Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Who needs to moderate what?

Jay Michaelson had an essay in the Forward this week pleading for more civility and honesty in Jewish civil discourse. As with political discourse, I'm always for that. However he started with some assumptions that seemed a little off for me.
I have my approach to Jewish values that allows me to say that Eric Cantor, Sheldon Adelson and William Kristol are wrong — pluralism is not the same as relativism, after all — but what I won’t say is that they are somehow un-Jewish.
Granted, I don't spend tons of time in liberal Jewish circles, but I'm a little suspicious of how often this charge actually gets made. Michaelson notes that the converse occurs regularly among the Jewish right-- religious and otherwise, but doesn't seem to have any particular examples for the left.
Relatively few progressives come out and say [that Jewish conservatives are outright wrong] directly, because to do so violates a cardinal progressive principle, that of pluralism and toleration. (Of course, conservatives don’t hesitate to make these claims, painting critics of Israel as self-hating Jews, or social progressives as rebels against the Torah.)
This seems like a case where Michaelson may be trying to be too even-handed for his own good. While the rest of his essay has some good advice, particularly about being honest about how wide and divergent the various opinions in the Torah are, the fact that he seems to start the piece off with a fallacy-- that Jewish liberals have no good response to Jewish conservatives because they either ignore them or dismiss them-- kind of spoils it for me. Michaelson isn't wrong with his end thesis-- that the best option is to admit that Judaism and Jewish thought contains a multiplicity of views (though one can still find patterns suggesting which values the Torah seems to prefer, such as mercy over vengeance)-- but I don't think the reason more liberal Jews don't do this is that they're too busy saying conservatives aren't real Jews. Rather, I would guess that the issue either isn't on their radar (liberal bubble syndrome) or that they simply haven't given the issue much thought (a third possibility is that they may hear about these critiques and simply not have much in the way of a response).

It seems to me that in an attempt to not cast blame or appear biased, Michaelson does his readers (and argument) a disservice by diagnosing two patients with the same illness. One group needs to work on reducing de-legitimization. The other one needs to recognize that it's happening and start pushing itself to generate some positive and constructive responses.

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