In the half-century now past, the dominant view among American Jews was that religion should be rigorously separated from public life. The more thoroughly secular the society, many thought, the safer it is for Jews. Those who, like Will Herberg, dissented from that view were in a very small minority. Now, however, more Jews seem to be having second thoughts about the relationship between religion and public life. In the 1960s, Orthodox Jews joined Catholics and others in urging public funding for religious schools. The National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA) has been formed as a counterweight to the “strict separationism” of other Jewish organizations on church-state questions. Jewish leaders are increasingly contending for “equal time” and “equal protection” in laws and government programs that encourage rather than restrict the role of religion in public life. Therefore, the editors of First Things recently asked a number of Jewish observers to respond to the following questions: What ought to be the role of religion in American public life, and how has your thinking on this question changed (if indeed it has changed)?
David G. Dalin
I strongly believe that religion should play a central role in American public life, that a multiplicity of religious symbols belong in the public square. I am not now (nor have I ever been) comfortable with the liberal Jewish position that religion and public life must remain rigidly distinct. I have never shared the strict separationist faith espoused by Leo Pfeffer (among others) that religious freedom is most secure where church and state are separated and least secure where government and religion are intertwined.
On the contrary: I remain convinced that an American political culture uninformed by religious beliefs and symbols undermines the position of religiously observant Jews, and of other communities of faith, within American society. In their own self-interest, believing Jews should seek and applaud judicial decisions that permit far more, rather than less, accommodation of religion in public life. They should, moreover, applaud the decisions of those courts and judges that have recognized that although certain practices arising out of the requirements of Jewish religious law may conflict with society’s normal practices, these requirements are entitled to reasonable accommodation. (Those judicial decisions of recent years that have affirmed that employers must attempt to make “reasonable accommodations” to the religious needs of employees and, in so doing, have upheld the free exercise claims of Jewish sabbath and holiday observers, are a case in point.) Instead of fighting for the elimination of religious symbols in the public arena, more Jewish leaders ought to be fighting (as some already have) for “equal time” for Jewish symbols, for the “free exercise” of religion through laws and judicial rulings designed to make it easier for observant Jews to uphold the tenets of their faith.
As much, perhaps, as any other church-state question, the issue of religious symbols on public property has generated increasing concern and debate within the American Jewish community in recent years. This concern has derived, in part, from the growing recognition that the triumph of strict separationism as a legal doctrine, with its promise to expunge all religious symbols from the public arena, may actually infringe upon the free exercise of religion cherished by American Jews.
The 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Goldman V. Weinberger is illustrative of this tendency, one too often ignored by liberal Jewish adherents to the prevailing separationist faith. Simcha Goldman, an Orthodox Jew and ordained rabbi serving as a clinical psychologist in an Air Force hospital, wore a yarmulke at all times and contended that an Air Force dress code regulation which forbade the wearing of “headgear” (such as a yarmulke) while indoors infringed upon his First Amendment right to free exercise of his religious belief. The Supreme Court, however, upheld the Air Force regulation, implying that to do otherwise would violate the separation of church and state. The First Amendment’s free exercise protection, ruled the court, did not require the military to accommodate Captain Goldman’s religious obligation. Implicit in the doctrine of church-state separation that the Supreme Court enforced in this case is the assumption that religious symbols such as the yarmulke, while appropriate for private religious devotion in home or synagogue, have no legitimate place in any public institution. The Supreme Court’s denial of Simcha Goldman’s exercise of his religious obligation to wear a yarmulke is, it seems to me, but one recent and especially troubling example of what the Pfefferian ideal of strict separationism has wrought.
Another troubling example has involved the unbending efforts of liberal Jewish organizations to keep religious symbols, such as the crèche and menorah, outside the public arena. Recently, however, the traditional liberal Jewish opposition to the public display of religious symbols has been countered by a growing demand on the part of many Jews for “equal time” for specifically Jewish symbols. With the recent Supreme Court ruling in the case of Allegheny County v. ACLU, I believe a new and exciting chapter in the church-state debate may be evolving around Jewish attempts in Pittsburgh and other places to legitimate the display of Jewish religious symbols in the public square.
The cases in question have to do with the constitutional propriety of placing a Hanukkah menorah in front of a public building or in a public park. Jewish opponents of these displays have argued that “since there is no religious need to place sacred symbols of any faith on public property . . . there is no religious need to be accommodated by the government.” Other Jews, including this writer, believe that such a compelling religious need indeed exists. Especially so, as in the Allegheny case, where religious symbols of differing faiths—the Hanukkah menorah and Christmas tree—are displayed side by side. When there are a multiplicity of religious symbols in the public square, the government is not favoring one religion over another but rather is expressing equal respect for all religious faiths. Promoting harmony among religious groups is profoundly different from the “establishing” of one religion that the First Amendment forbids. By giving a Jewish religious display “equal time” with a Christian one, Pittsburgh was showing the very “neutrality with regard to all religions” that the First Amendment was enacted to guarantee.
As a religiously observant Jew, I find this a welcome, and compelling argument that other Jewish believers, of all denominations, should be able to support and applaud. It is my hope, moreover, that this argument may be reflected in a continuing shift away from the strict separationist ideal that has for so long guided (and often misguided) Supreme Court rulings on church-state issues. I believe it should be the shared hope and prayer of religious believers of all faiths that the Allegheny County decision may usher in a new post-separationist era in church-state relations in America, an era characterized by a greater spirit of accommodation of religion by government, wherein a multitude of religious symbols and concerns may help to transform and reshape our public life.
David G. Dalin, an ordained rabbi, teaches American Jewish history at the University of Hartford. His book From Marxism to Judaism: The Collected Essays of Will Herberg, was published last year. The editors of First Things thank Rabbi Dalin, a member of the First Things Editorial Advisory Board, for his help in planning and organizing this symposium.
Marc D. Stern
The jumping-off point for this symposium is the contention that Jews are “increasingly contending for ‘equal time’ in law and government programs that encourage rather than restrict the role of religion in public life.” Both the poll evidence and the evidence of organizational behavior belie the existence of such a shift. No Jewish organization supported the Equal Access Act, which wrote the equal time principle into law and allowed religious students a platform from which to inject religion into the public high school environment. None supported giving creationism equal time with evolution. None supported ending the special status religious individuals enjoyed under the Free Exercise Clause in favor of a new rule that treats religious and nonreligious citizens equally.
There are good reasons for the Jewish community’s refusal to adopt equality as the overriding principle for defining religion’s public role. Shortly after the Supreme Court upheld the equal access law, fundamentalist and evangelical groups announced campaigns to spread the gospel in the public schools. Describing the decision, one group dedicated to encouraging that effort has written, “God has opened up a huge mission field. Our missionaries to this field must be our high school students. They can reach their generation for Jesus.” Equality that encourages such activity is no boon to Jews.
Some Orthodox groups have sought to ensure “equal treatment or encouragement of religion in public life.” That is surely true of the Lubavitch’s campaign to erect menorahs at government sites, or of its support for moments of silent prayer, or, for the broader Orthodox community, support for aid to parochial schools. These efforts represent the voice of, at most, 10 percent of American Jewry. And the fact is that even within Orthodoxy there are sharp and deep disagreements about the wisdom of these efforts, of which only Lubavitch’s really represents a desire to increase government involvement with religion. The rest of the Orthodox community is motivated by the very different principle of equality, or sheer necessity, not any independent judgment about the desirability of increased public involvement with religion.
In short, if there is any wholesale shift of Jewish opinion on church-state issues from a separationist point of view to an equal treatment or greater involvement point of view, it is not yet visible. It would indeed be startling if Jews were seeking to inject religion into the public life of the nation when for American Jewry as a whole religion has less significance than ever.
This is not to say that equality is not a religious clause value for most Jews. There is a unanimity that synagogues cannot be denied benefits accorded churches. Almost certainly, had the Supreme Court given unqualified approval to the display of crèches, Jews would have demanded equal treatment for menorahs. That demand would have represented not the view that it was healthy for government to be involved with religion, or that the public square needs greater input from religion, but the bedrock view of Jews that they should not allow themselves to be treated as second-class citizens. Equality between religious and nonreligious, however, is simply not the only, or even the most important, value for American Jews.
The substantive question posed is what ought to be the role of religion in American public life. That question could mean three different things: it could refer to the problem of church-state relations—prayer in the schools, religious holiday observances, and the like. The current rule has on the whole served the Jewish community well. Beyond such pragmatic considerations lies an ethical one: it is right that in a society as diverse as this government should not inject itself into religious matters. And it is hard to see any great benefit to religion from the use of opening prayers. In God We Trust, or other ceremonial notations of religious influence. Such events only trivialize religion, contributing a patina of piety, not its reality.
Or the question posed might be whether the government ought to be especially tolerant of religious practices by exempting them, if at all practicable, from restrictions imposed by laws of general applicability. Here, the situation has been unsatisfactory ever since the Supreme Court’s “peyote” decision (Employment Division v. Smith) which held that the Free Exercise Clause did not mandate such accommodation. The organized Jewish community was for many years not sufficiently interested in the problems of the religiously observant. If Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg is correct in describing the Jewish community as increasingly divorced from any substantial religious impulse (a description I believe to be correct), this lack of interest is hardly surprising.
But what I suspect the question means is yet a third thing: whether religious leaders ought to inject their religious views into political debates over the secular issues confronting society. Jews of all stripes in fact do just that: Orthodox Jews in the name of halakha. Reform Jews under the rubric of the prophetic tradition. Even secular umbrella groups such as the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Committee invoke the Jewish tradition as justification for involvement in public affairs. Aside from a few early hypocritical denunciations of the religious right (and occasional critiques of anti-abortion activists), the Jewish community as a whole has not challenged such activity, even when it disagrees with the substance of what is said.
