Back in 2008, David Klinghofer, who used the be the Forward’s token Republican, published a book titled How Would God Vote?: Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative. I seriously disliked his book, not because I see anything wrong with Conservatism or Conservatives – my most admired politicians have been Sam Nunn and Henry “Scoop” Jackson – but I couldn’t stomach the liberties Klinghofer was taking with rabbinic tradition, to produce a book that, in my opinion, belonged on the shelves of a Presbyterian, and not a Jewish library.
My good friend and publisher Larry Yudelson and I decided, in the summer of 2008, to write a rebuttal which we titled, aptly enough: How Would God REALLY Vote: A Jewish Rebuttal to David Klinghoffer’s Conservative Polemic.
Larry contributed most of the entries, I was responsible for, I believe, 5 out of the 15. One of my major peeves regarding Klinghofer’s book was his view on the liaison between Christians and Jews.
In his opening chapter, “With God or Against Him,” Klinghoffer sets up a premise that’s hard to follow, not because of its complexity, but because of what we on the Lower East Side would call a mishmash of concepts:
It should go without saying that my political reading of the Bible is my own, drawing on the oldest biblical interpretive tradition, claiming roots that go back three thousand years and found in the Talmud and other ancient rabbinic texts. Yet Scripture’s vision of the ideal society does not belong to Jews alone.
The paragraph reminded me of the old Jewish joke, which is better spoken, but since I don’t know most of you personally, you’ll have to do the voices in your head:
A gentile professor of Judaic Studies in Iowa finds out that to really learn the Talmud he must go to the Boro Park section of Brooklyn and find himself a teacher. The professor flies over and knocks on a basement door and this little Jew comes out. Upon seeing him, the professor asks to be taught the Talmud, but the little Jews says, “I can’t teach you Tal-mud, you got a goyeshe kop, you just don’t think Jewish.”
The professor insists. The little Jew says, “OK, solve this problem, and I’ll teach you:
“Two people go down a chimney. One stays clean, the other gets completely schmutzig, filthy. Which one washes up?”
The professor eagerly answers, “The dirty one, naturally.”
The little Jew wails: “Goyeshe kop, goyeshe kop! I told you I can’t teach you anything. Listen, the schmutzig guy sees the clean guy. Schmutzig doesn’t see any problem. But the clean guy sees the schmutzig guy and figures he must be just as dirty, so he goes and washes. I told you, you got a goyeshe kop. I can’t help you.”
The professor begs for another chance, and the little Jew gives in, suggesting a new problem to solve:
“Two people go down a chimney. One stays clean, the other gets completely schmutzig. Which one of them would wash up?”
The professor says, “Sure, I know this one, it’s the clean fellow.”
At this, the little Jew wails, “Goyeshe kop, the clean one takes a look at the dirty one and says, Moishe, you’re all schmutzig, go wash already! Enough. I really can’t help you, mister, you got a goyeshe kop.”
The professor begs for one last chance, and the little Jews says, “Fine, one last chance, I’ll give you a completely new problem, then you’ll leave me alone:
“Two people go down a chimney. One stays clean, the other gets completely schmutzig. Which one of them washes up?”
At this point, if you’re telling this joke, it’s all physical stuff, as the poor professor from Iowa freezes, unable to decide which of the two conflicting solu-tions to choose. The little Jew can’t stand it anymore and interjects, “Goyeshe kop, who ever heard of two people going down a chimney and only one of them gets schmutzig?”
For me, this joke illustrates the essence of Rabbinic Judaism. Hardly interested in developing uniform answers or dogmas, Rabbinic Jews love dispute, which enshrines all opinions. We actually celebrate the Talmud’s pluralism with the declaration: These and these, too, are the words of a living God (Eruv. 13b, Gitin 6b, to name just two out of hundreds).
How can Klinghoffer say that he represents a tradition of 3000 years of rabbinic interpretation and in the same breath claim that there’s such a specific thing as “Scripture’s vision?”
