Talking About Peoplehood and Social Justice – A reply to Aryeh Cohen

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 21“Social Justice and Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Ed Rettig

The old story goes: A rabbi arrives new to a congregation and consults with the president over that crucial first sermon. “I am going to use the First Commandment: ‘I am the Lord thy God.’” The president nervously responds: “Not a good idea rabbi. Several of our big donors are confused religiously. They are atheists or agnostics. That might make them uncomfortable.” “OK,” said the rabbi, “How about if I speak about ‘Thou shalt not steal?’” “Well,” said the president, “you wouldn’t know this, but last year our treasurer spent some time in prison … tax issues. Why make him uncomfortable?” “How about ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’?” The president merely raised an eyebrow, and the rabbi understood: “So what can I speak about in my sermon that won’t offend anyone?” “Oh, you know,” said the president. “Talk about Judaism.”

Professor Aryeh Cohen, rabbi and scholar and teacher of rabbinical students, opened a courageous and potentially productive discussion. In that spirit of “vikuah lishem shamayim” -“debate for the sake of heaven,” I would like to offer a critique of his article.

He describes himself as a “peoplehood’ skeptic.” He fears that speaking of peoplehood will provide a device for speaking of Zionism while escaping the discussion of the problems of territorial nationalism, the occupation and the rights of non-Jews in Israel. He then goes on to tear into current policies of the Government of Israel, making the breathtaking broad generalization that “One of the two largest gatherings of Jews, the State that claims to be the Jewish State, is not interested in a vigorous pursuit of Social Justice.” He spices up his argument with a claim that Israel within the Green Line is a “seventy year occupation of Palestine.” The entire period of the existence of the State of Israel is an occupation in his view, thus denying the fundamental political legitimacy of about six and a half million living, breathing Jews.

Having consigned six and a half million Israeli Jews to the ranks of the politically illegitimate and socially unconcerned, he turns his attention to US Jewry. From certain facts (several Jewish organizations support internal social justice issues in the USA but do not take a position on Israel/Palestine issues; about 30% of Jews voted for Trump) he draws another breathtakingly broad conclusion: “…there is no special affinity for Jewish people towards social justice.”

Prof. Cohen’s article suffers from several severe weaknesses that we must address if we are to defend the concept that social justice is a core value of Judaism.

  • The main problem is the soft moral relativism that guides Prof. Cohen’s approach. In his view, these people – Jews living in the US or Israel – do not value social justice itself, because whatever vision of social justice guides them it is not his vision. Here is where his article strays into unintelligibility. In other words, their vision of social justice – Likudniks, Jews who vote Republican – make him “uncomfortable.” It is one thing to seek intelligibility by suggesting that the social justice visions of communism, or neo-liberalism, are misguided. It is quite another to claim that a vision is not present. Yet this is his claim. An example might be the Jewish discussion of gay rights. It is one thing to say that Orthodox Judaism with its more restricted view or Reform Judaism with its broader view of gay rights is right or wrong. It is quite another to suggest that because discussion of gay rights makes me suspicious that it is really about something else – say, about the relevance and legitimacy of Hallakhah – makes me uncomfortable, gay rights are unimportant to either Reform or Orthodox Jews. Cohen tripped over a major “third wire” in our contemporary thought identified by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor who wrote: “Your feeling a certain way can never be sufficient ground for respecting your position because your feeling can’t determine what is significant. Soft relativism self-destructs. Things take on importance against a background of intelligibility. Let us call this a horizon. It follows that one of the things we can’t do if we are to define ourselves significantly, is to suppress or deny the horizons against which things take on significance for us. This is the kind of self-defeating move frequently being carried out in our subjectivist civilization. In stressing the legitimacy of choice between certain options, we very often find ourselves depriving the options of their significance.” In other words, the problem with Cohen’s article is that like the apocryphal ex-con synagogue treasurer in the story; Cohen might become uncomfortable discussing how specific ideational pillars of Jewish thought are applied in contemporary Jewish life. In his case, this is “peoplehood” while for others it may be “theft,” or “belief in God,” or “adultery.” But that discomfort is not a coherent reason to refrain from the discussion or to deny the significance of the pillar.
  • Cohen illustrates the loss of intelligibility when he tries to launch a discussion of what he evidently sees as alternatives to speaking of “peoplehood.” Having downplayed “social justice,” he finds himself echoing Maimonides: “to create hesed, mishpat, utzedakah/love, justice, and righteousness in the world…” And what are hesed, mishpat, utzedakakah if not building blocks of the various Jewish treatments of social justice?
  • Another key to his misrepresentation of the state of “social justice” as a Jewish concept lies in his failure to recognize that debate involves more than one opinion about an idea. There are, for example, Jewish Trump voters who believe in small government, low taxes, low levels of immigration, as matters of social justice. Their point of view may seem absurd to Prof. Cohen (full disclosure – he and I probably agree on this point), but for many of them, it is a strong motivation drawn from a Jewish civilizational commitment to social justice. We cannot intelligibly discuss that commitment and what it might require of us, without recognizing its first-level importance to the people who act on it.
  • Moreover, Cohen never explains why or how discussion of peoplehood can constrain discussion of territorial nationalism, occupation, human rights of non-Jews in the State of the Jews, etc. Indeed, far from being a way to discuss these things without considering Zionism, the simple fact is that they only acquire intelligibility, making them addressable for critique, against a horizon of peoplehood and the impact of Zionism on Jewish Identity. I can testify that in our work in Shomrei Mishpat Rabbis for Human Rights, this is what we discuss and at great length. We also engage with the potential costs of the absence of a territorial nation, the dangers of indefensible borders and the moral significance of those dangers, not instead of, but in intimate ethical relationship to the positive commandments to treat the stranger with integrity.

The argument that Social Justice is a central pillar of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood stands on a firm basis of intelligibility. In this, it is like talk of God, of the prohibition of theft or sermonizing against adultery. We may disagree on how to develop these pillars of our civilizational thought and how to realize them in practical terms. But how can we avoid these – and other foundational components like them, monotheism, or brit, for example – if we are to speak of contemporary Judaism as anything meaningful? Without them, how to upset the complaisant, engender rethinking of stale moral contemplation, or be anything more than the kind of anodyne “Judaism” advocated by the apocryphal synagogue president in the old joke.

Rabbi, Dr. Ed Rettig is the current Chair of Shomrei Mishpat, Rabbis for Human Rights. He also chairs CJPE, publishers of the Peoplehood Papers, and serves on the board of IsraAID, the Israeli third sector organization for international disaster relief and development. Ed served for many years in American Jewish Committee’s office in Israel, directing it from 2009-2013. He holds a law degree from Hebrew University and was ordained at HUC-JIR from where he also holds a doctorate in Jewish History.