Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Jewish Social Justice Fetishism

Subject: Jewish Social Justice Fetishism

Social Justice Fetishism

In one of the better known episodes of Seinfeld, George Costanza feels
obligated to define his relationship with a girlfriend. He feels the need
to have an official purpose and "definition" of that relationship, as
necessarily being about SOMETHING! At a loss to come up with something
better, and noticing that he and the woman both chew gum, which may in fact
be the ONLY thing they have in common, George decides that their
relationship is henceforth officially about gum. After all, it HAS to be

I am reminded of that episode every time I am faced with
assimilationist Jewish liberals in the United States and elsewhere who
insist that Judaism is essentially about the pursuit for social justice. It
is not.

These are people who seem to feel that their Jewishness HAS GOT to be
about SOMETHING! For most such people, it is not about religious
observance and ritual, and their interest in Israel is superficial and
fleeting. They certainly have no interest in relocating to the Middle East
and paying Israeli taxes. At the same time, they still feel a desire to
maintain some sort of outward assertion and proclamation of Jewishness. (The
totally assimilated do not even feel THAT!) And since they are convinced
that their Jewishness just HAS GOT to be about SOMETHING, they almost
uniformly proclaim that is has got to do with "social justice."

I think they would be on firmer grounds if they insisted it has got to do
with gum.

I have long had a rage against such assimilationist liberal American
Jews, people who pretend that all of Judaism reduces to liberal "social
action" political activism. I dismiss such people as "Tikkun Olam Pagans,"
(see this: )
because of their obsessive misuse of the term "Tikkun Olam" in order to
promote their political agendas. (Tikkun magazine itself is just the tip of
the chattering iceberg.) For such people, membership in the Jewish people
is equivalent to membership in some campus protest movement, like the
movements to save whales or fight global warming. Theirs is an empty
un-Jewish Jewishness. Interestingly, over the past few months a debate of
sorts has been going on in Commentary Magazine, triggered by an article by
Hillel Halkin entitled "How not to Repair the World" in this past
July/August 08 issue. The November 08 issue has several letters continuing
the discourse. Halkin is not one of my favorite writers, but his
denunciation of misuse of "Tikkun Olam" by such people was dead on.

I believe it is important that everyone understand how contrary to
real Judaism is this "social justice fetishism." I spell out here why this
is pseudo-Jewishness and a paganistic parody of Judaism in the article
below. Please take a few minutes to grind through it.

(A slightly abridged version of what follows appears this week in the NY
Jewish Press, and can be read at )

Social Justice Fetishism

by Steven Plaut

Liberal Jewish assimilationists have invented a myth, that Judaism is
a synonym for the pursuit of "social justice."

On internet web search engines the combination of the terms "Judaism
and social justice" turns out a considerable LARGER number of web page
"hits" than a search for "Judaism and kosher" or "Judaism and Passover," and
nearly all of these are internet sites proclaiming the quest for "social
justice" as the essence of Jewish ethics. Many of these are web pages
associated with Reform or Conservative synagogues and synagogue
movements. "Social
justice action" committees are as common as such congregations themselves,
and some Orthodox congregations have them as well.

But is "social justice" really the essence of Judaism? It would be an
exaggeration, but only a small exaggeration, to point out that nothing at
all in Judaism constitutes the pursuit of "social" justice (as opposed to
judicial justice). It is therefore an absurdity to claim that "social
justice" is synonymous with Judaism and is the essence thereof.

Like those old advertisements about Levy's Rye Bread, you do not have to
be Jewish to pursue social justice. Christians, Moslems, Hindus, and
atheists are just as capable of caring about "social justice" and pursuing
it as are Jews. Moreover, pursuing "social action" fads is hardly the same
as pursing justice. If we strip "social justice" of the trendiness in its
agenda and concentrate for a moment on something uncontroversial, we
immediately see how obvious this is. Murder is considered wrong in all
religious traditions and in all strands of secularist humanist philosophy. So
if the only purpose of Judaism is to teach that murder is unjust, or
"socially unjust" (to adopt the terminology of these folks), then who needs
Judaism? Practicing Judaism would be an awfully cumbersome way to convey
to the world that murder is unjust. In addition, if all of Judaism is
simply the pursuing of "social justice," would not a gentile pursuing social
justice be practicing the essence of Judaism? In that case, intermarriage
between a Jew and a "socially concerned" gentile would not be intermarriage
at all, as they practice the same "religion." The *real* intermarriage
liberal Jewish parents would need to worry about is junior bringing home a
cute Republican.

Even if one believed that "social justice" *were* the essence of
Judaism, this is a far cry from insisting that pursuit of fashionable
liberal causes is *THE* exclusive "social justice" that Judaism
endorses. (Actually,
such fads usually produce social *injustice*!) There is a difference
between agreeing that murder is (socially) unjust and deriving policy
conclusions from this consensus. If murder is unjust, should murderers be
executed? As it turns out, Judaism is unambiguously and enthusiastically in
favor of capital punishment for murderers. Yet, to the extent that the
issue is addressed at all by Jewish practitioners of social justice
fetishism, one would think that capital punishment is unambiguously *
condemned* by "Jewish ethics." One would be hard pressed to find a single
synagogue "social action committee" promoting the death penalty.

