Rabbi David Wolpe on leadership, religion, and identity

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Named one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of our time, Rabbi David Wolpe joins Tyler in a conversation on flawed leaders, Jewish identity in the modern world, the many portrayals of David, what’s missing in rabbinical training, playing chess on the Sabbath, Srugim, Hasidic philosophy, living in Israel and of course, the durability of creation.

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TYLER COWEN: Thank you all for coming. This is my chance to ask you the questions I want to learn about. So your latest book: it’s called, David: The Divided Heart. And the Book of Samuel is probably the greatest political biography of all time, one of the most significant books on politics. So I’d like to start with some questions there.


COWEN: In how you view that book, why is it that David, if indeed you believe this, was a better king than Saul?

Tyler’s research material

WOLPE: First of all, thank you for inviting me to [laughs] this grilling . . . dialogue. I do believe that David was a better king than Saul. The first test of a king in the ancient world is what David did that is remarkable, and that is, he died in his bed. That’s rare among ancient and medieval kings, as you know. And so survival in and of itself is a test of merit. Even not speaking about in divine eyes, but just in human eyes.

Also in some way, Saul seemed to have lost the confidence of the people. And while no contemporary analogies are intended in anything that I say [laughs], you cannot underestimate the value of charisma in a political leader. And David had tremendous charisma. So when the women of Israel went out into the streets and said, “Saul has killed thousands, but David has killed tens of thousands” — that was already a signal that Saul was going to fail and fall.

So I think that on those two, just survival and charisma alone, you would have to say that David was a more successful leader.

COWEN: So if someone makes the argument that David was a better king because he never committed idolatry, would you accept that description?

WOLPE: A better king cause he never committed . . .

Well, no. Because it’s not clear that Saul committed idolatry. It’s pretty clear that David didn’t. I would say . . .

COWEN: And also, Saul is told to kill the king and to get rid of all the Amalekites, and he doesn’t do that.

WOLPE: And he doesn’t.

COWEN: And that is mentioned again, that that was his failing. And isn’t that what appears to be a small thing, a big thing, or no?

WOLPE: Yes. The sin there — that’s actually a very problematic sin, where he’s told, “You didn’t kill enough people, and you didn’t slaughter the king when you were supposed to.” But the idea is that, the way the Talmud puts it is that somebody who is kind to the cruel will end up being cruel to the kind. And the idea that your enemies have to be dispatched or at least effectively subdued was something that Saul didn’t have the stomach for. And I would say in the ancient world, maybe that would make you an unsuccessful king.

COWEN: So if the commands of God are not necessarily visible to the rest of us, what for you is the implied political epistemology of the book? How do we know when we have a good king, leader, president, if that’s an important feature, and we as outsiders don’t know who has received what message or commands from God?

WOLPE: How do we know in general? Or how do we know in a book of the Bible? Because those could be two different . . .

COWEN: Both. Sure.

WOLPE: I would say that one of the problems with the Bible is that you can always say, “How did the person know that God was speaking to them?” Since I can’t, as Queen Elizabeth said, “cut windows into people’s souls,” I have no idea if God spoke to David. That’s something you have to either take on faith or not.

What I do know is that David was successful in unifying the kingdom, subduing rebellion, leaving a lasting legacy where people believed that he would lead ultimately to the Messiah, and also installing his son in the kingship. And his son succeeded in building the temple, which became, for a long time, the center point of Jewish religion. And he established Jerusalem as the capital, which if he had only done that, would’ve been an extraordinary achievement.

So if you want to attribute that to the fact that David listened to God, and that the Psalms are in fact an expression of David’s soul, I don’t have a problem with that. But if you want to be a pragmatist about it and just look at results, I would say that’s how you judge the success of a leader then and now.

On Biblical implications for the existence of a political order

COWEN: If you think of it being an implicit question in the book of Genesis, first, how is there a political order at all? And also why is it that brothers do not kill each other? And those in Genesis, to my reading, were not at all resolved. And then you have the Book of Samuel and the David story — by the end of that, what’s the extra thing we’ve learned? What’s the resolution to those questions?

WOLPE: To the questions of . . . ?

COWEN: How is it that political order is possible at a deep, metaphysical level? And how is it that brothers don’t kill each other? Is there any resolution?

WOLPE: Well, first of all brothers not killing each other is always a provisional statement.


WOLPE: I say this with two of my brothers in the audience. And I think that it’s fair to say that we have not killed each other yet.

But let me first give you my sermonic answer. The beauty of the book of Genesis is, all through Genesis, brothers are fighting even though they don’t kill each other in the end. And then the very last set of brothers — the reason that they fight is because generally, in one way, the younger is preferred over the older, and there are questions of birthright and so on. And then toward the very last scene, there are two brothers, Ephraim and Manasseh. Manasseh’s the older, Ephraim is the younger. Jacob blesses, as the grandfather, he blesses the younger with the better blessing, and Manasseh doesn’t protest. He’s actually kind of the silent hero of the book.

So I would say that there is a degree of acceptance that is taught, an unequal distribution of goods, if I can transgress into your field for a moment. And that’s the way the world is, and you have to accept that there will be different degrees of talent and gifts and so on and so forth. And the acceptance of that, that is the acceptance of God’s gifts at unequal levels, is the way interpersonally brothers succeed in not killing each other.

And in terms of the establishment of a political order, I think there the idea, at least in Samuel, what starts to happen is that there is an understood division between the political order and the religious order, that is Samuel’s the high priest and the leader. And he gets very upset when they want to have a king because he says, “Why am I not good enough?” The reason is, because you need a political order that is different. You need separation effectively of synagogue and state to some degree.

On the self-confidence of flawed leaders, yesterday and today

COWEN: Let’s say you have a leader who has had several wives, has served the interests of a foreign power, is very good at blame shifting. Should that leader be as self-confident as David seems to be in the Book of Samuel?

WOLPE: Apparently.


WOLPE: According to the standards of the time, having several wives was normative, and they weren’t sequential, they were simultaneous.


WOLPE: So as my friend Joseph Telushkin says, “Polygamy does exist in the Bible, it’s just never successful.” David does have many wives, and very strained and interesting and complex relationships with women. David has the most complicated and most described relationships with women of any character in the Hebrew Bible.

Those qualities that can be negative, in David are to some extent positive. One of the things that draws David out of the charge of simple narcissism is that he really listens, he pays attention — he pays attention to women over and over again. He listens to what they say and changes himself because of it. And that’s not a characteristic of men in the ancient world or the modern one that you can rely on.

So I would say next to his hubris, there’s a self-effacement, and next to his charisma, there’s also a receptivity. And yet, in the complex of his personality, you can understand why people might look at him to draw a very different political figure, the way that at some point, I think it was [William] Seward said about Lincoln, which is, “He’s the best among us.”

COWEN: Let me press you on two of the things you say in the book. There are two things you said that surprised me, so let me try to become unsurprised. I think it’s on page 33, you said, “Of all the characters in the Book of Samuel, the one you could best imagine as also being a king is Jonathan because Jonathan had a capacity for self-sacrifice.”

WOLPE: Right.

COWEN: And that surprised me because, again, I’m very much a novice on this territory, but I think of him as a little too nice a guy and not strong enough, in the right way, to actually be a king in that time.

