So Where Do I Stand? Confessions of a Politically Liberal, Theologically Conservative Jew for Jesus
Alan Shore presents a good overview of the historical, social, cultural and religious aspects surrounding Jews and the Religious Right. He leaves us with the question, “Where does God want us to stand?”
As a politically liberal yet theologically conservative Jew for Jesus, I’ve had to answer that question for myself. Back in the sixties, before I was ‘for Jesus’ I saw the civil rights activists of that era as my heroes. I’d like to believe that they would have still been my heroes even if my theological understandings put me in the category of a Jesus-believing Jew. I’d also like to think that my opposition to the Vietnam War in the seventies would have been consistent with my present faith. Certainly, there have been many issues since that have been categorized as being for or against the “Christian position.” With a few exceptions (the most notable of which is a concern for the rights of the unborn) I think sincere believers can be on both sides. A phone poll conducted for the Gallop International Institute in 1996, which compared the attitudes of 507 Americans who identified themselves as evangelicals with 503 others, shattered some stereotypes. For example, 64 percent agreed that a person can be both politically liberal and a good Christian. Nevertheless, most evangelicals are politically conservative and most Jews are politically liberal.
Why is it that secular, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews tend toward liberal or leftist ideology regardless of their religious commitments? And why is it that Bible-believing Christians tend toward conservative or right-wing theology? Perhaps it has something to do with the vantage point from which each is looking at the nature of humanity. There is not a Judeo-Christian tradition so far as human nature is concerned.
Bible-believing Christians see all people as inherently sinful, not merely because they believe in the teachings of original sin but because of observed behavior. The New Testament makes this very clear when it says, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”1 But this is not merely a New Testament concept; the Jewish prophets offered this pronouncement of the sinful nature of people as well. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned each one to his own way.”2
On the other hand, the rabbis teach that the moral nature of man is neutral. The belief that there are two inclinations in every human being—one toward evil and one toward goodness—figures strongly in rabbinic thought. Jewish teaching says that the character of a person is determined by which of these two inclinations has the greater influence on behavior. Both inclinations control average people.3 But even if the evil impulse is part of our makeup, the rabbis say “we are not bound to sin.”4 We are capable of choosing the noble or good response and, therefore, can effectuate good for ourselves and our society.
Here we can see some of the differences of emphasis. The person to the left might say, “poor living conditions create deviant people” whereas the person to the right might say, “because people are innately sinful, evil conditions and behavior are inevitable.” The leftist says, “change the external conditions and the inner person will be improved.” The rightist says, “change the inner man and conditions will be improved.” The liberal says, “people are perfectible—just provide educational opportunities and give the disenfranchised a head start on meeting human needs, and they can build a better society.” The conservative says, “when you give people endowed with a sin nature the opportunity to be educated, you end up with clever opportunists who serve self rather than society.” The leftists tend to trust structures more, to see government programs in place to alleviate the human condition. The conservatives tend to put their trust in standards of conduct.
Of course these reflections are generalities and most people are a hybrid of the above. Yet they reflect certain theological suppositions that remain even when a person or a people abandons their faith. Culture tends to stamp the human soul with certain axioms and ideals even though they’re no longer supported by a theological undergirding.…
Perhaps that is why our Jewish people, most of whom no longer hear the voice of the prophets, still feel a commitment to social justice, alleviating the distress of the impoverished and treating all people as though they are created in the image of the Almighty. Perhaps that is why we Jews have a basic belief in the dignity of humankind and in the perfectibility of society even though many have abandoned the means by which that perfection was to be achieved—Torah.
For example, many Jews today cannot give a good reason for not eating pork, but with ringing conviction can proclaim that it is wrong to exploit the poor. What they fail to realize is that the dietary rules come from the same source as the teaching of moral behavior—Torah. Eliot Abrams of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of the book, Faith or Fear—How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America, understands this dichotomy.
He argues persuasively that the greatest threat to American Jews is not the Christian Right, but the willingness of Jews to abdicate their own religious responsibilities. Writing recently in National Review, Abrams makes the case that a Jewishness that bases itself on affiliation with liberalism and social activism alone at the expense of commitment to religious faith is a Judaism that will not survive: “But it is now clear that it is not possible to transmit this irreligious Jewishness successfully, as the Hebrew prayers have it, l’dor vador—from one generation to the next.”5
Michael Medved, national film critic, echoes the same concern: “Eating bagels and watching Woody Allen movies won’t insure the future of Judaism, but studying Torah can.”6
To a certain extent the phenomenon of taking political or social positions based on theological underpinnings one no longer adheres to is prevalent in Christianized society as well. Most people in this country who call themselves Christians have long set aside a belief in Jesus’ atoning death for their sins and his resurrection. Yet, in some way they still believe that human nature is sinful and when given an opportunity, people will act sinfully and selfishly. This Christianized position is taken by people who have not thought through the fact that if there is no God, there is no sin.
So the belief in the pervasiveness of sin drives a Christianized society to distrust big faceless governments and their programs. It makes the individual responsible to see that no political leader, no teacher or teaching is allowed to prevail unless it seems submitted to standards based on a Scripture long forgotten.
Perhaps the real problem is this: Most of those whom we commonly recognize as Jews do not take the God of Israel seriously. And most of those whom we recognize as being Christians are merely Christianized people who have never made Jesus Lord and Savior of their lives. Orthodox Jew and columnist for the Jewish Week of New York, Gary Rosenblatt, told his readers not to fear the Christian Right:
- “If we’re serious about our Judaism and honest about seeking a corrective to our own assimilation problems we have to realize that we have more in common with religious Christians than we care to admit—about morality, values and respect for the Bible.”
If Rosenblatt, Medved and Abrams would look to Torah for answers, perhaps they would conclude as I have that political change for the better is at best temporal; the human heart—Jewish and Gentile, liberal and conservative—needs changing through the new birth and that has implications for all eternity.
Romans 3:23. Isaiah 53:6. Soncino Talmud, Ber.61b. Gen. R. xxii.6. Elliott Abrams, “Can Jews Survive?” National Review, 19 May 1997, p. 38. Natalie Weinstein, “Stop Worrying about Christian right, movie critic says” Northern California Jewish Bulletin, 13 January 1995.
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.