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Yoram Hazony's Brilliant Essay on Jewish Conservatism

Over at Mosaic magazine, Tikvah Fund president Eric Cohen offers an essay on the "Spirit of Jewish Conservatism" without, however, mentioning the subject of Judaism -- that is, Judaism in the normative sense of observance of Jewish law and Torah study. This is pointed out in the most courteous manner by a distinguished Jewish public intellectual, Herzl Institute president Yoram Hazony, in a response published in Mosaic this morning. As Hazony explains:

I am troubled, however, by one central issue. I do not understand the absence of God and Scripture from Cohen’s list of central “values and ideas” that he wants Jewish conservatives to conserve. To me, if his ambitious vision is to succeed, these have to be positioned at the head of the line...

Everyone understands that the Jews came into the world to fight for certain principles and to teach certain things. Everyone understands that Israel’s God and the tradition handed down from Sinai are at the very heart of the matter, and until only very recently have been the basis of all subsequent Jewish moral and political thought. The question facing us is whether, in formulating a new conservative-Jewish “ideology” (Cohen’s term), we can afford not to place front and center the principles that undoubtedly form the core of Jewish teaching—and that have animated and preserved the Jewish people for the last 25 or 30 centuries.

I have had some minor quibbles with Yoram Hazony, but I offer him the heartiest "yasher koach" ("More power to you") for his riposte. The liberal Jewish denominations, which long confounded Judaism with what they mistake for social justice, have discovered that one doesn't have to be Jewish to be a liberal, and are at risk of disappearing as a result. Their congregants cease to be Jews, but remain liberals. Neither does one not have to be Jewish to be a conservative. There are, I argued in this space earlier this month, inherently Jewish reasons to be conservative, but that is a different matter.

To Yoram's powerful critique, I would like to add another observation: the same mindset that causes Mr. Cohen to ignore the "Jewish" side of "Jewish conservatism" makes him (and the neoconservatives in general) ineffective conservatives. At their worst (and they are not always at their worst) they have been right-wing social engineers, blindered by their the belief that democratic institutions as such will turn Iraqis or Afghanis into democrats -- trying to make Iraq into Switzerland, as Sen. Ted Cruz put it. This has produced a series of disasters in foreign policy from the Hindu Kush to Ukraine, which I have chronicled, first at Asia Times and more recently in this space, for the past fifteen years. The neoconservatives think religion desirable, even indispensable, but for the most part they view it from the outside in: they view it, that is, as another form of ideology, rather than as an existential commitment to a mode of life.

For eons, men have sacrificed themselves with fearless abandon in the hope of perpetuating something of themselves beyond the grave. It is not an aberration, but rather the tragic commonplace of human existence, for men to submerge their own identity into a collective identity as a response to mortality. That sets civilizations on the path to eventual self-destruction.

Democracy is not the end-all and be-all. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observed in his 2007 book The Home We Build Together:

The concept of the moral limits of power is more important to freedom than is democracy. For democracy contains within it a fatal danger. Tocqueville gave it a name: the 'tyranny of the majority.' A majority can oppress a minority. The only defense against this is to establish the moral limits of power ... Biblical politics is limited politics - the political of liberal democracies, not of the Greek city state.

No philosophy can teach moral limits to power: Kant tried, and Nietzsche made his ethics an object of ridicule, replacing the Categorical Imperative with the Will to Power. We do not learn this from philosophy: we accept it from revelation and tradition. And if we accept this because it is what God wants, it is hard for a Jewish conservative to remain indifferent to other things that God wants, for example, acknowledgement of his sovereignty by resting on the Sabbath.

I can't say it more eloquently than Yoram Hazony did today: "To flourish, Jewish conservatism will have to delve deeper, turning its attention to the foundations and taking up a stance openly faithful to the wellsprings of Jewish thought and purpose in the God of Israel and its Torah." I would only add that if Jewish conservatives took his advice to heart, they would not only be better Jews, but better conservatives.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage created using a modified Shutterstock.com image.)