It is not at all clear that this involvement under the rubric of religion produces very much or has significant impact on the real world. Despite the celebratory claims of Allen Hertzke in Representing God in Washington: The Role of Religious Lobbies in the American Polity, I do not believe that American religious groups have any large impact on issues other than legislation directly affecting the religious community as such. At most, religious advocacy gives moral legitimacy to policy urged on other (secular) grounds. On rare occasions that may be significant, but these cases are only a small percentage of the matters in which a religious voice is heard.
There is uncertainty within the Jewish community over how far religious leaders should go in advocating religious positions. May they use religious language? What are appropriate means of speech? What claim do ministers have on their adherents, whether legislators or government officials? Governor Cuomo, and before him President Kennedy, insisted that the answer was easy—that other than in their private lives, the clergy had no claim to control the action of public officials.
That answer has the advantage of simplicity and of avoiding religious warfare and quasi-theocracies. But it also means that public officials must be religiously schizophrenic. Still, it seems advisable under present conditions for religious leaders as a matter of prudence not to seek to hold officeholders to religious discipline.
The debate over the appropriate role of religion in the public square was the most interesting church-state controversy of the 1980s. That debate led to no clear answers, which is not a particularly troubling situation. The fact is that there are conflicting policies and pressures involving a balance among competing interests of religious freedom, pluralism, freedom of speech, and civility. It is instructive that while Richard John Neuhaus made a manful effort in his Naked Public Square, he was never quite able to explain—even, if I understand him, to his own satisfaction—what the implementation of his thesis calling for greater religious involvement in the public square would mean for religious minorities. For Jews, that is no minor objection to advocacy of greater political activity by religious groups. Probably the best that we as a society can do is muddle through, giving due regard for the conflicting interests.
In a way, however, the issue is an unfortunate distraction from more pressing realities. There is no lack of religious voice in American society. There is real lack of religious influence. In part, this is because of the give and take of the legislative process, a give and take for which the absolute commands of religious ethics are ill-matched.
But the problem goes beyond that. It is that religion’s pronouncements do not generate deep commitments. The question for churches is how to persuade people that their pronouncements are weighty and deserving of implementation. How can religion speak to a society whose organs of communication are secular (and in which religious affairs receive relatively little coverage), a society whose values are pragmatic and short-term, where the commitment to religion is increasingly superficial, where most of the roles that religion once filled—whether setting moral standards, providing social services, or providing community—are now filled by groups and institutions in which religion doesn’t play a role? The immediate problem, then, for religion is to persuade internally before turning to the public square. It is ultimately by persuading their adherents that religious groups will have influence, not by getting on the evening news.
I am not calling for a retreat into purely personal piety or a mystical insistence on communing with the Divine to the exclusion of all else, nor do I believe that the secular world is corrupt and beyond redemption. Rather, the question is where struggles for religious influence should be fought—whether the primary forum ought to be the public square. The public square is attractive and beguiling; it offers mass audiences, and the illusion of fame. What it does not offer for religious leaders is a substantial chance of success. That lies in creating communities of believers.
This prescription depends on the existence of religious institutions with the wherewithal to demonstrate the viability of alternatives to the prevailing secular morality, and the legal freedom to implement those lifestyles as much as possible. Both of these preconditions are now in substantial doubt. Here, then, is the future of church-state relations. And on this turns the future of religious influence on the public square.
Marc D. Stern is Co-Director of the Commission on Law and Social Action for the American Jewish Congress.
Secular Jewish activists have been doing both America and American Jewry great harm in their unrelenting war against any manifestation of religion outside the church or synagogue and the home.
The harm to Jews has been the raising of a generation of “Jews for Nothing.” I deliberately choose this phrase because many American Jews resent—correctly, I believe—“Jews for Jesus.” Yet Jewish fears of “Jews for Jesus” have been utterly disproportionate to the threat. The few “Jews for Jesus” are a negligible threat to Jewish welfare and survival, while Jews for Nothing pose an almost fatal threat to American Jewry.
The harm to American society at large is that we have been also raising non-Jews with no commitments to anything higher than themselves. And when these products of our secular world do have commitments, they are increasingly to trees and to sea otters rather than to humans, and certainly not to anything so quaint as God, character development, or the holy.
In lectures to American Jews, one of the points I emphasize is the tragic irony that the Jews, the people who brought God into the world, are today among the leaders of virtually every American movement dedicated to removing God and religion from the world. To cite one of too many possible examples, a Jewish organization, the aggressively secularist American Jewish Congress, welcomed the Supreme Court ruling upholding a state ban on the posting of the Ten Commandments in public high schools. We Jews gave the world the Ten Commandments, and the secular Jews of the American Jewish Congress and the non-Jewish Jews of the ACLU devote their lives to taking them back.
How and why this happened is a theme that Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and I developed in the chapter on non-Jewish Jews in our book Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism. Suffice it to say here that activist secular Jews are highly religious and they do profoundly believe in shaping society according to their beliefs. The problem is that their religion is not Judaism. It is liberalism.
Liberalism possesses every characteristic of a religion, with the exception of God-based ethics. Liberalism is a leap of faith (to, for example, the inherent goodness of man); it offers idealistic passion and a community of fellow true believers (in the myriad liberal organizations). It offers commitments to things higher than self; it even has saints (liberal heroes and liberal organizations such as the ACLU) and of course villains (conservatives, particularly neo-conservatives, Ronald Reagan). It has its own sacred scriptures (e.g., the Constitution), its inviolable laws (just as Orthodox Jews venerate and rely on halakha, liberal Jews venerate and rely on American law), and even a Devil who causes all evil (socioeconomic forces).
Thus, before addressing the question of how religion should enter into public life, it is imperative that we recognize two things: First, secular religion, i.e., liberalism, has no problem whatsoever with imposing its agenda on American life. If liberalism could be officially listed as a religion, we could then use the separation of church and state clause against liberal authoritarianism just as liberals use it against religious authoritarianism.
Second, were it not for the Judeo-Christian tradition (I am quite aware of the many differences between Judaism and Christianity, but I am equally well aware of the values that the two religions share), America would have been a moral and economic wasteland. And that is precisely what America will become without religion.
Having said this, I do wish to emphasize the importance of separating church and state. The mixture of the two has never been good, not historically in Christendom, and not today in Israel. It is also particularly bad for religion, which becomes weak and corrupt when it can rely on the state for its force.
The dilemma is then quite clear: without religious values, America will rapidly crumble, yet the state and religion must be kept separate. How can we reconcile these divergent realities?
The answer lies in one of the least common traits in contemporary American life—moderation. The secular government must bold as an American value that cultivating religion is a good thing for purely practical reasons. Even an atheist can acknowledge the negative ramifications of the death of God in society—e.g., the late Michael Harrington in his book The Politics at God’s Funeral.
That is why this Jew has no problem with a crèche at city hall. Only secular extremists can find offense in such an innocuous governmental display of religion. (But have you noticed that there is no such thing in the American lexicon as secular extremists, only religious extremists?)
Not only does this Jew not object to a crèche in city ball, I think it can actually benefit Jews. I want Jewish children to ask their parents questions about who they are. Quite aside from my belief that a vibrant Christianity is indispensable to American life, I want Christianity to be vibrant in America for selfish Jewish reasons: When the non-Jews are religious, the Jews stay Jewish; and when the majority culture believes in nothing, most Jews will believe in nothing.
Thus, I want Christians to fight the battle against abortion on demand even though, as a Jew, I strongly disagree about abortion being murder. For the secular liberal view of the fetus as of no more value than a decayed tooth—what else can “a woman can do what she wants with her own body” mean?—is frightening. Moreover, that Jewish organizations should hold such a position constitutes one of the gravest Jewish sins, a khillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name).
I want the Ten Commandments taught, not just displayed, in public schools. I do not want young people to get a secular brainwash, going from kindergarten through college without once having been challenged to look at life through religious eyes.
Most of all, I want religious men and women to advocate religion in the public square (not through government). But I mean religion, not liberalism and not conservatism.
When the National Conference of Catholic Bishops sounds identical to Jesse Jackson and the secular left on the role of American force in a world of evil, I wonder whether this is Catholicism or liberalism that I am hearing.
When Protestants start flirting with or even embracing pacifism, a doctrine that holds that it is morally preferable to allow Dr. Mengele to continue to perform medical experiments on men, women, and children than it is to kill him, I see why many people regard liberal Protestantism as secularism with Christ’s name added on.
My ideal is a secular government and a religious society. But with every passing day I see America moving further and further from this ideal, becoming militantly, nihilistically secular. Only if Jews and Christians begin pointing out that it is not socioeconomic conditions but the decline of religion that is the greatest single cause of the moral decline of our country do we have a prayer. Without doing so, prayer won’t help.
Dennis Prager is coauthor of The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism and of Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism. He also has his own program on KABC Radio in Los Angeles.
I do not share the assumption that more Jews are having “second thoughts” about the relationship between church and state. In my personal experience in organized Jewish life, there is no major shift. No doubt many in orthodox Jewish groups desire a breakdown in the wall between church and state, but the mainstream liberal Jewish organizations continue to maintain the old position.
They do so with good reason. It is in the self-interest of minority religions to uphold the separation principle embedded in the First Amendment. Breach the constitutional barrier, and dominant religious forces will flood the schools and public life with the majoritarian religious beliefs of the day. There will soon be no breathing space for minority voices.
There is nothing inherently cynical in alluding to Jewish self-interest. It is an interest shared by all the other minority voices in the country. It is, in essence, shorthand for a description of the core purpose of the First Amendment, whether in free speech or in religious expression and the separation principle.