A major problem with social action fetishism is that it refuses to
acknowledge the tradeoffs involved in real world choices over issues of
social justice. In the name of social justice, should Jews be siding with
the Ossetians against the Georgians or with the Georgians against the
Russians? Or, coming closer to home, if subsidizing ethanol reduces
American import dependence on carbon fuels but causes grain and food prices
to rise, is the subsidization socially just or socially unjust? Practitioners
of social justice fetishism do not want to be bothered with such
complications! They seek instant moral gratification, effortless armchair
recreational compassion. Studying cost-benefits analysis would be such a
bother and a distraction.

A more fundamental problem is with the entire notion of "social"
justice, as opposed to justice. "Justice" is a term that describes the
proper functioning of a judicial system, of courts and judges. There is
indeed considerable attention and importance attached to justice in the
Torah, the Talmud, and in traditional Rabbinic discourse, but they mean
court justice. In fact, the requirement to operate a functional legal and
judicial system is one of the commandments to Noah according to Jewish
understanding and so obligates all gentile societies.

But "*social*" justice is in essence a notion that concerns the
relationship between *GROUPS* of people in society and concentrates on
issues of collective economic wellbeing and power. If handicapped people as
a group face housing discrimination, this might be an example of an issue
involving for "social justice."

In this narrow sense, it should be emphasized that true Jewish ethicism
has very little interest in group "social justice," except when the group in
question is the Jewish people. Indeed, the proper understanding of "*Tikkun
Olam*," that mantra recited senselessly and obsessively by all Jewish
practitioners of social justice fetishism, has nothing at all to do with
"social" justice. The only mention of "*Tikkun Olam*" in prayer has to do
with the eradication of pagan idolatry from the world. More generally, one
can squeeze under the notional umbrella of *Tikkun Olam* the demand that
courts do their work properly. In the Talmud it occasionally refers to
things like adjudicating divorces properly. Not a single recycling program
is mentioned there as "*Tikkun Olam*."

This point cannot be stressed too much. Justice in Judaism, be it
social or not, means mainly that courts function well and fairly. But
courts only function well when they *IGNORE* group social considerations
altogether. The Torah explicitly warns judges *NOT* to favor a poor
plaintiff over a rich one out of any sense of misplaced compassion! Judges
are commanded to protect orphans and widows, but via applying the laws to
them without bias. Poor people do not get to dodge their legal obligations,
like repaying debts or restoring property, just because of some sense of
affirmative action preference on their behalf.

As for economic "discrimination" and income disparities, under Judaism
these are none of the court's business. The Jewish ethical methodology for
dealing with income disparities is by requiring *TZEDAKA *or charity, and
the income disparities that concern Judaism are internal Jewish ones. Jews
are required by Judaism to look after other Jews living in hardship. Jews of
course are not prohibited from helping out non-Jews in economic distress,
but are nor religiously obligated to do so either. I suppose one could
argue that there is a social utilitarian basis behind the commandments of
charity, allowing society to operate more cohesively and in harmony when
plenty of charity is given, reducing resentment and jealousy. But *that* is
a modern sociological interpretation being read into things. Charity is
obligatory because it is the good thing to do. True wealthiness, the Talmud
tells us, is being satisfied with your lot in life and not coveting your
neighbor's Porsche.

As for group entitlements in the name of "social" justice, in Jewish
ethics the main groups entitled to collective allotments and wealth sharing
are the Levites and the priests. Converts to Judaism are mentioned often as
a group deserving of compassionate treatment and consideration, but in such
things as their entitlement to feed themselves from fields owned by Jews
(alongside the poor or destitute) and to be treated fairly in courts of law.
One can just imagine the look on Moses' face if he were to hear that modern
practitioners of social justice fetishism tout affirmative action programs
that discriminate against Jews through quotas and reduced standards as
"Jewish social justice." Since Moses was known to have a sharp temper, I
would not recommend that anyone go back in time via a time machine to ask
him about his thoughts on "gay marriage."

Peace is one of the highest value in Jewish ethics, although not
exactly because it constitutes "social" justice. The fetishists chanting
"Peace Now" overlook two important points: first, it is generally not a
legitimate Biblically-based ethical concern for Jews to interfere when
gentiles conduct wars among themselves and there is no Jewish ethical
injunction to stop those wars (except in cases such as Lot getting kidnapped
by Syrians); and second, war itself can be a great ethical "good" and means
to achieve real social justice. We honor Rabbi Akiva as one of the greatest
ethical figures of all time, even though he not only endorsed launching a
war but it turned out to be a war that the Jews lost, a war for which we are
still paying the price. War against non-Jewish interlopers who have seized
military or political control over any parts of the Land of Israel is *always
*ethically justified, and may be conducted outside the strict boundaries of
the Promised Land.

True practice of Jewish ethics requires taking the "social" out of the
Jewish liberal posturings and genuflections over "social justice," and
restoring the justice.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?