he 12,000 word article that leads this issue of Commentary—“Jewish Conservatism: A Manifesto,” by Eric Cohen and Aylana Meisel—is a magisterial effort to codify the ideas on which American Jews of a non-liberal bent can agree and begin to work together to advance over the coming decades. What Cohen and Meisel have done here is vital spadework for the future, because, as they explain, the American Jewish community will likely look and sound and act very differently two generations from now. The demographic trend lines of American Jewry are not favorable to the current liberal consensus. Rather, Cohen and Meisel observe that the community is likely to be majority Orthodox by 2050, and that the traditional values and mores of Orthodoxy ought to incline those who are in the vanguard of this new reality to join in the great work of American conservatism.
To hear liberal Jewish leaders talk, there is little distinction between contemporary leftish beliefs and the classic convictions of the Jewish faith—which they have enshrined in the concept of tikkun olam, or “healing the world.” Tikkun olam is used to kasher any and every progressive aim, and so promiscuously that it has given rise to this apocryphal story: A Reform Jew on a tour of Israel asks his guide, “How do you say tikkun olam in Hebrew?”
This embarrassing reduction of Jewish theology, cosmology, philosophy, and tradition into a mere supporting pillar of the Democratic Party platform is an ongoing intellectual scandal. In response, though, too many American Jews of a politically conservative bent have sought to argue with it on the basis that their ideas are more truly reflective of Jewish tradition and theology.
Such arguments have included the notion that a flat tax is biblically prescribed because of Joseph’s insistence that the Egyptian populace set aside a fifth of their harvest to store up grain for the lean years. Place this ludicrous argument against its equally ludicrous opposite, tikkun olam idolator Shuly Yanklowitz’s assertion in his book Soul of Jewish Social Justice that medieval rabbis supported progressive taxation to build infrastructure, and you can see how sophists can boil down a religion about everything into a tradition about nothing.
“Jewish Conservatism: A Manifesto” argues for a different kind of Jewish engagement with political issues. It does not trim Jewish ideas to the latest in right-wing fashion and make inappropriate use of them as ballast. Rather, Cohen and Meisel suggest the rising new leadership take up specific issues of specific concern to ensure the good working order and flourishing of the Jewish community: the exercise of religious freedom, support for Jewish education and the family more generally, the defense of the Jewish state in Israel, and the defense of Jews worldwide from the threat of anti-Semitism.
It is vital, it seems to me, that this approach remain focused and is not broadened to a more general agenda of litmus-test conservative themes, lest the same sort of reductive and vulgar subornment of timeless faith we’ve seen in the fetishization of tikkun olam overtake the Cohen-Meisel project. Any project that calls for “healing the world”—which is quite the task for a people that constitutes two one-hundredths of 1 percent of the world’s population and 2 percent of the U.S. population—can easily be taken up by any ideological camp. Even though the tikkun olamists would scream to hear it, “building the wall” is as fitting a prescription for such a project as opening all borders.
This important article is intended to launch a thousand discussions. Let there be arguments.