Prophets in the Public Square — Part I

I want, in three posts adapted from an unpublished talk I presented at the 19th Annual Journal of Law and Religion Symposium at Hamline Law School in 2009, to add a bit to the possibly already-stale conversation over the role of religious voices in the public square.  If I can add anything, it will be to focus on the distinctive challenges, both internal and external, that confront those religious voices as they try to translate theology into policy.

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Years ago, I attended a panel discussion on Jewish views of the American welfare state. My memory of the event is hazy, but I do recall that several speakers discussed strands in Jewish law that might support income redistribution, national healthcare reform, or the like. Finally, the last panelist got up and argued that Judaism actually had little to say about the American welfare state, and that most of the textual sources from which the other speakers drew conclusions about contested matters of American policy were, as a matter of Jewish law, only relevant to the internal life of Jewish communities or to a Jewish polity.

What should we make of this critique?  This isn’t the place to review the legal analysis. So I will, on the one hand, just assume, for the sake of argument, that it was correct. But there’s another hand: Though law is at the heart of Judaism, not all Jewish religious discourse is legal. There are other registers through which Jewish tradition speaks, including Biblical narrative and poetry, rabbinic homiletics, systematic moral philosophy, mysticism, and more. And even the law has a vision – attitudes and aspirations and ideals – beyond its strict four corners.

There is also a third hand, however. For if religious arguments do get made in different registers, it is important to get the discourse right. It is sloppy and slippery, for example, to treat homiletic arguments as if they were legal. More generally, each of the registers of Jewish discourse has its own forms of expression and its own limitations. Biblical prophecy, for example, is powerful. But it is also allusive and utopian. To try to draw an economic blueprint from it can be silly. Indeed, it is worth keeping in mind James Gustafson’s Stob lecture at Calvin College, which was appropriately titled “Varieties of Moral Discourse: Prophetic, Narrative, Ethical, and Policy.”   Gustafson’s argument, made in a different context but relevant nevertheless, was that moral discourse could take four different forms, to wit (of course) prophetic, narrative, ethical, and policy.  Each form is legitimate and necessary, but each also had its own character and limitations.

Moreover, religious arguments are embedded in specific visions, assumptions, and constraints. Not only Jewish legal sources, but also Jewish homiletics and narrative and poetry and prophecy can only be adequately understood and communicated in the context of their overall religious context. What needs to be avoided is cheap prooftexting, in which religious texts and ideas are used as mere ornamentation for economic convictions and policy prescriptions. At the end of the day, the test is authenticity. And authenticity requires attention to what it is that makes religious discourse religious.

A 2008 essay by Hillel Halkin raises similar challenges. In recent years, many Jewish social and economic liberal activists have flown the banner of an ancient Jewish term “tikkun olam” – repairing of the world. They emphasize that, although the world is broken, Jewish tradition insists that human beings can help fix it, and that to try to do so is a religious act.

Halkin has little patience for the activist appropriation of the idea of “tikkun olam.” He argues that, in the course of Jewish tradition, tikkun olam has had three distinct meanings, none of which supports the contemporary liberal social activist usage. For the prophets, tikkun olam had a lot to do with universal social justice, but it was a utopian, messianic, aspiration. For the Rabbinic sages, tikkun olam was a nitty-gritty human task, but it was also inward-looking, an activity undertaken within the Jewish community. Then, for the kabbalists, tikkun olam was both human and outward-looking. But kabbalistic tikkun olam focused on the precise execution of ritual acts, not public policy and social justice per se.

Again, Halkin is both wrong and right. As before, I want to concede his historical account for the sake of argument, though I am not sure it’s entirely correct. Nevertheless, the flaw in his argument is simple. If tikkun olam has already had three meanings in Jewish tradition, why can’t it have a fourth? Indeed, today’s rediscovery of tikkun olam can be understood as an effort to synthesize the prophets’ concern for universal social justice, the rabbis’ practicality, and the kabbalistic conviction that each of us in our ordinary lives can help fix the cosmos. This sort of reimagining of a religious heritage is not wrong as such. Nevertheless, we need to demand authenticity, respecting the contexts of the sources of the tradition, even as that tradition is reconstituted.

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