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Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Byron L. Sherwin, an accomplished theologian, ethicist, scholar and teacher. Ordained a Rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, he received his PHD in Cultural History from the University of Chicago. Sherwin is the author or editor of 28 books and over 150 articles and monographs, most recently Faith Finding Meaning: A Theology of Judaism (Oxford, 2009). For 40 years, he has served at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies at Chicago, where he currently is Distinguished Service Professor and Vice-President for Academic Affairs Emeritus.
FP: Rabbi Sherwin, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Sherwin: Thank you, Dr. Glazov, and thanks to Frontpage which is one of the very few media outlets available for holding the discussion we now begin.
FP: True enough, thank you sir.
I would like to talk to you today about why the vast majority of American Jews identify themselves as political liberals, something they have done especially since the 1930s.
Hopefully you can explain this trend for us — as well as its consequences.
Let’s begin by you illuminating the phenomenon for us in general.
Sherwin: For many decades now, sociological and demographic studies of Jewish voting patterns have consistently demonstrated that the vast majority of American Jews are social and political liberals, and that American Jewry is basically a one-party group. In recent presidential elections, the Democratic candidate received over 75 percent of the Jewish vote, or more than three of every four votes. Most recently, in 2008, Obama received 78 percent, the largest percentage of any group except African-Americans, which was 95 percent. It is not surprising that the Jewish proclivity for liberal politics, articulated through their attachment to the left wing of the Democratic Party, has been called “an addiction,” and voting Democratic has been described as having been implanted into the DNA of American Jews. As Leonard Fein put it years ago: “Politics is our religion, and our preferred denomination is liberal.”
For many American Jews, especially those whose forebears immigrated to the United States from eastern Europe in the great wave of immigration from 1880 to World War I, it is almost inconceivable for a Jew to be a Republican or a conservative. In many Jewish circles, Jewish conservatives and Republicans are readily considered genetic aberrations, heretics, and traitors to their heritage. Yet, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jews who came in an earlier wave of immigration, largely from Germany and Bohemia in the mid-19th century, were mostly Republicans who embraced the party of Abraham Lincoln. So, historically, it is a mistake to claim that American Jews were always Democrats.
FP: Ok. Well, you are an American Jew, a rabbi, a professor of Jewish studies, but you have always been politically a conservative. How come you are not a liberal?
Sherwin: Jamie, the odds of a person like me being a liberal who supports the Democratic Party and its liberal politics are pretty good, about 4 to 1. Statistically, it would be a good bet, though the person so betting would lose.
I have never been a liberal because I am convinced that liberalism is incompatible both with the teachings of Judaism and with the current self-interests of American Jews. I further believe that the ideological tendencies and programmatic features of liberalism pose an existential threat to the future of Judaism in America and to the survival and continuity of Jews as Jews in The United States. Over the years, these convictions have been verified by the consistent findings of sociological and demographic studies of American Jewry, as they have been affirmed by the writings of a wide variety of Jewish scholars and theologians.
For example, the late Rabbi Seymour Siegel, who was my teacher, served for many years as Professor of Jewish Theology at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. In the early 1970s, after surveying the basic tendencies of liberalism, he came to the conclusion that “[Liberalism is] by and large inimical to Jewish interests and it does not reflect some of the basic tenets of Judaism,” and that “Jewish teachings are contrary to liberal ideology.”
The Jewish identification with the Democratic Party coalesced during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, the beginning of the unraveling of Jewish support for the Republican Party first became evident in the three-way race for president among Taft, Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Since his days as New York City’s Police Commissioner, Roosevelt had endorsed pro-Jewish policies, including the first appointment of a Jew to the Cabinet in 1906 during his presidency. Seeing Wilson as the epitome of the Enlightenment liberal, Jews helped elect Wilson though he had demonstrated little regard either for Jews or for Jewish interests. So began the shift of American Jewish voting patterns away from candidates who reflect their self-interests toward those who embrace the utopian views of the European Enlightenment.
I am a conservative because a conservative world-view represents a world-view more compatible with Judaism and with Jewish interests than the world-view represented by political liberalism.
FP: Tell us what role Judaism plays in the political affiliations and activities of American Jews.
Sherwin: Over the past few decades, sociological studies of American Jews have consistently found that the vast majority of American Jews:
(1) are politically liberal,
(2) are more likely to define themselves in secular ethnic terms rather than religious terms,
(3) tend to understand their group identity as demanding adherence to liberal ideas,
(4) believe that their religion, i.e., Judaism, teaches them to be socially and politically liberal.
Based on these findings and upon the already mentioned claim that liberalism is inimical to Judaism, one can readily conclude that Judaism plays no real role in the political activates and affiliations of most American Jews. Ironically, precisely because many American Jews perceive a close identity between liberal teachings and Jewish religious teachings, they mistakenly believe that Judaism plays a central role both in their political affiliations and activities, and in their identity as Jews.
In recent years, an American Jewish sociologist has called this phenomenon “coalescence”—Jews defining their Judaism on the basis of categories of thought external or even inimical to Jewish religious though and practice. As I suggest in my recent book, “Faith Finding Meaning,” that you mentioned earlier, liberalism has become a “substitute faith” for most American Jews. As theologian Emil Fackenheim put it, “liberal Judaism is a contradiction in terms,” an oxymoron. Jewish liberalism attempts to reinterpret and to distort Judaism through the lens of liberalism, rather than seeking to critique liberalism through the lens of Judaism.
