The best-known use of the word “liberalism” in Orthodox Jewish theology occurs in an essay by Abraham Isaac Kook, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, almost a century ago. He identifies three factions in modern culture: orthodoxy, nationalism, and liberalism. He defines liberalism primarily as the party of enlightenment, secondarily as the champion of universal values. All these forces are subsumed under the divine and each makes a positive contribution and must allow room for the others. Some version of this philosophy inspired the Modern Orthodoxy of my childhood.
It never occurred to me to doubt that true piety and the quest for knowledge went together. Rabbi Kook suggested that much of the bad repute of established religion was due to the Church’s antagonistic attitude to modern science, and our teachers aspired to a worldview affirming science. The energy expended by our teachers in defusing the well-worn disputes about geology, evolution, biblical miracles, and so forth always seemed to me a distraction from more crucial matters, but it testified to their aspiration for a harmonious worldview. They took for granted that men and women of good will pursued overlapping goals to the best of their ability, despite differences among them about the source and the specific content of the good. The foreseeable future offered plenty of opportunities for material and moral progress, even if ultimate redemption required a convergence of belief. In a word, enlightenment was good, and universal values served a crucial, though not all-important, function in one’s hopes for the future.
Three elements of Jewish history played a tacit background role in the form that this optimistic outlook took in the middle of the last century. First, Judaism was a perennial minority religion. Great claims could and should be made for the impact of Jewish teachings in advancing Western culture, but Judaism can not be expected to act alone in bringing about the millennium. The achievement of universal monotheism and brotherhood would likely require the confluence of many efforts rather than the “Constantinian” triumph of the true faith.
Second, despite the Holocaust and the threats of secularism and assimilation, modernity was regarded as good for the flourishing and morale of the Jews. The creation of Israel meant that Jews could take their place as a nation among nations, and if attacked could defend themselves. Outside of Israel, liberal values entailed the removal of barriers to Jewish equality along with the invidious discrimination affecting other groups.
Third, Zionism promised to revive the long-dormant capacities of the Jewish people to engage the challenge of political power and social justice; in short, a healthy society. Whether governed by explicitly religious imperatives or by secular devolution, Zionism hoped to succeed handsomely where Western societies had so far delivered mixed results.
In college I found my religious and intellectual home in the classroom of the other dominant thinker of twentieth-century Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Though he rarely if ever uses the term “liberalism” in his theological discourses—most of his audience thought of liberalism only as a practical political program—it appears in the volume later published as The Halakhic Mind. Perhaps influenced by John Henry Newman, whose work he had studied carefully, my mentor castigated “liberalism” for subjectivity, for its failure to build theology on the objective data of revelation, and for its antinomian bent. Liberalism was guilty of confusing religion with aesthetic or moral categories.
Offhand, the pejorative characterization of religious liberalism had no more bearing on social, political, or economic liberalism than these varieties of liberalism had on each other. After all, respect for universal ethical principles seems to be the very opposite of subjectivism, and political liberalism is nothing if not legalistic, even litigious, in pursuing its agenda.
It was not widely known, or treated as significant, that Rabbi Soloveitchik was himself politically conservative. While staunch anti-Communism made him a hawk on Vietnam, some of his closest disciples were doves, and he was gracious, sagacious, and supportive when anti-war students sought his advice on how to express their opposition. Against the prevailing confidence of most religious Zionists that Israel’s administration of the Arab population that came under its rule in 1967 would prove so humane as to be beyond criticism, he was outspoken about his fear of Israel relying too heavily on its military might and stressed the need for compromise in the event that peace became attainable. If he was prescient about the migration of anti-Semitism to the left of the political spectrum, it was less out of fear that liberal universalism was inherently intolerant of Jewish particularism and more because he detected in the populist left the anarchism and destructiveness endemic to revolutionary agitation.
Rabbi Kook envisioned liberalism as a dignified voice for enlightenment and universalism, situated in respectful dialogue with the voices of surging honorable nationalism and stalwart authentic religious traditionalism. As the twentieth century wore on, the ideologists of liberalism increasingly operated without the moral wisdom and shared social commitment liberalism had always shown in the past and increasingly lost the ability to identify with positions grounded in assumptions other than their own.
