Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Limits of Liberalism: The dangers of ideological confusion

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

A Torah scholar sets the record straight about the misappropriation of core values | Under Obama's leadership, the United States has capitulated to terror tactics and the despicable temptation to blame Israel. America has always been the one country in the world that reliably countered the bullying and grotesque double standards much of the world applies to Israel. Obama has now joined the jackals. What a disgrace.
Mona Charen, June 4, 2010

How is it possible that the most liberal president in the history of the United States could join in the blood-letting against the only secular democracy in the Mideast? Indeed, as far back as last September, former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz articulated the ample reasons for questioning Barack Obama's moral compass. But now, after the president's rush to judgment against Israel with the rest of the left-leaning world, common sense demands an evaluation not only of his morality but of the ideology that compels him to rationalize his indefensible conclusions.

In my recent article The real reason why Jews are liberals, I argued that the values of social justice taught by Torah Judaism have been distorted in pursuit of an unattainable utopian ideal. In its passion for protecting the weak, the poor, and the oppressed, modern liberalism has exchanged moral clarity for kneejerk reactionism. Zero-tolerance has become a value in itself, eliminating all efforts to distinguish aggressors from defenders and perpetrators from victims. All violence is motivated by desperation, never by evil (which is only a relative value anyway). Free will is an illusion, as all behavior evolves organically from social conditions and conditioning.

In the end, moral confusion has begotten moral blindness.

To regain proper perspective, those who claim that the Torah itself endorses social activism and engineering would do well to study the actual teachings that form the foundation of modern liberalism in order to appreciate how they have been misapplied. As Alexander Pope famously said, a little learning is a dangerous thing.

Charity. A safety net for the poor is essential for a civil society. And so the Torah commands: "When your brother becomes impoverished and slips down among you, you must restore his strength so that he can live with you" (Leviticus 25:35). On the simplest level, one fulfills this precept with any gift to anyone in need. However, Jewish tradition teaches that this kind of giving constitutes the lowest possible form of charity, for although it eases the immediacy of the poor man's plight it does not address the root of his circumstance.

The highest form of charitable giving is to provide one's fellow with the resources and opportunity to find a job, learn a trade, or start a business. This transforms charity into an act of pure righteousness, for it enables the poor person to pull himself up out of his poverty, restores his sense of dignity, and relieves the community from the burden of having to support him. Merely throwing money at the problem often serves to assuage the conscience of the giver while further convincing the poor of his own dependency.

Compassion. Abraham's supplications before the Almighty on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah is frequently invoked as the paradigm of unconditional love for one's fellow man and the pursuit of peace at any cost. Upon learning of G-d's plan to destroy these cities, Abraham not only argues for their survival but haggles with the Almighty over the number of righteous necessary to redeem the cities from obliteration.

"What if there are 50 righteous?" Abraham asks, working his way down incrementally until finally conceding the fate of the cities when he determines that not even ten righteous men dwell within them.

But why did he stop there? Why did Abraham not continue to invoke divine mercy on behalf of even a single individual — or none at all — rather than accept the cities' inevitable destruction without further debate?

Again, Jewish tradition explains that without a significant number of righteous, without at least a quorum of ten who have resisted the moral corruption of their society, a wicked community will inexorably sink ever further into wickedness. If there were at least ten righteous, Abraham could appeal to the divine attribute of mercy by making the case that the few might still prevail over the many, that virtue might carry the day against vice. But without a nucleus of ten righteous men around which others might coalesce, it is inconceivable that a community already steeped in moral corruption could ever recover.

True mercy will neither allow the wicked to wallow in their corruption nor risk the spread of evil beyond their borders. True mercy recognizes that there comes a point when the world is better off without the influence of the wicked, and that even the wicked are better off without the opportunity to perpetuate their evil. Indeed, the sages teach that one who shows compassion when circumstances call for cruelty will eventually act with cruelty when the time arrives for compassion.

Let us examine one of the most striking examples of that principle now.

