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Radicalism and Jewish Values

Lawrence Bush
July 1, 2003

This essay is adapted from the keynote address delivered by Lawrence Bush at the Jewish Currents Luncheon on May 4, 2003.
Once upon a time, the word “radical” evoked in my mind such figures as Emma Goldman and Abbie Hoffman, Clara Lemlich and Allen Ginsberg. Simply by conjuring the names of a dozen landmark Jewish figures, you could project an inspiring outline of radical history in America: Ernestine Rose for women’s rights and abolitionism, Rose Schneiderman and Leon Davis for the rights of labor, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner for civil rights, Saul Alinsky for community organizing, and so on. Jews have been represented in the ranks of leftwing political leadership even more disproportionately than in the ranks of Nobel Laureates, and the contributions have been no less awesome.
Today, however, the word “radical” evokes for me a very different set of names: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, Karl Rove, Clarence Thomas, William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, and numerous other radical rightwingers who are now in positions of extraordinary power. They are using this power to strip away government, strip away the restraint of international law, strip away Constitutional protections, strip away working-class gains, strip away whatever is left of equity in the tax system. They are shaking American society any which way they can to see how many dollars will fall out.
Today, “radical” means “faith-based initiatives” that overturn decades of carefully constructed church-state separation; it means efforts to privatize Social Security and thereby pulverize the final pillar of the New Deal; it means tax cuts, including abolition of the inheritance tax, which will establish an American aristocracy in everything but name. “Radical” means efforts to ban or marginalize abortion, to Christianize public discourse, to hound public education with endless testing, shrinking budgets and private school vouchers. “Radical” means the harassment of immigrants, especially from the Islamic world, and the padlocking of Emma Lazarus’ “golden door.”
“Radical” means corporate greed run amok, with neither restraint nor punishment, while the consumer’s capacity to hold corporations responsible through lawsuits is suppressed by so-called “tort reform.”
“Radical” means the suspension of habeas corpus and the right to legal representation for U.S. citizens, and the denial of prisoner-of-war status for people seized in war. It means federal imposition of the death penalty upon the states, federal overrule of state drug laws, and federal impoverishment of state budgets. It means appointments of right-wing activists to the judiciary, and hard-nosed mandatory sentencing imposed on federal judges — while a record two million souls languish in prison in our “Land of the Free.”
“Radical” means two wars in two years, while 2.4 million jobs disappear from the American landscape. “Radical” means utter disregard for international law and opinion. “Radical” means environmental policy informed not by science but by greed.
“Radical” means a Supreme Court that appoints presidents.

Now, I cannot tell you what America would have looked like had the radicals of the 1930s or ’60s somehow come to power because, in truth, we never came close. Judging from the grim fruits of communism in the 20th century, a “Soviet America” would have been repressive way beyond John Ashcroft’s fantasies; and judging from the bitter sectarianism and cultism that swallowed up much of the New Left, a Woodstock Nation might not have been much better. Despite the ash on all of our faces, however, the struggles of the left gave rise to extraordinarily important achievements that are definitive to American society today. These key aspects of political, economic and social democracy became the American norm thanks to our agitation and the capacity of the American people to recognize our moral force.
None of these achievements can any longer be taken for granted. Each is now in the gunsights of the Radical Right, and many are already wounded and staggering. As a result, the main political task of the left, today, is not about change but about preservation. We are now the conservatives, the ones dedicated to conserving the rights, opportunities and minimum concessions to equality and equity that our struggles won. We are the conservatives, dedicated to preserving a sense of human community and human interdependence against the alienation and dehumanization caused especially by the vast gap between wealth and poverty. We are the conservatives within Jewish life as well, for it is we who are seeking to preserve Jewish commitments to social justice, equal opportunity, an end to racism, a peaceful and visionary state of Israel, an idealistic vision of a kinder, more beautiful world — commitments that are being eroded in the American Jewish community.
We are now the conservatives. They are the radicals. This is a major revolution in meaning with which we need to contend.

