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There is Nothing New Under the Sun: A Letter to Rabbi Avram Mlotek

There Is Nothing New Under The Sun: A Letter To Rabbi Avram Mlotek

On April 5th, Rabbi Avram Mlotek authored a piece for the Jewish Telegraph Agency, titled, “I’m an Orthodox rabbi who is going to start officiating LGBTQ weddings. Here’s why” (Mlotek, 2019).

The most compelling rationale for his departure from traditional orthodoxy is found in the concluding paragraph of his article: “We are long overdue for a new paradigm” (Mlotek, 2019, para. 18). Essentially, this sentence is the essence of the ideology of progressivism, originally known as “Meliorism” during the enlightenment (Kessler, 2018A).

There are two primary tenets that comprise the ideological components of Meliorism. The first tenet of Meliorism is a belief in the progress of human nature. We, in the present, are superior to previous generations. This superiority implies that the elements of the past- traditions, customs, language, laws, and norms, meaning enduring standards- are the dead-weight of yesteryear, and outdated ideas. Due to our superiority over the past, we, in the present, must destroy these old norms and create new norms in our image to suit new, modern Man. This belief has remained a hallmark of contemporary liberal ideology.

The counter argument to the first tenet of Meliorism is that human nature is constant (Kirk, 1989). We, in the present, are no different than our eldest of ancestors. We may be able to see further than our ancestors, but this is only because of the help of those who came before us who brought us to our current heights. To the conservatives, they believe that, “Real progress consists in the movement of mankind towards the understanding of norms, and towards conformity to norms” (Kirk, 1989, p. 20). Real progress is found not in the destruction of old norms, nor in the creation of new ones, but rather, in adherence to the old ones.

This constancy of the human condition, as observed by the book of Ecclesiastes, is immutable, unchanging for our ancestors, unchangeable in the present, and unchangeable in the future. As the scripture foretold us: “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. . . . What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (1:4, & 1:9). The constant nature of the human condition teaches that we, in the present, are not different, special, or new. Therefore, the human condition moves cyclically, and the present constantly repeats the past.

The second tenet of Meliorism is belief in the natural goodness of Man, corrupted by society (Melzer, 1990). Evil in the world comes not from within Man’s evil inclination and personal shortcomings, but rather, is introduced from without, via society. By reordering society- tinkering with laws, customs, traditions, languages, and norms- we can eradicate evil altogether, making people happy and healthy. This tenet, as well as the previous tenet, are largely the contributions of Jean Rousseau, the godfather and patron-saint of liberalism (Kessler, 2018A).

The manner in which Rousseau reached this conclusion was his invalidation of the doctrine of Original-Sin (Melzer, 1990). Original-Sin is a concept articulated by St. Augustine regarding one of the first biblical stories from the Torah, the story of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Due to their first sin, we are all vicariously sinners, and we are all subsequently imperfect and flawed beings due to their actions.  As Jews, we do not believe in Original-Sin on a semantic level, but we certainly believe in the validity and truth of the Torah. Orthodox Jews read this story from the Torah literally and believe with reverence that the event occurred as written.

By invalidating Original-Sin, Rousseau was able to transfer the source of problems in the world from the breast of the individual to society. This is how Rousseau validated his attempts to change the human condition (Kessler, 2018A). Because evil comes from without and not from within, the human condition is now perfectible, and we can return to an Eden like utopia on Earth, in the present. This is what Rousseau meant when he pontificated that, “One who dares to undertake the founding of a people should feel that he is capable of changing human nature . . . of transforming each individual” (Rousseau, 1762). With this mindset, nothing is out of reach for Man to alter, nor is there is anything we cannot fix or improve, so long as we will it.

The counter argument to this second tenet is that evil comes from within Man’s nature, and not externally. The problems of the world come from our own evil inclinations, and are not introduced from without, via society. This aligns congruently with both the beginning of the book of Genesis, as well as what Ben Zoma said generations ago in, Ethics of our fathers: “Who is strong? He who conquers his evil inclination” (Torah.org, 2018). Evil is sewn into the very fabric of the human condition. No amount of progressive society fixing can change the nature of Man. No amount of societal tinkering can change what G-D dictated to us during the world’s creation and its’ unfolding.

