Lots of people are talking about the new book, Why Jews are Liberal by Norman Podhoretz. I have not read the book and probably won’t. My exposure so far are two well-written pieces which I would recommend. One is by classmate Rabbi Rami Shapiro, while the other is the NY Times review written by Leon Wieseltier.
Here is another modest offering into that conversation, what I have concluded as to the reason why Jews tend to be liberal. More specifically, to why Jews are attracted by the general liberal sense that government should take on the responsibility of caring for the poor, protecting the downtrodden, and generally providing a social safety net.
It is a sweeping generality, but is not all of this?
Why do Jews tend to lean liberal? I don’t think that it is because we (liberals) are smart and they (conservatives) are dumb, or that we are caring and they are indifferent. Liberals believe in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and housing the homeless, and so do conservatives. Jewish liberals and conservative Christians derive – directly or indirectly – the values of loving your neighbor, caring for the poor, etc., etc., etc., from the same sources, Sacred Scriptures, whether they see them as sacred obligations mandated by God or simply as compelling human values. (For me, those are the same.) While liberals and conservatives may agree on the mandate, what they disagree on is the appropriate delivery system for the “services” Scriptures call us to provide. And in this regard, IN GENERAL, Jews and Christians may differ on this because of the essential natures of our respective religious experiences, and the different societal structures they historically built for themselves.
Simply put, we Jews heard the divine imperative calling to our people as a collective, covenanted, sovereign nation. Therefore, we tend to understand the prophetic mission as belonging to the community as a whole. Even when we lived in non-sovereign, mostly self-contained, polities, we created communities which, as a whole, bore the responsibility of caring for all its members. There was no realm set apart as the “religious” realm as opposed to the “social” realm. We were all responsible for each other, and that responsibility was fulfilled by the community and the various institutions assigned to deal with this need or that. Thus, in the Jewish world-view, society as a whole is supposed to provide the social safety net, and society acts as a whole throuugh government.
Many Christians feel this way as well, which is why there are liberal Christians. But in Christianity, in many ways more than Judaism, the locus of the religious experience is not the community but the individual, and not as a citizen of a particular polity but as a member of a faith community. Therefore it seems natural and appropriate that God’s word be fulfilled by the individual working through his/her faith community.
In this light, it may be fair to say that the idea of faith based initiatives was meant not merely to blur the line between church and state (which it was), or to funnel federal funds through churches, thereby supporting their religious missions (which it does). I think that many people support faith based initiatives because in their heart of hearts, they believe this is the way it should be. Churches (etc.) are supposed to help poor people (etc.); that is not the government’s job.
It is an interesting twist as to the roll of “church and state,” in which Jews who are liberals want to live out so-called religious values through the vehicle of the state, whereas conservatives tend to feel that these “religious” obligations should be fulfilled by religious institutions, not the government, (although money from the government is more than welcomed to pay for it).
From my Jewish/liberal point of view, the laws about helping the poor, housing the homeless, etc., were/are addressed to society as a whole and therefore are incumbent upon me and the society as a whole. Even though we should and do perform these mitzvot through our synagogue communities, the ultimate responsibility falls, not on religious institutions, but rather on the instrument which the society as a collective has empowered, i.e., government. And it is the job of liberal religion to keep reminding people of that.