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The Evangelicalization of Orthodoxy

Republican partisanship is becoming expected of the Orthodox—the way it’s expected of evangelical Christians

by
Joshua Shanes
October 12, 2020
Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
‘Trump is a gift to the United States in the field of economics, and of course, to Israel.’ —Shlomo RiskinLior Mizrahi/Getty Images
Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
‘Trump is a gift to the United States in the field of economics, and of course, to Israel.’ —Shlomo RiskinLior Mizrahi/Getty Images

Last December, I was talking with Rabbi Irving Greenberg—a titan of progressive Orthodoxy and humanist ideals for over half a century—when he shocked me by saying Jews owe President Donald Trump “hakarat hatov,” gratitude for his kindness to the Jewish people. A few weeks later, he published a statement favoring Trump’s “peace plan,” dismissing objections as knee-jerk anti-Trump sentiment. Once on the left fringe of Orthodoxy on the Palestinian issue, Greenberg now seems to view Palestinians as solely to blame for the current situation, and their reduction to a rump territory devoid of sovereignty as just punishment for refusing earlier offers. When asked if he planned to vote for Trump, Greenberg replied, “The right to a secret ballot and privacy in voting is a fundament of democracy, so I won’t answer that question.”

As somebody once in the progressive wing of Orthodoxy, who now refuses to use his clout to fight Trump, Greenberg is not alone. One of the leaders of “progressive” Orthodoxy in Israel is Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who along with Greenberg is among the most famous modern Orthodox rabbis of the past half century. Riskin, the chief rabbi and architect of the West Bank settlement of Efrat, fights the good fight on questions of gender and acceptance of less religious Jews. Yet he celebrated Trump’s election as “a victory for the common American.” “People felt he spoke the truth,” he added. “Trump is a gift to the United States in the field of economics, and of course, to Israel.”

It would be too much to say that Orthodox Jews are uniformly pro-Trump—we aren’t, of course. Indeed, although exact polling is contested, at least a large minority and possibly a bare majority of Orthodox Jews actually voted for Clinton. Nevertheless, whatever our voting patterns four years ago, affection for Trump almost seems to be expected among Orthodox Jews. Most Haredi communities were already voting deeply red in 2016, but now support for Trump, and the excusing of his deeply immoral behavior and other shortcomings, have grown typical of modern Orthodox communities as well. The trend toward voting more Republican was several decades old, but there is something new afoot: a cultural norm, in some synagogues an expectation, that anyone with common sense is a Trump supporter.

This is dismaying to me, as one who has lived as an observant Jew for some 30 years, first in Chabad (here and in Israel) and now in the modern Orthodox world. My community has long claimed religious values as a centerpiece of their political worldview. Yet, when offered a candidate who seemingly represented the opposite of every one of their values—marital fidelity, worship attendance, faith, character, personal decency, care for the indigent and distressed—many rushed to his side, excusing every flaw. To be sure, there are Orthodox synagogues where the Trump-skeptical are welcome, and even predominate. In New York, and in liberal college towns, you can find them. But it’s telling that in Greater Chicago, where I live, there are dozens of Orthodox synagogues, and I have found only one—mine—to be a comfortable place for a Biden supporter, let alone someone with progressive ideas about Israel/Palestine.

Across the country, I fear my experience is typical. Indeed, it feels to me like what we are seeing is the evangelicalization of Orthodox Judaism—at a time when evangelicalism is more about an idolatrous nationalism than about Jesus Christ. It’s a dangerous path for Jews to follow, not least because it’s profoundly anti-Jewish.

First, it’s important to understand how Orthodoxy is becoming more internally united. Scholars broadly distinguish between the modern Orthodox, who are generally acculturated, socially integrated and Zionist, and the ultra-Orthodox or Haredim (including Hasidim), who tend to segregate themselves from outside culture and society and have historically opposed Zionism. But recent scholarship by Samuel Heilman, Adam Ferziger, and others, has demonstrated that these divisions are collapsing, as modern Orthodoxy “slides to the right” (in Heilman’s words) and ultra-Orthodoxy more confidently engages with broader society.

But more important, both camps of Orthodoxy have followed parts of evangelical Christianity in coalescing around an ethnonationalist identity, one that views the political right and its ultranationalist worldview, in America and in Israel, as a religious foundation united against the threat of the cultural left. For these swaths of the Orthodox world, support for Trump and the right generally is no longer a political choice separate from Torah. For many, Orthodoxy has fused with a Christianity that is now less a faith tradition than a nationalist civil religion, deeply connected with the Republican Party in general and now Donald Trump in particular.