When you read Klinghoffer’s book—keep in mind the image of the little Boro Park Jew, his hands raised to the heavens, wailing: “Goyeshe kop!” Because, to be honest, someone who has internalized the free spirit of our rabbinic sages would not seriously try to classify them either as right-wing conservatives, or as left-wing liberals.
The legal foundation for rabbinic law is found in Deuteronomy 17:8-10:
If some issue is beyond your understanding, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, as it might be a matter of controversy for you, then you will go up to the place which God chooses, and inquire with the priests the Levites, and with the judge that will rule in your days. And they will show you the sentence of judgment. And you will follow their sentence, given in the place which God will choose, and you will observe to do ac-cording to all that they instruct you.
In other words, if something comes up which is too difficult for you to decide on your own, go ask somebody who knows.
This dovetails nicely with the Mishna’s recommendation: Aseh l’cha rav, “Appoint for yourself a master and a mentor.” This phrasing indicates that you are an intrinsic part of the equation and that the arbiter you choose should be one who knows and understands you and your circumstances.
These two combined ideas, that you should seek advice on stuff you can’t figure out for yourself, and that the advice you seek should come from someone who knows you, suggest that the average Joe in Torah Land is a highly intuitive person and well versed in the law, who follows his personal notions and personal path, except when he gets stuck.
We are encouraged to act independently and intuitively concerning the entire gamut of Torah law—in matters large and small. The phrasing of the text (Deuteronomy 17:8) is ki yipaleh mimcha, lit.: “Should it be too wondrous for you.” This suggests a reliance for deciding proper behavior based on relative intuition, rather than strict knowledge.
This extremely individualized approach to morality and the law is profoundly emphasized when the Mishna describes wealth as a function of an individual’s assessment of his own satisfaction, rather than some arbitrary number of gold pieces in his coffers. In the Mishna’s view: Eizaehu Ashir? Hasame’ach b’chelko. “Who is wealthy? One who is content with his share.” (Avot 4)
Indeed, I would define the rabbinic view on politics as the sanctification of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Contentment. (Could this be characterized as a conservative idea?)
If the Torah envisions us as independent thinkers, each pursuing a personal definition of material well being, how could it possibly advocate a party line, whether conservative Republican or liberal Democratic? It stands to reason that, at its core, the Torah would encourage us to examine which of the two choices best matches our individual political needs and aspirations and vote accordingly.
In that sense, abortion is not a “yes” or “no” issue, to be decided on a strictly dogmatic basis, but an issue that reflects conflicting public and private needs. Likewise, every topic Klinghoffer deals with in his book, from women’s issues to gay marriages to state-run schools to taxes to war, should be examined not according to dogma, but according to needs.
This pragmatic approach to politics rejects ideological litmus tests from the left, too. (This is why the American political system, with its direct voting for a local representative, is much more in line with rabbinic tradition than the Israeli system, in which one votes for a slate, often one based on ideology.) Government’s job is to help improve my living conditions, not my morality.
As an Orthodox Jew, I offer this book as a call to arms to America’s mostly Christian conservative voters.
John McCain was right when he said, in a 2000 interview on beliefnet.com, that our “nation was founded primarily on Christian principles. ” That fact should have practical consequences.
Klinghoffer proceeds to contrast these views with those of whom he dubs the “New Atheists.” But I suspect that inside the Orthodox Jewish world, Klinghoffer would have a hard time convincing anyone of the need to apply “practical consequences” to the Christian principles upon which this country was, supposedly, founded.
He would likely hear angry grumbling on topics like the Crusades, during which Christian zealots decimated Jewish communities. He might hear a thing or two about how the Inquisition applied its Christian values to destroy the thriving Jewish centers of Spain and Portugal. Or he might hear about the European Holocaust and our annihilation at the hands of our faithful Christian neighbors. Pope Pious XII’s name might pop up in that context, as an example of how conservative Christian leaders responded when Jews were swept away in rivers of their own blood.