That core is the protection of the minority in fundamental matters from the oppression of the majority, no matter bow sincerely or passionately the majority makes its claims. Indeed, in affairs of religion, passionate sincerity is present more often than not. In a democratic society that passion will always lead to excesses, unless checked by the anti-majoritarian principles of the First Amendment.
I believe that some Jewish conservatives, or neoconservatives, have been influenced by the 1980s rhetoric of Christian conservatives calling for the return to traditional values. I need not remind the readers of this journal of the argument which suggests that morality in private life can be restored only if religion is returned to the public square. It is based on a kind of Aristotelian notion that the state has the opportunity and responsibility to develop a cohesive moral order. This is in conflict with modern libertarian ideas that men and women should be free, as John Stuart Mill put it, to express themselves in word and action so long as they do not harm another.
I do not share the conservative faith in the wisdom of the state. Modern experience with the cruel excesses of state power has taught us the value of government restraint in areas of personal belief and action. Belief in the beneficent role of government, intermixed with religion, embodies a nostalgic longing for an imagined premodern golden age where religious leaders led the common populace in a private (and public) life of piety centered in the happy nuclear family. If ever there was such a world—and I doubt it—it cannot be introduced in modern Western society without coercive government suppression of heretical (as the government sees them) movements.
There is a passionate diversity in religious belief. For example. Orthodox Jewry, the Catholic leadership, and other religious orthodoxies belittle the role of women in religious leadership. Reform and Orthodox Jewish groups and other religious groups differ deeply over the legitimacy of homosexuality. Reform and Orthodox Jews cannot even agree as to who is a Jew. In the current Gulf crisis and other crises, different religious groups argue over the moral legitimacy of the use of military force. What religion, then, do we bring into the schools and American public life? The answer, tragically, will be the religious belief that the dominant majority endorses.
Another obvious example of the dangers of religion in public life is the abortion issue. Catholic prelates, driven by fundamental belief, have threatened to excommunicate Catholic politicians who do not toe the line on this great debate. Fortunately, their effort at creating conformity appears to have failed. But their campaign is an indication of the kinds of censorship that will ultimately be brought to bear on minorities if religion is introduced as an instrument of proper belief into the schools and public life.
Unfortunately, Jews have only to look at Israel for a lesson in the dangers that religion in public life can bring. In Israel, Jews are the dominant majority. Religious leaders, under a complex set of laws and customs, have a powerful grip on the role of religious life in the public square. Marriage, divorce, and family life are largely subject to the dominant religious voices, which in Israel happen to be those of the Orthodox. As a result, although Israel is the only democracy in the region, the freedoms we are accustomed to in the United States as a consequence of the First Amendment are diminished. Indeed, my sense is that American Jews, and many citizens of Israel, are having second thoughts about this problem, which they view as equal in significance to the Israel-Palestinian issue.
Nicholas Wolfson is the Ellen Ash Peters Professor of Law, University of Connecticut School of Law. His most recent book is Corporate First Amendment Rights and the SEC.
It has been said before, and needs to be said again: The trouble is not that religion in general has too small a role in American public life or American life simply. The trouble is that a particular religion has too great a role—paganism, the de facto established religion. When dissenters pleaded that it is no business of government to endow art like Robert Mapplethorpe’s, all they got for their pains was a derisory token victory and the expectable disdain of the New York Times.
Let historicists wince at statements that begin, “Judaism is.” Judaism is against paganism.
Ha-yehudi, “the Jew,” occurs six times in Scripture, only in the book of Esther and always in apposition to “Mordecai,” who is also once “a Jewish man” and once “a Jew.” In Rabbi Johanan’s exegesis (Megillah 13a), Mordecai is so insistently called a Jew “because he abjured paganism [‘avodah zarah], for everyone who abjures paganism is called a Jew; as is written (Daniel 3:12): ‘. . . Jews . . . serve not thy gods nor worship the golden image which thou has set up.’”
For the Rabbis, as for Scripture, the essence of paganism is unchastity. In Leviticus 18 the unchastities forbidden to Israel are not merely the practices of the Egyptian and Canaanite pagans but actually their laws (huqqot = Septuagint’s nomima): paganism does more than tolerate, it demands unchastity. Rabbinically, only paganism’s licentiousness explains its appeal. About Israelite paganism in the age of the First Temple, “Rabbi Judah said, citing Rav: Israel knew that ‘avodah zarah has no substance. They adopted ‘avodah zarah only in order to give themselves license for overt sexual transgression” (Sanhedrin 63b).
For the most solemn possible abjuration of paganism/unchastity, therefore, the Rabbis ordained Leviticus 18 to be read in the synagogue toward the close of Yom Kippur. (Was it in Queen Victoria’s reign that Reform, fearing that Leviticus 18 might bring a blush to the cheek of the young person, banished it in favor of selected verses from 19? The delayed payoff for a heteroclite rabbinate now is that 18:22 need never be heard by its congregations.)
The honorific subtitle of the historian Peter Gay’s Enlightenment is the Rise of Modern Paganism. The Enlightenment’s project was liberal—to liberate us for the pursuit of our happiness—but some of what began as liberal has become libertine, and libertinism has brought enslavement and misery more than it has brought liberation and happiness: AIDS, kids who have kids, the vanishing father. First the French Revolution devoured its children, then the Bolshevik Revolution, and now the sexual revolution.
Drugs, too, are a pagan devourer. In Judaism, you are equally forbidden to injure yourself and your neighbor, but in paganism, you own your body and are free to inflict on it any injury you wish.
With less paganism and less of its bitter fruit, the country would be less diseased, less fear-ridden, less ignorant, less poor. Surely all must agree that American Jewry should try to help bring that about?
As the Duke of Wellington said about something else: If you can believe that, you can believe anything.
A New York Times editorial being sacred writ, if the Times says so then government must endow exhibits that “documented a sadomasochistic homosexual subculture.” We have not yet been instructed about endowing exhibits that documented a sadomasochistic Aryan National subculture.
In Cincinnati, a curator was tried for obscenity because his museum defended the cause of Art by showing the Mapplethorpe collection. (He was acquitted, the jury deferring to its betters about “What Is Art?”) One expert witness testified for the defense that the photograph of a penis with a finger inserted into it “was a very ordered, classical composition” and that another photograph, of an arm in an anus, was formally similar to the photograph of a flower. In the opinion of the Times’ photography editor, the curator of a university museum “came closest to the truth when she told the prosecutor . . . , ‘It’s the tension between the physical beauty of the photograph and the brutal nature of what’s going on in it that gives it the particular quality that this work of art has.’” The prosecutor failed to ask her a hypothetical question: What would be her expert opinion of a photograph in which there was tension between its beauty and the brutal nature of what was going on in a Nazi torture chamber?
When the esthetic and the ethical (or moral) conflict, as they do here, paganism sides with the esthetic and Judaism with the ethical. In the nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold’s Hellenism/Hebraism and Samuel David Luzzatto’s Atticism/Abrahamism drew that distinction. (In the twelfth century, Judah Ha-levi’s Kuzari drew it.) In Arnold’s time he thought that Hebraism pressed too hard on Hellenism. Now the effortless low paganism that ousted his kind of Hellenism presses much harder on Hebraism, but American Jews do not champion Hebraism in its distress. They champion separationism—separation of church and state elevated almost to the rank of summum bonum—and separationism favors paganism.
Responding to the backward who say that a Christ-in-urine is not what government should endow, the Establishment shudders at the censorship of not giving an artist the money he applies for. (Besides, it was only a tiny fraction of the Arts budget.) If, implausibly, the tiny fraction had endowed art for a church or synagogue, that would have been an unforgivable breach in the Wall of Separation. Whether the money was much or little would not matter, principle would be at stake. The money must be returned, the guilty exposed, watchdogs posted.
It would be funny if it were not so sad.
I first published my objections to the separationist dogma of the American Jewish community almost twenty-five years ago, and I have since called American Jews diehard conservatives. We have seen the unimaginable become real, the impossible become actual, the obdurate become yielding: Berlin wall down, statues of Lenin toppled, the triumphant religion of Marxism-Leninism in ruins. Can American Jewry, uniquely, hold out against necessary change?
British Jews are always puzzled by what they take to be our fuss about separation. They do not mind at all that their Chief Rabbi is in the House of Lords.
In France and its Jewish community separationism was once even more deeply rooted than in the United States and its Jewish community, but a Chief Rabbi of France once told me how disappointed he was to find American Jews still vigorously separationist. In substance, he said: “Don’t they realize how that has fostered irreligion”—he meant paganism—“and how that in turn has fostered crime and every other evil? In France we realize it.” I have forgotten what I told him, but I remember wondering what he would have said if he had been Ashkenazi.
Tiqqûn means “setting right, repairing, correcting, perfecting.” For Jews on the left who like to give a Jewish cast to their politics, the tradition’s tiqqun ‘olam, “setting the world right,” means whatever is on the left’s agenda, and the problem of paganism never is. In the tradition itself the ‘Alenu prayer (which Solomon Schechter called the Jewish “Marseillaise”) has this: “. . . in hope we wait, O Lord our God, . . . for Thee to remove the idols from the earth, the no-gods being utterly cut down, to taqqen ‘olam bemalkhut Shaddai set the world right by the Almighty’s kingship. . . .” The prayer ends in two verses from Scripture: “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever” (Exodus 15:18) and “And the Lord shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one Lord, and his name one” (Zechariah 14:9). Tiqqûn ‘olam is tiqqûn from paganism.
When will the Synagogue Council, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, ADL, and the two AJCs each appoint its Task Force on Combating Paganism? We should live so long.
Are Jews unlikely to bestir themselves soon to seek relief and deliverance from paganism and its bitter fruit? Then let us hope with Mordecai that “relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter.”