What do I mean by “civil religion”? In 1967, sociologist Robert Bellah published his pathbreaking essay “Civil Religion in America.” The argument was compelling. Traditional religion forged community through the defining of boundaries, sacred narratives of the past and destined future, holy dates, holy places, holy ideals, and rituals intended to realize those ideals. Nationalism—the ideology that nations exist and that one’s own nation demands primary allegiance over all other identities—offers most of these sacred truths as well.

Bellah’s student Robert Wuthnow developed this idea further, describing two competing civil religions in America, one conservative—grounded in a “myth of origin,” “Judeo-Christian” values, capitalism, manifest destiny and chauvinism—and one liberal, grounded in secular humanism and voices of the prophets seeking global peace and justice. Both scholars distinguished between the official churches and this “well-institutionalized civil religion of America existing alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from them.” But, as Jose Santiago put it, “when the civil religion of nation and the civil religion of humanity stopped being as intimately united as [Emile] Durkheim claimed, the idea of nationalism as the religion of modern times was born.”

What we are seeing is the evangelicalization of Orthodox Judaism—at a time when evangelicalism is more about an idolatrous nationalism than about Jesus Christ.

This is precisely what has happened in the United States. A sizable camp of white evangelicalism (Black evangelicals are overwhelmingly Democratic), a religion based on personal salvation through Christ and biblical obedience, has become as well a political theology defending white, Christian America against its perceived enemies, internal and external. Today, its battle against the competing civic nationalism of secularism and equality includes opposition to LGBTQ equality (under the guise of “religious freedom”) and support for unfettered capitalism, gun rights, highly restricted immigration, the Israeli right, and strict opposition to abortion access. As Trump promised Iowa Republicans in the early days of the 2016 election, “Christians will have power.”

Over the past several decades, Orthodoxy has been transformed by this ethnonationalist conservative Americanism as part of its religious worldview as well. The alliance has a certain logic, given that many right-wing evangelicals are reliable supporters of the Israeli right, and there are no more fervent Zionists than their Christian politicians. But this coalition is now about much more than Israel. To take one example, look at a short video by Chovevei Zion, a religio-political group connected (until recently) with Young Israel, the modern Orthodox group. It opens with reference to Judea and Samaria, indicating its goal to defend Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but quickly pivots to ground all of Western civilization in the Jews: “London, Rome, Athens all have their start in Jerusalem.” What values did ancient Jews bequeath? “Nationalism is an ideal. Capitalism is good. Property rights are to be honored and protected. All life is sacred, even those of the unborn. That one has the right to defend themselves, their family, their country and their religion.” We see images of large estates, then a pregnant woman, followed by camouflaged soldiers firing weapons.

These are neither ancient nor modern Jewish values. These are the values of the conservative civil religion of Americanism. Orthodox Jews have no history defending gun rights, for example, nor do they traditionally glorify large estates or capitalism, in some iteration of the Protestant prosperity gospel. The actual heritage of Judaism—ethical monotheism and ritual commandments—is totally eclipsed here.

The extent to which these new values have trumped Jewish values, such as care for the destitute or support for immigration, is evident in how Orthodox organizations choose to spend their political capital. Since Trump’s election, leading American Orthodox organizations—the Orthodox Union (OU), the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), Young Israel, Agudath Israel, and others—have collectively published several dozen statements in response to national news, nearly all of them full of praise for Trump, almost none of them criticizing him. For example, Orthodox groups issued statements celebrating the withdrawal from the Iran deal and support for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but you would be hard pressed to find them ever criticizing him—not on cuts to the CHIP program, not on Stephen Miller’s overt white nationalism, and not on Trump’s accusation that Jews who refused to support him were “disloyal.”

There were exceptions, as when the RCA, after the Charlottesville riots and Trump’s both-sides-ism, reminded the president that failing “to unequivocally reject hatred and bias is a failing of moral leadership and fans the flames of intolerance and chauvinism.” And it’s true that in Young Israel there has been vocal internal dissent about this right-wing turn. And one can reasonably object that the average Orthodox Jew has no interest in what some national organizations have to say about politics. But these statements matter, as they represent the bounds of permissible discourse, and they do reflect the general concerns of rabbis, who have to listen to the members.

