Why Jews Lean Left — And Should Stay That Way
by Lawrence Bush
“We Jews are, as it were, the sons of the revolution, the daughters of the revolution.
We should be aware of it.” —Leo Baeck, Judaism, 1949
For the past three years, I’ve been sending out a daily e-mail called Jewdayo, which chronicles, day-by-day, contributions by Jews to American and world culture. I include the occasional Jewish ganef or villain, but Jewdayo is primarily a testament to Jewish audacity, universalism, and innovativeness, exemplified by scientists such as Jonas Salk, who refused to patent his polio vaccine (“There is no patent,” he said. “Could you patent the sun?”); activists such as Lillian Wald, the great champion of public health and poverty relief; artists such as the innovative animator Max Fleischer, creator of Betty Boop (“It’s futile to be brutal,” she sang. “That won’t get you a dime. So be human all the time.”); capitalists such as Edward Filene, who built credit unions for workers and advocated for Workmen’s Compensation — and hundreds of other Jewish heroes and heroines. (Readers can sign on to receive Jewdayo for free at the Jewish Currents homepage.)
In doing my research, I’ve been struck by the fact that the most fertile period for the qualities I seek begins for my millennia-old people only around 1790, when Jews in Europe and the Americas were enabled by both capitalism and democracy to join the Enlightenment and escape their sequestration in the religious ghetto of Judaism, to which they had been confined by Christian anti-Semitism. While there are both medieval and contemporary religious figures of stature who make appearances in Jewdayo, it is predominantly a history of 20th-century Jewish secularism that I’m chronicling — a history of Jews who became world citizens with a vengeance, leaving God and Judaism to the side while taking advantage of their Jewish-bred literacy, internationalism, linguistic dexterity, familiarity with commerce, stubbornness, out-of-the-box thinking, and skeptical-yet-idealistic worldview, to produce an outpouring of invention and progressive political leadership that changed the world for the better.
I often find myself wondering if that extraordinary Jewish energy is now petering out, thanks to several factors. First, the right-wing and Christian anti-Semitism discussed in the first article in this series — a force that historically kept Jews leaning left and thinking creatively in opposition to the “compact majority” (as Freud described it) — has greatly diminished. Second, the leftist secular Jewish movements of the 20th century, from which institutions such as our magazine emerged, no longer have the strength to create the kind of subculture (as described by Dick Flacks in the second article of this series) that perpetuated, for several generations, a strong Jewish identity defined primarily by ethical concern for the world.
Third, the “normalization” of the Jews sought by the Zionist movement has been successful, and modern Israel exercises a pull on the Jewish people towards “realism” and self-interest. Fourth, Jewish empathy for the troubles of the world, particularly the troubles of poverty and oppression, has become far more abstract than in our sweatshop and tenement years, and the “greed-is-good” ideology of post-Reagan capitalism has led many smart and creative Jews to devote their energies to getting rich rather than to uplifting the world.
Certainly it is true that Jews are no longer “arriving” as hungry newcomers, but have long since pitched our tents. Maintaining our status, rather seeking to tear down impediments to status, has therefore become the main item on the Jewish agenda. These explanations aside, however, my fears about the Jews running out of steam as an extraordinary and progressive people may well express the biases of a 60-year-old and little else. Younger people, for example, would likely not consider the achievements of Sergei Brin (Google’s founder) or Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) to be any less dynamic or positively transformative than those of the conquerors of polio, nor the antics of Sarah Silverman to be any less hilarious and khutspedik than those of Lenny Bruce. If the proof is in the pudding, I should also note that the pace at which Jews win Nobel Prizes has hardly slackened over the past three decades (at least 20 percent of eight hundred and fifty prizewinners since 1901 have been Jewish or half-Jewish, this from a people who constitute less than one sixth of one percent of the world population). In 2011 alone, there were five new Jewish Nobel laureates.
Given what Jewdayo has revealed to me about how Jews were so energized by their release from the ghetto of rabbinical authority, religious rules, superstition, and insularity, it would seem sensible for me, as a Jewish humanist, to advocate against modern synagogue involvement, against paying attention to traditional Jewish texts, against participation in religiously-based rituals. Instead, as many of our
veteran readers have noted, some with dismay, I consistently urge non-religious Jews to engage with the Jewish religious tradition, particularly its ethical and economic philosophy, to observe the holidays creatively, and to bring their skepticism to bear upon terms like “God” and “mitsve” by wrestling with their meaning, rather than dismissing them as meaningless.
What am I, nuts?
