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A Jewish Conservative Looks at Pagan America

Don Feder reminds me of Paul Caplan, a Reform rabbi in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and of Peter Himmelman, perhaps the only practicing Orthodox Jew to carve out a career for himself in rock and roll.

Like Rabbi Caplan and Peter Himmelman, Feder exhibits a palpable joy about his faith–and a passion strong enough to attract people in search of God. Feder, who writes editorials for the brassy tabloid The Boston Herald, writes about one experience at the office:

When I started keeping kosher, I stopped eating the food in our company cafeteria and brought my lunch instead. I refrained from dining out with colleagues, unless it was a kosher restaurant. Quite naturally, my friends and co-workers were curious.

When they discovered my motivation, they were impressed by the fact that here was a person who was willing to do something–even at the cost of inconvenience and modest sacrifice–because he believed it was God’s will. A number began wondering if perhaps there wasn’t something God wanted them to do. It might not be keeping kosher, but there must be something they could do to show their gratitude for His blessings, to connect more closely to the source of their lives.

Feder, once an attorney, is now a syndicated columnist. He’s also a former Libertarian, which gives him a robust skepticism not only about an eternally power-hungry State but also about idealistic passions.

A Jewish Conservative Looks at Pagan America is almost entirely a collection of Feder’s syndicated columns, along with a speech or two. The book is divided into 13 often overlapping chapters with headings such as “Family,” “Faith,” “Judaism,” and “Abortion/Euthanasia.”

John J. Cardinal O’Connor of New York endorses Feder’s work with this blurb: “For believers in God, of all religious persuasions, Mr. Feder is a champion.”

Feder himself praises what he calls “ethical monotheism,” writing: “All monotheistic religions that teach ethical conduct (charity, justice, self-discipline, spirituality) are good. They inculcate virtue, the social adhesive that keeps our culture from unraveling.”

This enthusiasm for all monotheistic religions is both a strength and a limitation in Feder’s work. As a strength, this conviction makes Feder remarkably sympathetic with orthodox Catholics and evangelical Christians as allies in the culture wars.

Even so, how many Christians–for that matter, how many observant Jews–would like to count Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Sunni Muslims or mere deists within the ranks of “ethical monotheism”? Feder is no apologist for these groups, but his all-embracing endorsement of monotheism is too romantic, perhaps even utopian.

One monotheist for whom Feder has little time is the modernist Rabbi Harold Kushner, who “sees Scriptures the way the Supreme Court views the Constitution: subject to highly imaginative interpretation. At one point the rabbi speculates: ‘Moses may have gotten his ideas about morality from the same place that Shakespeare got his poetry and Mozart his music, but the process surpasses my understanding.’ A frank admission, this.”

Like his Jewish and Christian allies, Feder sees through the hypocrisy of Planned Parenthood, condom-pushing educators, self-esteem gurus, euthanasia enthusiasts, and recipients of National Endowment for the Arts monies.

Feder’s distrust of collectivism comes through in several passages that positively sing:

• “Sounding like a combination of Mary Poppins and Vladimir Lenin, [author Jane Palzere] suggests this socialization [in daycare centers] ‘might just be the hope of our future.’ Here is the age-old dream of tyrants: Give me a child for its formative years, and I’ll give you an adult with my values, obedient to my commands.”

• Former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm “compared seniors who voluntarily refuse extraordinary means to prolong their lives to ‘leaves falling off a tree and forming humus for other plants to grow up.’ An interesting metaphor, this. Recall which totalitarian movement turned people into fertilizer and its zeal in disposing of those it deemed unfit to live.”

Feder is not as reflective a syndicated columnist as Paul Greenberg (of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette), and he sometimes resorts to overly combative language. The editing of his work by Huntington House, an obscure publisher in south Louisiana, leaves plenty to be desired. Punctuation errors plague the paperback copy of Pagan America.

Such errors are forgivable in this first book by Feder. Next time around, Feder needs a publisher that will challenge him to write a book of fresh material addressing one major theme. He’s especially strong on the sanctity of human life, and he could argue a strong pro-life case from his Jewish perspective.

Meanwhile, we can thank the one true God for friends like Don Feder.