INTERVIEW: Devorah Goldman on Maintaining Faith Amid Modern Malaise


Published on December 19, 2021

Public Discourse

EPPC Tikvah Visiting Fellow Devorah Goldman recently joined Public Discourse as a contributing editor. In this interview with Elayne Allen of Public Discourse, Ms. Goldman speaks about her background, our society’s cultural and political fragmentation, and how Jewish and Christian faith can be a guiding light.

Elayne Allen: Devorah, welcome to Public Discourse’s editorial team! We’re so grateful to have you aboard. Could you tell us about your professional and intellectual background? What political, cultural, religious, or philosophical topics interest you? What are some themes of your work and writing? Are there any new topics you plan to explore in the near future?

Devorah Goldman: Thank you, Elayne, I’m truly thrilled to be joining. I’m actually a social worker by training, though I never practiced. As part of my graduation requirements, I spent a year counseling individuals convicted of drug-related crimes, many of whom suffered from the kinds of problems therapy can do little to fix: broken schools, violent neighborhoods, poverty. In one memorable group-therapy session, several clients insisted on showing me their bullet wounds in a sort of bizarre show-and-tell, playing up their shock that I had never encountered this species of injury. That experience and others came to inform how I view public policy. I realized that genuine human suffering is often tied to well-meaning and poorly conceived legislation.

The stifling intellectual atmosphere at my alma mater didn’t make the prospect of social work more attractive, and the frustration I felt on both counts prompted me to shift my professional focus. I tried different things as I made my way into public affairs, including doubling up on internships and starting a blog on medical policy, which helped me transition to work as a political consultant. I went on to serve as a legislative fellow at a large Orthodox Jewish organization and later as a legislative staffer in the Senate. Throughout, my experience treating clients influenced the way I thought about law and administration—there is always a real person at the other end of whatever new rule is blithely or gravely agreed upon by distant policymakers. Even the most intelligent and thoughtful legislators are limited in their capacity to understand what they are really signing on to when they pass an enormous bill.

I left the Senate a few months before the 2016 election and joined the editing team at National Affairs, the quarterly journal founded and led by Yuval Levin. This was a welcome change at a moment when many rattled movement conservatives were looking for a home. For a long time, my work had been tied to the daily news cycle, and I appreciated the chance to take a step back and think about where conservatism was headed and why. National Affairs is counter-cultural by design; among other things, it has a very limited social-media presence. I was able to study the subjects that most drew my interest without being derailed by the latest Twitter fracas.

I found myself drawn back to medical policy, not least because many of my family members are nurses, doctors, or pharmacists. Doctors’ offices have become a sort of Ground Zero for cultural battles, most notably abortion and treatments related to gender dysphoria. For years, my writing has focused on moral and cultural hazards within medicine, the kinds of things that have led to a callous disregard for life (as in the case of Alfie Evans); an ad hoc approach to procedures like anonymous sperm donation; the distortion of medical education; tensions between medical researchers and frontline doctors, which became especially pronounced during the pandemic; administrative attempts to control how physicians receive and use medical data; and simple bureaucratic chaos, which has largely been imposed on physicians.

Doctors are moral agents who make decisions at immensely consequential moments of life and death and everything in between. They are among the few truly responsible actors in healthcare systems; unlike officials at the NIH or FDA, they personally interact with each patient affected by their decisions. In a way, medical technology has raced ahead of doctors, so that scientific prestige is assumed to belong to researchers, with physicians cast as overpaid technicians. We often tend to think of frontline doctors as mere service providers or something akin to data-entry clerks. This attitude has undermined the profession’s self-image and moral standing.

Restoring a robust sense of medicine’s purpose and character will require reconsidering whom doctors actually work for. If they primarily serve the cause of medicine, or “big data,” as is the case for many academic medical researchers, individual patients will be rendered mere data points and inevitably suffer for it. If doctors are trained to obey the government or insurance companies regarding what treatments are appropriate, decisions made by far-off regulators risk harming countless people. And if physicians seek merely to accommodate patient demands, even at the cost of real patient welfare, they compromise their integrity. The Hippocratic Oath endures, even as the cult of Asclepius that inspired it has ceased to exist, because it calls doctors to a standard beyond whatever fashions or manias might seize the public at any particular moment.

I could go on for a while about this topic. For readers who are interested, I recommend the podcast “Searching for Medicine’s Soul,” which is produced by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and hosted by Dr. Aaron Rothstein, and which I occasionally join as a co-host.

I’m also interested in writing about culture, particularly in tracing what the music, movies, books, or “influencers” we like or don’t like suggest about us. What do we want, what motivates or attracts us?

This has been a long answer to your question, so to finish up, I joined the Ethics and Public Policy Center as a visiting fellow in February 2020, and simultaneously began working at the Tikvah Fund on a range of projects. These included launching a summer legal fellowship with the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, and crafting a curriculum for middle-schoolers on the “Hebraic spirit of America.” More recently, I joined the editing team at Mosaic magazine, and also work with the young writers of the Krauthammer Fellowship, a project of the Tikvah Fund and the Singer Foundation.

EA: It’s no secret that most of PD’s editorial board is Catholic/Christian, and all of us are people of faith. While PD doesn’t take theological stances, we are self-consciously guided by Judeo-Christian teachings. In what ways do you think this heritage can inform our moment of partisan resentment, existential confusion, and social fragmentation?