Milton Himmelfarb is a former Director of Research for the American Jewish Committee and a former Editor of the American Jewish Year Book. He is author of The Jews of Modernity.
I am proud to be—and always have been—an antidisestablishmentarianist. This was, in my grade-school days, the longest English word we could imagine. No one seemed to know what it meant, and I surely never dreamed I would describe myself as one. But that is what I am.
The strict separationists—those who condemn every financial or ceremonial link of government with religion—have succeeded in persuading the courts over the past half-century to dismantle or forbid any church-state association that might be viewed as an “establishment of religion.” Their success has, I think, crippled Judaism in the United States. Rather than stimulating Jewish identity, observance, and pride, the national Jewish organizations have promoted Jewish ignorance, indifference, and insecurity by their determined campaign to eliminate religion from public life. It was momentarily satisfying for me to win in the Supreme Court, against the opposition of the Jewish disestablishmentarianists, the right to display a menorah in front of a city hall. I recognize that while we prevailed in a small battle, they have won the war.
Twenty years ago, when I wrote the amicus curiae brief for the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA) in the Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman—the landmark case on aid to parochial schools—I truly believed we could win. We argued a constitutional proposition that seemed right to me then and seems right to me today. We claimed that it was a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to require religious parents, who are conscientiously bound to send their children to religious schools, to pay taxes for public education (which they cannot enjoy) if their religious schools are not compensated for the cost of teachers in secular programs that are required by state law. I still remember my great disappointment in reading Chief Justice Burger’s opinion in Lemon, but I hoped then that we would, some day, have a Supreme Court majority that would recognize the paramount importance of the Free Exercise Clause.
The current conservative Court majority has taken a different and unexpected tack, instead of strengthening the Free Exercise Clause and diminishing the Establishment Clause, it has chosen to strangle the former and starve the latter. The Oregon peyote decision suddenly eradicated the Free Exercise Clause. With all the advance notice of Pearl Harbor and with no relevant request from any party in the case or from any amicus, Justice Antonin Scalia and four of his brethren obliterated the few Supreme Court precedents that protect religious observers and gave lower courts, as well as federal agencies, free rein to override the good-faith claims of religious minorities.
This ominous development heightens the need for Jews to ensure that we and our institutions remain visible. If the Constitution, as presently interpreted, gives the courts no power to guarantee the observance of our religion, we must be certain that other societal institutions give us latitude and visibility. Jewish adults and children feel they are part of America and its culture when they see a municipality’s Hanukkah menorah. A land with so celebrated a tradition of religious diversity may surely signify its respect for the conscientious convictions of its citizens.
Judaism will survive in the United States, notwithstanding the lure of assimilation, if Jewish identity is respected and Jewish learning encouraged. Prohibiting all public acknowledgments of Judaism and barring any possible public benefits to Jewish institutions conveys the wrong message to America’s Jews. It tells them to hang, rather than lift, their heads.
Nathan Lewin is a Washington attorney who has been a Vice President of COLPA since 1969 and has litigated a number of religious liberty cases in the Supreme Court.
Jonathan D. Sarna
In a petition to the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia in 1787, the German-Jewish immigrant Jonas Phillips enunciated what to my mind should still be the proper approach of American Jews to the question of religion in American life. “The Israeletes,” he wrote, “will think them self happy to live under a government where all Relegious societies are on an Eaquel footing.”
Two centuries later, we know how difficult even this seemingly simple goal has been to achieve. Equal footing, after all, clashes with basic American notions of majority rule. Why should majority faiths have to accommodate themselves to minority ones? Doesn’t democracy imply that it is the minority faiths that need to adapt? While the First Amendment would seem to provide the answer to these objections by limiting majority rule in the case of fundamental freedoms, minority faiths in America know all too well that even constitutional guarantees are not iron-clad.
Through the years, zealous legislators have, among other things, forced Catholics to fund Protestant public schools, Jews to conform to sectarian Sunday laws, non-Christians to recognize the national holiday of Christmas, and Mormons and Indians to observe laws of the state rather than the requirements of their faith. Had some political leaders been successful, the Constitution itself would now be Christian, complete with a Christological amendment that would, in effect, have made some Americans more equal than others.
It is on account of this zeal that many American Jews late in the nineteenth century abandoned their longstanding commitment to equal footing and forged a new alliance with advocates of strict church-state separation. Only a complete divorce between government and religion, they came to believe, could prevent the kind of abuses that would otherwise transform America into a bigoted Christian state. The “wall of separation between church and state” that Thomas Jefferson invoked in his famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists became Jews’ new rallying cry. In the twentieth century, led by lawyers like Leo Pfeffer, Jews and like-minded Americans fought through the courts to translate this ill-defined wall into a hardy bulwark of constitutional law.
Like many young American Jews, I too grew up believing in this “Wall of Separation”—so much so that I was convinced it had been written into the Constitution itself. The Justices of the Supreme Court in those days were our heroes. We cheered as they decided one case after another in “our favor,” further separating religion from the state. Indeed, we fervently looked forward to the day when religion would be totally confined to home and house of worship, and the state would be divorced from religion altogether—better that, we believed, than state-sponsored Christianity.
What we did not know (how could we, it was not taught in our schools), and what I myself came only to appreciate much later, was how valuable and vital a force religion has been in American life. Antislavery, Progressive-era reforms, the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam movement, the movement to aid Soviet Jews—all depended, in significant part, on religious activism within the public square. In addition, religious leaders have played a critical role (although, alas, not recently) in promoting high standards of ethics and morality. Historically, they have served as behavioral role models, speaking out fearlessly on behalf of “good government” and against social corruption. Were these, I asked myself, the kinds of activities that I wanted now to curtail by restricting religion to home and to church?
More recently, it has struck me that the separationist ideal, essentially a theory of separate spheres, reflects an ideology that I and most of my friends have long since rejected. At one time, a large number of American Jews fervently believed that one should be a Jew at home and a person like everybody else on the outside. My generation, however, vigorously dissented from this view; we wore our Judaism on the outside too. Since we no longer confined our Judaism to home and house of worship (any more than we confined our wives to “women’s sphere”), had we any right to expect others to do differently? Clearly, the whole basis of “strict separation,” with its assumption that religion and state should occupy completely different spheres of life, needed to be rethought.
Nevertheless, I today still worry about state-sponsored Christianity. I continue to fear that some of those who pay lip service to “religion in American life” really have in mind one religion—and not mine. I know that even in this, the bicentennial of the First Amendment, numbers of Americans would, given the chance, write their religion into American law.
But I also know that religions of every sort need to be nurtured in America. They strengthen the fabric of American life and promote social betterment. Strict separation is neither possible nor desirable. Religion is much too valuable and all-encompassing to be restricted to a “separate sphere” of its own. My own vision resembles instead the hope expressed by Jonas Phillips back in 1787: to live in an America where people of all faiths stand on an equal footing.
Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and author of American Jews and Church-State Relations: The Search for “Equal Footing.”
My thinking about the role of religion in public life has been influenced by wildly different forces.
First there was the Vietnam war and the Kulturkampf it unleashed in America, which released me from an undifferentiated Milwaukee childhood into the late 1960s stampede of many Americans to find an alternative identity that was not primarily American, with all the ugly imperialistic resonances and responsibilities the name implied. With America seen as a global oppressor, I sought refuge in my Jewish identity. The comforting and conveniently guilt-free identity of the Jew as victim was, in my mind at least, immune to the facts of Jewish power and acceptance in America. In that guilt-ridden time I needed to cloak myself in the moral innocence of a victim. I became a Jewish Radical, one of the many hyphenated rebels of that tumultuous time.
The one virtue of this charade was that I came to consciousness believing that my religious identity and my sense of political activism were utterly intertwined. My socialism at the time included more quotations from Isaiah than Marx, which was fair enough because my Judaism included more quotations from Marx than from Isaiah. However infantile my theology and my political theories may have been, I believed then, and I believe now, that God commands us to speak the truth of our faith both in our home and on our way, both when we lie down and when we rise up. A religion that does not matter in the streets cannot matter in the pews. I had no real idea at the time how all this played out. I was satisfied simply to trail the Movement providing biblical and talmudic quotes to justify what the left was going to do anyway.
I left the left when I perceived it as turning against Israel. What I felt among my comrades was the strong and frankly anti-Semitic impulse to blame Jews once we were no longer victims. Oppressive Arab dictatorships received nothing like the calumny which the left heaped on democratic Israel, and I resented it deeply. I retain my sympathy for the Palestinian people, but from my vantage point I remain unconvinced that a true Palestinian moderate leader can survive and be followed. Clearly it was my Jewish identity that compelled me to alter my political identity. In other times the opposite would no doubt have occurred.
The second blow from the left came when the black power movement in America turned its back on whites and, with special vitriol, Jews. This was a bitter time for me. My first rabbinic mentor had been fired from his pulpit because he decided to march with Rev. King in the South. I felt deeply proud of the Jewish contributions to the civil rights movement. I considered Schwerner and Goodman to be martyrs, not just political victims. My hero. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, marched with King in Selma not as a token Jew but as a trusted partner in the struggle.
The civil rights movement was for me redolent with religious meaning and metaphor. For me King was primarily a Reverend, not a Doctor. I felt then and I feel now that it was the power of his faith more than the power of his political ideology that accounted both for his political successes and certainly his oratorical passion. When the civil rights movement was taken over by secular black radicals, that religious vision faded and the movement collapsed. It left me with the lesson that a religious vision is essential to overcoming the social ills of America. I believed then and I believe now that the forces of goodness and understanding, of toleration and justice, must find their authentic religious roots again before the tree of social justice will once more bear fruit.