WOLPE: I think you’re probably right. I could imagine him as a king. First of all, he was the son of the king, so he was the natural heir. And as we know, that often happens — that the natural heir may not be the fitting king. And also, I thought that Jonathan was the kind of person that people would be drawn to, but I think that that’s probably a worthy caveat: He probably would’ve gotten killed in the kingship in a way that David was too strong a personality and too crafty an operator to allow himself to be killed.

On Chronicles as the boring version of Samuel

COWEN: Now on page 18, there’s a claim you make and I don’t want to misquote you here, but I understand you to be saying something like, “Chronicles is like a boring retelling of the story of David.”

WOLPE: That’s almost a direct quote. I said, “Chronicles is Samuel made boring.”

COWEN: But again, coming to this as an outsider, I read Chronicles, I think of Chronicles as the very long-run perspective, saying that all of these events of the moment, which are so dramatic, so emotional, so engrossing, they seem to be what’s so relevant. Just like we’re all entranced by Twitter or the daily news.

But ultimately, what matters is the long run of history. Does the kingdom survive? And it’s actually the contrast between the extreme impersonality of Chronicles and the deeply personal story of Book of Samuel — that are these multiple duelers competing, layers or levels of wisdom. And that, that’s better than either book taken alone. Am I off base there?

WOLPE: No, I think that’s a beautiful explanation. I would say two things about it: One is, if you’re writing this story of David, and you’re writing the story of David as opposed to, say, a political analysis of David’s kingship, then you want the story at its most dramatic, full of blood and fury and sex and betrayal and so on. And that’s in Samuel.

The second is that Chronicles — it’s not just that Chronicles is . . .

When I said it was made boring, what I meant was, not that it’s a dry textbook as opposed to a bodice ripper of a romance novel. But that it takes the very humanness of David and tries to sanctify him, in a way that I think is untrue to David’s character. It’s the first time, for example, that the character of the Satan appears as an inciter. He incites David to do something bad, so that way you don’t have to blame David that he did it.

And in that sense, I think the Chronicles is a sanitizing of the real history of David, even though it may be a more interesting political — I don’t know — more interesting, a different political lens.

When I said [Chronicles] was [Samuel] made boring, what I meant was, not that it’s a dry textbook as opposed to a bodice ripper of a romance novel. But that it takes the very humanness of David and tries to sanctify him, in a way that I think is untrue to David’s character.

On influential Jewish thinkers

COWEN: Now let me try asking you about some well-known Jewish thinkers, and tell me what you think are their significance, either for Judaism or maybe for you personally. And here’s a man who sadly passed away not long ago: Jacob Neusner.

WOLPE: So, Neusner was a very interesting character in a lot of ways. I think the brief biography, and some of you may not know, Jacob Neusner was the most productive and prolific scholar of the 20th century. Notice I did not say Jewish scholar, I said scholar. He’s credited with almost 1,000 books, maybe more.

COWEN: Have you read them all? [laughs]

WOLPE: I’ve read them at least once. I’ve read several of them, but some of them were produced by his students and some of them are translations and so on, but even when you strip away all the accretions, he still was a phenomenally productive scholar, and in many ways changed the field of Talmud studies, even though traditional Talmudists didn’t like to think that, in part because they didn’t like to think that and in part because he was a notoriously difficult character, and I will leave it at that. [laughs]

But what Neusner did was something very simple, which he learned from his beginning in renaissance studies, which is, when it says, “Rabbi So-and-So told Rabbi So-and-So this,” he started to question the attributions. How do we know that Rabbi So-and-So said that? And he started to apply scientific study of texts in the 20th century to the Talmud in a way that had not been done before, and he had a very brilliant schematic mind. So anybody who studies Talmud today, whether they say it or not, they’re indebted to Neusner, and certainly, my teachers were and they made sure that we were as well.

COWEN: Primo Levi, the Italian writer.

WOLPE: Primo Levi is a problematic figure in some sad way because, although it’s not a universal consensus, most people believe he committed suicide and Elie Wiesel said that he “died at Auschwitz 40 years later.”

The thing about Levi that is so remarkable is that he’s one of those rare — almost like [Anton] Chekhov — he’s a scientific mind that is a brilliant literary writer. So when you read him on Auschwitz, you’re reading very careful, detailed prose that is heartbreaking. He doesn’t appeal to your heart. Instead he just tells you in a crystalline way what happened.

I’ll give you one analogy that I’ve never actually written about or seen written about, and I thought of it years ago and I hope that I’m remembering it right. There’s one place I think in Survival in Auschwitz where Primo Levi talks about a bricklayer, that the Nazis asked him to build a wall, and he couldn’t persuade himself to build it badly. He just couldn’t because that was his pride. And it reminded me that there’s this great — that I haven’t read for years and I’m sure I could find it — but there’s a [Guy de] Maupassant story about a guy who’s a circus performer, and what he does is he fires arrows into an apple on his wife’s head, and that’s their circus act, and he starts to hate his wife and he wants to kill her, but he can’t bring himself to do it wrong.


WOLPE: He can’t do it. And weirdly, when I read the Levi thing and I thought of the Maupassant thing, and I thought that in some ways, that sense of, “I must be accurate all the time,” that’s what Levi is. It’s like, “I can’t get this wrong,” and when you read that on Auschwitz and you know that the person that you’re reading won’t exaggerate or distort — it makes it that much more painful.

The thing about Levi that is so remarkable is that he’s one of those rare — almost like [Anton] Chekhov — he’s a scientific mind that is a brilliant literary writer. So when you read him on Auschwitz, you’re reading very careful, detailed prose that is heartbreaking. He doesn’t appeal to your heart. Instead he just tells you in a crystalline way what happened.

COWEN: Now I’m sure you know Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In his new book Essays on Ethics, he wrote the following, and I quote, “The entire burden of the Torah from the beginning of Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy is about what it is to create a free society as opposed to the slavery the Israelites experienced in Egypt.” Agree or disagree?

WOLPE: Disagree.


WOLPE: If you take out “The entire burden of the Torah,” I might agree, but I think that there’s a lot of other things that you could just as easily say the Torah is about. So I think that it’s too sweeping a statement. It’s defensible to say a large swath of the Torah is about this, but not the entire burden.

COWEN: Abraham Joshua Heschel. What’s his importance?

WOLPE: There were two thinkers who were most important to me in different ways, although it’s hard to say, partly because of where I grew up, and I think one was Heschel, the other [Martin] Buber.

The reason that Heschel is so important is less for the content of his thought — although sometimes that’s powerful — than the frequently breathtaking prose in which he put it, and it was the first time that I read somebody who could move me with the poetry of his language even though, as I expressed to you earlier, sometimes he’s over-flowery, sometimes he could’ve used a good editor. But there are some passages where, like in his little book The Sabbath, which everybody who’s interested in Judaism or in God or theology should read, where you think it’s just so extraordinarily beautiful that it’s an illustration of what it talks about. That is, it is something that touches your soul as it talks about the necessity for your soul to be touched.

On Hasidic philosophy

COWEN: So again, I’m an outsider in this dialogue, but say I were thinking of converting to Judaism and I were asking you about Hasidic philosophy. Now in terms of some social connections, I probably would fit better into your congregation than into a Hasidic congregation. But if I ask you, on theological grounds alone, is there a reason why I should be hesitant about Hasidic philosophy? From the point of view of theology, what do you think is the greatest weakness there, or your biggest difference with it, given how much you like Heschel?

