Some 20 years ago, I was putting my older son, then about 8 years old, to bed and asked him what he learned that day in school. Normally he would answer, as boys usually do, “Nothing.” But that night, he had an answer.
“I learned I have a yetzer hara,” he told me. As a student at a religious Jewish school, he was using the Hebrew term for the desire to do what is wrong. It is basic Jewish theology that the human being has two innate drives — one for good (yetzer hatov) and one for bad (yetzer hara) — and that we have to battle our yetzer hara throughout life.
This is a significant way in which the Torah’s value system differs from that of the dominant secular and liberal value system. The latter’s primary emphasis is on battling society — to promote “social justice” — not on battling the self.
Of course, the Torah also seeks to create a just society. But that is not the same as what the left refers to as “social justice.” While justice is central to the Torah, there is no term “social justice.” In the Torah and the Prophets, there is only “justice” (tzedek or tzedakah). When you add a modifier to “justice,” you modify its meaning — deliberately, because you obviously find the term “justice” insufficient.
“Social justice” usually means social equality, which is not the same as justice. And it means, more than anything, using the state to redistribute wealth so that equality can be achieved. That, too, is not the same as justice.
Moreover, placing social equality above other values has led to terrible moral distortions.
While I suspect that few liberal readers of this column have expressed affection for Fidel Castro, many of the most prominent liberal leaders of the last 50 years have. Norman Mailer, the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Robert Redford, Ted Turner, Steven Spielberg and Jesse Jackson, among many others, have visited Cuba and spoken glowingly of Castro. Why? Because, though he was a totalitarian tyrant, though there is no freedom in Cuba and though he destroyed that country’s economy, Castro advocated social equality.
Similarly, by valuing social justice over personal integrity, the most prominent American artist of the second half of the 20th century, Leonard Bernstein, and almost every leading cultural figure in New York City felt morally progressive in hosting fundraisers in their homes for the Black Panthers. That the Panthers were a violent group of racists who announced — at these very fundraisers — that killing “pigs,” their term for police, was noble in no way disturbed Bernstein and his friends. What mattered was their social justice ideal of opposing white racism.
This preoccupation with equality and fairness over justice is also why the left believes that courts should be far more than umpires of justice: They believe the courts should promote equality and fairness.
The Torah has a different view of the role of courts. “Do not favor the poor in judgment” is a Torah law — because courts are not set up to promote fairness and equality, but only to administer justice. In our personal lives, we should all promote fairness, but the moment that becomes the goal of courts, justice becomes, in the Torah’s description, “perverted.”
Judaism believes that the road to a just society is paved by individual character development. The greatest difference between my yeshiva education and secular education since the 1960s is that I was taught the biggest moral challenge in my life was ... me. To make a better world, first I had to fight my flawed nature, not American society. Young people receiving an education rooted in liberal-left values — which means virtually all education today, from elementary school through graduate school — are taught that to be a good person they have to fight American society with its alleged rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, bigotry, xenophobia and despoilment of the environment.
The results of teaching tikkun olam (repairing the world) before tikkun atzmi (repairing the self) are sadly apparent. More young people cheat on tests than ever before, more steal, more show disrespect to parents and teachers, fewer think marriage is an ideal to aspire to, and so on. The State of Maryland has just passed a law that in order to receive a high school diploma, students must be proficient in environmentalism. I suspect almost none of Maryland’s high school students will graduate with the ability to name the Ten Commandments. But they will be able to cite 10 advantages of wind power.
Let me state, as I do in every column on political/social subjects, that I readily acknowledge that there are wonderful individuals with liberal-left values, and that there are awful religious and conservative individuals who have made little effort to repair their characters. But American society will not be repaired if people are taught to fight American society rather than themselves. On the contrary, it will become a worse society.