Already in the late 1960s, the eminent Jewish sociologist, Charles Liebman, analyzed Jewish liberalism, contrasting the liberal values of American Jews with those of Judaism. Liebman concluded that the cosmopolitan, universalistic and secular nature of Jewish liberalism poses a direct threat to the continuity of Judaism as a religion and to the ethnocentric raison d’etre of Jewish existence. Furthermore, Liebman points out that whereas among other groups, political affiliation is primarily driven by self-interest, especially economic self-interest, liberal American Jews do not usually mobilize around issues related to their own self-interest; indeed, not even around the “prime directive” of securing their own survival as Jews and the continuity of Judaism.
For the past few decades, the American Jewish sociologist, Steven Cohen, has written extensively on Jewish liberalism. Cohen identifies a direct correlation between the growth of secularism and the decline of an adherence to Jewish religious beliefs and practices, and the pervasiveness of liberalism among American Jews. As Cohen further observes, American Jews are among “the most religiously inactive, most theological skeptical, in short, the most secular group” in America, who identify Judaism not with its traditional beliefs and practices, but with the values and programs of political liberalism.
It is no wonder that the most recent (2001) demographic study of American Jewry found that 73 percent identified themselves as “secular,” with the fastest growing percentage of American Jews either defining themselves as having no religion at all or as practicing a religion other than Judaism. Further, as others have indicated, even those American Jews who believe themselves adherents to Judaism’s beliefs and practices, actually embrace something altogether different.
Like other liberals, Jewish liberals tend to denigrate tradition. Yet, Judaism is among the most tradition-oriented of world views. Though Judaism does not eschew change when necessary, it recognizes that denigrating tradition without reflection, imposing change for the sake of change, automatically considering change as a higher value than tradition, poses a real danger to the very existence and continuity of Judaism as a religious tradition. In short, American Jews have replaced their religious heritage with a secular religion—liberalism as represented by the Democratic Party.
FP: What influence has the immigrant experience had on American Jews’ views of themselves and their political affiliations—past and present?
Sherwin: Most American Jews are three or more generations removed from the immigrant experience. Yet, the experiences of Jewish immigrants first in Europe and later in the United States, continue to have a profound influence on current Jewish political affiliations and voting patterns. Studies by Steven Cohen and others have identified the significant impact of the political orientation of one generation of American Jews upon the next. It was from those immigrants, who came to the United States during the great wave of immigration from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1915, that contemporary American Jews inherited their proclivity toward liberal politics and social policies, and toward identification with the Democratic Party. It seems that American Jews have been much more successful in transmitting their political views and behaviors to subsequent generations than they have been in transmitting the beliefs and practices of their religious faith.
The story of Jewish immigration during this period (1880-1915) is a complex and multifaceted one. So, let me focus on a few salient points that our relevant to our discussion.
Jewish liberalism does not derive from the teachings of Judaism, but from the teachings of the French and German Enlightenment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With the founding of the American republic, Jews were given equal rights of citizenship in a country without a national church. Such was not the case in Europe, where “The Jewish Question” was hotly debated. This question focused on the issue of whether Jews should be granted full rights of citizenship or “political emancipation” in the countries in which they resided. Two distinct views framed this debate. In Europe, political conservatives generally considered Jews to be the paradigmatic “out-group,” denying in Germany that Jews could really be Germans, or Russians in Russia, Poles in Poland, etc. Jews were viewed and often viewed themselves as “a people apart,” unable or ineligible to fully integrate culturally, socially and politically in the lands of their residence. Conservatives in these countries often advocated and employed acute forms of oppression and discrimination against Jews, with anti-Semitic ideologies and actions being prominent features of their social policies. Often, these political conservatives were aligned with national churches which instilled a fear of the coercive power of religion and of religious institutions into the Jews of these countries.
The European liberals, on the other hand, largely favored the political emancipation of the Jews, opposing restrictions on Jewish economic, political and social mobility. They sought freedom from the authority of established institutions, especially religious ones that they found oppressive, and advocated a sharp disassociation of church and state, confining religious belief and practice to the private realm. Jews gravitated toward liberalism which they perceived to be protective of their safety and vulnerabilities, and conducive to the realization of their social, political and economic opportunities.
A major goal of the Enlightenment was the subversion of religious authority and tradition, particularly Christianity. But, because national Christian churches remained powerful, Judaism—which was a less dangerous target—came under severe attack. It is singularly ironic that various forms of modern liberal Judaism embraced Enlightenment teachings and replaced traditional Jewish teachings with Enlightenment ideas, despite the fact that a major goal of the Enlightenment was to subvert and to discredit religion, especially Judaism.
Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe came to America for physical safety, economic opportunity and political freedom, largely unavailable in Eastern Europe. Those who came were largely not among the wealthy nor the pious, either in Europe or upon their arrival in America. They more likely rebelled against religious authority than they embraced it. In Europe, and later in America, they cast their lot with the needs of the poor, including themselves; with the “workers” and their unions in America, with left wing politics including Communism and Socialism, and with the universalistic, secularist and internationalist teachings of the French and Russian Enlightenment and later of the early Russian Revolution.
Seeing American conservatives and Republicans as American versions of the conservatives they had encountered in Europe, Jews embraced left-wing politics and under Franklin Roosevelt their marriage to the Democratic Party was consummated—a marriage that extends until today. American Jews believed then, and continue to believe today, that the Democratic Party, especially its liberal agenda and the coalition of its members, ultimately protects their security, vulnerability, and their social, economic and political interests.
FP: Rabbi Byron L. Sherwin, thank you kindly for this most profound interview. We are out of time. But we need to continue with a follow-up interview in which we’ll discuss why a shift to conservatism has not yet occurred among American Jews and if you think that such a shift might soon occur. Frontpage readers stay tuned.