WOLPE: Well, first of all, I would say Heschel had a Hasidic background, but he became a modern scholar. So there are things in a Hasidic philosophy that he would not subscribe to. And among other things — this is just among us, right?


WOLPE: Look, there is going back to Yehudah ha-Levi and going through the Tanya, and woven through Hasidism, is the question of whether Jews have different souls from non-Jews in some essential way. That I don’t think you’d be particularly comfortable with, nor am I. It’s what a great American rabbi who passed away not so long away, Harold Schulweis, used to call metaphysical racism.

COWEN: But if it’s correct, I’ll accede to it. I’m a reasonable man.

WOLPE: If it’s correct, I would expect that you would as a reasonable man, but I certainly don’t believe it. The second thing I would say that might give you pause about Hasidism is theurgy which is . . .

And this is a deep kabbalistic belief. This is where, if I can go on a mini rant about tikkun olam — and I say this deliberately at Sixth and I — tikkun olam has nothing to do with saving the whales; it doesn’t. Tikkun olam is actually not a synonym for social action even though everybody uses it that way. Tikkun olam . . .

[scattered applause]

WOLPE: Please, by all means, let the record reflect that there was scattered applause.


WOLPE: Tikkun olam is a kabbalistic term — that is, a term from Jewish mysticism, in which you do mitzvoth in the world to fix breaks in creation and in God, OK? And that means that you’re doing tikkun olam when you wrap tefillin in the morning just as much as when you give tzedakah, when you give charity; when you keep kosher just as much as when you — I don’t know — when you’re kind to animals. Every mitzvah is tikkun olam. Now, the idea that there are breaks in God that human beings can affect is a beautiful idea, but if you’re a rationalist, it’s a hard idea to absorb.

COWEN: But if I defend Hasidic philosophy and I say there’s something wondrous about the world, a kind of immanence, which maybe other traditions have neglected, and it was a resurgence in Judaism, it was part of the Enlightenment. It happened at a time where Judaic philosophy and life was having a lot of problems. It was highly modern.

If I think about a lot of 19th-century or even early 20th-century Jewish writings, that’s arguably the most dynamic tradition, again, at that turning point. And in terms of capturing the beauty of existence in a way that reflects how we moderns would call a subjective perspective on that. Isn’t that the most profound branch of Judaism, or no?

WOLPE: OK. Well, you asked me to critique it. You didn’t ask me what was good about it. Now, you’re asking what was good about it. So what I would say, I don’t want to call it the most profound branch of Judaism. I don’t think that you could say, for example, that the Vilna Gaon, who represented the Mitnagdim — those who opposed Hasidism — certainly was not less profound than the Baal Shem Tov.

What I would say is that Hasidism, which is a tradition that I deeply love — in some ways my greatest religious hero was a very offbeat, strange Hasidic rebbe called the Kotzker Rebbe — Hasidism, what it did was, at least from the Baal Shem Tov, is it sought, yes, to restore the sense of God’s immanence in the world, the sense of joy in connecting to God and to other people. It expanded the expressions of religious ecstasy in dance and song and also, very powerfully and importantly, in religious stories, Hasidic stories, especially the stories of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the most famous example but not the only example by far. Hasidic stories are an immeasurable contribution to the world treasury of spirit. So all those things absolutely are true.

On immanence vs transcendence

COWEN: If we end up elevating immanence over transcendence, do we in some ways neglect Torah study and the special role of Israel too much?

WOLPE: So this is a constant back and forth, an argument. Heschel was criticized for when he wrote about the Sabbath, for calling it a cathedral in time, for not being terrestrial enough in some ways. And so he wrote a book about Israel called [Israel: An] Echo of Eternity.

Yeah, there are those who see God as unutterably far and those who see God as unbearably near. And the Talmud and Jewish tradition, and not only Jewish tradition — Christianity bridges that gap, obviously, with the personhood of God; Judaism does not. Judaism believes that both exist simultaneously. The rabbi say that God is as close as your mouth to your ear. In other words, God hears what you say as easily as you do, and yet there is no representation of God in this sanctuary.

God is not invisible, because that suggests that God has a body but you can’t see it. It’s like if you put a hat on God, you would see the hat go down the street.


WOLPE: God is intangible like love, like justice. That is, God doesn’t have a physical being, and that makes God transcendent and in some ways incredibly distant. And I think that that’s important because what I always say to, especially to high schoolers, when I talk about God — I begin the conversation about God with this: “We’re going to discuss what God is or what God isn’t,” and so on.

In the Jewish tradition, think about . . .

Let’s say they’re fifteen, or adults. When you were two years old, could you imagine what an adult is? Not only could you not imagine it, but you couldn’t even imagine what it is that you couldn’t imagine. Right? You don’t know what your gaps are when you’re two or three. Now, God in the Jewish tradition, the distance between God and human beings is infinitely greater than the distance between a two-year-old and a twenty-year-old. So as soon as we say God’s immanence or God’s transcendence, realize that we’re caught in this net of metaphors about something we can’t comprehend.

COWEN: Is it permissible to play chess on the Sabbath or, if I offer a pawn sacrifice, am I a gambler? [laughs]

WOLPE: Yes and no.


WOLPE: One day I hope to find out.


COWEN: How would you alter or improve rabbinical training?

WOLPE: I’ve given this a lot of thought. Let me just mention one area. When I speak to rabbinical students, I tell them all the time that the single most valuable commodity you have as a rabbi . . . you can answer that yourself, and then I’ll tell you what I think: your voice. Most people are going to come in contact with you when you speak to them. Not all of them, but most. There’ll be more people who come to your services than the number of people at whose bedside you will sit as they die.

And yet, most rabbis — most people — don’t know how to speak. That training which is given — we have homiletics classes. But the ability to communicate, what words to use, what examples to use, how to train your voice so that people can understand you. How often have you been in front of speakers who you have to tell them 10 times, “Put the microphone closer please; I can’t hear you.” Right? That ability is woefully underrepresented, I think, in the rabbinic community, and it’s very much to our detriment.

And yet, most rabbis — most people — don’t know how to speak. That training which is given — we have homiletics classes. But the ability to communicate, what words to use, what examples to use, how to train your voice so that people can understand you…That ability is woefully underrepresented, I think, in the rabbinic community, and it’s very much to our detriment.

On the evolution of Judaism and Civilization

COWEN: I’ve thought about social media quite a bit and written on them, and I have two questions relating social media to Judaism. If you think about the tradition of the Torah, the Torah is so much itself commentary on the Torah. And there’s Mishnah and Talmud. Everything’s commentary upon commentary upon commentary.

But there’s something about social media that seems to act to strip away context, and people who write for mainstream media will tell you this: “Well, I wrote an article that ended up on Facebook in a very different setting than how I intended it to be read.” And you can say all you want — all the hyperlinks are there, but people don’t click through.

What do you think is the intellectual future of a belief system based on commentary on commentary on commentary, now injected into a world with this technology that so strips away context and just gives you some bald statement of something?

WOLPE: I think that Judaism has the same problem that any thick civilization has in a world in which, as you say, context is stripped away. And not only is context stripped away, but attention to any one thing is scanter and less than it used to be.

