Thursday, July 03, 2008

How Should Jews Vote?

I gave a little groan when I first saw David Klinghoffer's new book How Would God Vote? Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative. However, once I opened the book I discovered that it is not at all what I thought it would be. I expected it to be a book that argues that the Bible commands such-and-such so we must support the Republican Party, which wants to enact that Torah legislation into American law. But that is not at all what the book is like.

Klinghoffer spends the first two chapters explaining that he does not believe that we should turn America into a theocracy. Rather, religious voters should look to the Bible as a place to find their own values, and that like all voters they should advocate laws that conform to their personal values. I agree with almost everything Klinghoffer writes in his first two chapters, although I take issue with his generalizations about Liberals at the end of chapter two. One thing I found annoying about this book is the generalizations about and the lambasting of Liberals (the kinds of generalizations Klinghoffer wrote in this article). Too partisan for me, too unspecific and just too much of it sprinkled throughout the book. But I found that the book's good qualities outshone this aspect.

Click here to read moreAfter the initial two chapters, Klinghoffer addresses some twenty major political issues and tries to extract the biblical (and talmudic) values on the subject. This is where he really surprises me. I was expecting to be lectured about how (conveniently) the Bible advocates all of the stances taken by conservative Republicans. But that is not what Klinghoffer does. Instead, he works hard to try to follow the Bible's (and Talmud's) directions even when it takes him afoul of conservative Republicans.

For example, on school prayer Klinghoffer writes, "[M]y own reading of the Bible suggests that to the institution of such reforms at this moment, God Himself -- if we picture Him first as a Supreme Court justice casting the deciding vote and then as a persuasive member of the local school board -- would be indifferent" (p. 78). On abortion he writes (p. 66):

We are left with abortion as a moral outrage whenever it is committed, but a punishable offense, subject to criminal penalties, only from the fortieth day on. This would not sit well, it seems, with either the extreme pro-life or the extreme pro-choice forces.
He seems to go where he sees the evidence pointing, and that sometimes takes him to a fairly moderate position, the book's subtitle notwithstanding. However, it must be mentioned that Klinghoffer is neither a biblical nor talmudic scholar. He knows his basic material fairly well but I disagree with many nuances and details in his presentation. For example, regarding the quote above about abortion before the fortieth day from conception, I hardly think that it is fair to call it a "moral outrage".

I found other readings of his to be enlightening. In extracting the ethos of immigration from the laws of a ger toshav (resident alien), Klinghoffer explains that "scriptural tradition expects that any immigrant, any ger, will meet demanding criteria -- basically, moral criteria" (p. 186). In other words, we should require that immigrants follow a basic set of social rules (although he considers idolatry to be a moral issue, which I find questionable).

However, I also found some of his analyses wanting. In his chapter on poverty, he argues that help for the poor has to come from individuals and not a collective government: "I can find nowhere in Scripture where the state is commanded to extend generosity to the impoverished" (p. 89). Be that as it may, what about the hundreds if not thousands of years during which Jewish communities supported their local poor as collectives. Does not the Talmud speak about this, as well as centuries of rabbinic literature? They were all basing themselves on the same biblical values that Klinghoffer is trying to identify.

Overall, I disagree with many of Klinghoffer's conclusions and the resulting political views but I found the book to be well written and very thought provoking.

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