In addition to his regular column in the Boston Globe, my friend Jeff Jacoby writes a weekly newsletter called Arguable, sharing his always worthwhile thoughts on topics current and timeless. This week, he discusses a recent Gallup survey in which “an overwhelming 75% of Democrats responded that it was more important for the president to set a good moral example; only 19% placed greater emphasis on agreeing with the president’s views. Among Republicans, by contrast, just 30% stressed the significance of an upright moral character versus 60% who said it was more important that a president agree with them on the issues.”
So, Jacoby wonders, do Democrats place moral decency above politics, and Republicans vice versa? Not quite: He cites the responses when Gallup asked precisely the same question in 1999, when Bill Clinton had just been impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with his morally shameful activities. Seventy-five percent of Republicans said presidential morality was paramount; only 36% of Democrats agreed, while 57% considered his stance on the issues more important. In short, writes Jacoby,
most Republicans care about presidential morality only when a Democrat is president. Most Democrats only think moral leadership matters when a Republican is in the White House…. Partisan polarization divides Americans and embitters their politics, but that isn’t the worst of it. It also turns them into amoral hypocrites, who demand virtue and honor from leaders only when those leaders belong to the party they oppose — and who dismiss those values as irrelevant when it’s their own party that holds power.
A textbook example of this hypocrisy is Bill Bennett, the Republican former secretary of education who has written numerous books for adults and children on morality and values. In his book The Death of Outrage, he assailed defenders of Clinton, arguing that a “president whose character manifests itself in patterns of reckless personal conduct, deceit, abuse of power, and contempt for the rule of law cannot be a good president.” But, says Jacoby, “now that the president ‘whose character manifests itself in patterns of reckless personal conduct, deceit, abuse of power, and contempt for the rule of law’ is Donald Trump, Bennett’s view has flipped. His view today is that what matters ‘are the actions being taken by President Trump and Vice President Pence, and they are saving the country.’ ”
The independents seem to be the only ones out there with a bit more consistency. Jacoby reports that during “both the Clinton and Trump impeachment sagas, a majority of independents told Gallup that if they had to choose, they would opt for ethical integrity over political agreement.”
Jacoby seems resigned to a continuation of this sad state of the American electorate and concludes on a rather downbeat note: “Sooner or later, the worm will turn again. A sleazy Democrat will be president; Republicans will rediscover a passion for decency and honor in high office. And those of us not wedded to either political party will go on being appalled, wondering where America is bound if indeed it is true that every nation gets the government it deserves.”
So next time I’m asked for my political identity, I think I’ll respond, “independent,” which perhaps should be the response of every Torah Jew.
WHAT’S MISSING FROM THIS PICTURE? In early November, the Jewish Leadership Conference (JLC), a project of the Tikvah Fund, held a conference in New York on “Jews and Conservatism.” Eric Cohen is both Tikvah’s executive director and JLC’s co-chair, and in those roles he has been at the forefront of a project seeking to formulate and disseminate the tenets of a 21st century Jewish conservatism and catalyze a movement of Jews to coalesce around that vision.
Cohen delivered remarks to open and close the conference, and upon reading an excerpt of what he told the assembled, I was taken aback. He described the “defining purpose” of convening the conference as being “to embolden us, as a community, to preserve the exceptional heritage of the Jewish people.” And yet, in nearly 1,700 words, he failed to mention G-d’s Name even once. At that rate, it could’ve been the Israeli prime minister talking.
I’m by no means the first to point out the glaring omission of G-d and Torah from Cohen’s agenda. In 2015, he kicked his project off with a lengthy essay in Mosaic entitled “The Spirit of Jewish Conservatism,” in which he argued that “both in America and in Israel, the liberal faith of too many Jews has imperiled the Jewish future. Needed is a serious, thoughtful, and authentically Jewish alternative.”
In his essay, Cohen sought to articulate some of a new Jewish conservatism’s “guiding principles — about family and morality, sovereignty and patriotism, wealth and freedom — in the hope that such principles can help clarify how Jews can succeed in these complex and turbulent times.” As for whom he hoped to attract to his vision, Cohen wrote that nothing he had written required “either embracing or denying Orthodox theology or ritual obligations. Friendly to Orthodoxy, Jewish conservatism is meant to create a big-tent community of values and ideas.”
Following the essay’s publication, Mosaic invited about two dozen Jewish figures, representing a diversity of points along the Jewish religious and political spectrum, to respond. The rabbi of Manhattan’s Shearith Israel congregation, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, praised Cohen’s essay as “eloquent and inspiring… a series of ideas that are both truly Jewish and truly conservative.” Yet, he writes, “there is something missing” from Cohen’s vision:
Jewish continuity cannot be achieved without a return to tradition itself. It is the giving of the Torah at Sinai that formed ancient Israel as a nation before it ever entered the land; it is obedience to the Torah that will insure Israel’s moral and spiritual flourishing when it settles the land; and, ultimately, should Israel be expelled from the land, it is the Torah that will preserve the Jews and Jewish continuity.
Cohen, by contrast, approvingly quotes the late Charles Krauthammer’s definition of Jewish continuity:
Plant a Jewish people in a country that comes to a standstill on Yom Kippur; speaks the language of the Bible; moves to the rhythms of the Hebrew (lunar) calendar; builds cities with the stones of its ancestors; produces Hebrew poetry and literature, Jewish scholarship and learning unmatched anywhere in the world — and you have continuity.
In his response, author Yoram Hazony applauded Cohen’s essay, yet confessed to being “troubled, however, by one central issue. I do not understand the absence of G-d and Scripture from Cohen’s list of central ‘values and ideas’ that he wants Jewish conservatives to conserve. To me, if his ambitious vision is to succeed, these have to be positioned at the head of the line.”
Cohen had written of his hope that “those secular Jews whose worldview is more conservative than it is Jewish might find themselves newly attracted to the riches of the Jewish tradition itself.” To which Hazony responded that the “desire to be able to reach a broad audience is commendable. But if it means abandoning the things that it is most important for Jewish conservatives to be conserving, then the proposed movement will be doomed to failure from the outset.”
Four years later, Eric Cohen is still advocating a Jewish conservatism in which G-d and Torah can go unmentioned, a vision in which, in his words, a “world in which Jewish kids from Beverly Hills High School are reading Leviticus, and haredi Jews from Mea She’arim are reading Adam Smith — well, that is a Jewish world that has a chance to flourish.”
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 787. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org