So, for example, a lot of Jewish commentary is based on your recognizing the reference that I make. Who recognizes references anymore? Because people don’t spend years studying books. The optimistic take on that is that the availability with ease of the vast libraries of Jewish learning at your fingertips will create a more conversant community. And in some ways I think that has happened. The negative is that Jewish culture will get thinner and thinner, and Judaism, as you said, depends on a very deep and thick culture.

COWEN: If I look at the history of the arts in other areas, I see a tendency for centralization of the past. So I think today, actually, many more people read Shakespeare than they did 30 years ago. But older plays and fiction are in general less read. More people read Jane Austen, but the second-tier authors from that time are less read. Maybe from the 1960s it will be the Beatles, but the Byrds will fall away. Whatever. Do you see that happening with Jewish philosophy and with the Hebrew Bible? There’s a centralization of what people know and a falling away of what superficially appears to be less important.

WOLPE: I think what you’re describing is something that is a normal historical process. The commentary that we have is a small fraction of the commentaries that were written. There were always people diving into obscurity. And people who wrote, and their books — like Hume said — his book was stillborn from the press. There were always such people. And you never know what’s going to survive.

So I have no idea who from the 20th century, for example, will survive. There’s a sense in which, I think . . . when they say history’s the final judge, the final judgment is never written because authors are being revived, they’re being rediscovered. And the same thing is true with certain commentaries and books and ideas. So, as long as they are available and accessible, and in this, the Internet is an invaluable addition to the continuity of learning. Somebody will be able, in 500 years, to rediscover a book that we may think is gone forever, and suddenly it will live again.

I think when they say ‘history’s the final judge,’ that the final judgment is never written because authors are being revived, they’re being rediscovered.

COWEN: I worry sometimes that electronic media won’t have the durability of good old paper. There are books centuries old you can still read.

On attrition rates between American and Canadian Jews

COWEN: I have two questions from readers. This is a blog reader of mine: “Why do so many American Jews leave Judaism when, say, Canadian Jews don’t?”


WOLPE: I’m not sure about the statistics of that, and I’ve spoken up in Canada a few times, and it’s not as though they’re not plagued with many of the same problems, although maybe they’re a little bit, in this sense, behind the assimilation rate of American Jews.

But I think that the reason that American Jews leave Judaism is — some of it is very clear. First of all, it’s what Irving Kristol used to say. He used to say, “The complaint that the Jews made about the non-Jews used to be that they wanted to kill us and now it’s that they want to marry us.”


WOLPE: When you say to a child, “I want you to go to the best schools, live in the best neighborhoods, work in the best firms, but don’t fall in love,” that’s too nuanced a message. So the degree to which neighborhoods were coherent and unvarying and constant was the degree to which there was a great deal of inmarriage and communal raising of children and continuity of heritage, and that’s still true in some Jewish communities and more true in Canada because there’s less mobility.

But in an age of mobility where people don’t have extended families and where intermarriage rates are what you would expect from a tiny minority in a big majority, where there’s a lot of cultural sharing, it’s not surprising that a countercultural tradition, which demands, as you said, knowledge and is reliant, to a great extent, on another language, which Americans won’t do unless, I guess, it’s Chinese these days.


WOLPE: So the inability of Americans, for example, American Jews, to learn Hebrew is an intellectual scandal in one way because Judaism really does have a sacred language. In another way, I suppose it’s expected because that’s what Americans are like. It’s not a shock, even though it’s a great sadness, and I don’t think that it is . . .

The Jewish tendency is to say, “Well, Judaism has not been presented this way, or we haven’t given it that twist, or the leaders haven’t done this.” But I think that that’s a function of standing against a tide, and I don’t know what would reverse that tide, but it’s a difficult thing.

On believing in God

COWEN: Second reader question: “Do I have to believe in God?”

WOLPE: Do you, Tyler?


COWEN: No, no, the reader.

WOLPE: Well, what’s the end of that sentence? Do I have to believe in God in order to . . .

COWEN: That’s it. “Do I have to believe in God?”

WOLPE: Well, no, obviously not. Since, as you know, I’ve had a whole series of debates with atheists, obviously there are people who don’t, and I didn’t myself for a long time. If you’re asking, “Do I have to believe in God to be a Jew?”

COWEN: I think that’s what was implied.

WOLPE: The answer clearly is no. You don’t have to believe in God to be a Jew. That’s not definitional. It’s not definitional.

COWEN: A simple no.

WOLPE: OK. All right then, I won’t go on from there.

On things under- and overrated

COWEN: OK. All of these conversations — there’s a segment in the middle called “overrated or underrated.”

WOLPE: Yes, I know.

COWEN: And I mention something to you. Feel free to pass. The goal is not that you have to offend anyone.

But the first on the list, overrated or underrated: Los Angeles as a city?


WOLPE: In one way, overrated, and in another, underrated.


COWEN: Please explain.



WOLPE: It’s overrated in the degree to which people think of it as a dream factory, as an ideal place in the world, as a cloud city. But it’s underrated in two ways: first of all, in its tremendous natural beauty, which, if you haven’t been there, really, it’s tremendously beautiful. They have mountains in the middle of the city. Coming from Philadelphia, I didn’t know what they were doing there.


WOLPE: And it is much more interesting, deep, ramified, filled with all sorts of intellectual, cultural activity than people on the East would think. And to dismiss a city . . . look, one out of every ten people in America lives in California; to dismiss them all as fruits, nuts, and flakes is silly.

COWEN: The Israeli television show Srugim?

WOLPE: Underrated.

COWEN: Tell us why.

WOLPE: More people should watch Srugim.

COWEN: Why is it special?

WOLPE: Because it tells you about the life of a very important segment of Israeli population, which are . . .

Srugim means “knitted,” “knitted kippot.” That is Modern Orthodox, which is a very important, straddling population in modern Israel, and most American Jews don’t know about it, and it will teach you.

COWEN: One thing I liked so much about the show is how it maintains erotic tension. It’s a great problem from the 20th century onwards. If you have a romantic dilemma, it’s not the 19th century. “Oh, why don’t they just get divorced?” or “Why don’t they just sleep together?” or “Why don’t they just whatever?” And Srugim, you have a setting where that tension is maintained.

WOLPE: That’s why, in a beautiful essay, although slightly problematic, many years ago [Lionel] Trilling said that Lolita was the modern novel of love. The reason is, he said, all real love stories require an obstacle. And usually, it was adultery or something like that. He says, when all barriers have been leveled, the only obstacle left is an adult may not touch a child. It was part of [Vladimir] Nabokov’s genius to make that into a love story, which is to some extent what Lolita is.

Even though at the same time, of course, you feel revolted by the reality of what it’s about. But that’s a very extreme way of going back to what you said, which is that religious stories can still do that because there are rules. In a ruleless society, love stories have no erotic tension, no barrier, nothing to vault over.

COWEN: The Iran nuclear deal, overrated or underrated?

WOLPE: Way overrated, and I wish it hadn’t . . . I think that it will prove a mistake, I think a bad mistake. Having said that, I also want to say what I said when I spoke against it. I want to say one other thing, though, which is — when the Iran nuclear deal came out, all of a sudden, people who had never been, who knew nothing about nuclear physics, and I include myself, except that they watched The Simpsons . . .


WOLPE: We’re pronouncing on whether it was a good idea or not. I can’t speak in those words, but I think that any deal — first of all, knowing something about Iranian culture because so much of my congregation is Iranian, and any deal where the American side didn’t leave the table even once is to me, by definition, a bad deal. By definition.