Then I began to think about fetuses. I thought about them first in the context of my doctoral dissertation in Philosophy, and later as a Jew and as a recovering American. To my shock and amazement, the more I thought about it the more I realized that my liberal and radical friends had gotten the abortion thing all wrong.
This struggle for a woman’s right to have an abortion when the pregnancy does not threaten her life or her health does not feel like the struggle to get Rosa Parks a place on the Montgomery bus or James Meredith a place in the University of Mississippi. Those struggles were full of the aroma of justice overcoming bigotry. This struggle smells like a fight to keep women and men from accepting the consequences of sexual promiscuity. How narrow and selfish that seems to me now.
I was bewildered that so many of my Movement friends could not translate their compassion and peacefulness, their regard for life and health, into compassion for fetuses who, despite their disputed moral status before birth, would eventually and surely become persons with the right to find a life for themselves too.
I suspected that the primary reason for the blindness of the left on abortion was the instinctive cultural disdain felt for prolife advocates. They listened to Lawrence Welk, not the Grateful Dead, they had purple hair and white sequined glasses, not long hair and wire-rimmed glasses. They were the ones we had seen across the picket lines in Selma. But on this issue they somehow got it right and we got it wrong. It did not escape my notice that many of the prolife people were moved by their faith to take this position. I could not say that about the prochoice people I knew. The prolife people spoke of rights and wrongs, while the prochoice people spoke of rights and laws. The former language was far more congenial to me personally, and far closer to my sense of how God wants us to make religion real in the world.
Absent a clear danger or palpable threat to the life of the mother, I found that I could no longer condone the morality of killing fetuses. In consulting my faith and its rich legal traditions, I found that my thinking was much in line with orthodox Jewish law on the morality of abortion. Though Jewish law is relatively clear in not considering the fetus a bearer of moral rights, it is equally clear that save to protect the life or basic health of the mother, abortion is absolutely prohibited.
Never did it occur to me that Judaism’s opposition to elective abortions should be considered an inappropriate reason to be prolife. Never did I think that the separation doctrine of the Constitution prohibited my Judaism from informing my moral choices and from motivating me to work to see those choices made real in the marketplace of ideas and politics that shapes public policy. I had never apologized for being pro-civil rights on the basis of the Bible. Why should I apologize for being prolife on the basis of the Talmud?
What I concluded was that there was bad faith here on the part of prochoice people who, because they disagreed with the conclusion of religiously motivated prolife citizens of America, disparaged the religious motivations that undergirded them. There was no such uproar about Reverend King’s religious motivations for civil rights. They were a part of making civil rights a holy crusade.
I saw and I see no reason why religious Americans should feel hesitant to express their religious views or to urge that those views become public policy. I am still uncertain about how my views on abortion ought to be translated, if at all, into public policy, but I know that the killing of a fetus is not a morally neutral act that ought to be covered by some privacy doctrine whether invented or discovered in the Constitution.
God is not finished with me, but I know now that the Judaism that has been with me since I came to maturity speaks not only in the room where I light shabbat candles, but also and essentially to the world that shivers outside the glow of those candles.
Marc Gellman is Rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Dix Hills, NY, and coauthor (with Thomas Hartman) of Where Does God Live?
Ruth R. Wisse
Not long ago, on the campus of my university, I was talking to one of our activists, a professor who devotes much of her time to defending the rights of various academic constituencies. It is here relevant to note that this professor is an American and a non-Jewish Jew—that is, someone identifiably Jewish who underscores her disaffiliation from both the religious and the national content of Jewishness.
I was deploring what seemed a marked increase in the use of the classroom as a pulpit. Students were complaining of the promotion of political causes during regular class hours, a practice that had been mercifully slow in overtaking McGill. She nodded agreement: She herself, having lately complained to the building director about the presence in the lobby of a “Christian exhibit,” had asked him to remove the offensive material. I was dumbfounded by this turn in the conversation. “How can you object to an exhibit?” I asked. “What was offensive about the material?” “It was religious material,” she said. “That was offensive to me!”
I am not an American, and I cannot properly address the constitutional issues of church and state, but this chance conversation may help to explain why my thinking on the role of religion in public life has, indeed, changed. I had once assumed that liberalism was the guarantor of rights, only to discover that an illiberal liberalism could become the denier of rights. My objection to the doctrinaire university classroom, an objection influenced by the great Old Liberal Sidney Hook, takes for granted the right of everyone to promote his views, as long as the promoter is not empowered to deny the same freedom to others. But the New Liberal (my fellow professor to the core) defines freedom as the right to promote her views, and oppression as the attempt of others to express theirs. She regards religion as her special enemy, since its claim to speak in the name of ultimate Truth is the most serious challenge to her identical claim for irreligion.
Thus my defense of religion in public life is first and foremost a defense of religion against the illiberal liberal who would deny it the right of free speech. If religion enjoys no privileged place in American life, it should certainly be accorded its competitive place, its right of influence as well as of worship.
I would go even further. The way I judge ideas is not through their highest claim, but through their lowest perversion. It is for this reason that Judaism seems to me a superior religion. Focused inward on containing man’s capacity for evil through a pattern of small habits, it runs the risk of atrophying into dry ritual rather than enriching civilized life to the fullest—but that is the worst it does. I leave it to others to make their comparisons.
By the same token, I have come to trust the religious faith in God more than the liberal faith in Reason. At its best, the belief in a higher-than-human power breeds humility, which is the spiritual guarantor of tolerance. And even at its worst, every God-centered religion is at least open to the appeal to its highest transcendent principles. Contrarily, the evidence of our century suggests that the totalitarian impulse is implicit rather than accidental in doctrinaire irreligion which adores its shrunken vision of humankind. The difference between my illiberal colleague and a Communist commissar is only one of degree.
I am convinced that the uniquely democratic American Constitution could not have been conceived save under the aegis of God. Nor do I believe that American democracy can flourish without a sense of the God who inspired the Founders. It may seem bizarre, both to those who are religiously gifted and to those who deny the existence of God, to suggest that faith in the God of our ancestors can be a substitute for faith of one’s own, but if the closest one can come to God is through what was fashioned in His Spirit, it is still sufficiently humbling. The appeal to God in the oath of allegiance, the oath of office, in benedictions on ceremonial occasions, and even on the coin of the realm, is an attenuated but still vital reminder of the source of the American idea of freedom. I very much doubt that American freedom can survive without it.
Ruth R. Wisse is Professor of Yiddish Literature at McGill University in Montreal and author of A Little Love in Big Manhattan: Two Yiddish Poets.
Certainly since the First World War, with the rise to prominence of the major secular Jewish organizations in America, the official line of the American Jewish “Establishment” has been that the strictest possible separation of religion and the state is something that is good for Jews and good for America. The clear implication is that the more secular American society, the better.
I would argue that this line has not been good for Jews or for America, either. It has not been good for Jews because it has relegated Judaism (along with Christianity) to the realm of the private. Now despite the great value Americans place on privacy, they do so by public means. Even those who speak of a “right to privacy” speak of it in the context of a constitutional (that is, a public) guarantee. It is the self-limitation of the public realm that makes room for the private.
Thus, if the public realm is where the important moral issues are decided (importance being defined as that to which more effort and attention is directed), and if Judaism is something private, Judaism would then seem to become something of secondary moral import at best. However, Judaism does not survive very well, let alone thrive, in an atmosphere where it is not the primary moral authority in the lives of Jews. According to classical Jewish teaching, the whole world was created for the sake of the Torah; the Torah cannot simply be a subordinate part of a larger whole.
This does not mean that Jews can live with moral integrity only in a society Judaically constituted (a society which does not at present exist, even in the State of Israel). Judaism surely teaches Jews to respect the authority of any society that is founded on right, not might, and that allows Jews to practice the commandments of the Torah. Nevertheless, this public moral requirement is only Jewish if explicitly constituted Judaically. Jews cannot simply be “Jews inside and human beings outside,” as a nineteenth-century poet, over-enamored with the Enlightenment, put the matter. In retrospect, that slogan turned out to be a prescription for assimilation.
Current Jewish experience has confirmed the truth of traditional Judaic teaching. The remarkable resurgence of religious commitment among some American Jews—often the best and the brightest (coupled, alas, with the increasing indifference and assimilation of others)—can be traced to a stance that runs directly against the relegation of Judaism to the realm of the private.
The best example of this Jewish religious resurgence is the Jewish Day School movement, which is now endorsed by every segment of religious Jewry. Schools are public institutions which, even if not the recipients of public funds (a point many supporters of religious schools, Jews and others, argue need not be the case on constitutional grounds), receive public accreditation and other types of official public recognition. There is now a clear consensus that this type of education provides a far better source of Jewish identity for Jewish children in America than education that can only supplement the education offered in the public (that is, state) schools. It is becoming increasingly evident, to cite just one positive result, that a considerable segment of the younger leadership of the American Jewish community is made up of the graduates of these Jewish Day Schools.
This encouraging situation has not been the result of the efforts of the strict separationists in the American Jewish community Rather, it has been the product of those Jews who would like to see more, not less, public support for these schools and for religion in general. Most of the strict separationists seem to have been primarily concerned with the support of secularism in American life. The greatest expenditures of their time and money seem to have been for lawsuits and other forms of public protest against what they see as the encroachment of religion into American public life.
As for American democracy itself, the strict separation of religion from public life has not been good, either. (By “religion” I actually mean “religions”—that is, religious pluralism. Clearly no responsible Jew could be a supporter of an official state religion or anything like “Christian America.”) Strict separation has not been good for American democracy because the nation’s true roots are religious and not secular. The relationship with God is the primary human right and duty from which all other rights and duties flow. (The recognition that this relationship presupposes political liberty in order to be freely affirmed—hence properly affirmed—guarantees the rights of those nonbelievers who choose not to exercise the right and fulfill the duty.) Without this foundation, American democracy can only be based on a type of secularism that cannot allow, let alone guarantee, the place of religions in the public realm. That is something that neither Jews nor Christians can accept with moral integrity.
