Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience
Edited by Jonathan D. Sarna and David G. Dalin
University of Notre Dame Press, 368 pages, $40

In 1813, the trustees of Shearith Israel Congregation in New York City joined a heated debate over aid to private schools. They petitioned the state legislature not to give any aid to the New York Free School, on the grounds that such funding would be “not only impolitic but unjust.” Why? The Free School was unrelated to any religious denomination, and support for it would therefore “tend in its effects to encourage parents in habits of indifference to their duties of religion.” This belief that government should encourage religion was”surprising as it may now seem”the “original intent” of American Jews. In 1787 Jonas Phillips, a leader of the Philadelphia synagogue Mikveh Israel, wrote to the Constitutional Convention then meeting in his city that “the Israelites will think themselves happy to live under a government where all religious societies are on an equal footing.”

How American Jews got from there to militant separationism is the story told in the new book edited by Jonathan D. Sarna and David G. Dalin, Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience . This is a collection of documents presented with a prefatory essay by Sarna and with chapter and document introductions by both men. Sarna is Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis, Dalin Associate Professor of American Jewish History at the University of Hartford, and both are prolific authors in the field.

Accumulations of historic documents such as this one always run the risk of dryness, but Sarna and Dalin have successfully avoided it. Combining excerpts from personal letters and memoirs with Supreme Court briefs, speeches, bill drafts, and other sources, they have drawn a fascinating portrait of American Jews wrestling with their place in the American social and political order. We read the words of Jews worried about Peter Stuyvesant and General Grant, and Jews seeking the right to take an oath on a Jewish Bible or keep a store open on the Christian Sabbath”or to participate in Thanksgiving ceremonies, refuse to sing Christmas carols, serve as chaplains in the Union Army, or get kosher food in federal prisons.

It is striking how little the main issues have changed over the centuries. As the authors say in their introduction to the chapter on the colonial era, “Ultimately, the debate over the rights of Jews that began in colonial America continues still: it is a debate over the social and religious character of society as a whole.” This is true whether the topic is early state laws requiring that officeholders be Christians, the long argument over Sunday closing laws, public aid to parochial schools, or Christmas decorations on public property. For Americans, as the Jewish response to Supreme Court Justice David Brewer’s 1905 book The United States-A Christian Nation , put it, “the Jew is a distinctively, perhaps the distinctively, non-Christian element.” For Jews, as Sarna and Dalin correctly point out, the debate remains one between those who see any governmental support for religion as likely to lead to establishment of Christianity as a state religion, and those who “believe that religious indifference”which they blame, in no small part, on state policies”constitutes the greatest danger facing the American Jewish community.”

It is fair to say that the latter camp is gaining a bit these days, due to demographic data suggesting an erosion of the Jewish community’s strength through disaffiliation and intermarriage. But Sarna and Dalin wish to point out that this more friendly view of religion’s relationship to the state is no mere product of the 1990s and no abandonment of Jewish tradition. It is rather a return to an earlier consensus, one abandoned roughly a century ago “in response to the dramatic revival of efforts to create a Christian America during the last third of the nineteenth century,” including constitutional amendments that would give Christianity an explicit place in the American legal order. The Jewish reaction was to “embrace the doctrine of strict separationism as the best and most legitimate defense.” Here again we see the relevance of the debate Sarna and Dalin describe and the documents they present, for Jews are now actively arguing about whether a more vigorous American Christianity presents a danger to them.

Whether, as the authors suggest, that Jewish embrace of separationism was entirely reactive, and entirely caused by events outside the Jewish community itself, is less clear. There can be no doubt that the “Christian Staters,” as those who sought legal and constitutional privileges for Christianity were called, roused American Jews to near-unanimous opposition. Still, the turn to separationism may reflect as well the community’s own turn away from traditional Judaism and toward the liberal “faith” that for so many Jews replaced it. This was particularly true among Jewish elites, for as time passed community leadership passed from the rabbinate to laymen whose own attitude toward religion was often indifference or even hostility. Sarna and Dalin point out that militant separationism was first the view only of Reform Jews, but then spread to become “the prevailing ideology of the vast majority of American Jews on issues of religion and state.” Can it be coincidental that this happened as that “vast majority” also moved in the direction of Reform Judaism in weakening its commitment to traditional Jewish rituals and beliefs?

There are many gems in these pages. How striking is the Enlightenment faith of one of Reform’s earliest leaders, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who wrote in 1869 that “the morals of a people are always in strict proportion to its intelligence and freedom . . . . The public schools are institutions for the education of free, intelligent, and enlightened citizens. That is all . . . . The growth of freedom depends on the progress of enlightenment, and vice versa. Enlightenment springs from the sciences.” What role is left here for religion, in public affairs or for that matter in private ones? How distant from the current Jewish political orthodoxy are the views of Louis Marshall, founder of the American Jewish Committee, who wrote in 1922 in favor of reading the “majestic English of the King James version” of the Bible in public schools.

Personally I believe that it would not do our Jewish children a bit of harm to become familiar with the Bible even though it be read in the public schools. It will probably be the only way in which many of them will ever gain the slightest familiarity with the Book of Books. Save in exceptional circumstances they do not read it in their homes and they read very little of it in their Sabbath schools, and, what is worse, only a very small percentage of the Jewish children attend any Sabbath school . . . . We must not permit readings which would offend the parents of Catholic or Jewish children. Some method should be found . . . [to] confer upon the youth of this country the advantage of familiarizing itself with the noblest ethical teachings the world has known, couched in the purest of English.

Professors Sarna and Dalin note that “American Jews have supported a wide range of positions on church-state relations; indeed, over the long span of American Jewish history there has been far less communal consensus on the subject than is generally assumed.” Today, as Americans of all religions plunge again into the debate over church and state issues, this is a particularly useful reminder.

Elliott Abrams is President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Articles by Elliott Abrams

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