WOLPE: I hope to God that I’m wrong, but I think overrated.

On Islam’s similarity to Judaism

COWEN: Speaking of Islam, what is it that’s especially beautiful in Islam?

WOLPE: Well, first of all, I think that in a lot of ways, Islam shares more with Judaism than Christianity does.


WOLPE: First of all, it’s a religion of the transcendence of God. It’s a religion of law and commentary. And I have a theory for why that is, and Christianity isn’t; why Judaism and Islam are, if you want to hear the theory.

COWEN: Sure. Let’s hear the theory.

WOLPE: OK. Here’s my theory. My theory is that it’s because Christianity grew up in the Roman Empire, so the laws were taken care of. But Moses and Muhammad had to create a people in the desert. So you needed civil law as well as criminal law.

And the other thing I think that is beautiful about Islam, although today in some ways very scary about Islam, is the enormous power that it has for large populations, who one day know very little about it and yet the next day feel tremendous devotion to it, something that can — some belief system that can do that — that’s worth paying attention to on its own terms, not just from the outside.

COWEN: If you think of the portrayal of David, the David story in the Koran, and you compare it to that in the Hebrew Bible, do you think that reflects something that later becomes troubling, or do you just think it’s a rewrite?

WOLPE: I think, well, this is part of a much larger question. There are a lot of differences between the Koran and the Hebrew Bible. David is one thing. The Koran is — and this you should excuse me, for the home team, I like Judaism much better — the Koran is very unwilling to allow any sinfulness in its heroes.

COWEN: He’s much more heroic, David; as is Moses.

WOLPE: Much more, as is Moses, as is everyone in the story.

COWEN: Never so hesitant.

WOLPE: Right, exactly. I like the idea of flawed heroes. I like the notion that there isn’t this whitewashing. And I feel the Quran does that. But obviously, I’m not a Muslim.

COWEN: When you look at Michelangelo’s David statue in Florence, do you feel that’s your David, or is that a Christian David being portrayed? And if so, what’s the difference?

WOLPE: Here’s what I would say. He’s portraying the Hebrew David, but the idea of having such a magnificent David statue is a Christian idea. So if I could say it that way.

COWEN: Wow. Very good answer.

On democracy and religion

COWEN: On Islam, if we look at Islamic countries in the world today, we’ve all noticed in different ways — this is a generalization, but it seems to me a true generalization — their ability to be stable democracies seems problematic, at least right now. And I’m not just talking about the Middle East. If you look at places like Bangladesh, Malaysia, other parts, they’re somewhat democratic, but they don’t seem to mature into “normal democracies,” the way, say, South Korea and Taiwan have. And of course much of the Middle East: they’re not close to being democracies. And why, at the deepest level, you could explain — as a matter of intellect, theology, metaphysics — has the doctrine of the religion ended up correlated with this result?

WOLPE: If I were wise, I would say that I’m neither an expert in Islam nor in politics. And therefore, I would beg off this question, but I’m not going to. Because I think it is incumbent, it is an intellectual necessity of the time, since I think there is no question that jihadist Islam is right now as great a threat, I don’t want to say the greatest —

COWEN: OK, but not the extreme; I’m talking about —

WOLPE: Right, but I’m just saying. So there is a necessity, I’m saying, to put some intellectual pressure on the question of why it isn’t creating societies of healthier political climates.

I would say, if I had to pick one thing that is at the heart of Islam that is antidemocratic, it is the concept that’s very deep — that is, in the very name of the religion — of submission. Because a population that is trained essentially to submit is a population that will create authoritarians.

And so I think that the recalcitrants — when you think about Israel, the founders of Israel, none of them came from democracies. They came from Russia, from Eastern Europe; they came from the Levant; they didn’t know democracy, and yet why did they create a democracy? Because they all argued with each other.


WOLPE: Seriously, they all did! That’s like my friend Joseph Epstein has a great line. He said, “Jews don’t listen. They wait.”


WOLPE: And that idea, the disputatious culture of the Talmud and so on, it’s good for democracy, and I think the culture of submission can be corrosive to it.

When you think about Israel, the founders of Israel, none of them came from democracies. They came from Russia, from Eastern Europe; they came from the Levant; they didn’t know democracy, and yet why did they create a democracy? Because they all argued with each other.

COWEN: Some questions about Israel, if I may?

WOLPE: Sure.

On secular reasons to live in Israel

COWEN: Let’s say you’re talking to someone who is Jewish and who is pro-Israel in a broad sense and would consider themselves as Zionist. But they don’t have a deep theological belief in the content of the Torah or the Hebrew Bible. They may not even believe in God. And they’re posing the question, “Well, should I live in Israel or should I live, say, in the United States, Canada, other places?” And they’re feeling some despair.

Israel is a wonderful country — I’ve been several times myself. They might perceive higher danger; I’m not even sure that’s correct. There’s a somewhat lower standard of living. And if they ask you, without invoking theology — which won’t persuade them — what’s the best case for choosing Israel rather than leaving or not going at all? What would you say?

WOLPE: I think probably the best non-theological case for choosing Israel is that you would be part of an astonishing experiment — that is, the revival of a people in its land after thousands of years, in an attempt to create something that is important and lasting and a legacy that involves tradition but is not enslaved to it. And if you want to see where your people, since this is a Jew who’s asking, where your people is determining its own destiny in a world that too often determined its destiny for it, the only place where that is happening in a full range of areas is in Israel.

COWEN: Say it’s an American Jew and here she says to you, “Well, maybe that’s begging the question. Is Israel my people or America my people?”

WOLPE: And I would say that’s too binary a question. As an American Jew, I don’t feel like I have to say this one is and that one isn’t. What is binary for the most part I guess, is where you live. You have to live either here or there. So it depends what adventure you choose to be a part of. But that’s the adventure of Israel.

On West Bank settlements and game theory

COWEN: Now, a question on the settlements, which are a hot issue now.

WOLPE: Thanks a lot.


COWEN: I know this is very controversial. Now, I myself am a natural-born contrarian. So if I hear a lot of people criticizing something, my natural instinct is to try to defend it. So I’m going to try to lay out — I’m an economist, I’ve studied game theory — what might be a case from an Israeli nationalist perspective for the settlements and I don’t want you to agree or disagree. I just want you to tell me if I have understood the case correctly or not.


COWEN: OK. So if I’m an Israeli nationalist, I would think a few things. I would think there’s a danger of a future technology coming along, maybe rocket technology, that would have the potential, say, to shut down Tel Aviv airport. If Iran or some other hostile country got nuclear weapons, there could be a possible nuclear umbrella used to protect terrorist forays into Israel. And that there’s some future game coming where one needs a kind of chip or pushback or bargaining power or leverage.

And furthermore on top of that, one always wants to keep an option over the notion that yes, there would be a greater Israel, but a lot of the current Palestinians would become what are now called Israeli Arabs at a higher standard of living and possibly higher level of political liberties, and maybe that wouldn’t be all of what are now the territories, but that maintaining an option on that, relative to what else might possibly happen, which could be terrible. Who knows? That is itself valuable and that to have an action on each of those two margins actually requires that settlements continue. Now again, I’m not asking you to agree or disagree, but have I understood the case?

WOLPE: Naftali Bennett would be proud of you. Yes, you have understood the case.

