Political Sins

Four years ago, my wife started attending the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, and I took a job at National Review. Politically, the people I worked with were quite different from the people my wife went to school with, and the contrast was instructive.

Though JTS trains rabbis for what is known as the Conservative movement of Judaism, its students tend to be left of center. As if that were not confusing enough, I found that the conservatives at National Review were more tolerant and open-minded than the liberals at JTS.

This was not because the conservatives were nicer people. Rather, as members of a political minority in New York, they were used to having their ideas challenged, and they never took it for granted that other people agreed with them. The liberals, by contrast, tended to assume that all decent, rational people would naturally share their views.

This year’s "High Holy Day message" from JTS illustrates that tendency. Featured in a full-page New York Times ad and in leaflets distributed at Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) services, it is ostensibly a religious message. But the political subtext is clear to anyone who does not share the authors’ assumptions.

The message describes six recent gun attacks by students at schools across the country. "WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?" the headline asks. JTS suggests seven possible answers, ranging from the obvious to the puzzling:

"The child who murders?" The only problem with this answer is the question mark, which suggests that perhaps murderers shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. (Under Jewish law, incidentally, almost all of these "children" would be considered adults.)

"The family that provides the weapons?" In some of these cases, gun owners acted negligently by failing to store their weapons securely. But it does not follow that parents who buy guns for their children are wrong to do so, provided the children are sufficiently mature and properly trained.

"The kids who don’t tell?" This is a reference to the students who expressed violent intentions before their attacks. The problem is that very few kids who talk tough actually follow through on their threats.

"The parents and teachers who ignore the warning signs?" Again, this assumes there is a reliable way to distinguish potential murderers from kids who are merely troubled or angry.

"The community that votes down funding for school counselors?" JTS’s faith in the power of guidance counselors is touching. But it hardly seems fair to blame someone for murder because he declines to forcibly take people’s money and give it to the employees of government-run schools.

"Responsible firearm owners who don’t protest the excesses of the gun lobby?" At least JTS acknowledges that "responsible firearm owners" exist. But it’s not clear what they’re supposed to be protesting. Has the National Rifle Association come out in favor of murder?

"People who don’t vote?" Let’s leave aside the fact that one person’s vote has no influence on an election. It is hard to imagine how voting for a particular candidate, even if the vote were decisive, could have any impact on the propensity of a 15-year-old in Oregon to murder his parents and then shoot 24 people in the school cafeteria.

The explicit point of this Yom Kippur message is that we are responsible not only for our own sins but also for the sins of others that we could have prevented; it quotes a passage from the Talmud (a compilation of Jewish law) to that effect. The implicit points include support for gun control, for higher spending on government schools, and for candidates who advocate both.

I suspect that most of the people who saw the message agreed with these positions and therefore did not perceive it as controversial. The reaction probably would have been quite different if JTS had tried to pin some of the blame for the murders on producers of violent movies and TV shows, or on working mothers who don’t spend enough time with their children.

The problem with couching political views in religious terms is the implication that God wants us to support certain policies or candidates and that failing to do so is a sin. Liberals often fault the religious right for that attitude, but it is no less divisive when it comes from the left, and it is especially dangerous when it comes from a muddleheaded middle.

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