphasis on autonomy and unbridled change that should be approached from a perspective that which was mutar 20 years ago may be assur today and that which was assur 20 years ago may be mutar today. In this pandemic, it is noteworthy that the Charedi world in America uses technology to ensure that Limud HaTorah is ongoing and knows how to present its concerns at the highest levels in the American court system.

    We need to underscore in bold that we are part of a community where the obligations and well being of every person is a matter of communal concern because Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh LaZeh. When we daven on any day of the year, we daven in the plural because we are part of a community. When we ask that a sick person be healed or that a mourner be comforted or celebrate a simcha, it is in the plural because these are events or needs of a communal, not just an individual concern. When we recite a blessing on any mitzvah it is part of a community. The essence of role differentiation by gender has nothing to do with rights, but can be traced to what were the episodes in the Torah that resulted in the assignment of such duties-which were always serious transgressions by men, not women, as part of the community. Like it or not, while conservatism offers much as an approach to confronting the post modern progressive autonomy based challenges of today, we can draw lines in the sand by stating emphatically that “religion, family, political institutions” have positive value “because adherence to religion allows for a functioning and healthy society (a-la the verse “only there is no fear of God in this place and they will kill me for the matter of my wife”), and because religion is deeply rooted in human nature.” In other words, any society that devalues religion, family and political institutions cannot and will not survive in the long run.
    Such an approach offers much to enrich our own individual and communal lives.

  • Wonderful article. Do we need a new and improved approach to Torah Umadda for all Jews?

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