COWEN: OK. Now, just from an Israeli nationalist perspective, would you agree with that case?

WOLPE: I would agree with parts of that case.

COWEN: But which parts not?

WOLPE: What I would say is that the problem with the case is it doesn’t take into account two parts of the calculus that are important pieces of this. One is that it is an element of security to allow your neighbors to feel a certain way about their neighbors. And therefore, if you build in total disregard of the people in the neighborhood, that’s not going to encourage goodwill. That’s the first part of the case that I would urge. And, by the way, this works in extending circles around the world that Israel is not an island, and the opinion of the world also matters in this.

And the second part of the case is that the idea that ultimately the population around you will be reconciled to this in one way or another — in other words the endgame — doesn’t work for me. I don’t think that eventually the Palestinians will be absorbed into Israel and will feel OK about it if their standard of living is high enough or . . .

And of course, if they’re enfranchised, then it’s very hard to imagine a Jewish state. But there are other parts of the case that I absolutely subscribe to.

COWEN: And let’s say you took a cosmopolitan perspective: so imagine you’re not Jewish, never been to Israel. You’re some guy in Western Australia, and Israelis, Palestinians are just names on a map to you, and you’re weighting everyone’s interests and desires equally. How then does the case look to you for the settlements?

WOLPE: Well, first of all, the other part of the case: I want to say that there are settlements and there are settlements. And the word “settlements” is way too broad, way too broad because there are settlements that everybody knows with a nod and a wink, they’re always going to be Israel, they were always going to be Israel. In any negotiation, they’re going to be Israel, and they are still called settlements, but they’re not settlements. And then there are outposts in the middle of yenevelt, at the middle of another world, where there are six guys and a goat and that’s also called a settlement.

I think that the case would appear like most such cases, like Kashmir, like Nagorno-Karabakh, as mixed, as both sides have very powerful arguments. And the only people I suspect, along with you, the only people whose arguments I bridle at automatically are people who don’t see that there’s another side here. This is the analogy I used to give. It’s now a little bit out of date, but I used to say, what would happen . . . think of Hamas in Gaza. What would happen if [Ruhollah] Khomeini had taken over Texas? How do you think the United States would react? You think they would say, “Well, look, we should negotiate?” This is a serious existential issue.

On the other hand, you’re not dealing with an alien body that has come and taken over your land, and so I think that they would feel like this was a mixed and complicated issue, and neither side can be painted with too black a brush.

COWEN: I am agnostic on the question, if you’re wondering.

On political disengagement and income inequality in Israel

COWEN: What is the underobserved, undernoted trend in contemporary Israel of importance?

WOLPE: I would say probably what strikes me when I visit Israel is that there is an increasing dissatisfaction and disaffection with all political life and activity that is dangerous for the country because the left wing is virtually declawed. The religious right is not really a political entity. They negate the political legitimacy of the country even as they support right-wing policies. And so you’re raising a generation that I think doesn’t feel —

COWEN: And where does that disengagement come from?

WOLPE: An endless struggle over the same issues that never seems to change and never seems to go away and seems to get worse.

COWEN: How much do you think income inequality is a driving issue in Israel today?

WOLPE: You said an unnoticed, and there have been demonstrations in the streets about income inequality.

COWEN: But that’s somewhat unnoticed in this country.

WOLPE: Right. OK, maybe unnoticed in this country. Yeah, income inequality is a huge issue in Israel, especially because in Israel, unlike in the United States — Americans should forgive me for this — there’s a sense of national solidarity in a different way, as there is in small countries. Small countries feel like, someone in my country who’s like me shouldn’t be poor. I don’t think Americans feel like, somebody in New York doesn’t quite feel that way about Appalachia. Like, “Well we’re both Americans; you shouldn’t be poor,” the same way that someone in Jerusalem might feel that about someone in Netanya.

…income inequality is a huge issue in Israel, especially because in Israel, unlike in the United States — Americans should forgive me for this — there’s a sense of national solidarity in a different way, as there is in small countries. Small countries feel like, someone in my country who’s like me shouldn’t be poor.

COWEN: Well, let’s say you’re talking to someone who’s going to Israel. They’ve been before. Quite possibly, they’re Jewish and they’re familiar with the major sites. And you’re giving them advice about something else they might do or see that they haven’t thought of. What is it that you would recommend, other than the obvious?

WOLPE: I don’t know whether this is the obvious or not, but less-visited and among my favorite sites is the graveyard in Safed, which contains the graves of most of the most famous Kabbalists of the time, including [Isaac] Luria, including the man who wrote Lekhah Dodi, Shlomo [ha-Levi] Alkabetz, and they’re all there, and you can stand on the hills of Safed and see the sun set and it’s a magical experience.

On the Zohar and the Kuzari

COWEN: Now that you mention the Kabbalists, why is there so much sex in the Zohar and so much talk of devils? And is that really part of the Jewish tradition, or is that going beyond in its nonreligious speculations, say?

WOLPE: Well, the sex part, in all seriousness — I think, the most powerful metaphors for human intimacy are sexual metaphors. And so when you’re talking about intimacy with God, it’s very hard to avoid, like, zivug, which means coupling, or . . .

COWEN: But at least, in some other parts of Judaism, it’s quite kept at a distance —

WOLPE: That’s true, but it goes back to the Hasidic question you asked before, which is, this sense of intimacy with God is very hard to express without recourse to some kind of sexual metaphor.

COWEN: And the role for devils in the Zohar, is that simply a mistake?

WOLPE: I think it’s a lot the fact that it was written in medieval times, when devils were proliferated. Is it part of Judaism? Well, it’s part of Jewish folk culture in the same way that, if you read the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, you’ll get a lot of angels and devils and so on. But is it part of the biblical tradition? No. It’s a little bit more part of the Talmudic tradition, but it grew and grew as people believed, in a world lit only by fire, that there were magical creatures all around them.

COWEN: And speaking of that era, the book The Kuzari, which you’ve written about, you mentioned that the author before, ha-Levi, is from the 12th century. Why is that an important book for Judaism?

WOLPE: It’s an important book for Judaism because the way it’s structured is, all these different religions come to the king of the Khazars, who, historically, converted to Judaism. At least, that’s the best history we have. And it makes a case for Judaism against other religions.

And Judaism generally did not engage in polemics against other religions, and this really was the foundation stone of it. And it happened because of the golden age of Spain, where there was a lot of interaction with other religions, and Jewish philosophy was born out of — unlike the Christian tradition, philosophy wasn’t native to Judaism — it was born out of an encounter with other cultures and a need to explain ourselves. And it was written by one of the great poets of medieval times, who also was a distinguished philosopher.

COWEN: And it’s written in the form of a dialogue, as you know, a conversation, and Leo Strauss wrote on this. He was himself Jewish, though I think probably not a believer. And he suggested that as with the works of Plato and Hume, the fact that it was done as a conversation and dialogue meant, not that it was deliberate untruths, but many things were deliberately unsaid, and there was a hovering ambiguity to the final content about the relative status of religion, philosophy, and whether prophecy is something truly spiritual or can be naturalized to some degree. Do you agree with that reading?

WOLPE: Yeah, well, as we know, he was very fond of things unsaid, Leo Strauss — that was his bread and butter. There’s a debate in Jewish philosophy between Maimonides and Yehuda ha-Levi about whether prophecy is something that is divinely gifted or something that you can achieve. And while ha-Levi is on the gifted side, ha-Levi, I want to say, represents the nonrationalist strain of Jewish philosophy, as Maimonides represents the rationalist strain. And that’s why that book nurtures the Hasidic tradition from afar, and that idea that it comes from a poet makes a lot of sense.

