The Revolutionary Conservatism of the Jews

Nothing is more conservative as a practical matter than Jewish observance. Scripture, and commentaries, and commentaries on commentaries are preserved in a living colloquy among the generations. Communities that adopt specific customs are obligated to preserve them. The reading of the Pentateuch in an annual cycle recreates its revelation at Mt. Sinai: It must be heard and not merely read to evoke the  experience of hearing it for the first time. Yet all of this arch-conservative practice with its punctilious attention to the slightest details of the past is there to bring to life a revolutionary event, the irruption of the Creator God into human history. Nothing is more revolutionary than Judaism. The revolutionary-conservative character of the United States of America cannot be understood except by reference to this phenomenon in Judaism.

What passes for Jewish conservativsm has been an abject failure. A group of conservative Jewish funders styling themselves “The Jewish Leadership Conference” today are holding a conference in New York City to promote “Jewish conservatism,” including a few of my friends. I won’t attend; the effort remains immured in the neo-conservative swamp against which I have inveighed these past years. Its lead speaker is the former Russian refusenik and Israeli political leader Natan Sharansky, whom I admire unreservedly as a human being, but question as a political thinker. Ten years ago I excoriated Sharansky’s claim that democracy provided a universal antitode to the world’s ills, in a book review entitled, “Nathan Sharansky’s Mistaken Identity.” The other poster-boy for this conference is the late Charles Krauthammer, whose watchword was “democratic realism.”

Sharansky and Krauthammer, both men of high intelligence and good will, helped persuade President George W. Bush to undertake his crusade for world democracy, and thus bring the United States close to financial and strategic ruin. Their influence has been baleful despite their best intentions, and it is a measure of the political immaturity of American Jews that the best we can to by way of conservatism is to advertise the errors that nearly ruined us in our generation. Forcing majority rule on Iraq put a sectarian Shia government in power, allied to its co-sectarians in Iran, vastly expanding Iran’s power in the region, and putting Israel at risk. Of all the stupid and self-destructive things that Jews have done with the best of intentions, the Bush Freedom Agenda promoted by Krauthammer and Sharansky produced the clearest and most urgent threat to Jewish survival. With Sharansky and Krauthammer on the marquee, the “Jewish Conservatism” conference also features Hillary Clinton supporter Bill Kristol. Clearly we have a congnitive dissonance here.

We Americans are conservative but we also are revolutionary. We incorporate English Common Law, the jury system,and  the protection of individual rights under English law, but we have created a new people in a new way. We recognize that in our literature: As I wrote about American culture two years ago in Tablet Magazine:

The Old World cultures are fixed in the past; their time is “once upon a time,” the amorphous time of legend. A day, a year and a life are indistinguishable: A traveler chances into a feast at an enchanted castle, and the seven days of his sojourn turn out to be seven years. Washington Irving repurposed the ancient tale: with an ironic masterstroke, he put Rip van Winkle to sleep in the Old World of legend and woke him up in the new time of the American  Revolution.  With this story, our first national writer declared independence from the literary sources of the Old World, and banished the enchanted world with the clear light of the new era.

In the cited essay and a supplementary article for the British monthly Standpoint,  I proposed a theory of American culture as a Christian mode of emulation of Israel, a view quite different than that of Russell Kirk, John Courtney Murray, or Leo Strauss.

The notion of revolutionary change comes into human history at Mount Sinai, and is repeated in Jewish history in the great 2nd century C.E. rebellion against Rome and again in the founding of the State of Israel, an event that evokes parallels with the American Revolution. This was unknown to the pagan world. The intellectual leader of Modern Orthodox Judaism in the 20th century, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, explained it this way in a Passover commentary:

There was a revolutionary message in Rabbi Akiva’s urging his people to revolt against the Romans. The concept of a slow historical process that was popular among the peoples who lived under the influence of Greek philosophy, the endless morphological evolution from matter into form, from a lower to a higher eidetic stage, carries weight and significance so far as time is lived through quantitatively. Then the forces of history move with an extremely slow pace; years, decades, and centuries are nothing but drops in the sea of eternity. … Under the aspect of the minyan ha-shanim, “quantitative years,” any rebellion is a priori doomed to a stillbirth. If a man leaves his fate to the principle of blind, mechanical causality and circumstantial determination, he can never attain salvation and redemption. Redemption is nonexistent for him as chaos and confusion are precluded from the realm of nature. The Jews have inherited from Abraham the alternative to minyan hashanim. The prophecy of the “generations” challenges man, not to live in time, but to mold it, to give to the indifferent chronos news aspects and new interpretation. Time is computed according to man’s own creativity and self-determination. A qualitative time experience enables a nation to span a distance of hundreds and thousands of years in but a few moments. In the seventy years from the destruction of the Temple to the Bar Kokhba upheaval, the Jewish people may have lived through an endless continuum of time, Rabbi Akiva concluded. “Ve-hy-ha Kez – and then will be your Redemption!”

Soloveitchik warned sternly that the creative gesture adopted from Judaism could be perverted and transformed into something terrible. He referred to the German philosophers of the Will, particularly the Nazi Martin Heidegger, although he also might have written about Karl Marx:

This concept of the obligatory nature of the creative gesture, of self-creation as an ethical norm, an exalted value, which Judaism introduced into the world, reverberates with particular strength in the world views of Kierkegaard, Ibsen, Scheler and  Heidegger…These ideas, which were pure and holy at their inception, were profaned and corrupted in modern culture. The will was transformed by Schopenhauer into a “blind” will, while for Nietzsche it was embodied in the “superman.” Similarly, the longing for creation was perverted into the desire for brutal and murderous  domination. Such views have brought chaos and disaster to our world, which is  drowning in its blood.

American conservatives for the most part have responded to the perversion of the idea of creativity by retreating into the bland certainties of Aristotle or Edmund Burke. That is understandable and forgivable, but not particularly American at the end of the day. It hardly captures the spirit of 1776, or the apocalyptic message of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, itself a paraphrase of Isaiah 63. We hear the inspired tones of the Hebrew Bible in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and the voice of the prophets in the call of the Battle Hymn. We eschew political passion for fear of its dark side, and blanche when passion reasserts itself, for example in the movement that swept Donald Trump to the presidency. We have become timid and remote from our forebears who embraced the boldness of the Bible.

Most of what passes for conservatism in the United States, from the followers of Leo Strauss and Russell Kirk, the natural law emphasis of the Catholic Right or the High Tory aestheticism of Roger Scruton, is alien to the inspiration of the Founding. It surely has nothing whatever to do with Judaism, which since ancient times has raised the concept of freedom informed by creativity in opposition to Greek thought. Unless it is exercised in partnership with God, human creativity is a dangerous thing, and it is understandable that mainstream conservatism feels more comfortable with the accretive, empiricist restraint of Aristotle or Burke. Edmund Burke was a fine fellow who supported the American Revolution, but never would he have risked his life, fortune and sacred honor for it. That required the radical Protestant impulse that came from the Pilgrim Fathers.

But there is a great deal to be learned from the Jewish sources that inspired what John Milton and John Selden envisioned as a “Hebrew Republic.” Normative Jewish time is the time of redemption, and it is defined by what Rav Soloveitchik called “the appointed hour” in his essay on the foundation of the State of Israel, Kol Dodi Dofek. The long wait of the centuries with its meticulous recreation of the past and loyalty to tradition is there to prepare the decisive moment in which redemption becomes possible. Human intervention in partnership with God makes redemptive moments possible. Aristotelian time is the plodding procession of moments of the pagan world, driven by the rotation of remote heavenly bodies, and assembled into dreary kyklos of flourising and decay, of democracy giving way to tyranny.

There will be some worthy contributions at the Jewish conservatism confab, for example the exposition of nationalism by my friend Yoram Hazony. I reviewed his recent book in Tablet Magazine; it is an important contribution, but it falls short of a robust formulation. On the whole, we Jewish conservatives are too burdened by the baggage of the past, by a compulsion to justify past blunders and by adopted ideology that we should have shed long ago. We have the means to create a political conservatism consonant with traditional Judaism. The elements of this are available in the American past as well as such Orthodox Jewish sources as Rabbi Soloveitchik. For the time being, though, we still are wandering in the desert.