Liberal Judaism in North America is almost perfectly correlated with political liberalism, while Orthodoxy is more diverse politically. The correlation between religion and politics reasonably suggests to many that the tail of liberal politics is wagging the dog of liberal religion. An unfortunate result is that liberal political aims are becoming suspect in Orthodoxy as stalking horses for liberal religious aims.
Is there a way out of this trap? The early 20th century great Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv) suggests a way forward in his approbation to the Chofetz Chaim’s book Ahavat Chesed.
Ahavat Chesed sought to demonstrate that engaging in gemilut chassadim (acts of loving-kindness) is not a vague and fuzzy “soft” obligation but rather the fulfillment of clearly definable commandments and hardcore halachic obligations. For example, it argues that there is a specific positive commandment to lend money to the poor. The Chofetz Chaim thought this work would inspire his community to do more chesed, in the way that his famous “halachification” of lashon hara was intended to alter his community’s speech habits.
Netziv applauds the effort but is aware of a tension here. Why should such a book be necessary? Shouldn’t observant Jews engage in loving-kindness by nature, regardless of whether obligations are spelled out in exhaustive detail? His answer sets out far-reaching theories of human and Jewish nature, and an original understanding of the relationship between halacha and ethical intuition.
Netziv begins by positing that human beings are by nature creatures of gemilut chassadim (perhaps because of our Divine Image, tzelem Elokim). He then contends that human beings are naturally commanded to fulfill this aspect of their nature. This generates a category of obligations he calls chovot ha’adam, the obligations of human beings qua their humanity, which likely includes all categories of proper interpersonal behavior. These are in addition to the seven Noachide commandments.
Jews, as descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, are attuned to this imperative, and correspondingly are even more commanded by their nature to engage in gemilut chassadim. Why then should laws of gemilut chassadim be necessary?
Here Netziv presents an astonishing biblical interpretation.
Exodus 19:3-5 reads: “Thus you must say (tomar) to the House of Jacob, and tell (tagid) to the House of Israel . . . Now, if you heed My voice, and observe My covenant, then you will be for me a treasure out of all the nations . . . ”
Netziv argues that House of Jacob refers to the masses (hamon am), whereas House of Israel refers to the Torah intellectuals. He further argues that “if you heed My voice and observe My covenant” is an amirah directed at the House of Jacob. How does it differ from a statement intended for the elite? Netziv suggests that it refers to only two legs of the tripod on which the world stands – it refers to Torah and Divine Service, but not to gemilut chassadim.
Why would God leave out gemilut chassadim when talking to the masses? Netziv explains that the Jewish masses are obligated by their nature to do chesed anyway. Only the elite needed to be made aware that Jews should engage in chesed not only to fulfill human nature and sustain the world, but also to fulfill God’s command, or leshem Shamayim.
This additional dimension of Jewish obligation is formalized within halacha, and therefore carries with it practical differences. As an example, halacha prohibits charging interest to Jews. If Jewish person X needs a loan, and Jewish person Y can afford to make the loan only if he charges a low but nonzero rate of interest, Y may not extend the loan even though doing so would be an act of chesed.
This means halacha is not always a deepening and ultimate fulfillment of chesed but rather can stand in tension with it. Netziv does not explain why God established halacha to be in tension with chesed, but multiple explanations are at hand. For our purposes, the simplest is that the world requires din (law, justice) as well as chesed; or put in American political terms, that pure liberalism is not sustainable. In American Jewish religious terms, those whose political perspective is pure chesed need to have a deep respect for traditional wisdom (Torah) and ritual (avodah).
Netziv contends that the different sensibilities God acknowledged at Sinai continued afterward. The tribes descended from Yosef continue the House of Jacob; the tribe of Yehudah continues the House of Israel. Yosef, says Netziv, represents an effusion of chesed without great Torah knowledge, whereas Yehudah represents Torah greatness. The Tabernacle dwelled in Shiloh, in the tribe of Joseph’s son Ephraim, for many years because of their great natural chesed and despite their relative lack of Torah scholarship. It was only when Torah greatness was achieved in David and Solomon that God’s place on earth was transferred to Yerushalayim, in Yehudah’s sphere of influence.
Perhaps we should acknowledge that we have regressed, and therefore open space to again appreciate Mishkan Shiloh, and the strengths of Yosef, and the differing religious needs and virtues of the Houses of Jacob and Israel.
This would allow Orthodoxy to celebrate the instinctive liberalism of non-Orthodox Jews as a profound religious fulfillment of their human and Jewish nature, without being committed to or endorsing the specific policies associated with American liberalism. Orthodoxy would therefore be at much lower risk of being driven and deformed by reactionary impulses against non-Orthodox liberalism.
We would of course maintain that all Jews should strive for a culture of maximum Torah awareness, and that halacha is the binding way for Jews in all areas of life. But even if our halachic sensibility led us to prefer conservative policies in some or many areas, the liberal impulse in politics would be seen as genuinely Jewish.