A Challenge to Religious Liberals

By David Klinghoffer

Over at the interesting website Beyond Teshuva, devoted to issues raised by Jews returning from secularism to Judaism, Kressel Housman comes “out of the closet” as…a liberal. As someone “raised on liberal values,” she reflects:

I know liberalism is unpopular in frum [religious] circles, and I know there are good reasons for it. Israel is number one, of course, but then there are matters like abortion and gay marriage.

I salute the author for being open, and for giving me an occasion to formulate Klinghoffer’s Law, based on my experience of hearing many people’s personal stories:

Jews who return to Jewish tradition often become more politically conservative, sometimes stay as they were, but almost never become more liberal. This is a strong indication that the natural political stance of a believing Jew is conservative, not liberal.

I suspect a similar dynamic could be identified among Christians who have experienced a renewal of or return to faith. I bet it’s also true of Reform and Conservative Jews who were previously less committed. If true, this poses a major challenge to liberals who see their religion as supportive of their politics.

Think I’m wrong? Let’s put it to a test. I invite readers, Jewish and Christian, to share their own experience. Did your spiritual recommitment translate into changed political views?

If so, how? My hunch is that we will find few if any cases where religious involvement translated into a leftward movement across the political spectrum, but many cases where it translated into enhanced conservatism. Again, if you think I’m wrong, and if you think you can prove it — not with insults, please, but with examples — go right ahead.

If your experience fits my proposed Law, please also let me know.

In my own memoir about teshuva, or spiritual return, The Lord Will Gather Me In, the political element was among the most controversial. My current book, How Would God Vote?, goes into detail about why Torah’s politics are so conservative.

The argument in a nutshell is that conservative views on a variety of issues (though not all) are linked by a common insistence on personal responsibility, an emphasis that pervades Torah, especially as understood by the great modern Orthodox sage, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.

Originally published on BeliefNet.Com.

35 comments on “A Challenge to Religious Liberals

  1. FFB writes: “But what if the candidate steps all over the constitution? America would do well to learn a little from Orthodoxy.”

    For a candidate of any political stripe to do that is wrong. I hold candidates and officials with whose positions I agree to an equal if not higher standard than those whose positions I oppose.

    Bob Miller writes: “Liberals, not knowing better, may not be fully accountable for their actions, but the damage done is still damage.”

    This would apply to conservatives to. The man who shot and killed a guard in the Holocaust Memorial Museum was certainly not a liberal. He certainly was ignorant and possibly insane. Whether he is fully or partially responsible for his actions, he has done horrific damage.

    Incidentally, the incident at the Holocaust Memorial Museum is similar to many incidents in Israel. A vigilant, brave, security officer prevented a massacre, sacrificing his own life in the process. May Hashem avenge his blood, and reward his fellow officers who captured the criminal. The righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come.

  2. Taxpayers should attempt a cost-benefit analysis. Possibly, typical public schools mis-educate children and waste funds. Possibly, the government is less able to channel money to worthy causes (as opposed to politicians and their pals) than individuals or smaller groups are.

    Liberals, not knowing better, may not be fully accountable for their actions, but the damage done is still damage.

  3. It seems to me that Torah teachings are about the health of the community, the group, over the individual. One must make personal sacrifice for the group.

    I was raised by two passionate liberals who taught us this. They volunteered (and still do) a great deal. They stood up for people who were being discriminated against, even if it risked their own standing in the neighborhood. They happily pay taxes to go to programs that help people who have less or benefit the masses over the individual. They sent all their kids to public schools in order to support the system. My mom taught in public schools despite how hard that is and how little money she made.

  4. My understanding is that there is a Torah concept that God doesn’t hold us accountable for actions if we don’t know better, which seems to me to be an attitude common among/appealing to folks of a more liberal mind set.

  5. Has increased level of Torah observance affected one’s view on Israeli politics?

    My initial foray into Torah learning and observance was under the auspices of the “Dati Leumi” movement where one of the Rabbeim summed it up that in his opinion, relinquishing territories was the “4th example” where Pikuach Nefesh doesn’t apply. That was added to illustrate the Rav Kook outlook that permeated the Beis Medrash.

    Over a 7 year period, and a myriad of reasons and experiences, I gradually gravitated towards the more yeshivish element.

