November 16, 2018

When values divide us

You know what annoys me? The term “Jewish values.” It’s one of those lazy expressions that buys you instant moral credibility. If you want to make a case for a Jewish program, or explain how you voted in the last election, just say it’s based on Jewish values, and, voilà, you have an airtight argument.

With the arrival of Donald Trump, this verbal staple of the liberal community has been working overtime. Trump’s immoral rants have made it a no-brainer for Democrats to exclaim: “I voted for Hillary Clinton because of my Jewish values!” The implication, of course, is that any Jew who voted for Trump must have checked his or her Jewish values at the door.

Indeed, if a core Jewish value is that we should care for the vulnerable, Trump’s offensive language against women, Muslims and minorities certainly violates Jewish values.

The thing is, though, there are many, many Jewish values. In fact, you can pick anything that sounds morally right and claim it’s a Jewish value. That’s the advantage of having centuries of talmudic debates recorded in minute detail. Give me a moral value and I’ll find you a Jewish source. Some values are so self-evident they don’t even need a source.

Take the Jewish value of honesty. I have friends who could never bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton because they considered her track record of mendacity and corruption to be off the charts. As long ago as 1996, the esteemed William Safire of The New York Times called her a “congenital liar.” If you want to better understand why so many people don’t trust politicians, just read the book “Clinton Cash.”

So, if you’re one of those Jews who values honesty above all, you might conclude that Clinton’s behavior was also against Jewish values. Like I said, anyone can play the values game.

Jewish liberals in particular often invoke values to express their politics. That may help explain why so many American Jews instinctively vote Democrat — they believe it’s the party of Jewish values. As Neal Gabler wrote recently in the Forward, “The stereotype of the bleeding heart liberal Jew is entirely accurate. It is practically inseparable from Jewishness.”

Gabler’s suggestion that liberal values are synonymous with Jewishness is problematic on many levels. For one thing, it’s narrow-minded. I can think of plenty of conservative values — such as the importance of taking personal responsibility — that can qualify as Jewish. Also, claiming a monopoly on Jewish values is divisive. It suggests you’re a member of an exclusive club.

What’s more, once you claim ownership of Jewish values, there’s little left to discuss. You own morality, you win the argument. This is a major reason we have such polarity and division in the Jewish community — so many issues are treated as open-and-shut cases because people feel they have morality on their side.

Values tend to be abstract and fungible. I can claim Jewish values to support or oppose pretty much any policy. Facts and results, on the other hand, are more clarifying, no matter which ideology you follow. For example, the value of welcoming Syrian refugees is important, but it is theoretical. What makes it concrete and operative is, among other things, a thorough vetting process that prevents ISIS terrorists from infiltrating — because security is also a crucial value.

If we say that values live in the air, then reality lives on the ground and God lives in the details.

Maybe because they sound so grand, values have a hypnotic effect. They elevate us. When we express our views through values, we don’t need as many facts. We feel invincible. We also become intolerant of other views: Since we have elevated ourselves into a position of moral superiority, we see no need to recognize the views of those we consider beneath us.

Communities are diminished when they can’t embrace sharp disagreements and difficult conversations. A thousand conversations probably never happened this year because someone began with, “How could you vote for him?” or “Where are your values?” Those are not questions, they’re conversation killers.

Values help us make moral choices, but that’s not enough. Without an appreciation for objective knowledge and an attitude of humility and empathy, we can easily slip into smugness and intolerance — which are definitely not Jewish values. You can look it up.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at