The case for traditional norms against liberal autonomy

Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures, Moshe Koppel, £19.73 hardback, £5.95 Kindle


The characters in this book remind me of the 1966 Class Sketch, starring John Cleese, in which gentlemen of the upper, middle and lower classes hilariously describe their relationship to one another. In Koppel’s book, Shimon is a religious Jew from a Polish shtetl, Heidi is liberal, and Amber (Heidi’s daughter) is positively woke.

Shimon’s faith is communally embedded, emotive rather than philosophical, and expressed through halachic norms. In contrast to Shimon, Heidi considers halachic norms to be out of step with enlightened, universal values, which she believes should be protected by the state. She cares most about discrimination, financial inequality, supersized sodas and trans fats.

While Heidi can balk at tradition, Amber has no such frame of reference. Having been brought up by Heidi, Amber trusts only her own feelings. For her, the state is a bastion of colonialism and racism. Its power must be curbed. She particularly loathes Jewish power. Amber supports the criminalisation of male lust and boorishness and believes that those who offend must be cancelled.

Koppel, a computer science professor and Jewish thinker, makes a powerful case that Heidi and Amber’s worldviews pose a threat not only to tradition, but to Western society more generally. Heidi fails to see how traditional social norms have kept society going and are best placed to do so in the future. Social norms also have an advantage over state laws by adjusting gradually through consensus, and not being fixed by a small group of legislators.

As for Amber, Koppel suggests that her desire to clamp down on all behaviour deemed offensive, leaves no room for individual liberty, and leads inevitably to a puritanical imperialism.

Koppel is sensitive to nuance and careful to state that his views are provisional, but the danger of advancing an argument by setting up stereotypes is that few recognise themselves in them. You also don’t need to be as liberal as Heidi to have issues with traditional communities built on Shimon’s values, to be woke like Amber to be concerned by the exercise of Jewish state power, or to be Shimon to appreciate the profundity of tradition or the danger of wokeness.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive