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Why Jews are Liberals?

November 6th, 2012 · No Comments

– Robert Light

I have just finished Norman Podhoretz’s book “Why are Jews Liberals?” It was an excellent work – both from the perspective of providing a concise history as well as positing his own view of why Jews are “still liberals”.

By all accounts of Podhoretz’s bio, he is the age of my father – who is still an arch liberal and voted for Barack Obama – twice. I am in my early 50’s and have become one of those “liberals who figured it out” and have become conservative (small ‘c’) in my “old age”.

With that caveat, I’d like to offer a view that takes a slightly different approach than the one that Podhoretz took in his book…and attempt the same mission to answer the question “why are Jews Liberals?”.

As all good (Jewish) presentations start…this one starts with a joke…one that has bearing on my message.

There once was a poor Jewish peasant in Poland who was getting on in his years and woke his wife up one morning… he said….before I die, I want to have a meal like a rich man…I want to eat a meal of kreplach. So his wife woke up and went to the kitchen…she said…my husband, we don’t have any meat..what should I do? Her husband said…ok…so make them without meat. She then looked around and said, my husband…we don’t have any eggs….he replied…so make them without eggs. She then looked around and said…but we have no oil… the husband replied…so…make them without oil.

So she combined the flour, some water and made the dough…she didn’t have any meat for the filling so she stuffed them with potato – they looked just like kreplach. She baked them and served them to her husband.

Her husband sat down with great delight… smelled the kreplach his wife made for him…and then ate one…. the wife was silent.

The man swallowed….grimaced…. and then push the plate aside and exclaimed… “Hrrmphf… I just don’t see what those rich people see in these!!?”

This is what has happened to the Jewish people…they went through centuries of being incredibly poor…most of them were illiterate and most had only their mama-loshen [mother tongue] and a few traditions to keep them grounded – they knew little of the foundations of their faith, the backbone of their religion. As generations transferred to America, bit by bit they lost their grounding in Judaism – they understood less and less the meaning behind their traditions…in the end they saw Judaism as a Kreplach made without meat, oil or eggs…they couldn’t see “what they (their ancestors) saw in it”.

The lack of grounding meant that they could shift their political position in a fairly fluid way – not between “left wing” and “right wing” but on the social structure spectrum itself. My position here is that the spectrum is not a linear left-vs-right spectrum but a circular continuum. I agree with Podhoretz that before the enlightenment, the Jews were on the left-wing of the political spectrum at the time. Figure 1 is an attempt to show this….the black curve shows the political spectrum superimposed on the circular continuum of the social structure spectrum.

Figure 1 – Jews are on the liberal wing of the spectrum

At the top of this circular spectrum are the command-economies – centralized economies where a single ruler is responsible for the major decision making – this ruler can delegate to subordinates (the aristocracy in the case of the monarchy, the communist party aparatchiks in the case of communism). The bottom of the circle are pure democracies or republics – where the people decide on their government and governors.

Judaism clearly had an impact on the concept of what we now call “Democracy” – even through such unlikely transponders as Spinoza’s influence on John Locke and thereby on Thomas Jefferson – many of Judaism’s concepts of rights, responsibilities – the checks and balances required within centralized government – these are all influences from Judaism.

What happened after the enlightenment is that the black-line, the “political spectrum” itself, started shifting and because the Jews had lost their grounding in Judaism, they shifted with it. Note that I could be a bit more favorable to the Jews by stating that they found themselves in the position of dragging the political spectrum towards “the left” and hence had to find themselves leading the march.

However we want to color the history, clearly the political spectrum shifted and the Jews kept their position on “the left” of that spectrum.

Now our figure looks:

Figure 2 – the political spectrum shifts – the Jews follow

With the rise of socialism (and then communism), the political spectrum shifted again around the spectrum – again, because the Jews had no grounding in authentic Jewish philosophy and values, they shifted with it.

Figure 3 – The rise of “socialism” – Jews keep to the “left”

But clearly, as the political spectrum continued to shift – as Podhoretz is a case in point (as well as I) – the Jews did start to shift their set point… but the bulk still seems to be “on the left”. As Podhoretz points out in his book, the current “right wing” is where the “left wing” was in the 1950’s. It is not inconceivable that John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan would have found common cause if they had been able to collaborate.

Whereas before the enlightenment, the Jews (of the then-left) were inspiring Thomas Jefferson to create our Constitution, nowadays Thomas Jefferson’s view is considered “right wing”.

Figure 4 – The political spectrum of “today”

As Podhoretz points out – it is that the bulk of the Jews today are in a policial party which has adopted socialism as its foundational principals and whose adherents are devout marxists and supporters of dictators such as Chavez and despots such as the PLO.

I would submit that the antidote to this problem is education – that Jews need to understand how the foundation of Judaism speaks to political issues that are front-and-center today. They need to know that there is “more to the Kreplach”. In addition, non-Jews need to understand the foundations of concepts and ideas that they use in political discourse.

I will use an example to illustrate. The issue of “redistribution of wealth”. The Jews of today view this issue as a matter of “social justice” without really understanding the breadth and depth of Judaism’s view on the matter. Like the story of the Kreplach, they see the “effect” of supporting the poor as the only salient feature of the issue. To them, the problem is that the poorer classes need more support. How they get his support is of little importance….hence taxation is an okay means for raising the funds.


From the Jewish perspective, tzedaka [charity] involves 3 parties – the poor person, the rich person and G-d. From a Jewish perspective, the amount of money a person has is determined by G-d. A rich person is “rich” because G-d wanted him to be so at that time…a poor person is “poor” because G-d wanted it that way at that particular moment. The concept that our wealth (or lack of it) comes from G-d is embedded in directly in the Hebrew language – where there is no “possessive”…you don’t say “My dollar”….you say yesh-li kesef “there is to me – money”.