But even if we were to forgive Klinghoffer’s imperfect awareness of Jewish history, the very assumption of such a thing as universally accepted Christian principles is patently wrong, just like the notion that the U.S. Constitution is based on them.
Klinghoffer must be familiar with historian Brooke Allen’s popular book Moral Minority (Ivan R. Dee, 2007), in which she shows that the six most important founders—Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton—were Enlightenment-style deists, who rejected the notion of making religion a basis for political life.
They valued the separation of church and state. They devoted a passage in the US Constitution to eschewing religion as a basis for political life. They talked about God the “Divine Author” (Washington) or the “Superior Agent” (Jefferson). The Founding Fathers weren’t atheists—nobody was in the 18th century. (Nobody except Thomas Paine, that is.) But to suggest that someone like George Washington would look to the Bible to “apply practical consequences” to political life is tantamount to telling a lie—which we have on reliable tradition that our first president was incapable of doing.
Putting aside the argument over historical revisionism, try Googling “Christian principles” and see if you can come up with any meaningful consensus. I couldn’t.
Jewish principles are easier to pin down: Open a siddur (prayer book) and right after the morning service, you find Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith. They are short, compact, and easy to remember—and there is even a rhyming version for sing-alongs.
Maybe Klinghoffer was spoiled by that gem of rabbinic marketing prowess and he figured the gentile prayer books offered a similar amenity. Fuggedaboutit. Everyone—from Marxist Catholics to Attila the Hun Evangelists—cites his own unique idea of Christian principles as the basis for his agenda. The Bible is a big book and there are enough verses to suit everyone’s moral preferences. You want a couple of examples?
The National Council of Churches Justice and Advocacy Commission offers the following “Christian Principles in an Election Year:”
1. War is contrary to the will of God.
2. God calls us to live in communities shaped by peace and cooperation.
3. God created us for each other, and thus our security depends on the well being of our global neigh-bors.
4. God calls us to be advocates for those who are most vulnerable in our society.
5. Each human being is created in the image of God and is of infinite worth.
6. The earth belongs to God and is intrinsically good.
7. Christians have a biblical mandate to welcome strangers.
8. Those who follow Christ are called to heal the sick.
9. Because of the transforming power of God’s grace, all humans are called to be in right relationship with each other.
On the other hand, a story on Ekklesia (“a think-tank that promotes transformative theological ideas in public life”) from April 15, 2003, informs:
The Rev. Pat Robertson, the founder and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network and the Christian Coalition, said many Christians who support the war believe the biblical principles of loving one’s enemy means that precautions must be taken to minimize civilian casualties.
“…As long as we continue the course we’re on,” Mr. Robertson said, referring to the overall concern for Iraqi civilians, “we’re on solid ground, not only in terms of Christian, biblical concepts, but also in terms of public relations.”
As Iraqi casualties, by conservative counts, have reached a hundred thousand (not to mention the countless injured and an estimated two million displaced) one shudders at the projected magnitude of the butchery had the good reverend not insisted upon minimizing civilian suffering….
So, which are the authentic Christian principles that the U.S. is founded upon? “Welcome the stranger,” or “shoot every stranger that moves?” Klinghoffer is not very specific here, although I suspect that the kind of Christian principles he endorses would have driven Jesus into one of his famous table-throwing tantrums.
But even if, somehow, the Bible Belt’s Jesus Jumpers found common Christian principles with St. John the Divine’s watercress sandwich crowd—which is one big If—what resonance would these principles have with religious Jews?
Having conjured the notion of universal Christian principles out of whole cloth, Klinghoffer now moves on to another product of the American imagination: “Judeo-Christian values.”
…Pretending to fight “theocracy,” secularists are in fact attempting a radical redirection of American life that seeks to silence the authentic Judeo-Christian heritage that has sustained America since the country’s inception.
Klinghoffer should read Arthur Allen Cohen’s The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition (Harper & Row, 1969), which questions the appropriateness of the term, theologically and historically, suggesting instead that it is an invention of American politics.