COWEN: My last question, before we turn over to audience questions. And some people have said they’re not going to leave until you tell us the correct answer to this one.

WOLPE: Uh-oh.

COWEN: Book Two of Maimonides: Is creation eternal? Yes or no?


WOLPE: We’ll see.


COWEN: Or not.

WOLPE: Right. Or not. I think that Jewish faith rises or falls — Jewish faith — whether the Jewish people does is as yet an unasked question. But Jewish faith rises or falls, not on whether creation is eternal, but whether God is. And so I don’t think that that’s a question for Jewish dogma, whether creation is eternal or not. As long as God is, we’re good.

COWEN: Rabbi David Wolpe, thank you so much.



AUDIENCE MEMBER: I actually have a question about Maimonides, and your view of the evolution of Jewish thought. Two things. One, do you think there was something lost, something important that was lost in Maimonides’s codification of the Law, that we don’t have access to anymore today because of that development?

And then, how much of the work of Maimonides changed the course of Jewish thought in a way that maybe wouldn’t have happened anyway with the advent of modernity?

WOLPE: I would say, in answer to the first one, what did we lose with Maimonides’s aggregation of Jewish law with the Mishneh Torah? What Maimonides wanted to do was take all of this messy giant Talmudic and other tradition and make it simple. And one of the things that he did that he later said he regretted but didn’t have the chance to fix was, he didn’t add footnotes. So we don’t know.

Scholars have spent generations trying to reconstruct the sources of Maimonides. That’s a lot that was lost because, among other things, he might’ve been basing it on readings and manuscripts that we don’t have.

And also, any time you have a fixed law, you rigidify the practices of communities because then people say, “Well, it’s not in the book, so you can’t do it.” So yes, a lot was lost, but I think probably more was gained.

In terms of whether he changed the course of Jewish history, I think you almost can’t say no because Maimonides is probably the single most important figure in Judaism. Certainly post-Talmud, he is the single most important figure. And what he changed — which some people like and some don’t — is, he made people who are Jewish rationalists comfortable and people who are not Jewish rationalists forced to argue that it was OK not to be rationalistic. That to think of God as omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent like you do in a philosophy class is not the only way to think about God. And that’s why the Hasidim needed to reinvigorate the Jewish tradition in a sense. So, on balance: glad we had him.

COWEN: Next question.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: OK, this is a general question. When I went on birthright, we talked a lot about the idea that everything happens for a reason in the Jewish religion, and so I wanted to know your beliefs and your mindset on when you experience things in life that are really bad, for instance a lot of nice people and good people passing away or just anything bad that happens in life, I guess your belief on that and if you still believe everything happens for a reason.

WOLPE: OK, I’m going to try to make this really as quick as possible, but give me some allowance for the fact that I’m making it very quick. First of all, I don’t believe at all that everything happens for a reason. Not at all. I think there’s a lot of randomness in the world. I think the attempt to say everything happens for a reason can lead you to some moral obscenities like, “Oh, this kid in the Sudan who was born with amoebic dysentery and lived for three years and suffered and died, it happened for a reason.” Yeah, the reason is because the world is unfair. That’s the reason. Now, why the world is unfair, I have a theory about.

But before I get to that, let me just say, the question of life is not why did this happen to you but what will you do with it, given that it happened to you. That’s the question, does God give you the power to make something out of what has happened to you even though . . .

It’s like when I got cancer. Couple times. I’ve had two brain surgeries and I’ve had chemotherapy, and every time someone would say to me, “Why do you think God did this?” And they were well meant. And my answer was, “I don’t think that God said Wolpe could use some chemo.”


WOLPE: I think, rather, that the question of my life would be, given that this happened, what do you do with it? How do you react to it? How do you feel about it? And I would just say very quickly that my working theory is — and it’s not original with me — is that when people say, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Imagine for a minute that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Everybody would be good all the time. Because who would be bad if you know every time you steal, you’re going to get a disease. Everyone would be good all the time.

The only way it is possible to be good in this world is if you can be good without knowing the consequences. It has to be random or there’s no goodness. So you know you can be the best person in the world, and you can still die young. But at least, if you know that, then your goodness was real goodness. You were doing it because you believe good is important, or you love other people, or being good makes you feel good — something intrinsic and not because you’re being good because you know God’s going to reward you. So that’s what I would say in a nutshell.


The only way it is possible to be good in this world is if you can be good without knowing the consequences. It has to be random or there’s no goodness.

COWEN: Next question.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Wow. What an answer. Different subject: your thoughts on the rise of anti-Semitism in large parts of Western Europe and college campuses and the intense feelings so many people in the world have about Israel. Many observers think that the anti-Israel expression is just a cloak for anti-Semitism.

WOLPE: So what I would say, the quick answer to the very end of it is, not all anti-Israel sentiment is anti-Semitism, but anti-Israel sentiment is now the respectable guise for anti-Semitism. Very few people, only the most fringy fringers, will stand up and say “I’m an anti-Semite.” But you can say “I’m anti-Israel” and be an anti-Semite and that’s respectable. . . . And I think there are lots of tests that you can apply to the way people criticize Israel and the way they criticize other places that will let you know what’s behind it. I have a lot of thoughts about why anti-Semitism . . .

My father, who was a wonderful rabbi, he talked about anti-Semitism often, and I remember thinking when I became a rabbi, “I’m so glad that’s done.” So glad my rabbinate won’t have to be about that, and boy was I wrong. It’s like the return of the repressed. I think post-Holocaust, it had to go underground in a deep way for a while. But now it has erupted again, and there is some viral strain in, well, first it was in European DNA and now I’m afraid it’s very much in world — not in world DNA.

There was already in Islam, again there were seeds of it, but it wasn’t the kind of paternal fight that there was in Christianity and Judaism. But now it’s taken over, lock, stock, and barrel. And the virulence on both sides, in Islam and in Europe, is truly frightening. It is truly frightening.

So I say the Buddhists and Hindus, that’s where we . . . that’s these days. . . . Look, the one thing that I would say that is important to keep in mind is, it’s not 1942. Throughout Christian Europe, there are many, many, many millions, the overwhelming number of people are of good will. The leaders of Europe are overtly — and for the most part, covertly also — opponents of anti-Semitism in some very significant ways.

But it’s scary, it is scary.

COWEN: Next question.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you. I was going to ask whether it’s natural for Jews, especially American Jews, to be conservatives or liberals, but let’s get more up to date and pointed. Is there something Jewish about being alarmed or not about what’s perceived to be the Trump agenda?

WOLPE: So here’s what I would say about that, and I think actually my answer to both would be the same, which is, it is impossible to say . . .

I know a lot of liberal Jews who will say that Judaism and Democratic politics are virtually identical, and if they don’t say it, they feel it. To which I always say, look, if the most learned and most observant Jews, that is the Orthodox community, tends to be Republican, then it’s a little shortsighted to say, obviously Jewish values and Democratic values are identical. You can’t say that.

On the other hand, you also can’t say that the values of the prophets, of Amos and Jeremiah, for the poor and the widowed and . . . Hermann Cohen said very beautifully, “In the idea of the stranger, Judaism was born.” Think about that today, right? That’s what Hermann Cohen said.

