Frum Jews and American Conservatism

In late 2013, a study on Jewish identity in the United States was released by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project which was widely discussed among the intelligentsia. The survey found (among other similarly disturbing findings) that the intermarriage rate for American Jews getting married in the 21st century is 58 percent, up from 17 percent for those who got married before 1970. Understandably, this led many to wonder what kind of future Jewish life has in this country.

Noah Feldman, professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard Law School and Bloomberg View columnist, urged people to concentrate less on the negatives the survey’s data contained, and focus on the positives. “The only thing every generation of Jews has in common is the conviction that it will be the last,” Feldman wrote. “What matters for the continuity of Jewish life is quality, not quantity. And in today’s America, Jewish intellectual, cultural, spiritual and religious life is flourishing.”

For Feldman, who has written pieces critical of Yiddishkeit in general and frum Jews in particular in the past, and who is a leading proponent of many policies that are antithetical to Torah values, such praise of the chareidi community seems, put mildly, out of character. But after spending some time during chodesh Elul in Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha (or BMG, the Lakewood Yeshivah), even Feldman was ready to make a full-throated argument that BMG was a case in point. And while there is much to be concerned about in the Pew study, Lakewood, and places like it, are “where Jewish life thrives in America.”

Just last week, his position got a huge boost when another batch of data from the 2013 study was released, this time focusing more on the Orthodox Jewish community. And while there is so much in the data that is just begging to be written about and discussed (which it undoubtedly will be, and already has begun to be), one small part of the findings — that of the Orthodox and chareidi Jews’ political identification —particularly stood out for me.

It isn’t really news to anyone, especially not readers of these pages, that frum Jews tend to self-identify more and more as politically conservative, and, when given the choice, vote for the Republican candidate in an election. Pew found that Orthodox Jews are almost four times as likely to say they are conservative as irreligious Jews, but as the study is only about numbers, what it leaves unanswered is why.

This summer I had the opportunity to attend a program which sought to explore (among other things) that question. The program explored the intersection of Jewish values and political conservatism, with classes being taught by both renowned Torah lecturers and some of the top conservative thinkers of our time. Yes, it’s easy to explain away the affinity we have for conservatism with simple explanations like “social issues” (if you are from the right) or “talk radio” (if you aren’t), but there really is a much deeper understanding to be had.

Modern conservatism can trace its roots back to British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke expresses dismay at how, during the French revolution, the country’s traditions and values were discarded entirely, with the main focus being on starting with a clean slate. But values and traditions, Burke argued, are what they are for a reason. “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason,” he writes, “because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.”

The countervailing point of view, which is that of modern liberalism, is that little to no value ought to be assigned to traditions. This perspective, unlike Burke, ultimately values its own muskal ­rishon, or first glance, over any wisdom that may have been bequeathed to them by their elders.

At the program, we had the opportunity to hear from Dr. Roger Scruton, considered by many to be the premier modern-day conservative philosopher, and a widely respected public intellectual. During one of the breaks, I asked Dr. Scruton if, from a purely philosophical point of view, one can even hope to reach the truth without accepting the idea that his teachers and traditions are coming from a place which is closer to the truth than he himself might be.

His response wasn’t what one would normally expect from a man who has authored close to 40 books on philosophy. “It’s the height of arrogance,” Dr. Scruton said, “for someone to work under the assumption that they are smarter than everyone else, and all others who existed before. We are only alive for a finite number of years, and the idea that we can figure everything out on our own is laughable.”

But you see, that kind of attitude, which is the underlying principle of conservatism (it is, after all, the meaning of the word), challenges someone who doesn’t want to admit to themselves that they are here for a determinate number of years. And that may very well be the reason why it is (and not only in the Jewish world, but in the non-Jewish world as well) that the more religious one really is, the more one tends to be conservative.

It isn’t a coincidence that the Republican Party conservatives in particular are at the forefront in the war to protect religious liberty in this country. It also isn’t a coincidence that it is the left that is waging the war against it. None less than the Democratic front-runner for the presidency has said that in order to advance the left’s progressive agenda, “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.”

But we recognize that what we do we do for a reason; we assign importance to the words and direction given by our leaders who are smarter than we are, and the generations who came before us. Therefore, is it any surprise that we feel more welcome among people whose political thoughts mirror our own? And, unfortunately, for many of our misguided brothers and sisters, the inverse is true as well. If they don’t ascribe any significance to the sacred traditions we hold so dear, there is no reason in the world for them to assign any to leaders in political thought.