Whereas there is a sense that all wealth comes from G-d, it is also clear from Jewish tradition that the wealthy man has certain “rights” to his money – if someone takes his money it is considered theft. Hence the rich person’s wealth is more his “responsibility”.

The rich person has certain responsibilities and one of those is to give tzedaka (charity) to the poor person. While the surface view is that the poorer person “got something” and the richer person “gave something”…on a spritual level, both parties were recipients – the richer person got the privilege to give…the poorer person got support. The act of giving tzedaka creates a bond between the richer person and the poorer person and also creates a bond between the richer person and G-d as well as between the poorer person and G-d.

The surface view that only the poorer person “got something” is wrong – just as the nursing baby is the outwardly obvious recipient, the mother wants to nurse the baby and indeed benefits from the interchange…. so too with tzedaka.

The problem with income redistribution is that the money is forcebly extracted from the richer person and given to the poorer person as an entitlement. This does two very destructive things – it makes the richer person seek ways to protect his wealth from theft and it makes the poorer person look at the support as an “entitlement”….not as a benificent gift. The two human parties to the transaction instead of being uplifted, humbled and connected by the transaction – the two parties become arrogant – the richer person hording his wealth and the poorer person demanding it as an entitlement. The connection to G-d of the two parties is also damaged – instead of G-d seeing two people who humble themselves before Him – he sees two arrogant individuals; the richer person ignores his responsibilities and the poorer person becomes entitled and thinks his sustainence comes from the “state” and not from G-d.

Moreover, when a person receives something that he didn’t earn – he feels guilt.  When the gift comes as charity or as a gift from a friend or relative – the receiver expresses gratitude and says “thank you” and thereby relieves him/herself of the feeling of guilt.  But when the money comes as an invisible deposit into their debit account once a month from “the government” – there is no way to express gratitude and the only way the person can assuage his guilt is to feel “entitled”…”I was owed this money”.  This rots the person’s moral core.

So instead of tzedaka being a vital fiber in the fabric of society, the transfer of weath (by forced taxation) becomes a rot to that very fabric…. so in fixating on the obvious element of tzedaka (ie: the poor got their support) the Left ignores the true nature of charity (like our kreplach story) and ends up with a society which is less prosperous, less cohesive and more arrogant. By focussing on generating the “outward tangible effect” of charity, the Left actually kills the system which has managed to raise the poor in this country out of the ash heap and ultimately the poor will get poorer – because the society itself will become poorer – both spiritually and physically.

Chesed vs. Gevurah
The other area I would like to touch on is the concept of “conservatism” itself. It is more than “financial or social” conservatism. The Left, looking only at the surface elements, sees only a “clinging to the past”… a sort of conservatism in philosophy ….and being progressive, they seek to go beyond the ideas of yesterday.

The problem with this view is that again, they are only looking at the surface – a kreplach is much more than just “cooked dough”. One could model political discourse today as a conflict between the Left wanting to create a society based on chesed (kindness) and the Right wanting to base it on gevurah (strictness). Unfortunately, this rather childish view is shared by both the extreme wings of both the Left and the Right.

In the Jewish Kabbalah, chesed and gevurah are twin attributes that create an inner balance in the soul’s approach to the outside world – they are integral qualities of our humanity. A person (or society) which is based solely on chesed or solely on gevurah cannot function….both are needed and limits are necessary, boundaries must be respected – these are ways that people (as well as societies) practice gevurah.

Any parent (who manages to raise well balanced, sane children) understands the balance between chesed and gevurah – that both are needed in order to be a good parent and to build a well functioning family. The Left’s rather infantile view that chesed is good and gevurah is bad….is a major misunderstanding of today’s discourse.

Again, the Left looks at the surface – chesed is good because it “feels good”….gevurah is bad because it “feels bad”. Maybe it is a result of narcisism, maybe it is a result of being ignorant but this is a chief source of the problem today in political discourse.

Judaism can illuminate this issue too – in Judaism there really isn’t a notion of “good and bad” – everything from G-d “is good” although to us individually something may “feel bad”. Of course, this is only when G-d practices chesed and gevurah. We humans are not so skillful…gevurah, if practiced correctly is necessary and “good” as is chesed good if practiced correctly. But practiced incorrectly, strictness can be bad and chesed can be bad. One need look no further than at a spoiled child to see the destructiveness of unrestrained chesed.

In terms of social policy, one can look at welfare reform where able bodied people were forced off of welfare and told to “get a job” to support themselves and their families…this was an example of gevurah that was appropriate and ultimately “good” – even though for the person being forced off welfare – it felt bad.

Again, you can look at Judaism and see the roots of this philosophy everywhere – at Rosh Hashanah, we don’t say to our friends and family “Happy New Year”…we wish that they have a “Good Year”…the emphaisis is on “good”…not on “happy”. In Judaism, “happiness” is what we feel when G-d gives us blessings that we experience as “good”….happiness is an “effect”…it is not an end in itself. This is where Thomas Jefferson exercised incredible insight when he penned “…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

A Jew might have used the words “pursuit of purpose”…but it is also clear that Jefferson claimed we have a right to the “pursuit of happiness”…. we do not have a “right” to “happiness” itself. The Left’s view seems to forget this and again…looking only at the surface… wants people “to be happy [equating happiness with money]” where Jefferson wanted people to be free to pursue happiness.

An enormous amount of the animosity engendered between the Left and the Right can be eliminated if both can see that in reality, both are trying to achieve similar goals – clearly via different strategies. A study of Jewish philosophy can create an understanding of the fundamentals of the arguments and provide a basis for the two sides to come together to create a better society and a stronger and more just nation.

Tags: One Nation Under God · Political

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