In his article on the perils of liberalism Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer raises the danger inherent in the penetration of “liberal values” into Charedi society, proposing a conservative intellectual approach as a partial remedy. As a lifelong conservative, it is difficult for me to disagree. But I would nevertheless like to devote a few words to (gently) pour some cold water on the proposed solution.
I will first take note of the precise meaning of the terms Rabbi Pfeffer uses – not of course out of joy in pedantry, but because this relates to the heart of the matter. After this, I will get to what I believe to be the true challenge facing Charedi society today.
Between Liberal Politics and Progressive Values
“Liberalism” as a term refers by all accounts to the doctrine holding that states should not interfere in their citizens’ efforts to define what they consider to be a good life; they should be allowed to do as the please, so as long as they do not prevent others from doing the same. Somewhat inconveniently, in the United States (but not in England) the term “liberalism” also implies a slew of progressive values that run contrary to the traditions of various religious communities. Since there is no inherent connection between the doctrine of classical liberalism and these values, I will refer to the former as “classical liberalism” and to the latter as “progressivism.”
A value shared by classical liberalism and progressivism – and the reason they sometimes share a common name – is the great weight they place on the autonomy of the individual. But the thinkers of classical liberalism, from John Locke to John Stuart Mill, supported the autonomy of the individual precisely to enable voluntary religious communities to flourish
A value shared by classical liberalism and progressivism – and the reason they sometimes share a common name – is the great weight they place on the autonomy of the individual. But the thinkers of classical liberalism, from John Locke to John Stuart Mill, supported the autonomy of the individual precisely to enable voluntary religious communities to flourish. Progressives, by contrast, often fight voluntary expressions of religion in the name of autonomy. It turns out that the moment individuals use their autonomy to affiliate with traditional communities and live a traditional life, some progressives will try to undermine them in the name of values they consider loftier and more primary than liberty.
Gender separation is a good example of this. A classical liberal would never conceive of intervening in a community choice of a community to ensure gender separation at communal events. The principle of autonomy requires the classical liberal to respect the free moral choices of individuals and communities, preventing him from interfering by means of state law. By contrast, many progressives will not hesitate to use the principle of equality to limit freedom of choice in such cases.
Similarly, the term “conservatism” also refers to two distinct phenomena: political conservatism and social-cultural conservatism. Just like the political doctrine of classical liberalism, conservatism has its own political doctrine, decreeing that if the state must intervene in matters related to public morality, its opening position will be a deep respect for tried moral tradition. We can call this doctrine “political conservatism.” In addition, some conservative values support a traditional way of life, and their aggregate sum is usually referenced as “social-cultural conservatism.” For our purposes, the differences between classical liberalism and political conservatism are not of particular importance. Rabbi Pfeffer’s discussion does not address these differences, nor does he propose a conservative alternative to political liberalism. By contrast, the differences between progressive values and conservative values are very important, and this is the focus of our discussion here.
What’s Wrong with Liberalism?
Let us return to Rabbi Pfeffer’s fears of liberalism and his call to preach conservatism. Clearly, and as he noted in the piece, he does not refer to classical liberalism; in this, there is nothing to fear, and to the contrary – we can only benefit from it. Rather, he refers to progressivism – but in this case, our preference for social-cultural conservatism seems to me so obvious that the very fear Rabbi Pfeffer expresses is a cause for concern.
Allow me to elaborate.
It is true that we have occasionally enjoyed the good fortune to have the values of our resident state somewhat resemble our own, and it seems to us good and proper that such values be enforced on the public. But when the wind blows in another direction, we may find ourselves in a very uncomfortable position. Sometimes we are under attack from the Christian Right which might seek, say, to force us not to work on their Sabbath (we need not go back to the Inquisition for such times), and sometimes from the radical Left seeking to coerce us to officiate at same-sex weddings, for example. The bottom line, though, is that making use of state power to advance values close to our heart can serve our interests in the long term only when a stable majority exists in favor of those values, or if we believe for theological reasons (such as those guiding some of Rav Kook’s zt”l students) that we are assured of such support in the near future. So long as we are in a minority, there is no doubt that classical liberalism is the ideology that serves us best.