So I think you can make a very powerful Jewish case on both sides. I don’t want to address individuals at the moment. I think that that’s not the purpose of the forum, although if Tyler asks me, I will. But I think that you can, in good conscience, be a Jew on the Right or on the Left. And the only thing that I would say you ought to be uneasy in your conscience about, is if you believe that the other side has no good Jewish values on its side, because you’re wrong.

But I think that you can, in good conscience, be a Jew on the Right or on the Left. And the only thing that I would say you ought to be uneasy in your conscience about, is if you believe that the other side has no good Jewish values on its side, because you’re wrong.

COWEN: If I could just try a follow-up question. Given how many literally billions of people have been elevated from poverty by, what is mostly in my account, capitalism, not only capitalism, Milton Friedman saw this, but still the weight of Jewish intellectual opinion in the United States has mostly been on the Left. I think that’s a well-established regularity. What’s the intellectual or sociological reason for that underlying . . . ?

WOLPE: Well, I’ll say why that is and then one thing about capitalism that I think is profoundly Jewish that most people don’t realize, seriously.

I think the reason is because they came from Eastern Europe, and that tradition, like the FDR tradition in America, is very . . . the only way that you could see out of the morass of the civilizations they were in, the only thing that gave them hope other than Zionism, was a kind of Bundist, Marxist, socialist . . . there wasn’t really a living capitalist alternative. To the very first glance, it looked like the humanistic face of economics as opposed to . . . what is capitalism — competition. Well, that doesn’t look like a humanistic face.

But the one thing that I will tell you, and I think I first heard this many years ago mentioned by George Gilder — I want to give him credit for this insight. He said, “A real capitalist has to have empathy.” Because if you’re building a business or a product and you don’t know what other people want, you’ll fail. The only way you can succeed is if you actually understand what it is that other people want and/or need. And both that combined with what you said, which is that it is the great engine of wealth that lifts people out of poverty, I think that a Jewish thinker today, and certainly many in Israel would argue this too, that you would have to be a capitalist of some stripe. I think it’s very hard to make the case that certainly communism or even socialism is the Jewish . . . although I could find you a few Jewish socialists who would argue with me.

COWEN: We’ll take the three last questions. Yes, please.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Rabbi, thank you so much for sharing your evening with us. When this synagogue here was also the second home for Adas Israel. When Adas Israel left here, in 1959 I believe [1951— Ed.], Conservative Judaism was the top stream of Judaism in the United States. In the decade or 15 years later, Conservative Judaism lost over 600,000 members. Could you tell us a little bit, in your own words so to speak, why you think that happened and what steps are being taken to recover that attraction that Conservative Judaism once had for American Jewry?

WOLPE: Sure, but let me also add one more thing that I was thinking about the capitalism thing, which is that capitalism also has the almost inevitable byproduct of creating tremendous inequalities, and a Jewish ethic has to address that as well. It can’t be capitalism that ignores the fact that it creates an underclass that suffers. So it has to be a capitalist socialism.


WOLPE: Not that I split differences as a pope and rabbi, but you’re right too. I don’t know if you know that: that’s an old joke about the rabbi who has two people in front of him, and they each make their case. He goes, “You’re right,” and the second one makes a case; “You’re right.” And then his wife says, “Dear, they can’t both be right.” He goes, “You’re right too.”


WOLPE: So Conservative Judaism, the dilemma that Conservative Judaism had was that it tried to hold on to a serious Jewish observance with modern scholarship that didn’t consistently say, “God told you, you have to do this.” And modern Jewish observance is a very hard thing to hold on to. And so people who had grown up with the traditional observance lived that out, but as the motivational piece of it weakened, so did that lifestyle that would maintain them as Conservative Jews.

Unless and until — not only Conservative Judaism by the way, but liberal religion in general — unless and until . . .

But the problem is worse in Judaism because it makes greater demands than other religions. Christianity doesn’t make such lifestyle demands on Christians as Judaism does on Jews. Unless and until there is a compelling nonfundamentalist rationale for why I should eat a certain way and why I shouldn’t go out on Saturday, in other words, the ritual behaviors that maintain the cohesion of the tradition. Until that is created — and many philosophers have tried to and many rabbis have tried — till that’s created, Conservative Judaism is going to face a huge uphill battle. That’s the short answer.

COWEN: Even if creation is eternal, this session is not. The two last questions and answers will sum to seven minutes. Yes, please.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: The United States Supreme Court is currently comprised only of Catholics and Jews. Do you think that these groups naturally produce better jurists?


AUDIENCE MEMBER: If so why, and if not, why is that the composition of the court?

WOLPE: I defer here to an answer that I heard given by my sociologist brother at a session we did together in South Africa last summer. Which is probably a sentence you’ve never heard uttered before, right? I defer to my sociologist brother in a session we did together in South Africa. [laughs]

Because Catholicism has a natural law tradition, Judaism has a strong legal tradition, and Protestantism is antinomian: it’s anti-law. That’s the essence of Protestantism, right? So who around here is trained in law? Oh, the Catholics and the Jews. Now, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be individual Protestants, but if you’re looking for a deep tradition, well, we got one.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Do you think it’s realistic to talk about the American Jewish community having become too fractioned to be considered a single community? And if it is realistic or possible, then what is the biggest challenge facing the community?

WOLPE: OK, are we a community? I have good news and bad news. The good news is, Jews have never been united. Never.


Never. Only people who think “Oh my God, why don’t we have the cohesion we used to?” are people who don’t know Jewish history. We used to be excommunicating each other all the time, the Hasidim, the Mitnagdim, there was always, always, always fights among Jews. And there are all sorts of jokes and things, but it’s true, it’s true.

And by the way, I don’t think this is unique to Jews, but it certainly is true among Jews. You can speak about an American Jewish community that will mobilize around certain moments of crisis. And if, God forbid, there were a terrible moment of crisis, I think most of the American Jewish community would mobilize around it. If there was a huge wave of anti-Semitism in America, for example.

But having said that, in some ways . . . in Jewish theology, there are two ways of serving God. There’s yirah and ahavah. There’s fear and love, and fear in many ways is more immediately effective. When you’re driving over the speed limit, is it love for your fellow drivers or the presence of a police car that will get you to slow down faster? Fear is in some ways more immediate and effective than love, but love is more enduring. Because fear passes, but love, real love, even if creation’s not infinite, real love endures. Love in the words of Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs, is strong as death. So if the American Jewish community, even if not wholly — because I’m not a believer in universal love, because then love is diluted; it has no meaning. Because people that you love, you’ll sacrifice for, and you can’t sacrifice for everyone. If the American Jewish community feels this familial sense and this sense of love and this sense of closeness, then we won’t disappear.

I’ll close with a Hasidic story. To some extent, I feel like our story, not entirely, but a little bit, is like the story that Rebbe Chaim Halberstam used to tell of the man who was lost in the forest. And he wandered and wandered and wandered, and he was completely lost. He had no idea where to go, and he sat down in despair. And as he sat down, another man comes along, and he says, “Oh, I’m so glad to see you because I’m completely lost.” And the second man says, “I have bad news for you. I’m lost too.” He says, “But one thing I do know, is the way we have gone is not the way. Now, let’s hold hands and find the way together.”

Thank you.