Alt+SHIFT: Deot #102

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | January 19, 2023

Alt+SHIFT is the keyboard shortcut allowing us quick transition between input languages on our keyboards—for many readers of TRADITION that’s the move from Hebrew to English (and back again). Yitzchak Blau continues this Tradition Online series offering his insider’s look into trends, ideas, and writings in the Israeli Religious Zionist world helping readers from the Anglo sphere to Alt+SHIFT and gain insight into worthwhile material available only in Hebrew.

Last week’s column outlined a book by Chaim Navon, one of the most articulate spokesmen for merging cultural conservative thought with Religious Zionism. In the interest of balance and to promote a deeper conversation, this week highlights several articles dedicated to challenging the effectiveness of this merger. These essays appeared recently in Deot #102 (October 2022), a publication of the Ne’emanei Torah VaAvodah movement. 

Let us start with the thought of Edmund Burke, referred to by Menahem Nabet in his article as the “high priest” of religious conservativism. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke cautioned against radical revolutions and utopian visions, arguing that human society is so complex that drastic changes will likely cause more harm than good. Better to rely on institutions that stood the test of time and preserved humanity. This approach fits well with religion since it prizes tradition, family, and community as institutions we should alter only with great reluctance.

As Assaf Ben-Melekh notes, conservatives need to address the radical changes that have greatly improved society. He asks, rhetorically, if their ideology would have led them to oppose the abolition of slavery or women’s suffrage? Of course, conservatives do not reject all changes but they often lack a convincing account of how to determine which changes will prove beneficial.

Along similar lines, Ehud Firer points out the immense benefit received by the Jewish people from the radical changes brought about by the Zionist project. What could reflect a more utopian vision than that of Theodore Herzl? Jews scattered across the entire globe will gather together, return to their homeland of some two millennia ago, and set up a sovereign state in a fairly barren country. Firer claims that this represents a more revolutionary dream than Marxism and indicates that even Zionist heroes of the right such as Jabotinsky called for radical changes in Jewish life. Apparently, the conservative impulse to resist utopian dreams is not always the correct move.

Certainly, those steeped in R. Kook’s thought should value a more revolutionary vision—embracing novelty, change, and progress. R. Kook wrote critically about traditional Jewish institutions for lacking vitality or for focusing on legal details without conveying a sweeping and poetic vision. He thought that the theory of evolution integrates with a kabbalitsic notion of the world consistently progressing to a higher plane. Noam Oren and Moshe Blau write of the dissonance between Kookian thought and cultural conservatism’s pessimistic take on humanity and its default mode of maintaining a societal status quo.

Another case of dissonance relates to the conservative posture of humility and ignorance in the face of human complexity. Many right-wing pundits seem quite certain about their positions and about how to improve society. Noam Oren notes the irony of Religious Zionists of the messianic type talking with absolute certainty about Israeli politics, while more left-leaning rationalists such as Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Eliezer Goldman spoke with great uncertainty about the Jewish state’s future. For Oren, this uncertainty about messianism spills over into having no guarantees about how politics might play out. Which group truly reflects the conservative mindset? 

Earlier, we mentioned how conservative thought could potentially oppose the moral gains for women in modernity. Nitzan Caspi Shiloni utilizes the example of husbands beating their wives. In the mid-nineteenth century, American states considered this practice legal. Even after it was prohibited, offenders frequently received very light sentences and the police were reluctant to get involved. Shiloni shows how two contemporary conservative organizations hindered progress in this important area. One think-tank published a paper claiming many studies indicate a high percentage of false accusations of violence made by spouses against their husbands. Another organization suggested that there are more cases of female violence against male spouses than the opposite. The latter claim was simply a fabrication that reversed the actual numbers but this did not prevent it from being cited by various news outlets. The former paper misrepresented studies. For example, one study offered percentages of false claims based on police perception, in other words, it reported stereotypes assumed by policemen rather than statistical reality.

To close let’s return to Menahem Nabet’s interesting essay. He posits that Judaism, from its inception, combines conservative and revolutionary elements. Abraham is the great iconoclast who builds lasting institutions. At Sinai, Am Yisrael boldly enters a covenant, out of trust in God, before knowing its details (Shabbat 88a). According to Nabet, religious individuals should remain conservative in the political arena but passionate about development in the more narrowly religious sphere. He fears that a mixture could lead to the worst of both worlds. Conservatism will cause a watering down of religious fervor; religion will fuel a radicalization of the political impulse manifest in the religious right’s cultural war against progressives in the name of “family values.”

In my view, the former fear has not come to pass in religious conservative circles. None of this means religious conservatism must shut down but it should counter these points and further the discourse. 

Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

Leave a Reply