DG: This is a wonderful question. There is so much generalized anxiety. Much if it relates to large-scale or looming problems that people feel they have very little control over, like climate change or the pandemic. The confusion over whether and when to trust scientific or political authorities fuels this tension. There’s also a sort of pervasive wellness culture that simultaneously demands a lot of people—landing on the right exercise and face-mask rituals, for example, in pursuit of a fleeting perfection—while telling them to calmly listen to themselves above all. This sort of Instagram- or Goop-driven emphasis on the self, I think, has caused real mental stress for people searching for answers. The self is an unreliable narrator.

This is not to say that introspection is not worthwhile; I believe it’s essential when directed toward the pursuit of real virtue. The idea that standards or expectations can lie beyond the self—and that there is a source of hope beyond the headlines—is vital.

Many of the problems you mention were exacerbated during the pandemic; lonely people grew lonelier and Twitter became louder. Conversely, many of the communal and family structures that people had in place before the pandemic came to seem even more vital. I moved in with my family in March 2020, and shortly afterward my mother’s friends began nonstop prayer groups on WhatsApp. Nearly two years later, we continue to go through the Book of Psalms over and over, with each member noting what chapter they’re about to recite so we can complete it together. It’s a community that doesn’t demand much beyond a wish to be part of it; I don’t contribute nearly as much as I’d like, but I appreciate it.

Speaking for myself, I also felt protected by the Sabbath. When days were blending together during the early lockdowns, it offered an institution in time. Orthodox Jews don’t use electronics for twenty-five hours beginning on Friday evening, and the quiet, combined with the requisite Sabbath meals and prayers, is a great relief. These practices facilitate a community structure that is profoundly meaningful. It is not just the ritual that matters; it is the sense that it is grounded in something eternal, a truth that exists outside of the self.

Both Christianity and Judaism push people to seek truth outside of a peculiarly modern examination of our own psyches. And as people are grasping for ritual, both religions offer ritual that does not divorce content from form. In an overly customizable world, they offer something that is not endlessly customizable. There is a peace in that.

EA: One of my hopes for PD is that it continues to be and grows as a venue for interfaith discussion and collaboration. How do you think Christians and Jews can work together to build a just, virtuous society without sacrificing differences in their respective doctrinal and theological tenets?

DG: Politically, traditional Jews and Christians want many of the same things: religious freedom, support for families (which includes an acknowledgment of the sanctity of life), the strengthening of private education through school choice, and so on. These shared objectives are of vital importance.

Both Judaism and Christianity also engender a kind of humility, as we look to the past for wisdom and acknowledge our indebtedness to those who came before us. Conservatism at its best does something similar; it curbs the temptation to rebuild the world in our own image.

EA: In a conversation a few weeks back, we discussed ways that political polarization has infiltrated various faiths. Judaism, quite obviously, is not a monolithic religion, but have you noticed ways that political divisions have created wedges within or among the branches Judaism?

DG: To a large extent, different branches of Judaism represent political divisions in themselves. Reform Jews are very likely to identify as liberal or progressive, for example, while a large majority of Orthodox Jews are Republicans. The impulse to break away from traditional religion tends to go along with the political impulses that fuel modern progressivism. So feminism as a political movement is of a piece with the movement to ordain female rabbis, for example.

Recently, though, left-wing Jewish groups have been struggling to find their place within a broad intersectional movement that is not especially welcoming to Jews. Leaders of the Women’s March were repeatedly accused of engaging in or condoning anti-semitism; Black Lives Matter leadership released a manifesto condemning Israel in extreme terms; Representative Ilhan Omar and other young progressives are increasingly brazen in their attacks on Jewish institutions. It will be interesting how progressive Jewish groups navigate this new landscape on the left.

EA: What would you say are the biggest challenges society imposes on those for whom their Jewish faith is an important part of life? How can publications like PD help illuminate and begin to rectify some of these challenges?

DG: This is an interesting question. Some challenges simply boil down to the reality of believing things that other people don’t believe and doing things that other people don’t do. I am fortunate to live in a metropolitan area where many people are familiar with Jewish law; when observant Jews need to leave early on Fridays or take off for holidays at inconvenient times, it’s generally not a big deal. I try not to take this for granted; when I lived outside of New York, I had to do a lot more explaining. And I know many people feel guilty or stressed about needing to leave work at a tough moment when it’s almost Sabbath.

Other, more spiritual challenges are not really limited to Judaism: those posed by social media or the iPhone, for example. The ability to focus is central to prayer, to the life of the mind, and to the capacity to connect with family and friends away from a screen. The iPhone is a portable and frenetic cultural hub that does little to enhance religious life. I think this is one area (among many others) where PD is doing important work: even just acknowledging such problems from an explicitly religious perspective can hopefully get us closer to mitigating them.

EA: As fewer and fewer people read books and long-form essays, how do you think places like Mosaic and PD can continue to shape public life?

DG: I wish I had an easy answer to this, especially since I think both publications are important. I’m reminded of Barbra Streisand’s character in the movie Funny Girl, where she pitches her talent to a theater manager by insisting that “pretty girls won’t be in style forever.” So much click-bait will fall by the wayside, while I hope and believe that many of the essays at Public Discourse and Mosaic will endure. Even if they don’t become Twitter events, the best long-form essays have a “sticky” quality; the depth of analysis and insight gives them longevity.

Devorah Goldman is a contributing editor at Public Discourse, a senior editor at Mosaic magazine, and the Tikvah Visiting Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Elayne Allen is Managing Editor of Public Discourse.


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