And that discourse has changed, in ways recognizable to those who follow trends in evangelical Christianity. Fifty years ago, many Orthodox Jews would have had no position on abortion; it wasn’t a widely discussed topic. Today, there is growing Orthodox opposition to abortion rights—even as Jewish law permits and even mandates abortion in certain cases. Historically, the RCA and OU always insisted that abortion was a question for individuals, not the government, to decide for themselves. By 2019, by contrast, the RCA and the Agudath both opposed a liberalization of abortion access in New York, ascribing personhood to fetuses and, in one statement, describing abortion as homicide.

This shift is easy to understand as part of the evangelicalization of Orthodoxy, as Orthodox work to solidify an alliance with the Christian right. In 2019, Young Israel hosted an array of Trump surrogates at its annual dinner, including evangelical politician Mike Huckabee (and the infamous Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, both Jews, and both now under federal indictment). They celebrated Trump’s presidency, distributed MAGA gear and offered speeches to rally the crowd to his reelection campaign. “President Trump is the most benevolent leader the Jewish people have ever known in their 2,000 years in their diaspora, believe me,” Yechezkel Moskowitz, the dinner chairman, told the cheering crowd. A year earlier, the Orthodox Union bestowed an award upon then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions, at the time separating children from their parents at the southern border to discourage immigration. A tolerance for anti-immigration zealotry—a feature of the new American conservative religion—is a remarkable adaptation for Orthodox Jews, in light of our history as refugees.

The Orthodox press likewise reflects this new evangelical orientation. For example, the Orthodox weekly Jewish Vues, distributed throughout New York, asks Orthodox Jewish men a “fun question for the week.” In one recent issue, it asks readers to rank their favorite thing about President Trump—but only one! In another, they ask a leading question, “Are you a supporter of the right to bear arms?” Naturally, there is widespread support for gun access, a part of the new civil religion. In a photo gallery accompanying the poll, the first photo displayed, ahead of many prominent Orthodox Jews, is of Mike Huckabee—an honorary “kosher” member of a community increasingly defined by assimilation into this right-wing civil religion. Other Orthodox papers—from 5TJT (Five Towns Jewish Times) to Mishpacha magazine and the Jewish Press (whose editor called the gay rights movement “evil” and argued that Africans benefited from the slave trade because Christianity replaced their “primitive” religions)—assume the same perspective.

How did the political commitments of one tradition, the civic religion of right-wing American nationalism and evangelicalism, gain so much influence in another, American Orthodoxy?

One cause of this transformation is certainly technological: the impact of talk radio. As scholars like Brian Rosenwald have shown, right-wing talk radio has been a powerful force in transforming both the Republican base and its leadership over the past three decades. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Dennis Prager, and Ben Shapiro all have followings among the Orthodox, as they do among evangelicals, particularly because they can be played in the car and seem kosher even to families that ban television and internet. In addition, there are specifically Orthodox voices pushing this ethnonationalist religion within the community, chief among them Avigdor Miller, who defended slavery as an ennobling institution that should not have been abolished, and preached that liberalism was a moral evil opposed by the Torah. (A typical Miller quotation, in this case about Harvey Milk: “A decent gentile got up and shot him because of his spreading homosexuality.”)

Orthodoxy—particularly ultra-Orthodoxy—is also naturally inclined toward some of these values. For example, it is a highly gendered often patriarchal society that would naturally be inclined to support a political theology that suggested male power. Equally, its rejection of gay partnerships would attract it to a movement fighting LGBT rights, particularly as Orthodoxy has grown more concerned about the encroachment of these values into its own camp. The Haredi suspicion, if not at times outright rejection, of secular science dovetails with support for Trump, while Christian Zionism makes evangelicalism an appealing bedfellow (except for those ultra-Orthodox who remain anti-Zionist).

There is historical precedent for this, although not in America. We can see similar alliances in 19th- and early-20th-century Europe, where Orthodox communities in Germany, Galicia, Poland, and Russia aligned with rightist nationalist movements against the secular socialist left. For some of these communities, the danger of communism, with its mandate to erase ethnic difference and undermine religion, seemed more threatening than hypernationalism or fascism.

