What Conservatives Can Learn from Religious Jewish Communities

AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene

Observant Jews are the most conservative group of people in the West. We study Scriptures lovingly preserved over 3,500 years, follow a legal code that took its present form nearly 2,000 years ago, and maintain community customs established over a thousand years or more. Every day I bind tefillin (small leather boxes containing parchment with biblical passages) to my arm and forehead, as my forefathers have done since we left Egypt, and recite the three-fold blessing, of which the earliest written example comes from the 6th century BCE. Religion supports conservativism not only because it upholds eternal verities, but because the practice of religious communities is a model for the preservation of what is good and true in the past.

Religious Jewish communities are a model–in fact, the longest-enduring model–for conservative thinking. One of Israel’s leading public intellectuals, Moshe Koppel, explains why in a brilliant new book, Judaism Straight Up, which I had the honor to review for Claremont Review of Books, the premier intellectual publication in the American conservative movement. Koppel takes the reader inside the community life of observant Jews and shows how the give-and-take of tradition and innovation make it possible both to preserve the past and adapt to new circumstances.

Claremont Review has kindly opened my review to the public from behind the paywall, and it can be read at this link. If you don’t subscribe to CRB, you’re missing the best discussion of conservative ideas in the English language. It’s the only publication I read cover to cover every issue. So please consider becoming a subscriber.

A few extracts from my review:

Britain’s late Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once asked historian Paul Johnson, author of an excellent History of the Jews (1987), what most impressed him about Judaism. Johnson replied that Judaism, being a religion of strong individuals and strong communities, presents a rare balance between the individual and the collective.

Distinguished computer scientist, conservative activist, and scholar of Judaism Moshe Koppel proposes another answer: the balance between received tradition and reasoned innovation. He contends that observant Jewish communities uniquely realize the conservative view defended by Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, offering an example of continuity and adaptiveness found in few other Western communities. Koppel is a gifted pedagogue, a master at explaining philosophical problems to the general reader by means of anecdote and aphorism. His eloquent, erudite book merits close attention.

“This disenchanted world comprised of individuals without religious communities,” Koppel writes of the secular West, “is not in equilibrium. Bereft of tradition, individuals can’t simply reason their way to rules that encourage virtue, and they can’t spontaneously develop a strong sense of common purpose.” Traditions “are essential for a society’s viability,” Koppel stresses, but “taking traditions too seriously could itself be harmful.” Traditions themselves were once innovations. The failure to adapt “is exceedingly maladaptive.”

And most important:

Reason alone is not enough for a viable society. “[P]eople can’t live coherent lives without certain unfounded beliefs,” writes Koppel, “of which the classic examples are free will, scientific induction, and morality.” Philosophy cannot derive moral maxims from first principles. Yet “we could not lead coherent lives without believing that some actions are morally preferable to others.”

Free will, induction, and morality are not our only necessary beliefs. “Each of us must believe in the viability of the culture of which we are a part,” Koppel explains. “[W]e would be paralyzed by dread if we did not believe that we are engaged in some project that connects that which has preceded us with that which will succeed us and that gives context and direction to everything we do.” We can come to terms with the prospect of our own death if our life has a purpose beyond our physical existence, but we cannot overcome the dread of the death of our culture. “Suppose,” Koppel writes, “that most of the human population would be spared [from a plague], except for anyone who remotely shared your culture…? [Y]ou’d still find that your life had lost its purpose and that even pistachio ice cream didn’t quite taste the same.”

The whole review can be read here.