Looking for Torah in Ayn Rand

Of all the rhetorical baits-and-switches the Left has pulled over the last 100 century or more, perhaps none has been as complete, enduring, or damaging as the identification of “Jewish values” and liberal politics. The historical roots are in European socialism, and there is even some evidence that the prominence of leftist Jewish political activity contributed to the merger between Democrat urban patronage and socialist policies. Regardless of the roots, for many if not most American Jews, the labels Liberal and Democrat are part and parcel of being Jewish. And attempts to assert capitalist, small-l libertarian, or conservative views are often met with accusations of not being Jewish enough.

But folks, It Ain’t Necessarily So.

Rabbi Gross out here in Omaha is in the middle of a 3-class lecture and discussion series on “Looking for Torah in Ayn Rand.” I missed the first lecture on “The Virtue of Selfishness,” but I caught last night’s on The Fountainhead.

There’s no particular reason to think Howard Roark is Jewish, but he’ll do. His life is a pattern as old as that of Pharaoh Jews: his talents are used, his ambition thwarted, his virtues caricatured as vices. Like Yaakov, he takes pleasure in his work (there is ample textual basis for this belief), and is often able to work out a modus vivendi with the Powers That Be (Esav, starring as Peter Keating) to continue to do that work, although his status is often precarious.

But Rand’s villains-as-cautionary-tales are usually more interesting, both for what not to be and what not to fall for. In this case, that’s columnist Ellsworth Toohey, who doesn’t actually wish that the US could be China for a day, but might have. His techniques for making it so are straight out of the manipulations of the worst of the Torah villains.

Toohey sets up altruism as the greatest ideal; once men inevitably fail to live up to it personally, he then offers them the chance to make amends by living up to it vicariously, by turning power over to someone who clearly has no interest in money – him.

This is straight out of Lavan’s playbook. Lavan uses Yaakov’s guilt over the moral complications concerning the birthright to manipulate him into increasingly unfavorable deals, which he has no intention of keeping to in any case. In each instance, when Yaakov tries to enforce the terms of the agreement, Lavan argues that it’s unfair, or that that’s not how things are done there, or that Yitzchak would never have done that.

Toohey deligitimizes greatness, even the idea of greatness, by elevating mediocrity. Yes, it’s handicapping people for the sake of control.  It’s also a direct parallel of the rhetoric Korach uses to undermine Moshe. What’s special about this blue thread, when I can make a whole garment of them? What’s special about washing this way, when I’ve just taken a whole bath? What’s special about this scroll on my doorway, when I’ve a whole library of sefarim? In Rand’s world is actual achievement and originality that suffers. In the Torah, it’s holiness.

Finally, Toohey recognizes the destructive power of laughter. The ancient Greeks understood it. Umberto Eco’s monks killed over it. And Rabbi Hayim Luzatto in Mesillat Yasharim (The Path of the Righteous) makes exactly the same point – that laughter and ridicule obliterate reverence. (The Rabbis keep this power under wraps by giving it free rein for one day each year, on Purim.) Both ridicule and mediocity serve to eliminate rivals for people’s admiration and models for their aspiration.

All this said, one has to understand Ran’s limitations. As Whittaker Chambers noted in his devastating National Review critique, a purely materialist philosophy is by definition incomplete. Rand’s philosophy may suffice for Rav Soloveitchik’s Adam I – Dignified Man – but only Torah is broad enough to satisfy Adam II – Man who hungers for a faith community.

Still, that Rand mistakenly considered her philosophy to be complete doesn’t mean that we have to evaluate it on that basis. We can stipulate that it’s incomplete, evaluate it on the basis of where it actually applies, and recognize that some of its most liberating aspects are both rooted in and consonant with Torah ideals.

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