As one of the few Jews willing to admit to a politically conservative slant, I get asked the same question all the time, “How can you be both politically conservative and a Jew?” Most of the questioners are either liberal Jews who consider me something of a heretic, or a non-Jewish fellow conservative who is shocked at the rare find of a conservative who is a Jew.
My response to the query is usually “How can a Jew not be politically conservative?”
Conservative principals such as limited government, individual responsibility, and traditional morals are all deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. Even the fact that America’s founders intended for the county to be led by people who based their political decisions on religious
values (something that scares the heck out of most liberal Jews) complements Jewish tradition.
The creation narrative in Genesis explains that man is created in God’s image. But we also taught that our maker has no bodily form, so how can that be? The Bible is not teaching us that we are all dead ringers for ”big guy upstairs,” if that was the case the pictures on everyone’s drivers licenses would look alike and no one would be able to get a check cashed and CSI would be a very boring TV show.
“Created in God’s image” is supposed to teach us that just as God acts as a free being, without prior restraint to do right and wrong, so does man. God does good deeds as a matter of his own free choice, and because we are created in his image so can man. Only through free choice, can man truly be, in the image of God. It is further understood that for Man to have true free choice, he must not only have inner free will, but an environment in which a choice between obedience and disobedience exists. God thus created the world such that both good and evil can operate freely; this is what the Rabbis mean when they said, “All is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven” (Talmud, Berachot 33b). God controls all the options we have, but it is up to man to pick between the correct or incorrect option.
As explained by the Rabbis, free will is the divine version of limited government. God picks the winning direction, but does not pick winners and losers.
Because we all are created in God’s image, Jews believe that ”All men are created equal,” meaning that we all have the same ability to be infinitely good or wicked, and to forge a relationship with God regardless of intellectual capability, social background, physical strength, etc. It does not mean, as the liberals ascribe to, that when it comes to talents, predilections, or natural abilities we are all equal. Nor does it mean we all should have the same big screen TV, wireless internet, or savings account balance.
Jewish tradition takes a positive view of both the institution of ownership and the accumulation of wealth. It respects economic success, so long, that is, as it is obtained honestly, and proper respect is shown for the social responsibility that comes with it. That social responsibility is an individual duty and a job for the community led by its religious leaders, but not for the government.
The book of Leviticus (25:23) says
“If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him proselyte or resident so that he can live with you”
Notice it says live with you, it does not say live in a government facility, because the obligation is on the individual. In rare times the community was called on to pick up the slack but it was never the community government, but it was the local Rabbi who would lead the effort. The Hebrew word for charity, tzedaka, has in it root the word tzedek which means righteous, because we are taught that giving charity one of the keys to righteousness.
I once read that when God created the world, sparks of his holiness were spread across the earth. Every time that a person makes the choice of performing a righteous act, one of those sparks is purified and sent back to heaven. Through that process we become closer to God.
Liberal/Progressive government takes away that choice. It assumes that left to our own devices, we will do the wrong thing (or at least what they say is the wrong thing), government takes over the role of God, and steps in to control our decisions. Liberalism takes away our personal choice and gives it to the government, retarding our spiritual development and most importantly, the opportunity to get closer to our maker.
Judaism also teaches us that we cannot rely on God to bail us out all of the time, the responsibility to take action falls upon each and every one of us. The famous story of Moses splitting the Reed Sea teaches that lesson (Red Sea was a typo made when the Torah was translated into Greek). In Exodus Chapter 14-15 Moses sees the Pharaoh’s troops bearing down on the Israelite nation, who are trapped against the sea. Moses starts praying to God, but God says stop praying and do something!
And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Wherefore criest thou unto me? Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward.
There is a rabbinical story that when Moses lifted his staff the water did not part. The Egyptians were closing in, and the sea wasn’t moving. The Israelites stood on the banks of the sea, frozen in fear until a man named Nachshon took the responsibility upon himself to act; Nachshon just walked into the water. He waded up to his ankles…his knees…his waist… his shoulders, and just as the water was about to reach is nostrils the water parted.
This story teaches us that it’s one thing to have faith and believe God will eventually help us, but we cannot get that help until we take personal responsibility and act on our own.
Sometimes that help does not come in big miracles like the splitting of the sea, but it comes simply, as in the success of one’s endeavors. In June 1967 Israel sent its air force to take out the Egyptian planes just a few hours before they were to be sent to attack the Jewish State, then they prayed for success.
On the other hand a Liberal/Progressive government teaches citizens that the government will always bear the responsibility of protecting you; there is no individual responsibility, just the collective bailout. Instead of each one of us assuming a personal responsibility and using our good deeds to gain closeness to God, we become part of an overall group with no responsibility.
Liberal Jews get very worried when they hear a political leader talk about God. If the political leader is a Christian (as most of them are in the US) they see the person as some sort of zealot who will eventually force everyone to become Christian. If the person is a Jew, they get angry the Jew is wearing their religion on his sleeve.
In the story of the Exodus it is God who sets up the first Jewish Government, he chose to have a Political/Government Leader Moses, and a Religious Leader Aaron. Even though Moses was the governmental leader, the Torah tells us that Moses used God’s law and morality to make his “political” decisions. In that first Hebrew government set up by God there was no wall separating church and state. And political leaders were expected to consult with God’s law in making their decisions. If we are taught that it was fine for the government set up by God, why is it not OK for a government set up by man.
The Founding Fathers of America guaranteed us freedom of religion that means that the Government cannot stop Jews from practicing the rituals and prayers of our faith, but it did not call for a separation of Church and State. In his farewell address, Washington said:
Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connexions with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
The Jewish picture of God is of a creator who instilled in us a personal responsibility to do the right thing, but he also provided us with the choice to accept that responsibility or not. There is no room in Jewish law for a government that forces us to do (their interpretation) of the right thing. There is also little room for a Government that does not include religion and morality in their consideration set before they make decisions.
So the question should not ever be “How can a Jew be conservative politically?” It is political conservatism that best matches Jewish tradition. When it comes right down to it, tradition tells us that conservative principals such as limited government, individual responsibility, and traditional morals are all Jewish principals.