I just finished David Klinghoffer’s How Would God Vote: Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative (New York: Doubleday, 2008). David Klinghoffer is an orthodox Jew and a political conservative (as you can tell from the title).
I expected the book to be like much of what I’ve read by the religious right, with the same predictable Scriptures being used to support the same predictable conservative ideology (YAWN!). And I thought he’d be selective, in that he’d highlight the passages against abortion and homosexuality, while ignoring the ones on social justice.
And my expectations were not thoroughly thwarted. His chapter on poverty was a disappointment, except for his citation of U.S. Government statistics from 2001-2002 demonstrating that most poor people in America are not that bad off (e.g., they have food to eat, they live somewhere, they have cable TV and air-conditioning, etc.). I disliked it because he focused on passages that encourage private charity (Leviticus 25:35; Deuteronomy 15:11), while neglecting the ones in which God actually mandates Israelites to give to the needy. Israelite landowners had to leave the corners of their fields to the poor (Leviticus 23:22). God required the Israelites to give a tithe to the Levite, stranger, fatherless, and widow every three years (Deuteronomy 26:12). “How dare you tell me what to do with my own property!,” I can envision libertarians saying. The Torah wasn’t advocating cradle-to-grave, European-style socialism, but it wasn’t exactly promoting laissez–faire, either!
The chapter on health care is also disappointing, but at least it’s intriguing. He presents some decent secular arguments against the Canadian health care system, particularly when he quotes a “2005 ruling by Canada’s extremely liberal Supreme Court that Quebec could not constitutionally ban citizens from buying private insurance if, as is the case in Canada according to the country’s highest court, ‘the public system fails to deliver reasonable services'” (119-120). Amazing!
But his religious arguments against universal health care are, well, unique. He points out that the Talmud praises the righteous for valuing their wealth over their bodies (Chullin 91a), which he applies to the right of Americans not to purchase health insurance. He also treats a focus on health as a symptom of secularism, since it places a premium on happiness in this life. Judaism and Christianity, by contrast, hold that suffering can have spiritual value, and the Bible often presents disease as God’s punishment on sin. It also criticizes King Asa of Judah for seeking healing from physicians rather than God (II Chronicles 16:12). Before reading this book, I had never heard this sort of argument against universal health care. So is Klinghoffer a Christian scientist? What about the passages that discuss the medicinal value of the balm in Gilead (Jeremiah 8:22; 46:11)? And even Klinghoffer mentions Ezekiel 34:2, 4, which “lists among the failures of these rulers that ‘the frail you did not strengthen; the ill you did not cure; the broken you did not bind[,]'” but he doesn’t really engage it. The Bible obviously values health and happiness in this life, and it says that rulers have some responsibility to promote them.
But Klinghoffer is not predictable, for he doesn’t always toe the conservative party line. He defends reparations for African-Americans, since the Hebrew Bible emphasizes the importance of people-groups rather than extreme individualism. Because the Talmud prohibits Jews from selling weapons to idolaters (Avodah Zarah 15b), Klinghoffer supports some form of gun control, especially if society is immoral. He wants a prohibition on abortion, but only for unborn babies older than forty days (eighty days for females), as “Talmudic teaching regards the embryo through to its fortieth day as possessing no claim on personhood (Niddah 30a).” He also thinks that abstinence education and school prayer are not enough to stem the tide of immorality among America’s youth. As far as Klinghoffer is concerned, parents must teach their children, as the Bible commands.
I actually learned a lot from this book. For example, I’ve often heard liberal Jews argue that their tradition is critical of the death penalty, since the Talmud declares a court to be “destructive” if it executes a convict in seven years (Makkot 7a). But, as Klinghoffer points out, “What critics of capital punishment rarely point out is that these famous statements are then followed immediately with the view of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel, taken to be the authoritative view in the debate, that if the most effective view were followed and the death penalty effectively abolished, society would be awash in blood shed by unpunished murderers” (132). While Klinghoffer acknowledges that the Talmud sets a high standard for convictions (e.g., there must be witnesses to the crime, the offender had to be warned before he did his evil deed, etc.), he argues that this applies to the Sanhedrin. In the Mishneh Torah (Laws of Kings and Their Wars 3:10), however, Maimonides gives more latitude to kings to execute offenders, even if there aren’t warnings or witnesses.
On the issue of penalties, Klinghoffer is slightly inconsistent. In the chapter “Theocracy on Main Street?,” he tries to argue that he’s not proposing a theocracy in which America runs on biblical law, for the Hebrew Bible limits many of its laws to ancient Israel and the Messianic future. One can then ask why he wants to determine God’s stances on political issues if such is the case, but that’s another topic! What interests me is his next argument: he basically implies that, even if America imitated biblical law, things wouldn’t be so bad, since executions occurred rarely in ancient Israel (with all the witnesses and warnings that were required). Plus, because Israel had a king, its society contained a mixture of the secular and the religious, much like America. Klinghoffer seems to alternate between the lenient Sanhedrin and the strict king in his preference, depending on which model happens to suits him at the moment.
As an orthodox Jew, Klinghoffer interprets the Hebrew Bible in light of rabbinic sources, such as the Talmud and the Midrash, for he believes these contain ancient traditions of biblical interpretation. I myself would be hesitant to conflate the Hebrew Bible with rabbinic traditions, since the rabbis’ comments do not necessarily reflect the original intent of the biblical authors. So does Klinghoffer want to impose traditional Judaism on America? Not exactly, for he tries to be ecumenical, as his book is a wake-up call to all conservative people of faith, Christians included. As a result, he tackles such issues as the relationship between the Sermon on the Mount and war, arguing that the Sermon does not represent an endorsement of total pacifism. But there are also times when he critiques Christianity, as when he laments the New Testament’s departure from its Hebrew roots in its criticisms of wealth (103). Klinghoffer speaks from the standpoint of his own specific tradition, yet he also wants to apply a generalized “faith” to the public arena. Can he do both?
Here’s an interesting detail: You know how many liberals argue that traditional religion would not have opposed gay marriage, since it was against cheap homosexual sex rather than a committed, lifelong relationship between two partners? Well, Klinghoffer cites the midrashic work Sifre, in which the rabbis assert that the Canaanites allowed men to marry men, and women to marry women. As a result, the Canaanites were “vomited out” of their land (Leviticus 18:25). I guess some ancients could conceive of gay marriage, and they didn’t like the idea!
Klinghoffer does well to present a different way of looking at issues. Do we have anything to learn from Judaism and Christianity as we seek to create a just society? Or should we just stick with a narrow secularist framework in our attempt to solve our national problems? I think we should let religions have their say, as they put their ideas on the table.