For a religiously sensitive person, the idea of “conservatism” is often a given—as a value and as an underlying mindset. After all, what is religion if not fidelity to tradition? And what is fidelity to tradition if not “conservatism”—the disposition to maintain the institutions and ways of life of previous generations? Yet, this equivalence is hardly adequate, and requires deepening and clarification—clarification of what we mean by “conservatism,” and clarification of the sense in which religion in general, and Judaism in particular, endorses it.
When it comes to conservatism as a political expression, detractors and defenders alike often present its underlying principle as a “desire to freeze the past.” Conservatives are thus individuals whose most fundamental purpose is to oppose any change in the political and social arenas. As a prominent example, the great economist Friedrich Hayek penned an essay explaining why he was not a conservative, in which he stated that “one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such.” If this is conservatism, it is hardly surprising that Hayek rejected it. Aside from the weakness of its timidity, the approach is out of touch with the dynamic of human society, which is constantly in flux, constrantly changing. It also ignores the copious writings of conservative thinkers (especially in the Anglo-American tradition) who articulated the need for social revision in no uncertain terms, and often fought to achieve political change.
If conservatism does not stand for maintaining the status quo, then what does it stand for? In the present article I will suggest that the deeper meaning of conservatism should be culled from considering the idea of “guarding” as it appears in the Torah
No less importantly, for our purposes, such an approach runs against the Torah grain, whose political model takes inspiration from Avraham Avinu’s departure from Haran, from the redemption of the Israelites from Egypt, from the conquest of Canaan and from the return to the Land in the times of Ezra and Nehemiah. All these involved dramatic changes that were foundational to the mindset of later prophets and their demands for radical departure from the idolatry and injustice that surrounded the Jewish people.
If conservatism does not stand for maintaining the status quo, then what does it stand for? In the present article I will suggest that the deeper meaning of conservatism should be culled from considering the idea of “guarding” as it appears in the Torah. The Hebrew for guardian, shomer, is indeed the root of the modern word for conservatism, shamranut. I will argue that the act of guarding as presented by the Torah defines human purpose in the world, and characterizes the manner in which we ought to relate to our surroundings: to the people around us, and to the environment in which we live and reside. The Torah requirement of “guarding” is a moral and political imperative to take responsibility for our world, to protect it from harm and to ensure its thriving and prosperity. Again and again, the Torah calls upon us to guard our fellow man, to guard the world, and to guard our national laws and statutes. My interpretation of this concept is that a person must takes responsibility for the the world around him, a world that is fundamentally good yet requires human guarding.
The Torah requirement of “guarding” is a moral and political imperative to take responsibility for our world, to protect it from harm and to ensure its thriving and prosperity
The first part of the article will focus on the concept of guarding as found in the story of Divine creation at the beginning of the Torah. In the second part I will suggest that our role as guardians establishes the moral and social positions of the Torah, which sees a person as responsible for other humans as well as for the world. In the third part I will turn to the political outlook of the Torah, and will claim that the guardian model stands at the heart of the Torah’s legal attitude, and distinguishes it from the civil law of Western society. Finally, I will suggest that based on the Torah, the question of what we ought to change is secondary to the question of what we ought to preserve—not because change is negative per se, but rather because the capacity of humankind to assess which changes are required is contingent on our acting as guadians.
Human Nature: Man as Guardian
When God created the first member of the human race, he placed him in the Garden of Eden and handed him a purpose and a mission. Man was to work the Garden, which could not bear its produce without human input: “And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for Hashem God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground” (Bereishis 2:5). By contrast with other creatures of the earth, which lacked specific purpose or relationship to other elements of the world, Man was even alloted a clear role in relation to his surroundings—he was to take responsibility for the Garden: “And Hashem God took the man, and placed him into the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it” (Bereishis 2:5). Man is placed in the Garden of Eden to bring forth its full potential, which was not realized until after his creation. Yet realizing the land’s potential came together with another action: that of guarding. Only through protecting it and ensuring its preservation could working the land bring forth its full bounty.
We are not informed why this heavy burden of responsibility was placed on the fragile shoulders of Man, but it stands to reason that the he was selected for the task because of all creatures, only Man was created from the earth itself (Bereishis 2:7). This gave him a deeper connection to the earth and its produce, and his role as “gardener” was perhaps founded on this special association. But alongside this suggestion, it seems safe to assume that Man, and he alone, was capable of taking responsibility for something outside of himself. Even before other human beings came into existence, Man was not a self-centered individual whose only care was to tend for his own self; from the outset he was called upon to care for his surroundings.
