Judaism Today: All the Jewish Positions

Imagine if Jews had a pope. If they did, it would be easy to know if any person claiming to expound the Jewish view did in fact conform to mainstream Judaism. There is, however, no authority who defines “the Jewish position.” Today, many rabbis and lay leaders simply clothe their pet agendas in the mantle of Jewish authenticity, often misconstruing Old Testament verses. For instance, some Jews rationalize the Prophet’s famous quotation, “Justice, justice shall thou pursue,” as an excuse for an “alternative lifestyle.” They sincerely believe that the Bible, and hence Judaism, supports them. Indeed, there does not appear to be a way of finding out what the Jewish position really is.

Over the years, many well-intentioned Jewish organizations have applied the “official” stamp of Jewish approval to a wide range of policy positions. These various groups have embraced all manner of contemporary causes, among them socialism, population control, animal rights, labor issues, and even radical environmentalism. Jewish proponents of these many causes have buttressed their arguments with sometimes startling scriptural support, and then promoted them as the Jewish position.

Amid this cacophony of secular-ethnic noise, a religious population can be found. Perhaps 15 or 20 percent of the Jewish population, these religious Jews overwhelmingly are conservative on most social and economic issues because they take their guidance from the Torah and the Talmud as taught by orthodox rabbis. Typically, Jews on the conservative side of the political debate have a smaller megaphone. They are less vociferous because they tend to be preoccupied with their families, communal institutions, and professional lives. Being conservative, they are less motivated to change society than they are to change and improve themselves.

While the agendas of secular and religious Jews seem oceans apart, they are motivated by the same spiritual tug. Humans crave activities that include more than the mechanics of sustenance and procreation in order to feel fulfilled A religious Jew, unlike his secular cousin—who may be marching off to save the spotted owl to usher homosexuals into the military—finds transcendent meaning in his daily life. Each day starts with prayer together with at least nine other men and includes Bible study. He elevates the utilitarian to the divine by eating only kosher food and as countless sympathetic Christian employers know, he is unavailable for work on the Sabbath. That day is for God and family.

In addition, he will serve actively on several communal, religious, or educational organizations. With this full agenda, the great cultural debates of our time will not often capture his imagination. It is not surprising that most of the politically active Jews are on the secular humanist side of things, thus conveying the false impression that all Jews feel that way.

The secularized American of Jewish ancestry has a problem. Where is he going to find the meaning in life for which his soul yearns? Commendably, he tries to dispel the Serpent’s insidious taunt that calls upon human beings to stop flattering themselves as anything more than one of the animal species. He might embrace art or music, seeing culture as relief from that haunting subconscious suspicion. Patronizing the arts reminds him that he is not an animal after all. In The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe unintentionally shows how much the development of modern art owes to Americans with Jewish last names.

More often, though, the non-religious Jew’s search for meaning takes him into the area of compassion politics, built on the beguiling notion that the moral way to attack all problems is by administering liberal doses of kindness. It is the Talmud that warns, “He who is kind when he should exercise cruelty will finally unleash cruelty when he intended kindness.” Anyone who has raised children with their occasional need for firmness recognizes the truth of these sentiments. Indeed, one of the distinctions between secular and religious Jews is the relevance of the Talmud. These 2,000 pages unceremoniously ground flights of personal fancy. Those pages, which the distinguished Christian theologian R. Travers Herford said are “melodies which sing divinely in a Jewish ear,” serve to provide the real definitions of Judaism. For example, the key source for the Jewish view on the death penalty is not the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not murder,” as construed by the disproportionately Jewish membership of the American Civil Liberties Union. Instead, it is the Talmud which provides for the existence and cautious application of the death penalty.

With no sovereign pontiff to define Jewish doctrine, there is only one way to gauge the Jewish authenticity of a stated position. One must ask the seemingly frivolous question: Were they to step into the present, how comfortable would Moses, King David, or Maimonides be with the view expressed, or with spending a weekend in the home of its promoter? Does he subjugate himself to the system whose view he is claiming to advocate by adhering to the laws of kosher food, Sabbath observance, and many other rules. Above all, does he have a rabbi, who had a rabbi, who in turn also had a rabbi, and so on in a form of Jewish apostolic succession, all the way back to Moses, who studied on Sinai with his Rabbi, God Himself. The system is one of oral transmission rather than one in which each individual seeks Biblical corroboration for his tendency. Of course, everyone is free to do as he chooses, but the rest of us ought not to be misled that almost anything can be a Jewish belief.

An American citizen burning the Stars and Stripes is not thereby affirming his patriotism because he happens to be an American. A Jew pursuing a secular humanistic agenda is not thereby affirming Jewish beliefs because he happens to be a Jew.


  • Rabbi Daniel Lapin

    Daniel Lapin (born 1947) is an American Orthodox rabbi, author, public speaker, and heads the American Alliance of Jews and Christians. He was previously the founding rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, California. and the former head of Toward Tradition, the Commonwealth Loan Company and the Cascadia Business Institute. Lapin currently hosts a daily television program with his wife Susan and provides spiritual advice to people through his website.

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