A liberalism unchecked by the corresponding authority of other ways of thinking and living became increasingly intolerant. Utilitarianism in ethics entailed that society must be governed by nothing beyond the aggregate of individual desires or interests, and that whatever threatened to diminish their satisfaction was unethical. Liberal deontological systems (like that of John Rawls) emptied the public square of substantial content in the name of a “thin” procedural liberalism, creating a vacuum that could only be filled with “thick” liberal values. Current liberal spokesmen preach a triumphalist “master narrative” reminiscent of the old “Brezhnev Doctrine” whereby the public square in Western societies is divided between areas where liberalism has planted its victorious flag and is immune to reversal, and those that liberalism has not yet conquered.
Universal law, on these understandings, is profoundly subjective; it is self-choice moralized and constrained only by principles of fairness. Thus the philosophies of social liberalism and political liberalism, and even the utilitarianism of economic liberalism, are progressively more entwined with the theology of religious liberalism. Even in the many areas where traditional Jews and Christians seek the same results as do liberals, as we sometimes must out of necessity, the differences regarding fundamental frame of reference and motivation are ever more difficult to bracket or to set aside.
We may all, for example, deplore extreme material inequality, whether we view material well-being as an end in itself or promote equal status and opportunity as expressions and conditions of human dignity or understand it as a means towards the realization of spiritual growth. Yet consider: How much social engineering is necessary or desirable? Should the network of social welfare be primarily or wholly in the hands of the government, or should it be entrusted to civil society, including religious institutions? How much should the government interfere with the latter? Our differing ideas about why extreme inequality is a bad thing determine what kind of result counts as an improvement and what means are desirable, legitimate, and tolerable in bringing it about.
Fifty years ago there was much talk about the end of ideology, meaning that we were more or less agreed about the society we all desired and the only problem was how to achieve it, a task best assigned to the most competent and the brightest technicians. Liberalism took it for granted that the accumulated moral and cultural capital of the past would always yield the basis for consensus. We know better now. Spiritual capital can be squandered. Unlike material resources it can be replenished, but only at a high cost and through extraordinary efforts at renewal.
The persistence of deep disagreement about “essentially contested concepts” should have brought about a humbler, Burkean attitude to our shared social fate. In the economic realm this has happened: Both nineteenth-century laissez faire liberalism and the welfare state as it was once imagined are morally exhausted, but no plausible and decent orientation has replaced them. An inertia verging on paralysis marks our collective response to the energy crisis and the environmental crisis, for example, challenges whose sheer urgency might be expected to compel efforts at consensus. Although faith in our liberal political institutions remains robust, most of us are only guardedly optimistic about exporting democracy around the world.
At the same time, the social agenda of liberalism has become ever more strident, uncompromising, and moralistic. One instance: A strong argument could be made, on religiously and morally uncontroversial grounds, in favor of allowing special legal standing to others with whom they are not related by blood or marriage. Should a dying person, or one preoccupied with the care of a dying person, have to worry about the fate of joint assets, like a shared home, or fear being denied the courtesies and powers of agency usually reserved for close family? Such civil arrangements can be facilitated with no questions asked about the nature of the personal relationship. Instead, the crusade to accord official status to homosexual relationships insists on nothing less than legally enforced application of the word “marriage” to behavior at variance with traditional morality. Once enacted, such rights cannot be doubted. Any compromise is thus a preliminary concession, valid only until the next advance of liberal virtue against traditionalist falsehood.
Are we now “after liberalism?” The age of hegemony of which Lionel Trilling wrote in his preface to The Liberal Imagination, when liberalism was the only game in town, has passed, but Trilling was never clear about what liberalism entailed as a political or religious doctrine. For Orthodox Jews, with a robust commitment to divine authority expressed in the myriad actions that define our lives, theological liberalism was never a real option. Yet in the social sphere, the political power and corrosive force of liberalism is unabated; “nor are we out of it.”
Neither sociologist nor prophet, I do not know how its effect on our society, and even on our communities, can be reversed. As a member of a small, marginal people, accustomed to persecution, I am the son of those who endured much worse than the condescension and contempt of the enlightened classes. As the bearer of a religious message vouchsafed by God to a small nation, accustomed to marginality, I will persevere, whatever the immediate outcome, to lead my life and try to foster community with others.
Shalom Carmy is co-chair of the Jewish Studies Executive at Yeshiva College and editor of Tradition, the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America.