Liberalism, Conservatism and Judaism – Are the ism’s mutually exclusive?


Even a father and son, master and disciple, who study Torah together become enemies of each other; yet they do not stir from there place until they come to love each other. Talmud Kiddushin 30b

May we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

I know this may be difficult to understand, but on occasion people sometimes disagree with my point of view. Last week, I concurred with the ruling of Rabbi Stav who stated: a terrorist who is wounded and no longer poses an immediate danger should not be further harmed. Many vehemently disagreed with me and supported the position of Safed’s Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu. Reacting to Rabbi Stav’s comments he said: that a terrorist who had committed murder should be killed. My thoughts were based on the Torah readings that discusses God’s promise to Abraham that he need not worry because his descendants would inherit the Land of Israel.  The Pirkei D’rebbe Eliezer stated that Abraham’s concerns stemmed from his fear that he may have erroneously killed someone in a previous battle.  He was worried that perhaps he had allowed his emotions to justify that which his mind could not. I paralleled Abraham’s dilemma with the current situation in Israel and proposed that we take a moment for introspection.  I asked that we grapple with the discordant philosophies of koach versus moach.   I asked that we question whether we should use brawns or brains as our ultimate arbitrator.

Some may construe my views as being too liberal, although I am often chastised for being too conservative. The truth is that religion and politics are mutually exclusive. Jewish texts are politically diverse; while capital punishment is endorsed, it is imperative that the deceased be treated with dignity. Jewish law demands that we wipe out the descendants of Amalek, yet promotes being a light unto the nations.  A Torah approach should be seen as neither liberal nor conservative; to describe it as either serves only to validate one’s personal bias. The ultimate purpose of religion is to raise our moral compass by uplifting man into a Godly orbit. To modify our personal inclinations and submit to a higher authority.  The antithesis of religion would be those that seek to move God from His heavenly trajectory into earth’s magnetic field.

In this week’s Torah portion Abraham asks: how God could justify destroying the entire city of S’dom if by doing so He would also kill the righteous? The Alter of Slabodka clarifies that Abraham was acting as the quintessential Jew and was oblivious of any political correctness. He was focused solely on the qualities of chesed – kindness .  Logically he should have been overjoyed by the annihilation of his archenemy; the people of S’dom behaved abhorrently and were the antithesis of all he stood for. Nevertheless, Abraham beseeches the Almighty to nullify the decree. The Alter concludes by stating: “had he lobbied for their destruction, then ultimately he would be no better than them.”

To study Torah is to learn how to deduce and extrapolate from its texts. It gives credibility to all opinions provided they are theologically sound. There is no (or should not be) pope like personality whose infallibility dictates right or wrong.  All men are created equal and there is no single entity with absolute authority. Abraham showing the courage or audacity to challenge God Himself opens the eternal floodgates for dialogue, questions, and divergent opinions. I am not advocating that every opinion be correct, but rather that everyone is at least entitled to be wrong.

Any Jew that studies the Talmud knows that our strength stems from the multiplicity of opinions. The patriarch Abraham, who argued before God and is lauded and praised for his empathy towards all humanity, ultimately loses the battle with his wife and is unable to protect his son Ishmael. The Torah continues by citing Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac and the chilling subservience he demonstrates. Yet to all those who may view Abraham as the ultimate liberal, conversely he wasn’t averse to carrying a weapon and convincingly waged battle against his enemies. He openly condemned paganism and proclaimed his steadfast allegiance to one God.  The incongruity of these stories and his philosophies are neither paradoxical nor inconsistent. They merely reinforce the premise that both liberalism and conservatism may be likened to the broken clock – both philosophies are fundamentally flawed yet tend to be accurate every 720 minutes.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jack Engel

PS: May we merit to have our opinions validated and respected. May we respect the rights of other people to offer opinions that are diametrically opposed to ours.  Of course, it behooves any rational minded individual to comprehend that the safety and security of the innocent must always be our overriding consideration. Thus, if faced with a threat of danger it is imperative to first aim well and only then be a liberal.


The Rabbi’s message is being sponsored in honor of the birthday of Laura Cohen

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