Eric Cohen’s call for “a new Jewish conservatism” is constructive and forward-looking, which is as it should be. While it would draw from both Jewish tradition and the best sources of Western conservative thought, Cohen sees that the ideology whose contours he has sketched does not as yet exist whole and ready-made. And while his respondents Yoram Hazony and Meir Soloveichik have voiced important concerns about the precise role of religious tradition in any Jewish conservatism, I do not think it necessary—or possible—for such an ideology to solve the theologico-political question once and for all. Conservatism, after all, is as much a product of modernity as is liberalism; it is not tradition itself, but rather a project of reestablishing and regrounding tradition when it has been neglected or besieged.
I would add a cheer on behalf of the supplemental task of gathering such additional materials as already exist and that are of use for a Jewish conservative ideology. In this I include valuable works by the writers whom Cohen mentions by name, such as Ruth Wisse, and, indeed, by all four initial respondents to his essay. I also include works of modern Jewish literature that dramatize keenly the failures of liberalism and revolutionary utopianism; earlier figures in the development of a modern Jewish conservatism, like Will Herberg and Irving Kristol; and thinkers from the Orthodox world, such as the recently deceased Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who have meditated upon the ideological implications of Jewish tradition. Compiling and expanding a usable library of conservative Jewish thought is not as urgent a task as the elaboration and promotion of the principles themselves, but it is part of the battle of ideas.
At the same time, it is worth remembering that the destructive Jewish love affair with progressivism is rarely based on books. It is for the most part not a philosophical position, but a reflexive one, emotive and cultural. In the case of many American Jews, liberalism is their Jewish identity, an identity that they mistakenly believe comes to them, via the shtetls of Eastern Europe, from Mount Sinai, when it is actually a relatively late, American development, an accident of modern history. To this is added the psychological liberalism of many Jews who experience political conflict as so emotionally rending that they retreat into fantasies of a world (or at least a Middle East) entirely amenable to peace processes.
Such reaction-formations are only reinforced in the unreal, thought-policed environment of today’s universities. In cases like these, it is not so much that we need to encourage Jews to think the right ideas as to encourage them to think, period.
Originally published in Mosaic. The complete five-part symposium can be read here.