Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Word

Balloon Juice points us to this Dennis Prager LA Times editorial which thinks it's got the religion/politics thing down cold.
A number of years ago I discovered a root cause of America's culture war. It came to me as I debated professor Alan Dershowitz about issues of Jewish concern before a 1,000 Jews at the 92nd Street "Y" in New York City. With the exception of support for Israel, Dershowitz, a Harvard liberal, and I agreed on nothing, political or religious. Toward the end of the evening I came to understand why.

"Ladies and gentlemen," I announced, "the major difference between Alan Dershowitz and me is this: When professor Dershowitz differs with the Torah, he assumes that he is right and the Torah is wrong. When I differ with the Torah, I assume that I am wrong and the Torah is right." Dershowitz responded that for the first time that evening he agreed with me.

That realization was an epiphany for me. I have come to realize that the great divide in values is not between those who believe in God and those who do not but between those who believe in a divine text and those who do not.

This explains in large measure the great culture war in the United States. Americans, of course, are divided not so much by religion as between right and left. Jews and Christians on the left agree with each other on just about every political and social question, and Jews and Christians on the right do the same.

So what distinguishes leftist Jews from rightist Jews and leftist Christians from rightist Christians? It essentially comes down to their belief in the Bible, not their belief in God.

Jews who believe that the Torah is from God agree on almost every important issue of life with Christians who believe that the Torah--and the rest of the Old Testament--is divine. Jews who believe that men (and perhaps women) wrote the Torah agree on virtually every important issue with Christians who also regard the Torah (and the rest of the Bible) as man-made.

To be fair, there is a grain of truth to this statement. Religions do lean conservative, and any believer who takes his/her religious texts literally is probably going to end up more conservative than those who allow for interpretation and change (much as Originalism will get you more conservative results than other modes of Judicial philosophy). So yes, I'd venture that Jews and Christians who believe the Bible is divinely inspired will be more conservative than those who do not.

But outside of that, it is rather shocking just how badly Prager has distorted classical Judaism so that it fits within contemporary political conservativism and meshes with traditional Christian beliefs. To be frank, the political/moral values of Judaism and Christianity are not all that similar, and it is wrong to suggest they are. Prager writes the following:
Jews and Christians who believe that God revealed the Torah, for example, are far more likely to believe that marriage must remain defined as only between a man and woman, and cannot be redefined to include members of the same sex. They believe that people are not basically good, that human life, not animal life, is sacred (because humans, not animals, are created in God's image), and that murderers should be liable to the death penalty (the only law that is in all five books of the Torah is to put murderers to death).

On same-sex marriage, he is probably right (though even there some classical theologians are beginning to challenge that position). On just about everything else, I'd say he's got the classical Jewish position wrong, or at least twisted. Before I go further, I'd like to say that both Christianity and Judaism are not monolithic traditions. The positions that I will be outlining are simplifications--many denominations disagree. So take from that what you will. Also, it is important to note that in Judaism, even (indeed, especially) in its most devout incarnations, Rabbinic interpretations (Talmud, Mishnah, etc) are placed on equal footing with the sacred texts themselves. This does not in any way diminish the divine roots of the Torah, but it is a critical part of Judaic interpretation. A Jewish theology that tries to look solely at the text and not the interpretation is not Jewish in any traditional sense of the term. So, when I present Rabbinic interpretations of certain rules and clauses, they should be seen as reflective of traditionalist notions of how the divinely-inspired Torah should be read.

I. Are Humans Naturally Good or Evil?
Christianity, of course, believes that mankind is naturally inclined to evil. They get this from the fall of Eden and thus the taint of Original Sin. I have no clue where Prager cross-applies this to Judaism, which has no conception of Original Sin at all. Indeed, one of the critical differences between Judaism and Christianity is in how they view this world versus the world-to-come. Christianity sees this world as hopelessly corrupted and sinful, it is merely a vestibule before one enters the divine kingdom. Judaism rejects that position outright, the mortal kingdom has primacy in Jewish theology as the proving grounds for one's righteousness. This position only makes sense if one believes in the capacity for mankind to be good. Certainly, Judaism is not naive about it (that's why we have laws). But the overarching focus of Judaism is on the performance of good deeds, being proactively righteous rather than simply staving off sin.

II. Sacred Human Life
Both Judaism and Christianity believe that human life is holy. From there, they split off rather drastically. Nowhere is the distinction more apparent than on the issue of abortion. Conservative Christian denominations are dead-set against it. Classical Judaism, by contrast, takes a far more nuanced view. Critical to this is the position that life does not begin at conception, and that abortion is, in certain cases, permissible (Sanhedrin 72b, see also Exodus 21:22-23). In end of life issues, there are key differences as well. Whereas many conservative Christian groups have taken an absolutist approach, Judaism is more nuanced. Though it still is, in many ways, very much against Euthanasia, it has elaborate rules about what can and cannot be done to a Goses, or someone who is on the verge of death (within a day or two). The advent of new medical technology has complicated these issues greatly, and the debate continues to rage within classical Jewish circles about what to do in end of life scenarios (see Byron Sherwin, "A View of Euthanasia," in Contemporary Jewish Ethics: A Reader, Elliot N. Dorff and Louis E. Newman, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995): 363-381).

III. Animal Life
Though Prager is right that Judaism does not equate human life and animal life (we are not Peter Singer), there still are religious injunctions that seek to protect the dignity of the animal kingdom. The Kosher laws grow out of this sentiment--that animals must be killed humanely, and that there are limits on how we may treat animals. The idea that treatment of animals should even be part of a moral code at all is, I believe, unique to Judaism and unduplicated by Christianity.

IV. Death Penalty
Mr. Prager is correct that the Torah is very clear that the Death Penalty is required for certain crimes. However, he needs to look deeper into Jewish history to get the complete picture. Rabbinic interpretations of these passages have put stringent evidentiary requirements before the Death Penalty can be used--requirements strict enough so the Death Penalty would be used rarely, if ever. This position, in favor of the Death Penalty on a theoretical level while profoundly skeptical of its applicability in practice, mirrors the liberal position on the issue far more closely than the conservative one.

Prager indulges in what is becoming a very disturbing trend: The amalgamation of "Judeo" and "Christian" into one amorphous "Judeo-Christian" tradition. While claiming that this represents merely what the two religions have in common, what we see is that it actually is far more reflective of Christianity than Judaism. Indeed, Mr. Prager projects blatantly Christian positions over classical Judaism, claiming they apply to both. This is a very subtle form of Christian supremacism that can be very seductive to conservative Jews--it allows them to present their political predictions as religiously motivated without actually abandoning their faith. However, tempting as it may be, the fact still remains that this is an incorrect interpretation of Judaism. Jews--of all levels of faith--are statistically more liberal than the rest of the population for a reason. It is not because we've distorted our faith, but rather because we've followed it.

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