  6. Beneficiaries acting in their narrow, short-term self-interest, have understandably argued for a a welfare state, or significant components of one. The spiritual and economic well-being of the whole, however, depends on the expansion of personal responsibility and freedom within the bounds of Torah.

  7. I am one who moved significantly to the left as I became more frum. There is no inherent right to property in the Torah; everything belongs to HaShem. The reason I appear to have a right to property is that the Torah forbids another individual from taking my property — but a beit din can declare my property ownerless if they disapprove of what I am doing. The Torah also provides for mandatory contributions to support a welfare state and allows for communal authorities to levy additional amounts for public works and education, and that authority was used. The rabbis’ choice of mitzvot that should be taught to propspective converts is quite interesting: Not Shabat, kashrut, and taharat hamishpacha, but leket, shich’chah, peah, and maaser oni. A few years ago, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler stated that the Torah requires a community to provide universal health care; I have seen no rabbi of his stature argue this point.

    The religious parties in Israel are the biggest supporters of that country’s welfare state; even in the US our communal leaders are constantly lobbying for more social service programs that will benefit our community (and we would accept billions for our schools if we could get it). Indeed all the religious parties in Israel were quite comfortable with Ben Gurion’s socialist economics back in the 1950s. The idea that Judaism would prefer laissez-faire capitalism to a welfare state is disproven both by our mesorah and our current actions.

  8. You’re really pushing the we-know-it-all to far, ffb. The nature of the US constitution is that there is no absolute law; only “rights” for pursuing freedom, etc.

    Please, L’havdil bein koidesh l’chol.

  9. But what if the candidate steps all over the constitution? America would do well to learn a little from Orthodoxy.

  10. FFB points out that we don’t appoint non-Orthodox people to positions of leadership in Orthodox institutions. Accordingly, a non-Orthodox person (or an Orthodox one who has a different outlook than the institution)is clearly the wrong person for the job.

    However, this does not support the assertion that a liberal or conservative is the wrong person for a given elected office in the United States. Unlike the Torah-inspired guidelines of Orthodox institutions, the Constitution of the United States allows the voters to choose among two or more persons with various viewpoints.

  11. Economic liberalism, today’s kind anyway, is wreaking a lot of havoc. If this was what the voters wanted, they have a problem.

  12. Ephraim, you wrote:

    “For example, the recent elections in the U.S. seem to have been mainly about economic liberalism, and as a by-product, a president with left-wing ideas about many other social issues (abortion, for example) was put in office even if many of those who voted for him don’t agree with him on those subjects.”

    You see, we’d never elect, say, a mechalel shabbos rabbi or gabbai or shul president or board member no matter how much we agree with his policies or, for that matter, how charismatic or talented he was. This is where yiddishkeit differs with politics.

  13. There is hesitancy among some Orthodox groups to support a complete overturn of Roe v Wade since the result may conclude with stringent abortion laws that could seriously impede a case of saving the mother’s life.

    Rabbi Avi Shafran of the Aguda once remarked that in the late 60’s when he saw African-Americans dressed in African-style clothing he became less self-conscious about his yarmulke and tzitzes.

    Was it liberalism planted in the 1960’s that later on allowed frum Jews to wear a yarmulke, tzitzes, s’fira beards at the office and to leave early on Erev Shabbos?

    I don’t have a definitive answer, but the nuance involved apparently goes beyond the simple (and false?) dichotomy of liberal and conservative frameworks.

  14. >Ephraim, this exactly is one of the points. In >Orthodoxy we don’t appoint (at least it’s >forbidden to appoint) anyone to any leading >post if he’s not a frum Jew.

    I can’t figure out what this has to do with what I wrote. Also, are you saying that it is assur to vote in U.S. elections which are almost always between two goyim?

  15. FFB — you’re not saying that simply being Frum makes one capable of leading, or being an authority of any kind, now do you? That would be making a mockery of the naked truth of “rotzeh H’ es yireiav, es Ha’Meyachalim l’chasdo”.

    We need genuine DAAS Torah. I know, it sounds semantic. But these issues become so easily blurred.

    The naked truth is what we need… with perhaps a thin lavush

  16. Ephraim, this exactly is one of the points. In Orthodoxy we don’t appoint (at least it’s forbidden to appoint) anyone to any leading post if he’s not a frum Jew.