Strict separationism is bad both for Jews and for America for essentially the same reason. I believe that Jews are meant to be much more than just another ethnic group, concerned only with our own particularism. Judaism teaches that Jews are to be God’s witnesses to the whole world (Isaiah 43:9-10). That witness can be made only in an atmosphere where Jews can live according to the singular requirements involved in our covenant with God. This presupposes an environment where the human relationship with God, in all its plurality, is publicly respected and is thus publicly influential. What is good for Jews is, in this sense at least, good for the world. Strict separationism, because of its secularist foundation, is inconsistent with what American Jews ought to desire for themselves and for the society in which they live.
David Novak is Edgar M. Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies at the University of Virginia.
Many years ago, someone complained to the then British prime minister, Sir Harold Macmillan, that the people of Britain had lost their sense of purpose. “If they want a sense of purpose,” he replied, “let them go to their bishops.”
This was a deeply civilized thing to say—he was a deeply civilized man—and a response whose appositeness it seems not too snooty to suppose few of his interlocutors were likely to have understood. There would be even fewer among us today, when every i and t in the realm of the spirit must be legalistically dotted and crossed, every apprehension converted to a proposition, every tacit understanding translated to a slogan scrawled on public walls. This is a time, to name but one example, when the iron-and-gossamer connection of husband to wife and of both to child has been turned into something called “family values” and is thus both coarsened and weakened. In the same way, to be forced, as we unquestionably now are, to make a topic of public discussion of the relation between church and state means precisely that we are members of a society which has lost its hold—Harold Macmillan’s hold—on the meaning of both.
As for my thinking on this subject, it has not changed; it has only just, haltingly, begun. What should be the role of religion in American public life? Why, to keep us humble, to keep us mindful that we are not a better people than God’s other children but are beyond any measure luckier, and perhaps above all to instruct the citizens of a democracy where beyond state and government and policy-making the true transcendence that every one of us at least sometimes looks for is to be found.
But this is a far cry indeed from the public controversies that our current epidemic of so-called realist atheism has given rise to, such as whether it is permissible to pray or celebrate Christmas in schools and other public institutions, or to grant government support of one kind or another to private religious education. What to do about these? I wish I knew. Not as a Jew—that’s easy: whatever unease Jews felt in an American culture dominated by Christianity ain’t nothin’ compared with the anxiety for Jews and everybody else in a culture dominated by ravening atheists (sometimes mistakenly called “humanists”), including, be it noted, for the atheists themselves. Still, it is not easy as an American to know how far we may go before we damage the pluralism that is essential to the special nature of this society, where, to use Richard Neuhaus’ metaphor, we are to draw the outer boundaries, and how we are to furnish our presently desperately naked square. But would not God Himself enjoin us to be modest and even a little fearful in our deliberations about how best to go about beseeching Him to restore our sense of purpose?
Midge Decter served from 1980 to 1990 as Executive Director of the Committee for the Free World.
Richard L. Rubenstein
In 1964 I contributed an essay to a book entitled Religion and the Public Order (Donald Gianella, ed.) in which I strongly supported the absolute separation of church and state in the United States. Since then my views have changed.
The special need of a religious ministry for the military has long been recognized, and an equitable arrangement is in place to provide for it. However, other groups need some kind of religious ministry as well. Public school pupils, for example, constitute such a group. Unfortunately, it is far more difficult to meet the religious needs of public school students equitably. In the military, men and women are free to choose their denomination. Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Jews go their separate ways in matters of worship without creating a divisive problem for their normal work situation. Indeed, the fact that military service does not entail separation from one’s own religious community probably strengthens individuals in their work.
Moreover, unlike children in their first years of schooling, men and women in the service are old enough to understand some of the ambiguities inherent in American religious pluralism. Separating children for the sake of prayer or worship could prove extremely divisive in public schools already divided by race and other factors. Further balkanizing of American public schools is hardly a good idea. Moreover, it is difficult to see how a common religious program might be worked out. If, for example, an agreement is reached that some sort of nonsectarian prayer be offered to begin classes or school assemblies, conservative Christians might take offense if Jesus is not mentioned. If Jesus is mentioned, Jews will feel excluded. Mutually acceptable references to God would in all likelihood be watered down to the point of irrelevance.
Nor is there likely to be agreement on Bible reading and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in the public schools. The Lord’s Prayer is among the most beautiful and meaningful ever uttered. However, in its original context in both Matthew and Luke, it is clearly a prayer that Jesus instructs his disciples to recite. As such, it is one of the most precious possessions of Christendom, but Jews are not disciples of Jesus and it is impossible for them to recite the prayer while remaining faithful to their own traditions.
Similarly, the Bible has a different meaning for Jews and Christians. For Christians, the New Testament is not only part of Scripture, it is that part in terms of which the entire Bible is to be understood. For Jews the New Testament is one of humanity’s most important collections of religious writings, but it is simply not Scripture. If there is to be Bible reading in the schools, it is difficult to imagine that conservative Christians would accept the exclusion of the New Testament. If it is not excluded, Jews will be excluded.
Fundamentally, the problem comes down to the fact that Christianity makes supersessionary claims vis-à-vis Judaism which Judaism cannot accept any more than Christianity can accept the supersessionary claims Islam makes concerning it. In the military, this is not a serious problem because the mutually exclusive religious claims are made within voluntary religious communities. In the public schools, even the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer or the Bible involves taking sides for or against the supersessionary claims. What is private and non-divisive in the military becomes public and divisive in the public school system.
Such considerations are of great importance to Jews because they want to participate as equals in American public life. Their historical experience has taught them that only when government is more or less neutral in religious matters is the ideal of civic equality likely to be achieved. Obviously, such equality will not be perfect. America was founded by Protestants and remains very largely culturally Protestant. Nevertheless, even the imperfect American approximation of equality has proven far more equitable than what is to be found elsewhere in the world.
Another difficulty in achieving a consensus on religion in public life is the fact that Will Herberg’s tripartite description of American religious life as Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish no longer fits American religious reality. When Herberg’s book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, was published in 1955, the mainline denominations, the denominations most committed to interfaith dialogue and ecumenical consensus, were dominant within Protestantism. This is no longer the case. Millions of premillennial dispensationalists, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals have achieved a measure of prestige and influence that Herberg could never have anticipated. These communities stress their exclusive religious claims and have little interest in ecumenical consensus. Moreover, the abortion controversy had yet to divide America. Similarly, American Judaism has changed radically since the fifties, with exclusivistic Orthodoxy far more influential today than ever before. In addition, there are now several million American Muslims and a growing number of American Buddhists. The religious needs of the latter communities cannot be met with Bible readings or nondenominational prayer.
Nevertheless, a completely secular school system is no longer a desirable option, if it ever was. When I wrote on church and state in 1964, there were far fewer single-parent families than today. In 1964, it was possible to suggest with some degree of confidence that religious training could best be left to the family. Unfortunately, the extraordinary rise in the number of single-parent families both above and below the poverty line has made it far less likely that the family can serve as the source of religious instruction for millions of young Americans.
If religion is completely absent from the training of millions of young Americans, it is bound to have a negative effect on their values. Religion is humanity’s shield against anomie, that experience of absolute meaninglessness that dissolves all values, purpose, and hope. The absence of religion is already visible in the youth gangs, the drug culture, the family decay, the contempt for honest labor of too large a part of our population.
While religion is no panacea for all the ills afflicting America, the absence of religion contributes to the worsening moral situation. Nor do I wish to suggest that only the people at the lower end of the poverty scale are in need of greater religious involvement. Religious commitment has been one of the most powerful sources of behavioral, discipline, literacy, learning, and a sense of vocation humanity has ever known. The ideal of a “wall of separation” between church and state cannot be used to foster an ever greater secularization of American life. Even that ideal, which Roger William espoused long before Thomas Jefferson, was rooted in profound religious commitment.
Those with adequate resources are in the process of solving the problem of religion and the school system by supporting their own schools. They should not be subject to the double taxation of supporting two school systems. Some formula for a tax rebate should be worked out for such parents in view of the fact that the burden on the public schools is lessened when their children attend private schools.
Nevertheless, the public schools will continue to educate a majority of America’s young people. A way must be found to meet both the imperatives of a religiously pluralistic society and the religious needs of a growing number of Americans without any religious resources. Life is difficult enough for those in poverty without the further handicap of lack of contact with an institution capable of instilling values with which a person can achieve a heightened sense of discipline, dignity, and hope. Certainly Jews must appreciate how crucial was the role played by the synagogue in giving the immigrant generation the values that permitted it to take an honorable place in the United States.
I do not have any concrete suggestions concerning how these contradictory imperatives can be met. Perhaps one place to begin would be in dialogue between religious leaders concerning the role of the public schools in overcoming the absence of values in a secular society. The needs are so urgent that one hopes that at least the beginnings of a consensus can be reached. Without such a consensus, it is difficult to see how anything further can be done.
One thing is certain. Given the current crisis, the Jewish community cannot and should not bear the responsibility for excluding prayer or other expressions of religious life from the public schools.
Richard L. Rubenstein is Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Religion at Florida State University and President of the Washington Institute for Values in Public Policy, a Washington-based research institution.