Cohen thinks that there is simply no such thing as Judeo-Christian tradition. He points to the fact that the two religions have had separate theological agendas for the last two thousand years.
Or, if Klinghoffer prefers a gentile’s opinion:
The label “Judeo-Christian” tends to assume, at the expense of Judaism, that Christians and Jews believe essentially the same things. Besides glossing over the very real and important theological and liturgical differences, it tends to subsume Jewish traditions within an umbrella that is dominated by Christian ideas and practices. (Religion and the Workplace: Pluralism, Spirituality, Leadership, by Douglas A. Hicks; Cambridge University Press, 2003)
Let’s be clear: Far from “sharing” one tradition, Orthodox Jews are prohibited from marrying Christians, setting foot inside a Christian church—and we can’t even drink from an open bottle of kosher wine that has been used by a Christian. We reject the Christian idea of salvation, we abhor Christian divine teachings on every subject, and we are repulsed and outraged by incessant attempts by Christian missionaries to bring us into their fold.
It is particularly disturbing when Klinghoffer makes statements which reveal his complete assumption of elements of New Testament Pauline ideology, for instance, the requirement that wives submit to their husband’s authority. There is no mandate on precisely how a woman should behave with her husband—Jews expect the happy couple to work it out for themselves. Also, while divorce may be a tragedy, and God cries, it is in no way banned—in Judaism, that is. The story in Christianity, and Klinghoffer’s “Judeo-Christian Biblical America,” is different.
Incidentally, we have more in common with Muslims than we do with Christians; Jewish law permits Jews to enter a mosque… but not a church.
To insist that we have some kind of bond with religious Christians because of similar core values, is to propagate a terrible lie. Christians who base their views on what they call the Old Testament, don’t view Mosaic law as an abiding legal text. The Church has abolished Torah law as part of its attempt to abolish the very idea of Jewish nationhood.
Pauline anti-Judaism seems not to be through the left hand as an implication of his Christology; rather his teaching on the law appears to be a spear in his right hand aimed straight at the heart of Judaism, that is, Torah… [Paul] does not disagree with individual Jews but with Judaism itself, saying that Christianity has replaced it. By attacking the law as such, Paul appears to attack not abuses and personal failings but the essence of Israel. (Paul and the Torah, by Lloyd Gaston; University of British Columbia Press, 1987.)
Jews and Christians differ on every single fundamental principle—even on the meaning of core Scriptural texts. More crucially, Christians rely on the Old Testament for legal delineation; whereas Jews rely solely upon our rabbinic tradition. We never, ever turn to our Bible for legal guidance, only to our rabbinic literature. To suggest that our Sages had anything at all in common with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Carter or Pat Robertson is a slap in the face of 2500 years of scholarship.
“Judeo-Christian” is as valid a concept as happy-joylessness, or tall dwarves. Klinghoffer’s yearnings for this repugnant “ideal” is a deviant phenomenon without a trace of commonality in traditional Jewish thought, ancient or modern.
I have deep respect for religious leaders active in the interfaith arena, who seek to communicate and cooperate with Christians on political and social issues. But I resent Klinghoffer’s attempt to erect an ideological partnership between Christianity and its blameless victims.
David Klinghoffer attempts to rile up his readers through an attack on the “atheist left.” In the process, he manages to break away from the very rabbinic Judaism he claims as his base. This book will attempt to correct his errors, which are numerous, not in an attempt to persuade readers that God’s vote is with liberal lefties rather than with conservative righties, but, instead, to uphold our rabbinic tradition of multiple opinions. What this means in practice is that you can’t cry “God says so” in a crowded town hall meeting.
This article was originally published in How Would God REALLY Vote: A Jewish Rebuttal to David Klinghoffer’s Conservative Polemic by Larry Yudelson and Yori Yanover. Starting this week, readers can access the Kindle Edition for only $5.99.