At the level of values, those of conservatism are simply those of Judaism [….] It assigns great weight to the views of elders and sages who continue to study and teach tradition, and it respects traditional limitations on many areas of life, from the food one may eat to the partners one may marry
At the level of values, those of conservatism are simply those of Judaism, at least when it comes to tradition. “Social-cultural conservatism” is a philosophy that sanctifies tradition and refrains from initiating revolutionary changes. It assigns great weight to the views of elders and sages who continue to study and teach tradition, and it respects traditional limitations on many areas of life, from the food one may eat to the partners one may marry. Progressivism takes the exact opposite approach. Is there any doubt as to which outlook we should identify with and which values we should teach?
The question we must ask ourselves is what novel challenges to our value system suddenly require us to seek out new tools: Why do we need to look to (non-Jewish) conservative thinkers to foundational ideas of Judaism?
The answer, as Rabbi Pfeffer notes, is that certain progressive ideas – particularly specific variants of individualism and equality – have become a given within general society to such a degree that they affect us all, even without our noticing. They are simply in the air we breathe. Conservative thinking unearths these assumptions and challenges them.
Delving deep into conservative thought can help us up to a certain point. It could provide a language and basic insights allowing for discourse with friends outside the beis midrash, as well as responses that fulfill the admonition of Pirkei Avot whereby we should “know what to respond [to the heretic].” More importantly, a reading of conservative thought would help those who identify everything attractive about the wider world with progressivism. An acquaintance with writers like Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville will doubtless broaden their horizons for the better.
In our case, however, I fear that conservative thought alone cannot solve the real problem. In the end, social-cultural conservatism, as opposed to political conservatism, is built on ideas that are thoroughly familiar to those who live in an environment of Torah and Mitzvos. The innovation of conservative thought lies primarily in the presentation of those ideas in a clear and organized fashion, alongside their universal nature, coming in from outside the Jewish world (though Judaism might be their original source). As noted, this is nothing to sneeze at. But eventually, at the core of social-cultural conservatism lies praise for conserving tradition – a well-known commodity in our parts.
[T]he argument that Charedi society needs to be taught conservatism is equal to saying that Charedi society suffers from a lack of awareness regarding the importance of conserving tradition. Can any reasonable person believe that?
To put it more bluntly, the argument that Charedi society needs to be taught conservatism is equal to saying that Charedi society suffers from a lack of awareness regarding the importance of conserving tradition. Can any reasonable person believe that?
Why is Progressivism So Attractive?
As noted, teaching social-cultural conservatism allows for packaging Charedi traditionalism in a more convenient for defending it – whether to those who are less traditional or to those blinded by the progressivism that so dominates the intellectual discourse. On the other hand, I wonder if the average Charedi person fits either of these categories.
Take someone who has heard a thousand derashos and sichos on matters of hashkafa and Daas Torah, who was imbibed with tradition with his mother’s milk, and yet finds himself going in an altogether different direction – will Burke and Tocqueville manage to convince him of the profound importance of tradition? Perhaps instead of dealing with branding and marketing, we should ask why this is happening: Why do people who were raised on the importance of conserving tradition find themselves nevertheless so attracted to progressivism?
Perhaps instead of dealing with branding and marketing, we should ask why this is happening: Why do people who were raised on the importance of conserving tradition find themselves nevertheless so attracted to progressivism?
As Rabbi Pfeffer notes, it was once possible to maintain the monopoly of tradition through prohibitions, ex-communications, Torah-related curses, and control of media consumption. This is now impossible, as progressive ideas and approaches are simply too accessible. This development alone explains a large part of the problematic development that so worries him. But a good product does not need a monopoly to succeed: Why, then, are the sons and daughters of a “typical Lithuanian Charedi family,” as Rabbi Pfeffer puts it, going off to seek greener pastures?
At the end of the day, every successful business learns that keeping its customers requires more than monopolistic tariffs or attractive packaging. Sometimes you need to listen to feedback indicating unwanted issues with the product itself. If the public feels that shadowy figures help unworthy Rabbis into leadership positions, or that the boundaries of permitted cultural consumption are too narrow, or that all sorts of political operators are terrorizing the community for their own benefit and not for the common good, or that the prevailing attitude towards state institutions does not fairly reflect reality – while all this is carried out in the name of tradition – then even typical Lithuanian Charedi families will search elsewhere for what they need. They may even pass around “the latest hits of Israeli artists whose sources of inspiration are distant from Charedi society,” and probably worse.
It seems in the end that the attraction of progressivism for many Charedim does not derive from a lack of familiarity with general conservative thought, but from what they consider to be a stain on the very value of conserving tradition. Quoting Edmund Burke will not correct this distortion; nor will it save their souls.