Now, some want to explain the current religio-political transformation as connected with economics. Eliyahu Sternhas argued, for example, that the high cost of modern Orthodox life has facilitated the community’s swing to the right. Economic and ideological motivations can also overlap, such as with the endless struggle for private-school tuition vouchers, a cornerstone of the conservative civil religion. That said, the economic argument only goes so far. Aside from the fact that non-Orthodox Jews are not poorer than their Orthodox counterparts—and that poorer Haredim were even more likely to vote for Trump than their wealthier counterparts—people vote and act against their economic interest all the time. Many studies since 2016 have documented that race and gender anxieties were the most consistent markers of pro-Trump voting patterns in 2016.

To ignore Trump’s white nationalist politics is to repeat the mistake of Marxists a century ago, who confidently predicted no world war could break out because socialists would prevent it. Nationalism cannot be reduced merely to economic motivations. Economics and materialism are just two threads in the rich tapestry of identity, and we cannot focus simply on those two without examining the broader cultural context of race and nationalism. And here, evidence of Orthodoxy’s embrace of the civil religion of the evangelical right—currently focused on the president—is widespread.

This American civil religion includes adulation of Trump and his MAGA symbology—an example of avodah zarah, idol worship, which is expressly forbidden to Jews. It constitutes a common article of faith for evangelicals and the Orthodox who have united with them. Meanwhile, Haredi Jews who were once anti-Zionist, or non-Zionist, have united with evangelicals and the modern Orthodox to support a territorial maximalism in Israel. It’s at this juncture that we find Orthodox Jews becoming fellow travelers of men like the evangelical John Hagee, of Christians United for Israel, no matter that Hagee also traffics in anti-Semitic mythology.

But it did not have to be this way. Not only Judaism writ large, but Orthodoxy specifically, has a rich tradition of devotion to social justice, on which it could have built a different community, a variety of other paths it could have taken. There were Orthodox antiwar protests in the 1960s (Irving Greenberg himself testified in Congress against Vietnam), Orthodox Jews who marched for civil rights, Orthodox environmental movements, support for immigrant rights, and more. Benny Kraut—a veteran of Greenberg’s long-defunct Yavne student organization—titled his history of the group The Greening of American Orthodoxy. In my own lifetime, the direction of Orthodox Judaism was an open question.

These traditions are not totally lost, even if some of our leaders seem to be. For example, the progressive Orthodox rabbinic group Torat Chayim issued a model statement of support for the racial justice movement this year, including specific actions they intend to undertake to combat systemic racism in America and within our own communities. I was likewise cheered by the small rebellion in the ranks of Young Israel in 2019 when 22 (out of 175) congregations signed a statement rebuking its leadership for supporting Netanyahu’s merger with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party. (The leadership refused to back down, and one congregation—Young Israel of Toco Hills in Atlanta—left the movement.)

And there are certainly shuls and independent minyanim that bend to the left, although they tend to be quieter and less political than the larger, more numerous, right-leaning shuls. This is why, perhaps, some of these lone voices have gathered in secret Facebook groups to lean on one another and organize a better future.

The fact is, progressive Orthodox Jews can feel isolated and even ostracized in their own communities. Except for the most confident, they may face a crisis of religious identity, namely the loaded meaning of being Orthodox in America in the age of Trump, the assumption of political beliefs (both from without and within) that comes with identifying as Orthodox. A pocket of us crave a Jewish community equally committed to the prophets and Halacha, a community committed to fighting racism and hate-mongering, committed to social policy that protects the vulnerable—because Judaism requires it of us—and also supports Sabbath and kashruth observance.

We seek a community that pushes for Joseph Soloveitchik’s conception of the Jewish hero, the “halakhic man” grounded in observance and guided by the pursuit of justice and righteousness. And we need all this without setting those values aside when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, and without replacing any of these pillars with the civic religion of chauvinist, exclusionary nationalism, a form of idolatry that elevates land and stones over people and God.

Orthodoxy should not need a foundation of right-wing politics to define itself. We have a world of Torah depth—notions of God’s presence, or at least daily prayer, study and mitzvot—on which to base our Jewish communities and identities. It is in these values—including in our commitment to social justice—that we can, and should, root ourselves and our future.

Editor’s Note: Earlier versions of this piece erroneously suggested that Rachel Kranson shared Eliyahu Stern’s thesis about the high price tag of Modern Orthodox life and implied that Chovevei Zion was still formally affiliated with Young Israel.

Joshua Shanes teaches Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston. He is currently writing a history of the word “Orthodoxy” from its German origins until today.

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