In this new role as “conservatives,” I think we can and must find support in the values of the broad Jewish tradition — including, I strongly believe, the Jewish religious tradition. Indeed, if conserving and preserving are our immediate political tasks, Judaism offers us much support, because the religion is most fundamentally not a set of other-worldly doctrines or worship routines but a centuries-old discussion about sustain-ability: about how we should live, as individuals and in community, to promote the greatest good for the greatest number and thereby endure upon this earth. Judaism is more than anything a discussion about finding an appropriate balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community, and about establishing a way of life — particularly a way of economic life — that is both realistic and merciful.
Let’s speak, for example, of the economic philosophy expressed in Talmudic Judaism. It is a philosophy predicated on a socialistic perception, namely, that the private ownership of property is essentially an illusion, because, as Psalm 24 says, “the Earth is the Lord’s, and all that it holds.” All of Judaism’s impressively progressive economic rules proceed from this principle: rules about honest buying and selling, fair wages and fair treatment of labor, sharing the harvest with the poor, regaining land lost to debt after fifty years, the obligatory nature of charity, the dignity of all people, including poor people — rules expressed in more than 100 of the 613 traditional laws of Judaism. These rules often stand in sharp contrast to contemporary American capitalist values. All of them are rooted in the formulation that God owns it all.

Many, perhaps most, Jewish secularists would stumble over this theological notion and consider it irrelevant nonsense. We would therefore permit the word “God” to serve as an enormous roadblock that deters us from traveling down the long, creative highways of Jewish thought. As a result, we pick up few passengers as a movement — because, while many, many American Jews are uninterested in theology, they are nevertheless interested in exploring the road of Judaism. Among the baby-boom generation, in my experience, this is particularly so: They are interested in rooting their opinions in Jewish values so that those opinions become commitments. They are interested in the Jewish calendar and holidays, in Jewish philosophy and spirituality. They are interested not only in Jewishness but in Judaism: a non-theistic reading of Judaism, of the kind presented by this year’s Moishe Katz Award winner, Judith Seid, in her book, God-Optional Judaism.
Why should we not weigh in with our own interpretations of this religious tradition? If Tevye the Dairyman can do it, subversively and expressively, on every other page of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye’s Daughters, why should we be reticent? Why detour around the tradition rather than driving directly through the landscape with our horns honking? Why leave our readers stranded on the byroads of ignorance about anything Jewish?

I would like, for example, to see us translate that basic Biblical concept that “the Earth is the Lord’s” into humanistic terms so that we can begin to plumb the riches of Jewish economic philosophy. In fact, the translation I seek was implicit in a piece in Jewish Currents several years back, in which a Jewish engineer, Joseph Worth, an inventor in his nineties who had played a key role in building the airplane engine of the Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic plane, made the comment that “There are no real inventions. Not really. I don’t even like the word. There are only developments.” Developments, indeed! In a society that wildly rewards individual “genius” with billions of dollars, Worth’s pronouncement about the collective nature of technological progress was revolutionary!
Yet it dovetailed with pronouncements by other Jewish innovators. Albert Einstein, for example, whose legend portrays him as a kind of hidden saint in a patent office, was nevertheless firm in his insistence that “in science . . . the work of the individual is so bound up with that of scientific predecessors and contemporaries that it appears almost as an impersonal product of a generation.”
Then there was a piece I discovered by Ben Cohen about his company, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream: “I always felt like we were holding the business in trust for the community. After all, the community allows you to exist. People in the community buy your product. They provide the infrastructure; they provide all the resources you use; they provide everything except the idea.”
These, then, were among the secular Jewish sources for my translation of the religious idea that “the Earth belongs to God” into “the Earth is everyone’s” — a humanistic recognition of the collective effort involved in the generation of wealth. If we were to build an economy with this as its underlying principle, that economy would have to take into account communal needs.
You might argue, of course, that a socialist understanding about the collective nature of wealth needs no religious justification, at least not since Karl Marx did his writing. But then I would call your attention to the fact that a number of other economic principles of Judaism (not to mention the evidence of history) stand in direct challenge to Marxist ideas of “economic man.” Marx, as I understand him, considered greed and selfishness to be distortions of human nature caused by exploitation and class relations. Judaism, as I understand it, recognizes greed and the drive for status to be basic qualities of human nature that are critical engines of economic development. One rabbinic text says that “without the yetzer hara” — the evil or lustful urge — “a person would not build a house, take a partner, beget children, or engage in commerce” (Genesis Rabbah 9:7). So which is the more accurate, more realistic view of human beings? It’s a question worth exploring in our Jewish magazine.
I know that there are many secular Jewish values, formed in the course of our struggle, our suffering and our survival, that we might invoke in support of our politics without resorting to theology. There are even Biblical passages that secularists already consider kosher. There is, for example, Isaiah the prophet’s eloquent call for social justice rather than mere piety:

Is this the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
. . . No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe them,
And not to ignore your own kin.

This passionate prophetic reading forms part of the haftarah in synagogue on Yom Kippur. Of course, few secularists, myself included, show up in synagogue on Yom Kippur. Unfortunately, just as few of us, I would guess, make a point of reading from the Book of Isaiah, or of “untying the cords of the yoke” through activism on that day. So what claim have we on Isaiah’s words? I note that Norman Podhoretz, a grandfather of the radical right, now has a new book out about the Prophets from his neoconservative point of view. We need to have the sophistication and enough understanding of the prophetic tradition to offer alternatives to his rightwing midrash.
Another secularly kosher value is the Jewish sense of “Otherness” that Sigmund Freud famously described in his letter to B’nai B’rith in 1926: “Because I was a Jew I found myself free from many prejudices which limited others in the use of their intellect, and being a Jew, I was prepared to enter into opposition and to renounce agreement with the ‘compact majority.’ ”
Well, let’s think about this one. Certainly, the centuries-long “Otherness” of Jews as an oppressed minority has fueled our open-mindedness and our thirst for social justice. However, in an American Jewish environment marked by intermarriage, affluence, political influence, diminution of anti-Semitism, and other features of “mainstreaming,” can we any longer rely on the status of “Otherness” to inspire commitment to progressivism? The evidence says otherwise: As Joe Dimow reported in the May-June issue of our magazine, there is an emerging generation gap in American Jewish life, with Jews under the age of thirty-five listing to the right. Liberals and progressives will not long be able to argue for the solidarity of the Jewish community based on its own oppression and alienation. We must, therefore, root our politics in other aspects of the Jewish experience, or the Jewish base for those politics will wither.

Let me close by telling you about one particular Jewish Currents funder, Leybl Drabkin, who with his wife, Edith, recently gave $1,000 to our new Development Fund. On the phone, Leybl warned me: If you make this magazine religious, I won’t give another penny.
Let me assure you that I plan to come back to the Drabkins — and to all of you — for funding next year and the year after that. There’s a world of difference between examining religion as a potential source of values and becoming religious. I would not ask anyone at this luncheon to say a brokhe before or after our meal. I’m simply asking us not to exclude Jewish religious philosophy from our sense of Jewish civilization.
Meanwhile, I’m sure all secularists will forgive me if I use the word “sacred” to describe the life and tradition of Jewish Currents magazine. It is a sacredness wrought by thousands and thousands of printed words in working-class accents, thousands of lines of poetry, thousands of sentences of political analysis and fervor, thousands of dollars freely given, thousands of lives celebrated, thousands of volunteer hours logged by our heroic Editorial Board and Management Committee — and thousands of dreams of a more decent and kind world.
It is my great hope to extend an appreciation of the sacred tradition of this magazine to growing numbers of readers — a task for which I have the needed energy and creativity. My great fear, however, is that I have been hired to serve as undertaker, which would be a sad and frustrating task.
With your support, I will put that fear on the shelf and just follow the doctor’s orders for a healthy dose of question marks to keep the “current” flowing in Jewish Currents. May our thoughts find renewal, our dreams find revival, and our land of the United States find its way back to the road that Jewish Currents has helped to pave, the road of economic justice and social progress.

Lawrence Bush is the editor of Jewish Currents. His most recent book is the revised New Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.