The Torah sees the entire world as a microcosm of the Garden of Eden. The world in which we live is filled with good things ordered in paticular ways and patterns. They are characterized by life and growth, but also by an ever-present danger that their order will be disrupted
The role of guardian makes assumptions not only with respect to the nature of humanity. It also assumes that the world is a good place, and is comprised of an abundance of elements worthy of preserving. After the labor of creation was complete, the Torah emphasizes that the Garden in which Man was placed was good: “And Hashem God made to sprout every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Bereishis 2:9). The fact that the biblical narrative notes time and again how God saw His own handiwork was good indicates that the world is indeed filled with positive things, worthy of guarding. Upon his own entry into the world, Man was charged with the labor of ensuring the preservation of all this goodness.
What can Man’s guardian-gardener role teach us concerning our post-Garden-of-Eden human purpose? A garden is a place that includes a range of trees and plants, ordered such that their combination will yield the greatest asthetic pleasure to the onlooker, alongside the potential benefit of eating their fruit. But as an organic entity existing in constant flux, a garden cannot achieve its potential without human input; unchecked, its continual growth will be its own ruin. Absent the gardener’s care, his attention and scrutiny, unwanted weeds will sprout rampantly and choke the garden’s plants. The trees will fall ill, the plants will cease to yield their fruit, and the flowers will wilt. The role of the gardener, in this sense cannot be simply to “keep things as they are.” Patterns of change occur throughout, and the garnder’s role is to channel those forces of change so that the garden will bloom and blossom, guiding them to thriving and prosperity rather than ruin and demise. This requires the gardener to engage in the positive and in the negative—in planting anew as well as weeding. Only a combination of preservation and change can render his labor effective.
The Torah sees the entire world as a microcosm of the Garden of Eden. The world in which we live is filled with good things ordered in paticular ways and patterns. They are characterized by life and growth, but also by an ever-present danger that their order will be disrupted. The task of gardener alloted to Man informs us to never accept the good and the evil just for what they are. Rather, we are to tend to the thriving of our world by steering natural changes in ways that will promote the good and weed out the bad. The role of guardian, shared by us all, implies far more than maintaining the status quo, often demanding significant changes that are themselves essential in the work of preservation.
Conservation, in the Torah sense, is thus anything but stagnation. It is rather a labor of perfection, a work of constant improvement which defines the role of guardian that God conferred upon humanity
The ensuing passages of the biblical text serve to strengthen this interpretative outline. Immediately after God assigns Man with the role of guardian, He see that which still requires mending, that which is not yet good: “Hashem God said: It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helpmeet for him” (Bereishis 2:18). God Himself sets us an example by making a drastic change: taking a limb from Man and forming Woman.
The Midrash develops this approach and emphasizes the role of humanity in perfecting God’s handiwork of creation:
The evil Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva: Which are better—those things made by the Almighty, or things made by flesh and blood? He replied: Things made by flesh and blood are better! Turnus Rufus said to him: But heaven and earth—can a human being make anything like these? Rabbi Akiva said: Do not talk to me about things that are above created beings, that cannot be controlled; rather, talk to me about things that are to be found among man. He [Turnus Rufus] said: Why do you circumcise? He replied: I knew you would ask me concerning this matter, which is why I preempted and told you that things made by man are better than things made by the Almighty. Rabbi Akiva brought him wheat and cakes and said to him: These are made by the Almighty and these are made by man. Are these [cakes] not better than the wheat? Turnus Rufus retorted: If God wanted circumcision, then why does the baby not emerge circumcised from his mother’s womb? Rabbi Akiva responded: Because the Almighty did not give mitzvos to the Jewish People for any reason but for us to improve ourselves with them.
The role of humanity is to improve and ultimately perfect the world. Yet, like we find in Parashas Bereishis, even the Midrash emphasizes that our actions to improve the world draw on our being guardians of an already existing good, rather than creators ex nihilo. Another Midrash underscores the fact that the trees of the Garden of Eden preceded Adam’s creation, classifying the human mission of improvement as a project of preserving existing good:
Look at God’s work—for who can straighten what He has twisted? (Koheles 7:13). When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, He took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you” (Koheles Rabba 7:13).
Conservation, in the Torah sense, is thus anything but stagnation. It is rather a labor of perfection, a work of constant improvement which defines the role of guardian that God conferred upon humanity. The world is filled with goodness; yet the maintenance of this goodness is contingent on our investing constant effort in making things even better, and in mending those elements that are still “not good.” On the other hand, being a guardian does not imply creating something ex nihilo, but rather preserving a world we inherited from those who came before us. We are not mere individuals, each with our own world, but creatures whose role derives from a broader context, set in a world with existing people and things that require our attention.
