Rabbi Avi Weinstein

The Liberal Temperament vs. The Conservative Temperament

In conservatives, Kristof, Liberals on May 31, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Does everything boil down to temperament, or personality type? Maybe. After reading Nicholas Kristof’s op ed last Thursday, the following sentence came to mind. There are liberals, there are conservatives…and then there are Jews…and then there are frum Jews.

Kristof reports:

One of the main divides between left and right is the dependence on different moral values. For liberals, morality derives mostly from fairness and prevention of harm. For conservatives, morality also involves upholding authority and loyalty — and revulsion at disgust.

He also admits that hearing opposite points of view never moderates an opinion, but indeed, it tends to calcify one’s thinking as each side spends tremendous energy conjuring reasons to refute the other. Opinions that stem from morality do not reside, it seems, in the deliberative part of the brain, but from a more reactive part of the thought process.

It occurs to me that the Torah is neither liberal or conservative but embodies aspects of both parties. Certainly, the Torah is respectful and deeply concerned about respect for elders, teachers, and traditions, but it is equally concerned about caring for the most vulnerable in society.

As Kristof points out, most liberals would have no problem slapping a parent in a performance providing he had his parents permission, most conservatives would not do such a thing, even play acting. Certainly, the sages of the Talmud would be very sympathetic to the conservative point of view. Strict lines of permissible and forbidden behavior are the stuff of law, after all.

But that’s not the whole story, the Torah is not a rights centered document, it is duty centered. The poor do not have a right to be fed, but all individuals have an obligation to feed them. The verse in Deuteronomy exclaims that this is the reason you have the money in the first place.

For it is because of this issue (sustaining the poor) that God has blessed your actions and your occupation.
(Deuteronomy 15:10)


You are a steward, a partner in making sure that poverty is eliminated as much as possible. It does not seem that the Torah is sympathetic to those who say that it’s my money and I can spend it any way I wish, does it? These words are echoed in the liberal preference for equity, for taxes to take care of those in need. In fact Tzedaka collection resembled tax collection much more than it did a voluntary activity.

The purpose of the Talmudic version of friendship is to break down the facile labels that define American political discourse. We are supposed to submit ourselves to what the Torah requires of us. We have a pact with our learning partners that we shall not care who comes up with the most articulate and unassailable position, for it does not matter. We both claim victory since we were part of the process of arriving at the truth. My challenges sharpened your theory, and therefore, we celebrate our theory together in hopes that others will challenge and sharpen what we have presented. Such a dynamic still allows for biases, but humility is also fundamental for the dynamic to work. In such a world challenges are taken seriously, and are spurs to creativity.

Just when we have again received the Torah, it behooves us to remember that the seventy faces of Torah interpretation are in dialogue, and our tradition is the remedy for the disturbing blather that passes for political debate in this country. We should remember that yes, there are liberals, there are conservatives, but there are also Jews, and this is a much higher calling.

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  1. Cool post.

    Do you know this story already? (The exact wording is from chabad.org but the story is an old and well-known one.)

    During the turbulent early years of the 20th century, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, was once traveling on a train to Petersburg. With him in the car were some noblemen, clergy, and a group of chassidim. After a while, the discussion became a heated debate. The subject: ideal systems of government.

    At the time, the world was a hotbed of "ism's"– socialism, communism, capitalism, pacifism, fascism, etc. This debate, however, examined the issue from a Jewish perspective, each individual presenting various proofs from the Torah pointing to the virtues of a particular approach to government.

    When they reached an impasse, as is the tendency with most debates, the chassidim asked the Rebbe — who had hitherto kept his silence — for his opinion. The Rebbe responded:

    "You are all correct. The Torah is the source of all good in Creation. The positive elements within each of these systems are derived from Torah; their failings stem from the man-made additions to the Torah values."

  2. Don't know the story, but am glad to know it.

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