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A number of writers have noted a tendency amongst those articulating a Judaic social vision to use Jewish texts as a peg on which to hook their preconceived views. Such an approach is obviously destructive to the goal of deriving Judaic values from those texts so it is worth discussing this phenomenon at the outset of our research.
In an article for Commentary , writer Hillel Halkin reviews Righteous Indignation , a book written by a range of Jewish activists, intellectuals and spiritual leaders addressing issues of social justice and environmental responsibility. In his censorious review, Halkin accuses the authors of expressing their personal moral biases rather than any traditional Jewish perspective: ‘On everything, Judaism has a position – and, wondrously, this position just happens to coincide with that of the American Liberal Left.’ According to Halkin, the authors treat ‘Jewish tradition not as a body of teachings to be learned from but as one needing to be taught what it is about by those who know better than it does what it should be about. Judaism has value to such Jews to the extent that it is useful, and it is useful to the extent that it can be made to conform to whatever beliefs and opinions they would have even if Judaism had never existed.’
Not having read Righteous Indignation, I cannot assess the accuracy of Halkin’s evaluation. However, the danger that he alludes to is a very real one for someone looking to discuss the Judaic message for today’s world.
This disingenuity is not confined to those on the left of the religious spectrum. In his book, A Far Glory (p.195-6), Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger observes ‘that the most divergent and often diametrically opposed moral imperatives have been legitimated in Christian terms.’ Berger writes about two events that took place in the 1950s in the town in which he was teaching. The first involved the visit of Martin Luther King, Jr. The event took place in a black church and was interspersed with prayers, Bible reading and hymns.
The second event was a rally of the Klu Klux Klan. These proceedings were also marked by what Berger calls ‘a specifically Protestant type of collective jolliness’ and climaxed with the lighting of the cross. As Berger notes, ‘the very same symbols of an old-fashioned Southern Protestantism were used to legitimate two diametrically opposed political causes.’
Writings and incidents such as those referred to by Halkin and Berger throw open a challenge to us – how do we develop a Judaic social ethic which is genuinely rooted in the sources and not projected by our preconceived ideas.
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