  17. For me, the problem with this kind of discussion is that the labels ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ have come to mean so many often unrelated things, so it is hard to say that a Torah outlook coincides perfectly or even well with either of them. For example, the recent elections in the U.S. seem to have been mainly about economic liberalism, and as a by-product, a president with left-wing ideas about many other social issues (abortion, for example) was put in office even if many of those who voted for him don’t agree with him on those subjects.

  18. A yid has to go with daas toire and nothing else.
    If Democrats values would be closest to toire (which they are not- toeva marriage approval, abortions, Obama the president etc.) then yidden have to be democrats, and if Republicans are (which they ARE) THEN YIDEN SHOULD BE REPUBLICANS.

    VEZE BORUR!!!!

  19. An interesting and provocative post.

    My views on some social issues have changed as I have integrated the Torah’s perspective, but my voting has not. I am still a liberal, but now I am a thoughtful, intentional liberal instead of a knee-jerk “FFB” liberal.

  20. Interestingly, “quakers” seems to be an English translation of “chareidim”

  21. Ha! I became a neo-con in no small part because of my education at a leftist Quaker college. When I had my (Conservative) conversion immediately after graduation, I had no reservations about shmiriat Shabbat or Torah mi-sinai, but I was secretly worried that my POLITICAL convictions might be a problem.

    Having an Orthodox conversion allowed me to come out of political marrano status.

    I can forgive my non-Orthodox teachers a lot, but it’s hard to forgive them my guilt feelings over being a political conservative. “The Democratic Party at Prayer”.

  22. Behind the scenes, there is a permanent bureaucracy in the State and Defense Departments that basically opposes the Jews and Israel. Presidents may agree or disagree with this bureaucracy and may be able or unable to control it.

  23. well, I definitely fall into your theory. I grew up around exclusively liberal Conservative (as in the movement) Jews and became a conservative Orthodox Jew– yet I can never bring myself to call myself “Republican” because it still has bad associations based on all the brainwashing I grew up with. I’m not sure my switch over to conservative politics was only because I changed my religious views, but much of it was also my first exposure to conservative political views as well as my exposure in college to extreme liberalism (i.e. all the anti-Israel/Socialist political groups).

    I think there are many similarities between religiosity and conservative politics. For starters, both are troubled by moral relativism. Liberals don’t seem to distinguish objective right from wrong. They support underdogs regardless of the circumstances. They fight for rights even when what they call rights is reverse discrimination. They use political robinhooding to reinforce sedentary behavior all in the name of “compassion.” They attempt to fix problems without looking at the big picture of their actions.

    Religion allows for clear-cut good and bad, right and wrong. It tells us when life begins and ends which limits our ability to make decisions out of convenience. It gives us priorities which can’t be changed simply because we want them to be.

    This is my understanding of why Jews who are liberal religiously tend to be liberal politically too. Just as they believe they can change, distort, and ignore the Torah, they do the same with the constitution. American Law permits abortion because of a “right to privacy,” when the question isn’t about privacy at all but a question of the definition of life. And their motivation is again, “compassion” for the mother– but what about the baby? Lehavdil, Conservative Jews say a Cohen can marry a divorcee… and why? Out of “compassion” for the older Cohen who has a hard time finding a wife (not that they step in if the Cohen is 25 or anything).

    To liberals and liberal Jews, their own perception is their G-d. When Shabbos is convenient, let’s do Shabbos (dinner)! But this week we want to take a vacation? Shabbos will wait for next week! I’ve seem Reform Temples do havdallah hours before Shkiah because that’s when people want to come. And if people see it as discriminatory that women don’t have a Chiyuv in tzitzis, by all means let’s make it obligatory (thus causing far more aveirus than mitzvos since every time a woman who wears a tallis decides to go out in a pashmina she’s doing an issur d’oraissa). Lehavdil, when homosexuals yell loudly enough for “equality” suddenly we can change the entire definition of marriage since the beginning of time.

    Religious individuals see G-d as the Ruler, even if it is inconvenient and conservatives see the Constitution as law, even if social politics of the day would like to make a change.

    I don’t see the relationship between religion and politics as being due to similar social issues (i.e. abortion, gay marriage), I see those views as symptomatic of one’s underlying relationship to truth, integrity, and authority, and I think that is what determines one’s religious and political views thus creating what I agree is a strong correlation between the two.

    P.S. I’m mostly talking about my observations related to Jews, I don’t really know enough about religious Xians’ political views to make any observations.

