|Jewish tradition: Lessons for governing secular society?|
|Friday, 24 December 2010 18:11|
Governments and individuals may both be obligated
With this column, “Not Alone,” I have aimed from time to time to explore the ways we are connected, whether as Rhode Islanders, as Americans, as Jews or as human beings. Myself, I often return to the ethical and political questions of individualism and community.
From synagogue, I have a good friend who holds a set of political beliefs almost completely opposed to those I hold, and many of our political discussions center around the wisdom, propriety and ethics of government regulation and individual rights. For instance, are government efforts to provide healthcare or consumer protection truly beneficial, or are they fundamentally coercive? (And what if they are both?!)
But inasmuch as we are connected – as American citizens (and perhaps including non-citizens…) – do such connections obligate us in any sense? Does being part of a Jewish community obligate us to that community and its members? Does the very fact of our humanity entail any responsibilities?
The late French-Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, argued that the very existence of the other, of other beings, imposes moral obligations upon us. By contrast, the late Ayn Rand, another philosopher who was Jewish, proclaimed in the strongest language that we are individuals, that individualism is the highest of all values and that it is basically immoral to impose anything on anyone.
Jewish tradition and Jewish law certainly include and embrace both individual freedom and communal obligations – but what I wonder is this: What relevance do such laws and values have for us today, in early 21st century America and for our secular political world?
For example, Jewish law specifies that the community can compel its members to contribute to build a mikveh, a ritual bath. Also, we are obligated to bury our dead. And we have various obligations to care for those in need, whether leaving the corners of fields or returning money.
Can we learn any secular lessons from this? Perhaps that good societies and good governments should act likewise? Or, do we learn no lessons and instead conclude that these are matters for volunteer organizations and irrelevant to the mandate and proper role of secular government?
On the one hand, can a traditional Jewish perspective tolerate a society, a wealthy one, where millions of individuals go without health insurance and without access to basic healthcare? On the other hand, does a traditional Jewish perspective suggest that we ought to trust government officials more than individuals to spend money wisely in securing access to healthcare or in other areas?
And what if government intervention works? What if, for example, universal healthcare improved quality and decreased costs and saved lives? Would this be worth the sacrifice of some freedom? Is there any analogy to laws restricting smoking (on airplanes, say), insomuch as secondhand smoke harms non-smokers? Also there, do we not sacrifice some freedom for a benefit in preserving health and lives?
And what of government regulation? Of protecting the water supply? Or of preventing and punishing consumer fraud?
What if a libertarian society, with a maximal emphasis on individual freedom, would lead to chaos, to an increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor? What if the free market leads to monopolization rather than sustained competition, or to companies sacrificing health and safety for a quick profit?
I used to be something of a libertarian and a fan of Ayn Rand. But at a certain point I became uncertain why individual rights have any stronger philosophical or moral foundation than the needs of the community.
From a secular orientation, I do not see why one or the other has a greater claim upon us. Why should the beliefs of Rand or her opponents compel us to agreement?
And yet, from a religious perspective, particularly from the perspective of Judaism and Jewish tradition and law, perhaps Rand was mistaken and Levinas correct – that the fact that we are, indeed, “Not Alone” binds us in a moral sense, and not only in a religious community but in a broader sense, as members of a secular polity and society?