Klinghoffer on Liberalism

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This week’s Forward features a harsh, but disciplined critique of “liberal pluralism” by David Klinghoffer. The article consists of Klinghoffer’s reflections on his experience at Limmud NY last weekend.

The slogan of the multi-denominational event, a four-day party for Jewish intellectuals, was “Jewish Learning Without Limits.” The buzzword was “pluralism,” but what stood out was the limitations of liberal tolerance.

Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the conservative Discovery Institute, has nice things to say about Limmud’s organizers, but was less enamored with the conference participants who he found to be significantly intolerant of his orthodox approaches to religious truth.

Many Jews find it intolerable to be told that their religion is true. In a speech I gave called “Tribe or Truth?”, I made the case that Judaism is better understood not as a mere ethnic affiliation, but as a plausible statement defining the deepest truths about God and the universe.

During the question-and-answer period, a woman objected by a curious logic that this made me seem “like a Catholic.”

The article raises many interesting issues. First off, I’d argue, that Klinghoffer is absolutely correct in much of his diagnosis. A conference like Limmud NY, which celebrates pluralism in an explicit way, is indeed, fundamentally, a liberal institution. It is rooted in a rejection of classical approaches to absolute truth.

Klinghoffer complains that “The ‘pluralistic’ embrace seems to extend over a very narrow bandwidth of views, comfortably hearing only opinions that make no claim of capital-t Truth.” While I would disagree that it embraces “a narrow bandwidth of views,” he may be correct that pluralism does not have the capacity to deal with claims of absolute truth.

But is that unfair or nonsensical? Pluralism is a liberal value.

How should orthodox (small “o”) views — like those held by Klinghoffer — be integrated into this sort of environment?

This is a difficult question, but it’s a generic one. How do the views of strict ideologues get addressed in a democracy? The answer: With tolerance, but restricted practical application. More importantly, I think it’s acceptable to call out these views when they are antithetical to the general values of society.

For example, Jews or Christians or Muslims who have strict conceptions of the nature of religious truth and salvation have the right to think their thoughts and live in accordance with them in the United States, but ultimately their values conflict with those of a liberal democratic society that is rooted in the belief that there are multiple ways to live.

All of that being said, Klinghoffer is right to be annoyed by the maltreatment he received. A self-righteous liberal is, indeed, an ugly sight. And again, I’d commend Klinghoffer for his measured tone in the article.

There’s a lot more to discuss in this article, and I will. But later.

Posted on January 19, 2007

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