  24. This topic has been argued many times on this site so I won’t get too much into it. But besides the ideology, as American presidents go, and how Jews and Israel made out under them, I would take Reagan, Bush (the second, not so much the first) and Nixon over Roosevelt (FDR, Teddy was great), Carter, and Obama any day of the week.

  25. As an interesting contrast to this (completely apart from my own politics) I find it noteworthy that in Israel Meimad was founded by individuals well educated in Torah, including the founding rosh hayeshiva of Har Etzion. And yet, Meimad aligned itself with the Labour party, whose politics and policies are anethema to so many of us Religious Zionist types.

    Certainly an exception to Klinghoffer’s Law; or does the theory only apply to hozrim b’teshuvah?

  26. Bob, I think it’s “modern [era] Orthodox sage, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch”, not Modern Orthodox.

  27. Hi Rishona,

    Excellent points. My own observation with Black Americans I have known professionally is that they are generally (with some exceptions) Democrat,but not subscribing to the very liberal wing of the party. My anecdotal evidence indicates that Black Americans may be on the more “conservative” end of the Democrats on many, but not all issues.

    As a Republican, I actually felt very comfortable expressing my views with Black Americans.

  28. I do not agree with this premise. I read somewhere that a survey was taken among Black Americans to see if they believe in G-d. On a whole, there are fewer Black American atheists and agnostics out there. Also Black Americans are overwhelmingly Democrat. It is true that believing in G-d does not really define someone as “being religious”; but I was raised in a Pentecostal church (C.O.G.I.C.) which was one of the more religiously strict denominations of Black churches, and just about every member I know of was a Democrat.

    Very rarely does any religious ideology match too well with the ideology of a political party. A good example of this is that although many frum American Jews are Republican, they admire Israel’s system of providing socialized medicine and allowances for families and new olim; something that when done in America is usually the priority of Democrats.

  29. I have always been observant, and became more seriously observant. I have always had primarily Liberal political opinions, and still do. On some issues i may have shifted more “left”, while on others i may fall out more “right”.

    Of course, each issue is independent — the idea that someone should change their mind about all of their political stances because some other people who share their views also have other views with which they disagree doesn’t make much sense.

  30. My personal experience indicates that when all other factors are equal, it is easier for a Conservative secular Jew to become a Baal Teshuvah than it is for a Liberal secular Jew.

    It seems to me that anyone who makes Jews less Liberal is indirectly helping the cause of Kiruv Rechokim.

    Rabbi Avigdor Miller (1908-2001) made a statement at one of his famous Thursday night public lecture that: “Liberal Jews are not Jews,” or something very similar to that.

    Finally, the correct name of the Guest Contributor is David Klinghoffer, not David Klinghoffers as indicated at the top of this blog.

  31. On a related but at the same time unrelated note, the NYS senator representing KGH is a sponsor of the gay marriage bill. Any reaction coming from the community?

  32. 1. I’d hesitate to apply “modern Orthodox” to Rav SR Hirsch ZT”L because the current meaning of that term differs significantly from his approach (e.g., regarding the specific relationship between Torah and Derech Eretz).

    2. Someone can always point to differences between the Torah way and any Western political ideology. We have to keep in mind how Torah and our Jewish path in general are unique.

    3. Still, in all, liberalism in the last few decades has taken a radical turn away from what a Jew might accept. Nostalgia or smoke and mirrors won’t make that fact vanish. As liberalism continues to morph into a form of atheistic statism, Jews who have been liberal need to reevaluate their affiliations.

  33. Correlation does not equal causation.

    (Note: I’m a moderate conservative.)

    I’d venture that among the religious, the more knowledgeable the person is both in regards to politics and religion, the more likely they are to be somewhat moderate in their political beliefs.

    Yes, BTs are attracted to conservatism as they become more religious, but not only might that have been part of the draw in the first place, but some will also be attracted to more staunchly one-sided views (rightly or wrongly) in general.

    A true Jewish view on abortion would never lead to someone being staunchly pro-life – we make exceptions. On capital punishment, we reserve it for specific instances and rarely mete it out.

    Basically, I think he’s partially correct – by definition, a basic liberal outlook will not match religion as much as a basic conservative one. But when you start getting down to the nitty gritty, there’s much less of a difference than people think – both in politics and in religion. We like to oversimplify a lot, but that’s not necessarily representative of truth.

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