Social Morality: Guarding One’s Brother
One might be tempted to think that the description of Man’s role in the Garden of Eden relates to the environment and not to fellow human beings; Man was charged with being a guardian over nature, and not over humanity. But the Bereishis narrative, which moves from the Garden of Eden to the tragic interaction of Kain and Hevel, makes a clear connection between the role of guardian and desireable interpersonal conduct.
The Torah message in the tale of Kain and Hevel is simple: We are charged with the responsibility of guardianship for other humans—a charge that forms the foundation of human morality. Shirking responsibility for another is the biblical archetype for immoral behavior
After Kain’s murder of his brother, God turns to him with the simple yet devastating question: “Where is your brother Hevel?” Kain’s defiant answer, “Am I my brother’s keeper,” is the very first biblically recorded discourse on relationships—what we call “morality.” The Divine response, referring to the “voice of your brother’s blood that shout to Me from the earth,” implied of course that Kain’s quip was entirely out of order—wholly immoral. Many different attitudes have been articulated over history concerning what a moral life consists of. The Torah message in the tale of Kain and Hevel is simple: We are charged with the responsibility of guardianship for other humans—a charge that forms the foundation of human morality. Shirking responsibility for another is the biblical archetype for immoral behavior.
The Torah thus expands the role of “to work it and guard it,” as conferred upon Man in the Garden, even to interpersonal conduct. We need to guard our brothers, and only a lowly murderer would deny this basic calling. Although Kain seemed to fulfill his Divinely ordained task by being laboring the land, the Torah reveals that working the earth is insufficient, and that laboring without guardianship cannot realize the Divine instruction. A person who does not see himself as a guardian might perform actions that possess utility, yet failure to recognize the imperative to guard that which is outside of oneself leads inevitably to failure. Moreover, the guardianship of the Garden is thus extended to guarding other humans. After Kain denies his responsibility of guarding his brother, the land itself rejects him, and he is cursed with perpetual nomadship—the precise opposite of life as guadian of the Garden.
The story of Kain adds a layer to our understanding of the Torah-ordained guardian. By contrast with guarding the Garden, which can be understood as guarding from natural rather than human harm, interpersonal guardianship includes guarding even from human damage. In order to guard one’s brother a person must constrain himself and fight against his egoistic tendencies that would otherwise lead him to hurt others. The Torah thus establishes the fundamental understanding that orderly and beneficial social life is contingent on our ability to commit to a role, to take responsibility, and to act as guardians for each other our very own hatred and animosity—and not only from natural disasters. The Divine question of “Where is your brother Hevel?” indicates that a person has the capacity to guard his fellow human being even from his own hatred. This is an integral part of what it means to be a guardian.
Political Guardianship: Keeping the Law
After defining the Torah role of guardian as applying to both elements of the world and other human beings, I now wish to observe the many legal obligations that the Torah articulates through an instruction to guard.
The principal Torah use of the word “guard,” in its various Hebrew forms, is in the context of observing Torah commands, the Divine mitzvos. The same role of guardianship that was conferred upon Man in the Garden of Eden, the role that Kain rejected when he murdered his brother, is the role that the Israelite nation is called to fulfill in observing the Torah mitzvos. Thus we are instructed to “guard the day of Shabbos and sanctify it” (Devarim 5:11), and Moshe calls upon the Jewish citizen to “guard this law” (Shemos 13:1). King David instructs his people to “guard the guardianship (mishmeres) of Hashem your God, to walk in His ways, to guard his statutes, and his commandments, and his judgments, and his testimonies” (1 Melachim 2:3). This nomenclature occurs throughout Tanach. Even upon the national return from Babylonian exile, Nehemiah urges the people in God’s name to “return to Me, and guard My mitzvos and perform them” (Nehemyah 1:9). The use of this verb emphasizes the Jewish role of guarding the law, precisely as we must guard nature’s Garden and our brothers.
The law, rather than the person, is presented as the weaker party. It requires our guardianship, while we, keepers of the law, are the stronger party: we can choose to guard the law or to harm it
The special nature of keeping the law is highlighted when comparing the biblical “guarding” to the commonplace idea of “obeying” or “following” the law, which are the operative verbs even for modern Israel. In the modern sense, a person is called to keep the law through compliance. His position before the law is fundamentally passive; he surrenders himself to the law. Implicit in this conception is the need for a certain self-denial to fully obey the law. Keeping the law requires a person to put aside his own discretion; one cannot fully realize both the law and one’s own self. In the biblical sense, however, a person is required to “guard” the law, just as a person guards a fortress or a city. The law, rather than the person, is presented as the weaker party. It requires our guardianship, while we, keepers of the law, are the stronger party: we can choose to guard the law or to harm it.