Lance J. Sussman
As best I can determine, most schoolchildren have two problems with the Pledge of Allegiance. First, they have only a limited idea of what it means. Second, they cannot pronounce several of its big words, especially “indivisible.” This polysyllabic, anti-Confederate term often comes out as “invisible,” a known and pronounceable word. Ironically, in the historical contest of American church-state debate, substituting “invisible” for “indivisible” actually makes a great deal of sense. For a large segment of the American population, keeping religion “invisible” in many sectors of the public arena is the key to preserving “[religious] liberty and [constitutional] justice for all.”
Among the various religious as well as secular groups that advocate religious invisibility in American public life, few have been as consistent and as vigorous over the years as those based in the Jewish community. For American Jews, the disestablishment clause of the First Amendment which guarantees freedom from religion is at least as, if not more, important than the Constitution’s promise of freedom of religion. A small minority, relentlessly persecuted over the centuries by both statist and theocratic regimes, American Jews in the vast majority view disestablishment as the basic foundation of their personal civil rights and Judaism’s claim to legal equality in the United States. For American Jews, the benevolent neutrality of their country toward religion, i.e., “one nation under God,” is acceptable and even welcome, so long as the American state does not, at any level of government, officially incorporate religion or a religion into its sphere of operation.
To some extent, American Jewish concern for religious invisibility in the public arena grows out of Jewish theology as well as Jewish history. Jewish invisibility might have grown out of Jewish powerlessness, but Judaic invisibility is all but a fundamental principle of the faith. The Jewish God is an invisible God. The second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth,” has greatly restricted the role of symbolism in Jewish art. The incarnation in Judaism is not in the form of a human body but in the form of words. Unlike the cross, words are as powerful when beard but not seen as when they are beard and seen. Torah is an operant religious system; it is only an artifact in its most limited sense.
Several Jewish religious organizations, most notably Chabad-Lubavitch, a pietistic Brooklyn-based sect with a highly developed and zealous outreach program, are currently challenging the American Jewish consensus on public religious invisibility. The Hanukkah menorah, they argue, is not a religious symbol but a cultural artifact. Thus, Lubavitch can claim, rather disingenuously, that they are not raising church-state issues at all. Rather, they would have us believe that their claims are based on “freedom of speech” and not “freedom of religion.”
To some extent, it seems to me that Chabad’s American menorah campaign is also influenced by a variety of factors including the public nature of Judaism in Israel today as well as the more traditional Jewish religious hope of restoring Jews and Judaism to a “place” in history. In the last analysis, Lubavitch’s menorah campaign is an expression of that organization’s impatient mode of Jewish messianism and its triumphalist agenda and goal of seizing the mantle of religious leadership in the Jewish world today.
Although Chabad’s menorah campaign is making some headway in the courts, the majority of American Jews continue to oppose Lubavitch’s efforts to raise Jewish consciousness by placing menorot in public places as both profane and dangerous to Jewish interests in this country. Public menorot will not only breed private Christian resentment, many American Jews are saying, but they will undoubtedly open the door to the establishment of the faith of the majority, Christianity, as the official religion of the United States. For most American Jews, a national Christmas tree is wrong but tolerable, while the prospect of a compensatory national menorah is absolutely frightening. The majority of American Jews are convinced that public menorot will lead to either an anti-Semitic popular backlash or a legal precedent for establishing Christianity as the religion of the land, or to both.
While court cases over public menorot grab headlines, the deeper and more widespread church-state concerns of American Jews involve the place of religion in public schools. For about a century now, no other issue in American Jewish life has evoked as much emotion and energy at the local level as has the struggle to keep religion out of their children’s schools. On school boards, at PTA meetings, and in private conversations with teachers and administrators, American Jews seem to be saying, “We will not let you do anything to the school environment that will redefine us without a fight.”
Some compromises, however, are acceptable to American Jewish parents today. Winter (instead of Christmas) programs, which have the flavor of the season but little or no religious content, are viewed as “kosher.” “Our kids can participate,” the logic goes, “their kids won’t notice the difference.”
A less than optimal and still agreeable scenario involves the inclusion of Hanukkah cookies at a class party or even a Hanukkah song at the school’s chorus program—usually a previously unknown and completely forgettable musical composition—which, of course, emphasizes the ancient Maccabees’ struggle for freedom of religion. Cookies and songs, however, are the limits of compensatory Jewish religious visibility in public space today for the vast majority of American Jews.
Despite the activities of Chabad and allied Jewish organizations, I detect no movement away from a focused and narrow reading of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom from religion in the mainstream of contemporary American Jewish society. Nor do I see any awareness among American Jews of the irony inherent in religiously identifiable groups arguing against the place of religion in public life. Indeed, the opposite is still true. The majority of American Jews actually expect and sometimes demand that their rabbis give religious sanction to keeping America secular. Their argument is not that of Isaac Backus and other colonial Baptists who wanted to keep religion out of the public arena in order to keep true religion safe from the pernicious influence of government. Rather, they are interested in protecting the security of their ethnic group and continue to maintain, often with great vehemence, that eternal religious invisibility in our public places is the “price of liberty.”
Lance J. Sussman, a rabbi at Temple Concord in Binghamton, NY, is Assistant Professor of American Jewish History at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
Many years ago I heard an interview on radio with a Unitarian minister who was trying to explain the tenets of his church. “Let me put it this way,” he said to the interviewer. “The only time the words ‘Jesus Christ’ are heard in our church is when the janitor falls down the stairs.”
American Jews have hardly been more sluggish in traveling the path of modernity and emancipating themselves from the texts and fables that were fashioned for more primitive minds in those days before religion became theology. Most of the people in America who count themselves as Jewish are content these days to live lives, shall we say, that are not overburdened with theology. They come together to mark the Jewish calendar, they preserve the memory of the Holocaust and the worst trials of our people, and they are prepared to be summoned at any moment to the defense of Israel. Their life as a Jewish community is consecrated to the preservation of a Jewish people.
But the meaning of a Jewish people is increasingly detached from any notion of a people that finds its character in a covenant with God or a dedication to His laws. In fact, any serious discussion about God or matters theological is often regarded as rather indecorous and unsettling. In my own community, in a congregation filled with academics, it has ever been easier to bring people together in working on a Jewish cookbook than in considering the theses or the doctrinal points that define the Jewishness of the congregation.
A dozen years ago, in a national meeting of the American Jewish Committee, I made the case for restraining a band of Nazis from marching through a Jewish community in Skokie, Illinois. The response I received that morning was buoyant and confirming, and yet the American Jewish Community finally backed away from the project of restraining the Nazis. The reasons were evident in the meeting and in the responses of Jews throughout the country: There were, in Skokie, many survivors of the Holocaust, but the passion for protecting those survivors was overborne by a deeper uneasiness over the prospect of restricting political speech. The concern to protect “our own” was modified or translated into the sense of a Jewish stake in the First Amendment. But this fastidiousness has not prevented American Jews from going to the rescue of other groups, to protect them from the symbols of assault. The same large-souled people who would not restrain the brandishing of swastikas apparently have no trouble in sustaining prosecutions for the burning of crosses—or even for using injunctions and restraining thugs in advance from the burning of crosses.
In the transfiguration of Judaism in America, it is the First Amendment and the Constitution that have become “our own.” And we seem to have made them our own more than any other group; for more than any other group, we seem more earnestly concerned about injuries to the Constitution than injuries to our own people. Other groups may not experience the same conflict because they do not read the Constitution in the same way—in the way, for example, that makes no moral discrimination among the kinds of speech or the kinds of political factions that the Constitution was meant to protect. From the public face of American Judaism, we would infer that for many American Jews, the Constitution has become incorporated in the character of Judaism as a source of principles that may even override the texts of the Pentateuch.
But not, of course, the Constitution in its original texts—not the Constitution that offered protections for slavery and no votes for women—and not even the understanding of natural rights and “self-evident” moral truths that underlay the Constitution. What has become authoritative is the Constitution in its most modern, liberal rendering, and the most liberal rendering of all is the rendition that accords with the agenda of political liberalism.
After all, what is one to make of the passages that fill that embarrassing book of Deuteronomy:
Then Sihon came out against us, be and all his people, unto battle at Jabaz. And the Lord our God delivered him up before us; and we smote him, and his sons, and all his people. And we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed every city, the men, and the women, and the little ones; we left none remaining. (Deuteronomy 2:3234)
Passages of this kind we decorously put aside as no longer consistent with what are called “Jewish values.” And from what are those “values” drawn, those values that reject the notion of visiting punishment and death upon people without making discriminations between the innocent and guilty? Apparently, those “values” are drawn from a moral understanding, cultivated over centuries, and from a tradition of reflection that has been affected by Christianity and the Enlightenment.
The Constitution is preeminently the product of that tradition; but the liberal rendering of the Constitution marks an “advance”—a further radical step which has a more recent beginning. The training school of liberalism is now in the schools of law, and for liberal jurisprudence the new age in the law begins in 1965 with Griswold v. Connecticut, the decision on contraception and privacy, the decision that prepared the ground for Roe v. Wade and the “right to an abortion.” Those decisions are now taken as the touchstone for liberal jurisprudence. As one professor was heard to remark, no theory of jurisprudence that gives the “wrong” result in Roe v. Wade could possibly be a valid theory of the law.
If the Constitution has become more authoritative than the Bible for many Jews and if the Constitution has become identified with the liberalism of the left, the defining issue for the politics and jurisprudence of liberalism has become the issue of abortion. That point became clear beyond cavil with the hearings over Robert Bork. The Democrats had lost their constituency for redistribution and an expansion of the welfare state. The Democrats had become the party of the courts; their mission now was simply to protect the courts as the judges imposed policies on abortion, busing, and the environment that could not gather support at the polls. What was at stake in the Bork bearings was the defense of Roe V. Wade—and bow else to account for the interest of the American Jewish Committee in taking a position on this nomination to the Court? What distinctly Jewish interests were engaged in the appointment of Robert Bork?