These two tenets are the essence of the philosophical presumptions guiding Mlotek’s views, and the prevailing counter-arguments likely made against him. Mlotek feels that, “We are long overdue for a new paradigm” (2019, para. 18). Mlotek believes in the progressive nature of the human condition, and that by his alterations, we can balance the world and eradicate some of the existing Jewish societal inequities. He believes that excluding homosexuals from the Jewish community is, “a painful reminder that LGBTQ Jews still lack the ability to fully participate as equals in all facets of Orthodox life” (Mlotek, 2019,u para. 11).

Unfortunately for Mlotek, he forgets the lesson of Ecclesiastes: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9). Because of the constancy of human nature, the human condition moves cyclically. The present constantly repeats the past. We are seeing a conversation that took places many years ago between Edmund Burke, the first conservative, and Rousseau, the first liberal, happening again before our eyes.

The Enlightenment was known as, “the age of reason” (Levin, 2000). At this time, people began looking inwards towards their feelings and using these feelings as the basis for facts and social policy, replacing custom, tradition, and prescription (Kessler, 2018B). Edmund Burke understood traditions and customs as the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors. It represented the totality of the human condition, and no one person could ever possess sufficient mental capital to look within and and decide that he knew best at the expense of the wisdom of our ancestors.

For those unaware of what makes Edmund Burke relevant and his legacy so enduring, I offer the following excerpt, where Burke’s oratory brilliance is on full display:

“Because a nation is not an idea only of local extent, and individual momentary aggregation, but it is an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers, and in space. And this is a choice not of one day, or one set of people, not a tumultuary and giddy choice; it is a deliberate election of ages and of generations; it is a Constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice, it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time. It is a vestment, which accommodates itself to the body.” (1782)

Burke’s speech related to political decisions, but the concept remains applicable and appropriate in the current context. He concluded, pithy as ever:

“for man is a most unwise, and a most wise, being. The individual is foolish. The multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species it almost always acts right.” (1782)

The individual is foolish, but the species is wise. When we look inward, we are only using our own personal discretion and capital. When we look towards tradition, customs, and the wisdom of our ancestors, we are using a wisdom that is infinitely greater than any amount of capital a single individual could ever hope to possess.

This line of thinking where one looks inward at the expense of tradition is visible in Mlotek’s rationale for his position: “But I also believe that the Torah does not want human beings to live alone, and supports a covenantal relationship between parties as they build a faithful Jewish home” (2019, para. 8). Mlotek is looking inward and making a judgement based on his personal feelings. Essentially, he is doing exactly what Burke feared years ago:

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages. (1790, para. 145)

Mlotek means well, and I truly believe his motives are compassion and love for his fellow Jew. The quote below illustrate this position. Mlotek’s words clearly portray feelings of compassion:

“I know that Judaism has, for thousands of years, had a rich understanding of the diversity of gender identities. I know that the Torah affirms the God-endowed dignity of all human beings. . . . The onus of responsibility now rests upon those of us in religious leadership positions: to continue to make space, validate, humanize, empathize and support those who have long felt suppressed by our traditions, and not the aggrieved parties themselves.” (2019, paras. 8-10)

Looking inward, giving in to our feelings, and following our impulses is a hallmark of liberal ideology, predicated on the natural goodness of Man. Rousseau’s natural goodness of Man meant that one only needs to, “give myself to the impression of the moment without resistance and [even] without scruple; for I am perfectly sure that my heart loves only that which is good” (Rousseau, as quoted by Ryn, 1978). Rousseau argued that, “Only the wicked person wants evil and premeditates it, the wicked person alone will be punished” (Rousseau, as quoted by Blum, 1986). Man is naturally good, and therefore, no one person would do anything intentionally evil. Our only requirement as a society is look inward and follow our feelings, which again, are naturally benevolent.

