Should we be saying Kaddish for the Jewish Left?

Michael Walzer’s book In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible makes a slightly controversial though eminently plausible argument. The book is an interesting analysis of the politics of the Bible by a political scientist, who is not a biblical scholar, but has written an important book on the uses of the Exodus story by liberation movements (Exodus and Revolution). After all the caveats, Walzer’s central claim is that the Bible writes in the tension between being born into the covenant, and affirming the covenant or taking it on of one’s own free will. This is the central theme of the Bible, and not any specific manner of governance. There is no room, according to Walzer for politics in the Bible, since all authority ultimately rests with God. There is also no call for communal action. The Bible, according to Walzer has an anti-politics. Isaiah, for example, rails against those who would ignore the widows and the poor on their way to the Temple, yet he does not try to organize the poor or lobby the priesthood. Or when Ezekiel castigates Judah for rehearsing the sins of Sodom—the sins of hoarding their riches and not sharing them with poor—he is not looking for a legislative or political remedy—he is channeling God’s rage at injustice.

It is an interesting book, and Walzer recognizes and notes all the difficulties in making specific claims about a text whose interpretation has been contested for centuries. He notes the usefulness of the scholarly and traditional interpretive literature for understanding certain questions, but not others.

Walzer apparently reprised the gist of his argument at a YIVO conference on the demise of the historical partnership between Jews and the left. Some on the right trumpeted Walzer’s presence as a final sign that there is no basis in traditional Judaism for a politics of the left. Walzer, after all, is the long-time editor of Dissent and a social-democrat—and he is claiming that the left-Jewish alliance is as a castle on sand. Check-mate. There is no, nor has there ever been a basis for leftist politics, for social justice advocacy grounded in any traditional Jewish textual framework. The Tablet’s Adam Kirsch and Jewish Ideas Daily‘s Alex Joffe could barely contain themselves.

Something, however, is seriously off here. It is true that the hard-line Yiddishist/Bundist/secularist/anti-religious/communist left is dead or breathing its last. (The Yiddishist wing was recently given an entertaining eulogy by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle.) However, this left never made any claims at all on the tradition. It laid claim to the folk and culture and opposed the tradition. Over the past thirty years or so, a different Jewish left has formed. Inspired by the civil rights movement, by the way that Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr. spoke prophetically, this movement embraces the textual tradition (even if, at times, in a non-traditional way).

Here is where the punditocracy of the right has missed the point. The Bible is not “the tradition.” The Bible becomes traditional only with the advent of Rabbinic Judaism and textuality—Mishnah, the Talmuds, and following. This is where the tradition also becomes political. It is in Rabbinic literature that the courts demand that employers follow the path of the righteous; the city assesses its residents to support the poor and to create a wide ranging social safety net; the king is imagined as  having to stand trial by the court; that there is an obligation to dissent and protest against wrongdoing, and on and on. Walzer of course knows this. He edited the multi-volume The Jewish Political Tradition after all, and in In God’s Shadow he consistently distinguishes between the Biblical and the Rabbinic.

The contemporary Jewish social-justice movement is in this sense a rabbinic movement. The texts that inform the actions of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, Jewish World Watch, American Jewish World Service, Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, and Uri L’tzedek (among others) are rabbinic texts or texts that are understood within a rabbinic framework. From the rote and often meaningless use of the phrase “tikkun olam” to the thoughtful volumes produced by Jill Jacobs, Eliot Dorff, Shmuley Yanklowitz, or my own book (in which the phrase tikkun olam does not appear), the Jewish social justice movement is grounded in Rabbinic texts and concepts. The authors in the previous sentence span the denominations as do the people involved in the movements in the sentence before that. It is telling that in the cheerleading for the demise of the Jewish left no ink was spent on the current Jewish left. The progressive movements in the United States and Israel working for social justice are neither dead nor dying, nor are these movements single-mindedly focussed on Israel/Palestine. Jewish Social justice organizations are currently engaged in campaigns around domestic workers rights, hotel workers rights, living wage and ethical consumerism, criminal justice (death penalty and solitary confinement), housing and homelessness, and immigration among others.

If some of the folks in attendance at the YIVO conference had looked outside a bit they might have seen that what they hoped to present as a desert, is actually a garden in bloom.

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