I pursue this path because I believe the secularization of the Jews, accompanied by the dissipation of secular Jewish communities and their organizations, has gone so far as to weaken our creativity as a people. Yes, there are still Jewish liberals and activists plenty, but in the push-pull tension between Jewish and mainstream culture that produced so much innovation in the 20th century, the mainstream is now dominant as an influence, while the Jewish “counter-culture” is referenced less and less. We are aware of American Idol, but how many of us are aware of the Jewish mandate to testify against idolatry? We are offended by Rush Limbaugh, but how often does the phrase loshn hora, “evil speech,” punctuate our revulsion as we switch stations? We are aware of America’s adoration of the Almighty Dollar, but how many of us have covenanted ourselves to the mitsve of tsedoke and its socialist-minded implications? We are aware of the “rugged individualism” promoted by libertarians, but how many of us can effectively promote the communitarianism of Jewish legend and law? We are aware of the Clint Eastwood/Ryan Gosling mystique of tough masculinity, but how many of us can give examples of Judaism’s alternative view of what makes a mentsh of a man?
Such Jewish values and metaphors helped to shape the energies and creativity of several remarkable generations of secular Jews. Even many of those “non-Jewish Jews” (Isaac Deutscher’s term) cited in Jewdayo were somehow affected by the idealistic and ethical aspects of Judaism, inhaling it from their homes and community cultures. Today, however, those Jewish influences are quite attenuated, and the majority of non-believing Jews are hardly giving anything back to Judaism or to the cultivation of Jewish peoplehood. Most have abandoned the religion’s interpretation to traditionalists, just as they have abandoned the political activity of the American Jewish community to wealthy Jews and Jewish neocons. What passes for “normative” in Jewish life thus becomes more and more obnoxious and embarrassing to progressives, who then move further and further away from identifying as Jews in any significant way.
This is the trend that needs reversing, which will only happen if we make it our business to re-attach our politics to Jewish sources and exercise a progressive influence on Jewish culture’s evolution. In this quest, many allies have emerged in the past few decades — in the Reconstructionist, Renewal, Reform, Secular Humanistic, and even Conservative denominational worlds. Those allies, in turn, could be moved to greater creativity, greater acknowledgment of humanistic skepticism, and greater political relevance, if secular Jews were to say “Hineni,” “Here I am,” in the world of Judaism.
For me, that world is less as a system of obeisance to rules and more a centuries-long conversation about how human beings can best live together in community. I see Judaism’s schedule of holidays as a way to discipline and inspire us to be concerned, thinking, feeling human beings. I find in many Jewish texts an ethical philosophy that tempers both cynicism and idealism, and an aphoristic and storytelling literature that is full of moral inspiration. Of course, there is much that I object to or find useless in the Jewish tradition. But just as I have not allowed the horrid failures of socialism to deter me from immersing myself in leftwing culture or in the leftwing literature that critiques the capitalist rat race and explores communitarian alternatives, so have I not allowed the objectionable aspects of Judaism to keep me from cherry-picking the good stuff.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis has described two traditions, based on Bible stories, that have shaped Jewish life through the centuries. One is the Ruth tradition: a non-Jewish woman attaches herself to the Jewish “tribe” and eventually becomes the foremother of King David, who in turn is the forerunner of the ever-awaited Messiah. In this tradition, the Jewish hope for redemption is linked to universalism. The other is the Ezra tradition: a Jewish traditionalist, alarmed by the assimilation wrought upon the Jews by seven decades of exile in Babylonia, insists that his people reject “foreign influences,” even their non-Jewish spouses, and turn inwards. The Ezra tradition is one of Jewish particularism, separation, and self-interest.
Obviously, it has been the Ruth tradition that most defined Jewish identity for the liberal majority of American Jews, especially that large plurality who are non-religious, unaffiliated, and essentially associate being Jewish with being “good,” i.e., liberal. The Ezra tradition, on the other hand, has been embraced, especially, by Orthodox Jews, neocons, and Jewish nationalists. Both of these traditions, however, have been indispensable foundationstones of Jewish life through the ages, assuring both its continuity (Ezra) and a meaningful purpose for that continuity (Ruth).
If the left-leaning stance of the “sons and daughters of the revolution” is to be preserved in the future, our challenge as activists is to engage with the Jewish community and help turn its gaze outwards: by relinking our concern for the well-being of the world, whenever possible, to Jewish traditions and concepts in the name of their preservation and reinterpretation, and, at the same time, insisting on a Jewish perspective and practice that is universalist and sees mentshlikhkayt (full humanness), not tribalism, as the true reason for cultivating Jewish identity.
Why Jews Lean Left — And Should Stay That Way