Like the Garden of Eden, even the Divine law is fundamentally good. Scripture is quite explicit in clarifying this point: “And Hashem commanded us to perform all these statutes, to fear Hashem our God, for our eternal good, that he might preserve us alive, as it is this day” (Devraim 6:24; see also Devarim 5:25, Devarim 30:15-16). A Jew is born into a society which possesses good and beneficial laws that were there, just as the world itself, before he came along. And just like the the world that surrounds him, he is duty-bound to guard them. Moreover, the common terminology that links Torah law to the Garden of Eden suggests that just like the Garden, even the law is a dynamic, organic essence that left to its own devices might develop in unwanted and unbefitting ways. The tendency of the law to change and to currupt requires the guardian to keep it, to steer its constant development in positive rather than damaging ways. Guarding the law thus has two distinct meanings: guarding it from those who will not perform it, and guarding it from those who would corrupt it. Man is charged with being alert to these two dangers, and guarding the Divine law from both of them.
[T]he unique element of the Torah’s approach is that those who guard the law are not the judges or the officers, but rather regular, everyday people. The entire nation is called upon to guard the Torah
Like in other state and legal systems, the upkeep of the law is an essential precondition, even for the Torah, for the existence of a good society. Failure to uphold the law inevitably brings to the corrosion of society and ultimately to the exile of the nation. This simple idea is made explicit in the admonitions of Vayikra and Devarim, in the warnings of the second paragraph of the Shema, and in many cautions issued by later prophets. Yet, the unique element of the Torah’s approach is that those who guard the law are not the judges or the officers, but rather regular, everyday people. The entire nation is called upon to guard the Torah. It is not a matter of judges bringing lawbreakers to justice, but rather a responsibility placed on the shoulders of each member of the nation.
By contrast with an understanding of the law as something public and foreign to individuals, the Torah sees the law as something personal, the concern of everyday people. Mitzvah observance in the private sphere is understood as strengthening the Divine law, and breaking the law is a corresponding act of weakening—even if the relevant acts are performed in total secrecy and seclusion. This is because we, the people, are protectors of the law, rather that the converse. Everyday people’s responsibility for the law is revealed specifically where there is nobody to enforce the law. A person must then be sure to guard the law by performing its dictates.
We have seen that acting as guardian, based on the stories of Bereishis as well as the Torah legal system, means protecting and cultivating those things that are good. The meaning of guarding, moreover, is not to merely keep things as they are, but rather a mindset whereby a person cannot design a perfect world independently, as though from scratch, and must rather build on an already existing good that needs to be fostered. Just as a gardener tends to the good plants and flowers that make up the garden, so we are charged with caring for the good in our world. A conservatism understood as stagnation, simply standing in the same place, does not fit with the Torah prescription for a fulfilling life. Acting as guardian requires knowing how to navigate a changing world, and on occasion even initiating those changes.
[W]hen we fail to recognize the need to conserve the goodness around us, and our discretion leaves the boundaries thereof, we are liable to fall into Adam’s original sin of partaking from the forbidden “tree of knowledge of good and evil”
This presents us with a nuanced understanding concerning the discretion that the Torah allows us, and the Torah attitude toward human-inspired changes. Although we are expected to think for ourselves, employing our reason to determine how best to improve the society we inhabit, this thinking is done within a framework of preservation, a context of guardianship over existing goodness. When we recognize the good around us and focus our energy on conserving it, then the discretion we employ and the changes we initiate are placed within the framework of goodness. Yet when we fail to recognize the need to conserve the goodness around us, and our discretion leaves the boundaries thereof, we are liable to fall into Adam’s original sin of partaking from the forbidden “tree of knowledge of good and evil.” The prohibition did not deny Man the use of his faculties and his discretion; such employment of faculties is simply being human. Rather, it placed boundaries reason: our discretion needs to be employed in the context of our surroundings. As guardians, we receive the privilege of choosing between maintenance and necessary adjustment, all for the greater benefit of the garden in which we reside.
In conclusion, perhaps we can say that the Torah’s conservatism relates less to preserving the past, and more to a certain posture in relation to the world around us. Its underlying assumption is that we are can conserve the inherent goodness of the world, both in nature and in humanity, and even to refine and perfect it. As guardians, we need to be closely attuned to the changes constantly taking place around us, and to use our discretion in reacting to those changes, and in preventing the kind of damage that humans themselves can wreak. Grounded in our observation and understanding of the world around us, and not on independent reason detached from reality, we are trusted—indeed, entrusted—to make the required adjustments that make the world a better place.