You Choose

Life or death, morality or chaos: According to Rabbi Lapin, it's up to America to decide.

I like and admire Rabbi Daniel Lapin. We disagree on nearly everything. His Mercer Island­based organization, Toward Tradition, has a wondrous gift to offer American Jews, and America generally. America's Real War

by Rabbi Daniel Lapin

(Multnomah, $19.99) It makes me nervous. Thus conflicted, and with the additional disclosure that I provide occasional free advice (occasionally accepted) to the Rab and his outfit, I commence my review of America's Real War. Rabbi Lapin is a complex man with a simple view of things. There are, he writes, only two ways to organize a society: according to God's blueprint or according to our whims. The former leads to stability, prosperity, and happiness; the latter yields chaos, depravity, and misery. Today America is polarizing, and must inevitably polarize along those lines. The Judeo-Christians are on one side, the secularist/socialists on the other. Ultimately, everybody must choose. To borrow from Comrade Trotsky: You may not be interested in the war, but the war is interested in you. Rabbi Lapin considers modernism the sustained attempt to destroy the fabric and underpinnings of traditional Western civilization and of an America established by founders who understood and emulated ancient Israel's covenant with God. As for socialism, he dismisses it as what happens when well-intentioned souls try to engineer society without reference to the divine. All in all, he concludes, America has a simple choice to make: Life or death. And that choice will be made, like it or not, in every aspect of our individual and common lives, from polling booth to bedroom and everywhere in between. Quibble time. Judeo-Christianity, whatever its virtues, holds no monopoly on either morality or keys to successful living. The Culture War is trending down. Folks are sick of being shouted at. There's a lot of sorting out to be done, but we ain't going back to some idealized, sanitized past that never existed anyway. Modernism, and even modernism's demented love child, postmodernism, is about far more than ecraser l'infame (a cutesy, pedantic allusion to Voltaire's "Enlightenment" demand that the "infamous thing," the Church, be wiped away). The view that America's founders had of religion was far more complex and wary. They cherished a "civil religion" intended to nurture individual and communal virtue. Their rejection of established churches was deeply intertwined with their understanding of how power corrupts and why "factions" are bad news in a republic. Which brings us to the Ultimate Quibble. By its nature, monotheism tends toward intolerance. When it is presumed that a single, highly judgmental deity also imposes a single plan for humanity, those who find the presumption empowering can get nasty. Judeo-Christians make great neighbors, wonderful friends. You might even want to marry one. But as our governors . . . not. Would that it were so simple. Were Rabbi Lapin some Talmud-thumping hayseed ein Yiddishe knock-off of the "Christ Died So We Could Tell You What to Do" religious right—a group Andrew Sullivan recently likened to Japanese soldiers who don't know or can't accept that the war's over—he could be easily dismissed. "The Rabid Rabbi," some have called him. He is not. Scion of a prominent South African rabbinical family, he's erudite, eloquent, cosmopolitan, accomplished. His orthodoxy blends tradition with delightfully aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities. Something more is involved. Specifically (unfortunately, the book doesn't show this nearly enough) Rabbi Lapin offers the distinct "Judeo" of the Judeo-Christian heritage. This goes far beyond mere invocation of the Ten Commandments and assorted ethnic/folksy bromides. He draws upon an ancient, complex logic and faith, a canon in many ways as alien and mysterious as the creeds of the Native Americans among us. Shall we not at least try to listen respectfully to the voices of the Torah and Talmud, speaking across the millennia? But who are we? Clearly, this book will be welcomed by the religious right; the publisher even classifies it under "Christian living." A few readers might be converted to his mix of religion and politics. But there's a group that might find the book, if not persuasive, then evocative: the "walking wounded of the Culture War"—those who've tried the other side and seen the limits, or who've been hurt by those who have, or who are simply growing older and starting to wonder. If the description fits you, try it out. But in a certain way: Concentrate on the reasoning, not the rhetoric or the prescriptions. When you get the urge to throw the book against the nearest wall, by all means do so. But don't lose your place. When you hit passages that make you want to toss the author, remember that we Americans are blessed with the ability to revere and learn from our various heritages without submitting to them totally. As you go along, keep track of your objections. Many will be standard, predictable. But did you also encounter the kind of resistance that maybe, just maybe, you don't want to examine too closely? Do it as an exercise in self-understanding. You don't have to be Jewish. And, a little belatedly, books by rabbis make great stocking stuffers. Philip Gold is president of Aretéa, a Seattle public policy and cultural affairs research center.

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