By digging a little deeper into Rousseau’s ideology, we are better able to extrapolate the basis of his belief in the natural goodness of Man, and how that relates to Mlotek’s belief in looking inwards and following our feelings. Rousseau believed in a fictitious “state of nature.” This was a pre-civil society where human beings lived, among other things, free of the opinions and judgments of others (Rousseau, 1750). Rousseau lived his life fearing the judgments and opinions of others and wanted to rid our lives of their potential negativity. Read his account of what the judgments and opinions of others does to the psyche of Man:

One does not dare to appear as what one is. And in this perpetual constraint, men who make up this herd we call society, placed in the same circumstances, will all do the same things, unless more powerful motives prevent them. Thus, one will never know well the person one is dealing with. (1750)

Rousseau wanted to look within, follow his impulses, and free himself from judgment. This is the source of Rousseau’s desire to live “authentically,” or “sincerely.” As Arthur Melzer, a scholar of Rousseau, commented on this premise: Rousseau credited “the good as being oneself regardless of what one may be.” Simply be yourself and, “let go and stop trying. . . . I truly find myself when, rejecting all strenuous talk about my higher self, and liberated from shame and guilt, I just freely observe and sincerely acknowledge all that goes on within my soul” (Melzer, 1995).

This is the source of the liberal moral foundation of autonomy, or the ability to be free and choose for ourselves, freed from the constraints of society (Haidt, 2013). The conservative counterpunch to autonomy is authority, meaning normative restraint (Haidt, 2013). To the conservative, the fundamental principle of conservatism is restraint, also known as temperance (Meuller, 1997). This is predicated on the fallen nature of Man, and the belief that Man’s nature is savage and beastly. This savage nature of Man necessitates restraints, for when the restraints on Man’s unruly passions and appetites are removed, they run amok (Meuller, 1997).

Burke understood this notion generations ago as well. He knew that, “Our physical well-being, our moral worth, our social happiness, our political tranquillity, all depend on that controul of all our appetites and passions, which the ancients designed by the cardinal virtue of Temperance” (1796). Our well-being, collective, individual, and societal, are tied to Man’s ability to control his unruly passions and appetites. This notion, that self-control is the key to our success, has been corroborated by a longitudinal study performed at Stanford University called, “The marshmallow test: Mastering self-control” (Mischell, 2014).

To conclude, Mlotek checks all the liberal philosophical moral foundations: Autonomy, the belief in progress of human nature, the belief that we need to use our feelings as facts, and the natural goodness of Man, corrupted by society. This leads us to ask the question as to whether these values have a place in traditional orthodox Judaism? We are not asking whether these liberal values have a place in our personal, secular, or political lives, but specifically, if they have a place in traditional Orthodox Judaism?

Is it likely that orthodox Judaism, a religion roughly a few thousand years old, adheres to the principles of the 1700’s, Rousseau, and the other Meliorists who followed him? Is it likely that these liberal values, which are in many ways predicated on invalidating one of the first stories in the book of Genesis, conform to Orthodox Juadism? Is it likely that Judaism, which has 613 commandments, 365 of which are negative commandments that place restraints in our lives, values liberal autonomy? Is it likely that Judaism values a belief that we can try to make everyone happy?

Remember, the name Israel, when translated to English, means struggle. Why? Why is the name of the Jewish people the word, “struggle?” Because life is a struggle. The history of the Jewish people is one struggle after another. This is exactly what Edmund Burke understood of life and the human condition. Burke knew the human condition was tragic, and that no amount of tinkering by Man could ever truly eradicate that tragic nature:

“I have sometimes been in a good deal more than Doubt, whether the Creator did ever really intend Man for a State of Happiness. He has mixed in his Cup a Number of natural Evils . . . and every Endeavor which the Art and Policy of Mankind has used from the Beginning of the World to this Day, in order to alleviate, or cure them, has only served to introduce new Mischiefs, or to aggravate and inflame the old.” (Burke, 1756, para. 3).

This is the nature of the human condition: Tragic, brutal, and savage. This savage and beastly nature of Man necessitates restraints, for when these restraints are removed from our lives, the beastly nature of Man runs amok. This is the point of all the negative commandments from the Torah: They act as restraints on our savage nature and channel us to walk the, “Mesillat Yesharim,” or the path of the just.

The liberal-progressives like Mlotek believe that we, in the present, are superior to previous generations. We, in the present, necessitate new norms for new, modern Man.

Unfortunately for the liberal progressives, real progress consists not in the creation of new norms, but rather, in adherence to the old ones (Kirk, 1989). In the book of Leviticus, the Torah explicitly tells us that homosexuality is forbidden. The point here is not to bash homosexuals and criticize their lifestyles, but rather to acknowledge a simple and basic premise in this discussion: That there is nothing new under the sun. This is not a new concept, nor is it novel; this was an issue when we originally received the Torah at  Mt. Sinai.

The Torah is as relevant today as it was when Moses received it for us atop Mt. Sinai. The knowledge bequeathed to us by G-D, to Moshe, and the direct lineage from our ancestors to us in the present is just as valuable, relevant, and important today as it was then, and will remain as important to our children and grandchildren in the future. The human condition is constant, and no amount of societal tinkering will alter what is constant in nature. Mlotek, while well-meaning in this matter, is misguided. We must always remember that the human condition is constant, and that there is nothing new under the sun.

 

References

Blum, C. (1986). Rousseau and the republic of Virtue: The language of politics in the French Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Burke, E. (1756). The vindication of natural society. Retrieved from: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/burke-a-vindication-of-natural-society

Burke, E. (1790). Reflections on the revolution in France. Retrieved from: https://www.bartleby.com/24/3/6.html

Burke, E. (1796). Letters on a regicide peace. Retrieved from: https://people.ok.ubc.ca/ggrinnel/ROM/Terror_htm_files/Letters%20on%20a%20Regicide%20Peace.pdf

Burke, E. (1782). Speech on the Reform of the Representation of the Commons in Parliament. Retrieved from: https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/burke-select-works-of-edmund-burke-vol-4/simple

Haidt, J. (2013). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

Kessler, S. (2018A). An ‘ever better’ constitution? Progressivism as ideology and the U.S. Constitution. The VoegelinView.com. Retrieved from: https://voegelinview.com/an-ever-better-constitution-progressivism-as-ideology-and-the-u-s-constitution/

Kessler, S. (2018). When feelings became facts: Rousseau, Burke, and the origins of today’s outrage culture. The Imaginative Conservative. Retrieved from: https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2018/07/feelings-facts-rousseau-burke-outrage-culture-steven-kessler.html

Kirk, R. (1989). The enemies of the permanent things. Peru, IL: Sherwood, Sugden & Company.

Levin, Y. (2000). The tyranny of reason: The origins and consequences of the social scientific outlook. New York, NY: UPA.

Melzer, A. (1995). Rousseau and the modern cult of sincerity. The Harvard Review of Philosophy, Spring ‘95.

Melzer, A. (1990). The natural goodness of men: On the system of Rousseau’s thought. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

Meuller, J. (1997). Conservatism: An anthology of social and political thought from David Hume to the Present. Princeton, NJ: Princeton, New Jersey.

Mlotek, A. (2019, April 5). I’m an Orthodox rabbi who is going to start officiating LGBTQ weddings. Here’s why. Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Retrieved from: https://www.jta.org/2019/04/05/opinion/im-an-orthodox-rabbi-who-is-going-to-start-officiating-lgbtq-weddings-heres-why

Rousseau, J. (1753).  Discourse on the origins of inequality. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

Rousseau, J. (1750). Discourse on the arts and sciences. Retrieved from: https://www.stmarys-ca.edu/sites/default/files/attachments/files/arts.pdf

Rousseau, J. (1762C). The social contract. Retrieved from https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/rousseau1762.pdf

Ryn, C. (1978). Democracy and the ethical life: A philosophy of politics and community. Shreveport, LI: Louisiana State University.

Torah.org. (2018). Pirkei Avot. Torah.org. Retrieved from: https://torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos-chapter4-1a/

Steven Kessler

Steven Kessler received his Ed.D. from the University of Rochester in Higher Education Administration. He is the Edmund Burke Society Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. He has published in places like "The Conservative," "The European Conservative," "The Imaginative Conservative," and "The Journal of Liberal Arts and Sciences."

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