Thank you to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky for his thoughtful reply to my article. However, I found the reply unpersuasive.
Four Central Claims
Rabbi Pruzansky makes four central claims.
The first is his claim that “We sell ourselves short if we think that if we wish to promulgate the morality of Torah to the broad public – to show them how their lives would be better – then we risk arousing the ire of powerful Roman legions who will vanquish us.” Rabbi Pruzansky seems to want to compel – or at least deny commonly available rights to – people to encourage them to obey Torah morality, as this will “show” them that their lives would be better.
Second, he claims that “If anything, large scale Jewish abandonment of Jewish values in the public domain leaves the impression that we have nothing to offer and there is nothing special about us.” Here, he shares with the reader that it is our public values, rather than our private lives, that are the places where we demonstrate who we are.
Third, he asks, “Why would any Jew want to remain part of the Jewish nation … if Jews have nothing to contribute to society other than ‘let me just secure my rights, even if it means compromising my values’?”
Finally, while he concedes that “we need not join every cultural battle” but “on issues that affect the viability of the Jewish family and how best to maintain our faith in a society plunging past decadence in outright depravity and the denial of any objective truth, the accommodationist model no longer works.”
What Is Wrong with His View
No American reader of The Jewish Press should be persuaded by any of these four ideas.
First, and most importantly, mandating that people conduct themselves by Torah morality is exactly what risks antagonizing secular society. The Torah tradition has historically never been one that coerces observance. Yaakov and the Jewish people have always lived alone; and we share our grand moral view of life with our neighbors by building our own just society that people look to and seek to join or imitate.
Promulgating (by which Rabbi Pruzansky seems to mean compelling observance) has never been the Torah way, when no one is harmed. Does he want others to promulgate their values to us? Forcing us to conform to secular morality when our faith mandates something else is wrong. Discriminating against people based on their private conduct is improper. Forcing people to obey the mandates of our faith is a bad idea as well, in a secular society. Forcing people builds resentment; coercion encourages others to hate us and they will seek to prevent us from functioning consistent with our faith, just as we seek – in Rabbi Pruzansky’s model – from letting all function consistent with their private moral choices.
Second, the idea that he proposes – that if we do not stand at the statehouse doors and share our faith it will leave people with the impression that we have nothing of value – is deeply wrong. We have always lived our faithful lives privately and serve as a light onto the nations by living a good life as others watch. Exactly because people have choices, every wise person examines competing visions of life and family; by role modeling our good life, we share how to best live life. Our strong internal moral values are our best calling card, and the good life that we live – when we live it – promulgates our values.
Furthermore, the reader should not think that there are but two options. One is imposing the Torah’s truths on society; the other is muzzling and hiding our truths. That is not the case. Both YU and the OU adopted a third option, which is to seek an accommodation for dissent, while continuing to announce their values publicly. The accommodationist approach does not imply moral silence.
Third, exactly what America needs now is a faith group that models securing its own rights without compelling others to abandon theirs. A better approach to secular life and law is “live and let live.” The core of Rabbi Pruzansky claim here is, in my view, wrong. He thinks that granting people the right to choose to violate Jewish law is a compromise of our own Torah view. In my view, the reason Jewish life so deeply succeeded in America is because – as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explains in Darash Moshe (derasha 10, Artscroll, 1988 (page 416), in a speech given to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the American Constitution) – the United State grants people the freedom to conduct their private life as they see fit. Rabbi Feinstein writes:
And so, the government of the United States, which already 150 years ago established its law that it will not uphold or favor any faith but will allow anyone to do as they see fit, and the government will serve only to assure that no one harms another, they are thus following the will of Almighty God, and they therefore succeeded and grew during this time.
Let me explain what Rabbi Feinstein is hinting at. An alternative to “live and let live” is that the government promulgates (to use Rabbi Pruzansky’s word) substantive moral values such as family values, revealed truth, social justice, or national identity. Sometimes they affirm Jewish values and sometimes not, but these state incursions into private life nearly always result in armed conflict, and within these conflicts Jews and Judaism do not do well at all. Instead, we should support accommodations for all, as a principle. By acknowledging the rights of different people, we should hope to make widespread accommodation (including for us) a matter of strong legal and policy precedent that will persist in America.
Fourth, while Rabbi Pruzansky agrees that “we need not join every cultural battle,” he proposes a special rule encouraging interference when it impacts “the viability of the Jewish family” and implies that in that arena we need to join every battle – win, lose or draw. To me, this idea is mistaken in application at the least and maybe even more deeply. As Rabbi Arie Folger of Vienna observed in a letter to this newspaper, “We cannot win every battle, and it may therefore be unwise to fight every battle;” that includes matters related to the family, particularly since in this case, no one is forcing us to do anything at all. Rather, others are also seeking recognition as a family even though Jewish law denies that they are a proper family. We should not fight other people when they seek an accommodation of their choices and we hope they will not fight us as we seek the same.
As Rabbi Yona Reiss, the Av Bet Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, wrote (about abortion) in this newspaper, “I think that our main concern as Jews must be that we be able to practice our religion freely.” As I have explained elsewhere, there is no technical and formal obligation to compel observance of Noachide law according to most poskim, and accommodation provides protection for all.
Finally, let me add one more point to ponder. Almost all of us actually are accommodationists, in one form or another. One Orthodox group in America mutes their criticism of evangelical Christianity as an accommodation for the other good things they do. Another group mutes their criticism of the LGBTQ community in return for religious accommodation. Another group supports centrists for a different accommodation and so on. Either side claiming the moral high ground is hardly reflective of the religious or political reality of America. We all accommodate, albeit in different ways.
Four points are important for the reader:
- Jews serve as a light unto the nation by living our exemplary lives consistent with our Torah and its values, and not by compelling people to live a Torah Life.
- The Jewish tradition does not see secular law as a tool to compel morality, but only as a tool to prevent harm to us and others.
- America needs role models of religious and political accommodation now. We should embrace and role-model that accommodationist ideal since it allows us all to function well in a secular society.
- We want the secular law to accommodate our needs and we should be willing to grant accommodations to others in order to insure that all peoples and all faiths are granted what they need and want (so long as they do not harm others).
Ultimately, this willingness to live together despite our differences is the essence of the American project. Alternate visions of American identity – whatever they may be – will ultimately compromise this essential American covenant and destroy the country that we all love.
Rabbi Pruzansky represents, I suspect, the fears that some Americans (Orthodox Jews particularly) feel – that society’s rules have changed in their lifetimes to their detriment, and they sense cultural change by nefarious forces. However, a better rampart upon which to defend our values is the freedoms guaranteed to all Americans by the First Amendment. It is simply foolhardy to enter a culture war in which we are outnumbered and outgunned; Utah does not defeat California and it never will. We can and will rebuild a moral society by the classic Jewish means – through every hearth and every heart that we touch by our good example, and not be confrontationally intolerant toward others who choose not to live as we do. By the kindness that we show in the culture that we create, we can reweave the social norms of connection and decorum by which each American might become the better angel of his or her nature. We can lead America in change without coercion.
History has repeatedly taught us that attempting to enforce morality upon others ultimately fails and generally deprives us of our ability to honorably lead. Being a light unto the nations means leading by example, and not forcing others to “plug into” the source of our light. Preserving freedom for all in America is the best way to insure that our own freedom to practice and live our sacred values remains intact. In this way, the Jewish people can continue to lead by example and offer a model of morality, which other American can observe, admire, and feel inspired to grow toward.