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Contentions

The Political and Religious Spheres

At U.S. News and World Report’s God & Country blog, Dan Gilgoff asks Eric Cantor, the newly elected Minority Whip – and the only Jewish Republican in the House,”How does your faith influence your politics and positions?” Cantor’s response isn’t very specific:

I grew up in a kosher home, attended Hebrew schools on a regular basis growing up. I sent my kids to Hebrew day school when they were younger. Obviously, my faith is part of who I am. It would tend to color my being. I don’t feel like I necessarily apply that faith in any direct way. I’m sure it does manifest itself so far as my perceptions and my views and how I work on legislation. But I can’t come up with a way that says it dictates my position one way or the other. There isn’t a monolithic Jewish position on anything.

So Gilgoff tries again: “For many conservative Christians, their pro-life stance is a direct result of their faith. Is your pro-life stance a result of your Jewish faith?” And, again, Cantor is cautious:

You can find many rabbis that differ on the question of when life begins. I don’t think there’s a monolithic position. That’s one of the things about the Jewish faith . . . there is a multitude of opinions. Our faith has been about discourse, it’s been about interpreting the texts for thousand of years. . . . It’s my belief that dictates where I come down on certain issues.

Gilgoff would later write, “when Cantor came up empty when I asked for an example of his faith shaping a policy position, and when he said that ‘there isn’t a monolithic Jewish position on anything’ in response to a question on abortion, it struck me how starkly such views differ from those of the conservative Christian activists whom Cantor-a social conservative-comes into frequent contact with.”

Beliefnet’s Brad Hirschfield remarked after reading this interview:

Cantor, like many people, has a hard time simultaneously affirming that Judaism is both multi-faceted (two Jews, three opinions) AND capable of providing concrete guidance on specific issues. The inability to appreciate both of those facts creates people who either invoke their interpretation of Judaism as THE interpretation of it, or individuals who can make no real decisions because there are always alternatives in the offing.

Hirschfield wants cantor to “make a real contribution by helping those in his party, who are especially fond of using religion in the former way” – namely, by invoking their interpretation as the only acceptable one. But I think Hirschfield is wrong in his assessment of Cantor’s response. Cantor did not fail in his refusal to affirm that Judaism is “both multi-faceted… and capable of providing concrete guidance.” For Cantor – and he is hardly alone in this – there’s no “concrete guidance” to be derived from Judaism regarding the political agenda of the day.

And this comes from Judaism’s understanding that all political parties – Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, Democrats and Republicans – want to serve noble causes: all want people to be rich and not poor; all want the world to be peaceful and to avoid war; all want families to be happy and kids to be raised with dignity. The Judaic way is to respect that people have different opinions about which path leads to these desirable outcomes – and to give the political questions of the day their due: in the form of a political discussion, not a religious one.



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