Tikvah Fundamentalism?

by Elli Fischer

As I write this, I remain of two minds regarding the need to respond to Zachary Braiterman’s recent article, “Conservative Money and Jewish Studies: Investigating the Tikvah Fund,” which appeared in ZEEK and eJewish Philanthropy. On one hand, he levels a variety of accusations against an entity that I believe is doing a lot of good and important work. On the other hand, I wonder whether there is even a need to respond because even if he is correct he may still be wrong. One man’s reductio ad absurdum is the next man’s in hakhi nami (what one person deems outrageous the next deems perfectly reasonable).

Furthermore, much of the work responding to Braiterman’s critique of Tikvah has already been done. One need only read the “talkbacks” on the original article, the discussion in the comments of Hirhurim last week, and even the remarks of the pseudonymous Jerry Haber, your typical American Orthodox Jewish studies professor who is in favor of a binational state and affiliates with Hadash, Israel’s far Left Jewish/Arab Marxist party. Indeed, some of Braiterman’s specific criticisms are entirely valid and should be taken to heart by the organization.

Nevertheless, I believe that Braiterman’s article requires a different kind of treatment, one that seeks to address the ideological matrix from which Braiterman’s piece emerges.

Before proceeding, I should point out that I have been working part-time for Tikvah for several years, primarily as a researcher for Jewish Ideas Daily, though I have written original articles for them as well, and a review that I co-wrote appears in the next issue of the Jewish Review of Books. That said, the opinions expressed in this article are my own.

The crux of Braiterman’s argument is that Tikvah has a secret agenda to influence or proselytize an emerging generation of Jewish elites. To this end, it insidiously recruits first-rate scholars and publishes well-written material, even occasionally straying from its neoconservative orthodoxy in order to preserve a facade of centrism. To wit: “It is my contention that non-partisan and apolitical scholarship and even moderate left of center [Cornel West is “moderate left of center”? – EF] political opinion (usually related to Israel) are used as cover to insinuate conservative ideas about Jewish religion and culture into a more liberal American Jewish milieu.”

The issue for Braiterman goes far beyond a mere question of “truth in advertising”. He contends that Tikvah’s masking of its true intentions is linked to political philosopher Leo Strauss’s legacy. This clearly indicates, as I will explain, that Braiterman sees a full- blown conspiracy at work here.

The way in which Braiterman invokes Strauss at the end of his article is the key to understanding the article in its entirety. There is no question that Tikvah shares genetic material with Leo Strauss. Tikvah’s stated focus on the great books, questions, and ideas of Jewish and Western civilization is rooted in an approach that, though it did not originate with them, is identified with Strauss and his students (read The Closing of the American Mind by Strauss student Allan Bloom for a well-known and accessible exposition of this approach). Fealty to this approach is glaringly obvious in the mission statement of nearly every Tikvah-funded program, including its well publicized multi-million dollar grant for the Shalem Center to open a liberal arts college based on the Great Books approach.

Although Braiterman begins with a tacit acknowledgment of this aspect of Strauss’s legacy, he quickly proceeds to a different element. He writes, “Against the present, the past is venerated as a source of eternal verities and as a foundation for the future. The self-presentation is rarified and elitist. Public mission statements are left vague and agendas kept secret – is this the esoteric legacy for contemporary Judaism of Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt?” Here Braiterman alludes to Strauss’s differentiation of exoteric and esoteric philosophical writing in Persecution and the Art of Writing. Strauss contends that some philosophers (notably, Maimonides) masked their true ideas in their writings, but left clues for initiates to recover their meaning. This theory led some to wonder whether Strauss was indeed hiding his own true political ideas.

I am not equipped to register an opinion on how to read and understand Strauss properly. Suffice it to say that his disciples have included neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and liberal thinkers like Bill Galston. Nevertheless, Strauss’s acknowledgment of esoteric meanings (in the writings of others) invited all sorts of theories about the true, hidden ideas of Strauss and his disciples, reaching a fever pitch during the George W. Bush administration with the notion, promulgated in Shadia Drury’s introduction to his The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, that Straussians in the government disseminated the “noble lie” about Iraq’s WMDs in order to create a pretense for war. Even though particular theories have been debunked and discredited, the overall meme – that a cadre of Straussian neoconservatives use deception of the public in order to advance their imperialist agenda – persists within the American Left. It is precisely within this Straussophobic context that Braiterman’s article should be situated.

Moreover, if Braiterman’s theory were true, one would have to conclude that it is being very poorly executed. In my experience, the way to cultivate a loyal following is not to introduce potential followers to great books that encourage independent and critical thinking. Assigning heavily footnoted contemporary articles is a far more subtle way to influence thought while preserving a pretext of objectivity. Yet that is precisely not the approach that Tikvah takes.

So is Tikvah conservative? Without a doubt. Its stated commitment to “serious Jewish thought” and the “great ideas, texts, and traditions of Judaism” is inherently conservative in that it implies that change does not necessarily mean improvement, that the burden of proof lies with innovation. In this sense, any Great Books approach is conservative, and any “Great Jewish Books” approach will be widely perceived as having an Orthodox “default setting”. Perhaps one day all forms of contemporary Judaism will be more rooted in the constant engagement of great Jewish ideas, texts, and traditions. If we ever reach that day, it will be largely due to the efforts of the Tikvah Fund.

Elli Fischer is a writer and translator from Modiin, Israel. Follow him on his blog (adderabbi.blogspot.com) or on Twitter @ADDeRabbi.