Sanctity of Life. One of modern liberalism's most enduring standards is opposition to the death penalty for even the most inhuman crimes. In contrast, Jewish law mandates execution in exceptional cases, after meeting rigorous legal criteria, partially as a deterrent and partially to protect society, but ultimately for a much more profound reason.

Jewish society was not designed to function based upon threat of punishment, but based upon a collective commitment to the highest standard of moral values. For any civilized society to flourish, its members must internalize not only a respect for human decency, but also an appreciation that living within the community of Man is not a right but a privilege. Stated most simply, one who rejects the foundational values of human society forfeits the right to remain a member of that society. One whose actions threaten society by dampening our collective sense of outrage at outrageous behavior can only repair the moral damage he has caused by serving as an example of the consequences of immorality in proportion to his crimes.

Ironically, those who fight most passionately to protect the lives of the guilty fight equally hard for the right to snuff out the lives of the guiltless. By any standard, the unborn represent all that enables humanity to flourish: innocence, purity, and limitless potential of the next generation. A society that refuses to protect its future condemns itself to moral disintegration.

Nonjudgmentalism. Judge every person favorably, commands the Talmud in one of its most emblematic aphorisms. No one can ever know the conditions that drive another to action, whether those conditions are psychological, environmental, economic, chemical, or a combination of all the above. Elsewhere, the Talmud states that no one ever commits a single act of evil unless overpowered by a "spirit of insanity." Clearly, none of us has the right to judge any other person.

Then again, maybe it's not so clear. "You must surely rebuke your fellow man and not bear sin on his account" (Leviticus 19:17). "Do what is good and upright in the eyes of G-d" (Deuteronomy 6:18). "Do not follow a majority to do evil" (Exodus 23:1). Clearly, we are warned against standing idly by and thus enabling the wicked.

The Talmud's injunction against judging our fellow man refers to the man himself, not his actions. We must seek out every possible rationale to explain his behavior, but we must also hold him accountable for how he acts. Evil is evil, and the only way to prevent its spread is to stop it in its tracks. As long as we can find a way of giving the benefit of the doubt, we can consider the transgressor within reach of repentance and redemption. But we can never allow ourselves to redefine good and evil, lest we assure the erosion of all moral standards.

When we cease to take responsibility for the moral rectitude of our fellow men, we become disciples of Cain, the first great criminal of history. Can we be so self-absorbed that we respond to the Almighty as he did with the most infamous of phrases, Am I my brother's keeper?

Social activism. Whether through legislation, taxation, or judicial fiat, well-intentioned public servants struggle with the question of how to use their power to correct social ills. However, Jewish law warns against precisely this impulse in the most uncompromising terms.

"Do not pervert justice for the destitute in his contention" (Exodus 23:6). "Neither give special consideration to the poor nor to the powerful; with justice shall you judge your people" (Leviticus 19:15).

More often than not, any effort to manufacture justice through social engineering begets greater problems according to the law of unintended consequences. Above all, when judicial overreaching results in the perception that those who hold power have expropriated the justice system to advance their own agenda, society as a whole loses confidence in its system of law and its every member suffers from the resulting corrosion of values and virtue.

Political leadership. And so we come full circle. The history of the Jewish nation makes it abundantly clear that an effective leader must be a scholar, an administrator, a diplomat, a judge, a warrior, and a model of moral conduct. He must lead his people with an iron hand in a velvet glove, allowing them freedom to take responsibility for their own actions while steering them ever away from the folly of moral anarchy. He must be able to discern between emotionalism and authentic wisdom, and he must act decisively against every abuse of power and perversion of justice.

Finally, he must be irreproachable in every aspect of his own behavior. And although no Biblical leader was perfect, the verdict of history comes down on the side of those who strove sincerely toward the attainment of perfection through fealty to the laws and values of the Highest Authority, without which even the noblest intentions inevitably lead to destruction.

As much as liberalism is rooted in Jewish tradition, that same tradition admonishes us that we will never successfully realize liberal goals if we do not respect the boundaries of the law, the realities of the human condition, and the doctrine of moral justice upon which all civilized society depends. Jewish World Review

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