Jewish, Conservative, And Liberal

This is a version of a section of the sermon I delivered last year on Yom Kippur. While I wrote it originally before any of the primary voting took place, I still think it helps clarify some of the choices before us in 2016. For those of you who are religious but not Jewish, I am curious if there are analogies in your own faith or tradition that speak to you as well.

Let’s talk about Jewish, liberal, and conservative.

Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative... At their worst, these are the names of teams that fight – gangs, maybe – or brands we like to be associated with. But at their best, these are clusters of ideals and values that guide us as citizens. A political ideology might be a heritage from your parents. A political party might be a reminder of a leader who commanded your respect and admiration.

Each philosophy has a truth. The fiscal conservatives make sure we worry that money, which is never unlimited, is well-spent for our wellbeing. The liberals make sure we don’t neglect anyone, no matter why they are suffering. The libertarians challenge us to take responsibility for doing things ourselves. The social democrats remind us that ownership is not an unlimited prerogative.

And each of these concerns is a Jewish concern. Each of these truths might flow from some experience of the Jewish people in history, or from our understanding of the Torah.

So as we approach this year’s election for president and Congress, think about being a better, more Jewish conservative, or a better, more Jewish liberal.

If you think of yourself as a political conservative, I ask you to think about becoming a more Jewish conservative. Your bedrock, already, is the idea of freedom – which is where the Jewish people began, the moment we began the struggle get out from Pharaoh’s rule.

What you might trust the most is private initiative. For many families of American Jews, especially those who came over from the czar’s empire a hundred years ago or more, the story has been about hard work, relying on family and friends and other Jews for solidarity, for capital to start a small business, the sacrifice of a parent to get the next generation to college.

If you believe in local community, that’s because it’s how Jews made it for nearly two thousand years. Across the world, for centuries, tzedakah was a system of local Jewish self-taxation. We forced each other to give, to organize education (for boys) at a level unheard of in the outside society, and to take care of hunger and disease within the community.

It goes almost without saying that if you are conservative, you value tradition and religion. These are forces that teach us and that keep people together, that we rely on even when we’re not sure of the truth of every word from the Torah or our Sages. A conservative knows that society is hard to hold together.

To be a more Jewish conservative, you will have to think deeply about the substance of these beliefs, and what it takes to make them work in our society. And I think a Jewish conservative would play a crucial role, as a critic of conservatism who can sharpen it as a way of thinking and acting.

The Jewish conservative, knowing what it is like to be hated or discriminated against just for being Jewish, would call it out when conservatives are the agents of hate or discrimination, whether they intend it or not.

The Jewish conservative would have a certain perspective on business and free enterprise. When the culture of materialism goes too far and reduces people to objects and consumers, the Jewish conservative would speak in the name of a higher value, that all people are created in the image of God.

A Jewish conservative would be a watchdog, making sure that conservatives value traditions beyond Christianity for their insights and the social cohesion they create.

A Jewish conservative would be there to say that small, charitable communities do not exist everywhere or automatically. Not all groups have the traditions, resources, and social networks that Jews brought to this country to take care of each other. If we want to rely on these things, we have to take responsibility to help people create and build them, so they can work.

A Jewish conservative would respond to the prophets’ call for justice, with a pragmatic question: Which groups in our society have which jobs in making sure that no one is left to suffer from want?

If you think of yourself as a political liberal, think about being a more Jewish liberal. Your bedrock, already, is equality – rooted in the liberation from Egypt. That was when we learned that a people regarded as the bottom of the heap of all humanity became the ones chosen as the vehicles to introduce God’s Torah into the world.

What you might believe in most is our responsibility to make sure no one is an outsider, because of income or skin color or any other reason. Surely it is because we know what it is like to be an outsider, for century upon century and even in the most modern phase of this country’s history. For many, Jewish identity in America has meant not just being our own group, but seeking a more encompassing social identity as Americans.

As a liberal, you may believe in sharing our resources to help those with less, because that is the Jewish duty of tzedakah.

If you believe as a liberal in audacious solutions to social and economic problems, it’s because it took radical steps for us to end up where we are. Most of our families had to flee tyrannies to arrive in democratic societies, or worked to overthrow those tyrannies. That became the family tradition, the way of living in a Jewish idiom – by joining the labor movement or the civil rights movement and changing society dramatically.

To be a more Jewish liberal, you will have to think deeply about the substance of these beliefs, and what it takes to make them work in our society. And I think a Jewish liberal would play a crucial role, as a critic of liberalism who can sharpen it as a way of thinking and acting.

The Jewish liberal would remind other liberals that tzedakah requires community. When people who receive public assistance have to go to special offices and buildings, in different parts of town, the effect is to segregate and stigmatize, not to build relationships of partnership and dignity.

The Jewish liberal would remind other liberals that big solutions require a lot of groundwork, not just a lot of money, and the work has to be done by citizens. And they would remind other liberals that religion is not a small-minded way of building walls around ourselves, but a profound way of enlarging our vision toward God’s own perspective.

The Jewish liberal would say that a society of individuals, set loose from authority and tradition, is in danger of losing faith in the idea of a moral compass, and that too can lead to the devaluing of people.

I hope I have said something recognizable to everyone, about the things you believe. There are a couple of possibilities. One is that I have indeed described your outlook as a liberal or a conservative, and given you something to think about in terms of rooting yourself more deeply in Judaism and in the Jewish story. The other is that you have heard truths in both my descriptions; that there is something of the Jewish conservative and the Jewish liberal in you. That would be good too. It would mean that liberals and conservatives have something to talk about, without seeming like people of different faiths or tribes.

After all, the political parties are not idols to worship, but tools for our good. Only the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai; the donkey and the elephant should not be our golden calves. The Torah didn’t tell us what the marginal tax rate should be, but tells us where our focus should be. On issues of life and death, suffering and hope. In other words: political issues.

Whenever we vote, the outcome will be either-or. Yet if we can become better Jewish citizens – better Jewish conservatives and better Jewish liberals – we will have made a contribution no matter who wins. And we will have a stake and a role and a faith, hopefully, in the work that the next president does, whoever she or he will be.

A year and a half ago, I had the honor of accompanying my Congresswoman, Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, to the National Prayer Breakfast. I heard Julian Castro, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, read the words of Isaiah 58 that Jews hear in our synagogues every Yom Kippur:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice
 and untie the cords of the yoke...Is it not to share your food with the hungry
, and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter...If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
 with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
 and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness.

In the grand hall of the Hilton in Washington, DC, I felt that religious words have a unique power to call us together toward our civic obligations. We all interpret differently whose job it is to implement those words of Isaiah. What proportion of individual effort, voluntary groups, local or larger government. But those are the words we must be interpreting. Our challenge today, as Jewish liberals or Jewish conservatives – as Jews, period – is to find a way beyond the pointing finger and the malicious talk, to make ourselves the light that pierces the darkness, the repairer of breaches in our society. That is a message we must all approve.




Jewish Prayer