Why I Can’t Be an Orthodox Jew: a Critique of “Jewish Conservatism: a Manifesto”

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The cover of the May issue of Commentary Magazine screams: Jewish Conservatism: A Manifesto. While I consider myself a liberal on most issues, I was looking forward to being educated and challenged by this call for a shift in Jewish life. Sadly, I was neither. This is not the fault of the authors, Eric Cohen and Aylana Meisel, who did their best to convince me that the Judaism I abandoned as a teenager is the Judaism to which I should return. The fault is mine: the world they offer is simply one I cannot embrace:
A sukkah of deplorables. The manifesto promotes the worldview of Haredi, Hasidic, and Modern Orthodox Jews: the 24% of American Jews who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. This worldview is authoritarian, xenophobic, sexist, jingoistic, tribalistic, and openly opposed to reason, science, and Enlightenment values—the very antithesis of the worldview I cherish.
“Taken together, Torah conservatives, Zionist conservatives, and free–market conservatives [I have no idea how these people got in here] could create a formidable new coalition of American Jews…”
Think Ayn Rand wearing a sheitel (wig) and carrying an Uzi. I know, you can’t. Neither can I. Well, maybe the Uzi.
Demographics is destiny. Orthodox Jews have more babies than liberal Jews. Orthodox babies grow up to marry other grown up Orthodox babies almost 100% of the time, while seven out of ten liberal Jewish babies marry other liberal babies even if they’re Presbyterian. If the numbers hold, liberal Jews will be to American Judaism what Shakers are to American Christianity: irrelevant. No argument here, but I challenge the assumption that quantity equals quality.
Socialized medicine—no! Socialized religion—absolutely! Jewish conservatives “should help pass laws, at the federal and state level, that protect the freedom of religious institutions—schools, synagogues, and seminaries—to determine their own educational, ritual, and communal lives without the threat of litigation and without fear of losing their tax–exempt status.” In other words, religion should be above the law, and subsidized by the government. I thought conservatives wanted government out of their lives. Let’s stop subsidizing religion with tax exemptions all together.
Moses knows best. The boogeyman of this manifesto is the “sovereign self,” the notion that you are free to decide what is best for you even if it violates communal norms. Conservatives say they hate “identity politics” and celebrate the individual, but this manifesto is all about identity politics. The individual must surrender to the will and norms of the group. I am far too devoted to the freedom and creativity of the individual to celebrate this kind of group think.
Boys rule. Cohen and Meisel urge Jewish leaders to “explain how the life-cycle family rituals—Brit (circumcision), bar mitzvah, chuppah (wedding), and Kaddish (mourning)—embody a deeper teaching about intergenerational responsibility that is relevant to every American in search of meaning and purpose in life.” Notice that three of the four rituals mentioned exclude women: women aren’t circumcised, do not become bar mitzvah, and are not counted in a minyan (quorum) needed to recite Kaddish. Liberal Jewish women are not about to go back to the 1950’s let alone 1590’s.
Do it for the kids. “The crucial question… is whether a growing percentage of non–observant Jews might become inspired to give their young children a serious Jewish education…” By “serious” they mean right–wing Orthodox. The answer is “no.” Non–observant Jews are non–observant on purpose. If they wanted to raise their kids as Hasidim, they could: ChaBaD is everywhere. But they don’t and they won’t. Unless liberal Jews start having more babies, however, this question is moot not crucial.
Next year in Jerusalem or This year in Boro Park? “What does it mean to be a Jewish–American patriot living outside of Israel?” It means you aren’t a Jewish–American patriot. Anyone Jew wants to live in Israel can do so. The fact that most American Jews choose not to do so suggests that living in a Jewish state dominated by right–wing nationalists and Orthodox rabbis isn’t all that attractive.
You say “potato,” I say “undemocratic.” “Jewish conservatives should defend the Jewish nation as a heroic enterprise, one that resurrected Jewish civilization in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people and created the most modern, most democratic, most civilized state in the the Middle East.” The key term here is “in the Middle East.” Yes, Israel is the most democratic state in the Middle East, but the bar is so very low. And how democratic is Orthodox Judaism anyway? Are rabbis elected? Does Orthodox Judaism protect the rights of non Orthodox Judaisms and liberal Jews? Of course not. Orthodoxy is not democratic at all, and has no desire to be so.
Where is George Orwell when you need him? The authors quote Norman Podhoretz who wrote in 1982: “The Bible tells us that God commanded the ancient Israelites to ‘choose life,’ and it also suggests that for a nation, the choice of life often involves choosing the sacrifices and horrors of war.” I’m not opposed to Israel defending herself, but to call this “choosing life“ is simply Newspeak.
Give me John Lennon any day. “Israel is a light unto other people who have come to believe that nothing is worth fighting or dying for.” Except the vast majority of Haredi and Hasidic Jews do neither. They are exempt from military service. And what about jihadis who are more than happy to die for Allah and the Caliphate: are they a light unto other people because they are willing to martyr themselves in the act of murdering others? If this is the future Judaism in an increasingly authoritative and oligarchic America, I’m not just moving to Canada, I’m converting to Unitarianism.

Bottom line:
1 The manifesto isn’t compelling: yes, it speaks for Orthodox Jews, but it doesn’t speak to Liberal Jews at all.
2. The manifesto is all about tribal retropia envisioning a romanticized and rabbinically authoritarian past that I have no desire to imitate.
3. It ignores spirituality. Liberal Jews aren’t looking for a rabbi to tell them why torturing a calf to make veal is kosher, while eating a rice cake without rabbinic heksher (kosher certification) is treif. Liberal Jews are looking for wisdom and meaning, and this manifesto offers neither.

Here is my own Jewish Manifesto:
* Judaism is an ancient and on–going conversation about the nature of life and how best to live it.
* Jews are or l’goyyim, a light unto the nations (Isaiah 49:6), calling for universal justice and compassion, and the recognition of all beings as sacred.
* Our vision is of a fearless world without war (Micah 4:3–4) where people eat and drink wisely, work joyously, and love freely (Ecclesiastes 2:24; 4:8–12). 
* Our mission is to be a blessing to all the families of the earth, human and otherwise (Genesis 12:3).
* Our core practice is machloket l’shem shemayim, arguing for the sake of wisdom: honoring disagreement, doubt and critical thinking over intellectual passivity, spiritual conformity, and manufactured consent.
* Our pedagogy is eilu v’eilu d’vrei Elohim chayyim: all arguments no matter how divergent are, when offered in love and respect, and for the sake of discerning truth, are the words of the living God (Eruvin 13b).
* Our tools are Shabbat, liberating all beings from Mitzrayim, the narrow places of enslavement, and helping them reclaim their innate divinity (Deuteronomy 5:15; Exodus 20:8-10); kashrut, elevating production and consumption to the highest ethical and environmental standards; tzedakah, the just use of money and capital; gemilut chesed, acts of loving–kindness; shmirat halashon, cleansing our speech of gossip, slander, falsehood, and distortion; brachot, expressing gratitude for life’s gifts and wonders; limmud, turning our ancient texts in search of timeless wisdom; t’fillah, exploring the nature of self and other to reveal Ehyeh, the singular divine “I” manifesting all existence; and haggim, holy days set aside for deepening our conversation. 
* Jews are defined by our commitment to Judaism rather than blood.
* Let us teach our children to invent the future and not preserve a frozen and romanticized past. If we are not about tomorrow we will find that we have none.

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