Officially, he was there for a panel discussion on the decline of Jewish values in America. But when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor walked into Manhattan’s upscale West Side Institutional Synagogue on Sunday night, it was at the end of a long week during which he had repeatedly served as President Obama’s populist punching bag—a conservative bogeyman meant to rally disillusioned Democrats and epitomize Republicans’ reckless obstructionism.
Earlier in the week, Obama had called out the congressman by name during a campaign-style stop in Texas, chiding him for his stubborn opposition to the president’s economic agenda. “I would like Mr. Cantor to come here to Dallas and explain what exactly in this jobs bill does he not believe in, what exactly he is opposed to,” Obama told the crowd. “Does he not believe in rebuilding America’s roads and bridges? Does he not believe in tax breaks for small businesses or efforts to help our veterans?”
Cantor hit back at the president Sunday night, taking advantage of the religious setting to couch the economic debate in spiritual terms. He sharply criticized Obama’s proposal to cap itemized deductions (including charitable donations) at the 35 percent tax bracket, a policy he said would cripple many nonprofits and rob altruists of the mitzvoth of oblations. Caring for the poor and needy, he contended, should primarily be the job of churches and philanthropists, not the federal government.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me to pursue what the president is talking about in the economy we’ve got,” Cantor said. “Why would you do something that makes it less attractive to give to charities when so many people are in need?”
He also took the opportunity to criticize Obama’s approach to Israel, blasting what he sees as the administration’s too-friendly approach to Iran and the pressure it has put on Israel to stop settlement construction in the West Bank. “There’s no question there are mixed signals coming out of the policies furthered by this administration,” Cantor said, adding, “They’ve yet to acknowledge the right of the Jewish state to exist ... We need to send a signal to our allies in Israel that they can count on us to stand up for human rights.”
The rhetoric drew loud applause from the audience, which appeared to consist mostly of Jewish conservatives. But perhaps the congressman’s greatest admirer in attendance was Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the panel’s moderator. A widely published author and frequent cable-news guest, Boteach referred to Cantor as “a man of great nobility,” and preached a Jewish theology of fiscal conservatism that seemed consistent with the GOP’s current economic agenda as championed by Cantor.
“Judaism is not antiwealth,” Boteach said. “It celebrates wealth ... unlike some of our Christian brothers and sisters.” God has already required enough sacrifice in the Torah, he explained, and he doesn’t expect his children to further deny themselves “some of the pleasures of life” if they can afford them.
The rabbi also theorized that the reason Judaism has seen such slow growth in America compared to other religious movements like Mormonism and evangelical Christianity is because it emphasizes an almost libertarian-sounding sense of individual responsibility that scares off would-be converts.
“It’s a terrifying religion in many ways,” he said, “because we believe your life is not scripted ... You’re out there on your own, and you’re either going to make the right decisions and get a job and prosper or you’re not.”
Cantor didn’t wade into the theology, but he expressed agreement with the morality of trickle-down economics, rejecting the notion that the taxpayer-funded social welfare programs touted by Democrats represent the morally superior method of reducing poverty. “You say it’s somehow not compassionate for Republicans to believe you shouldn’t raise taxes right now,” Cantor said. “First off, raising taxes will cut to the heart of job creation ... We have proffered a solution, which is to fix the problem by getting the wealth creation going again.”
While Cantor fielded most of the night’s questions, there was a second panelist present in Michael Steinhardt, a celebrated investor and philanthropist. A secular Jew whose personal politics are more difficult to peg, Steinhardt played the role of gadfly at the event, opining matter-of-factly that “Jews are not ‘chosen,’ ” and defending Columbia University’s decision to invite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to address its students. He also bucked Boteach’s small-government morality argument by praising Democrats’ sense of egalitarianism.
That liberal ideal of equality may be key to many Jews’ faith, but it was clear early on Sunday night that it wouldn’t be the governing principle at the night’s event. Minutes before the panel got underway, an organizer scurried over to the special “reserved” pews, yarmulke in hand. “Who was this for?” she asked the well-dressed family seated in front—friends of the Cantors. “I literally grabbed it off someone’s head for you.”