The teachings of Jewish law have been set quite emphatically in opposition to abortion. On that point, the Orthodox have never suffered serious doubts, even though Jewish teaching has been far more equivocal and far more shaded with stray confusions than the teachings of Catholicism on this matter. Hence, the curious persistence of those assertions in the Talmud that the embryo in the first forty days is “mere liquid,” and that the embryo does not form until forty days. But these passages may be dismissed more readily by grownups who understand that the science of embryology has moved now well beyond the level of Aristotle’s biology. Of more lingering mischief is the kind of teaching found, say, in Nachmanides: that a fetus attached to the mother is not yet a life with a standing of its own, with a claim to be protected by the law because the child is not self-sufficient. That ancient mistake of moral reasoning seems to claim a more enduring credulity.
Still, as I say, the teaching of Jewish law has been set mainly, strongly, in opposition to the killing of unborn children, just as it has been set in opposition to euthanasia. But now, of course, the “privacy interest” in abortion has been made the ground for new claims of rights—to end the lives of aged, infirm patients and to withdraw medical care from newborn, retarded infants. In each of these instances, the same moral premises are engaged and the same parties understand that the defense of Roe V. Wade is at stake.
And so each case rounds up the usual suspects: the same advocacy groups, the same facile lawyers from the ACLU, the same clusters of doctors and ministers. Each of these delegations finds a prominent Jewish presence in offering the brief and fueling the movement, and we can expect that these positions too will soon gather support among Jewish civic organizations. But the movement is sufficiently advanced already to make the point. The Jewish presence in our politics has now been associated with moral ends that find little tethering in the documents and the traditions distinct to Judaism, and the defense of Jewish interests is waged now in the name of policies that may be utterly at odds with the commands of Jewish law.
In my own congregation in Amherst (or the congregation that used to be mine), I discovered years ago one forbidden subject. I was often invited to speak to the congregation on questions of affirmative action or any other matter of public interest. But it became clear that I could not speak on the question of abortion without straining the community and dividing the congregation. Out of prudence, I held back, but the understanding seemed to settle upon me: that the price of my membership in the congregation was to preserve my silence in the synagogue on the issue that I regarded, more surely with each passing year, as the gravest question of moral consequence before us. That unease would not be felt within every Jewish congregation. But it marks the tension that puts some of us in an adversary position right now to understandings that fix—unmistakably and unbendingly—the Jewish community in America.
The report was offered to me of a Catholic friend who was measuring, quite soberly, the depth of ignorance as large numbers of Catholics were going untutored in the teachings of their own religion. “Half of the Church is in heresy,” be said, “and the other half do not know enough to know it.” The melancholy commentary that may be offered now on the state of Jewish understanding in America is that we might count it as a notable advance if we could attain even this condition, the condition that is counted among our Catholic friends as a grievous misfortune.
Hadley Arkes is the Edward Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College. He is the author of First Things, the book (Princeton, 1986), and, more recently, Beyond the Constitution.
Separation of church and state has been a good policy for Americans generally and for American Jews in particular. I include in that judgment at least some of the decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in the past five decades, such as the banning of common prayer in public schools. That said, I must add that I have grown increasingly uneasy over the years with the absolutist position concerning religion and public life, i.e., the “strict separationism” held by many Americans, including a large number (probably a majority) of Jews. On this account, the public realm is supposed to be totally “neutral” with respect to religion; religious language is taboo in public discourse, likewise for religious symbols on public property; and public education and government policy are required to be impartial not only between religions, but also between religion and irreligion.
This sort of separationism, it now seems to me, is involved in practical and theoretical contradictions that have made it intellectually untenable or, at minimum, highly problematic. While it may seek (in its sincere expressions) only neutrality toward religion, strict separationism in fact evidences a certain hostility toward religion—the effect of which is to deprive society of necessary moral and spiritual resources, to misinterpret and misrepresent the history of our culture, and to provoke anger and resentment among those who never consented to make our public life a “secular” enterprise.
I believe that Jews, like all other American citizens, suffer from the unhappy consequences of a “naked public square.” At the same time, I recognize that Jews are understandably wary about the potential for discrimination by the Christian majority in a theologized public square. At the moment, however, it seems to me that between the Scylla of atheism and the Charybdis of theocracy, we are steering too close to the whirlpool of atheism and nihilism; that is now the greater threat to Jewish values and life in America.
I do not presume to have a set of policy prescriptions or legal briefs for bringing some ideal type or measure of religion into public life. I am loath to see a rush of religious “enthusiasm” and zealotry in public affairs, and in part for this reason I hope that rational, civil, and decorous expressions of the religious sensibility would be allowed greater compass in public affairs and discourse. The concerns and misgivings expressed here are only tentative first thoughts, representing part of a potential agenda for Jewish leaders and organizations to consider, possibly in a dialogue that might be initiated with sympathetic Christian leaders and organizations.
Everyone seems to agree, for instance, that there is a moral crisis among the nation’s youth: an epidemic of crime, drugs, sexual immorality, and out-of-wedlock births. On a less urgent but still important level, it is recognized that there has been a general decline in manners, achievement, and ambition. In short, the moral crisis of today’s youth is about corruption of character and loss of values. Comprehensive secularism has not led to “sweetness and light,” but to a bowling wilderness of the spirit and psyche. This crisis surely represents a threat to American society at large, and to the Jews in particular, since, as an ethnic and religious minority, we are likely to become victims when civilization gives way to barbarism.
Beyond the common acknowledgement of the existence of a crisis, there is a widespread sense (among Jews as well as non-Jews) that America’s schools should “do something” to remedy the situation—usually that schools should start teaching values again. Yet it seems to me that public schools are singularly ill-equipped for this task. In the first place, ethical instruction in public schools must necessarily be administered from a purely “secular” standpoint—that is, without reference to religious belief or authority. The theoretical problem with this, one which has been insufficiently appreciated, is that secular does not represent neutral. Though many of the specific precepts of secular moral instruction may not contradict religious teaching, the overall idea of moral education abstracted from the complex of life, including its religious dimension, does contradict most religious traditions, at least when these traditions are taken seriously. To compel pupils to receive moral instruction from some artificial secular standpoint seems to me to be a violation of conscience prohibited by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Besides being unconstitutional and unfair, such instruction also runs into a practical difficulty: i.e., it tends to be vacuous and ineffective. It is true that morality can be taught without reference to religion insofar as ethical precepts can be stated without reference to their theological basis. However the real process of character formation involves not merely an absorption of precepts, but also the general orientation of the soul in which the ethical life is integrated with “the good life” in its broadest sense, so that morality becomes a matter of aspiration as well as exhortation. For an ethical consciousness to take bold it must be a vital part of life; this truth is neatly expressed in Matthew Arnold’s summary of the ethical value of religion as “morality lighted by emotion.” For the vital integration of morality, reason, and emotion to occur, it is necessary to appeal at the deepest level of conscience and aspiration, and to a person’s ultimate sense of reality—all areas that are off-limits to the state, including state schools.
If we are truly serious about values and moral instruction, there are some steps that might help. We could establish in public policy the use of vouchers or tax credits for parents sending their children to religiously affiliated schools where serious moral education can take place. Within the existing public school framework, it might be helpful to expand the use of, and loosen restrictions surrounding, the practice of “release time” in which students may voluntarily receive religiously based moral instruction from clergy of their choice. How this might be accomplished without being disruptive and divisive poses very serious problems, and dealing with them is a task of enormous importance. For if, in fact, we want public schools to facilitate moral education, true separationism requires that the state defer to the religious institutions in matters of conscience and internal motivation. The hegemony of a generic account of ethics and conscience should be resisted as vigorously as the establishment of an explicitly theological account.
Insofar as government can legitimately facilitate moral education, it should not make direct money payments to churches and synagogues, nor should it grant anything like establishment status to any sect or family of faiths. However, it seems to me right and proper that public institutions, schools in particular, make a habit of acknowledging (rather than usurping) religion’s role in character formation and moral instruction. Such acknowledgement is important because lessons and ideas usually become ingrained when people find them confirmed by a variety of authoritative sources. This is why, for instance, it is so important for children to feel the authority of two parents rather than one whenever possible—plus teachers, clergy, community leaders, etc. Given this need for multiple confirmation, what can our youth think when religious perspectives alone are excluded from the otherwise raucous pluralism in their schools? And the public school is hardly the only institution that practices a stony silence and indifference (if not hostility) toward religion. The unique isolation of religion among American institutions seems to me a perversion of nonestablishment and separationist doctrine.
Along similar lines, it might be wise for the social philosophy of American Jews to accommodate itself to more public use of religious symbols and language. I confess to a degree of trepidation here, but it does not seem to me that the presence of crèches and Christmas trees on public grounds, or the singing of Christmas carols in school programs, represents in all cases a threat to Jewish citizens or a diminution of their religion in relation to Christianity—especially in those communities and schools that are attentive to Jewish feelings and display Jewish symbols as well. The point is, we are a society that goes to great pains to recover its various “roots” and to celebrate the contributions of women and minorities and ethnic groups and professions. In all fairness, we must find a way to recognize and affirm the Christian tradition as part, indeed the major formative part, of the general inheritance that we call Western Civilization.
Jews can come to a realization of this imperative by self-regarding prudence or by intellectual honesty and justice. By the logic of the former, we should not offend our Christian neighbors when we need to cultivate as much goodwill as possible for the common good of our own society and also for the sake of Israel. In any case, it seems imprudent for a tiny minority (2 to 3 percent of the population at most) to have such a highly conspicuous cadre of strict separationists in powerful positions, playing the role of the Grinch at Christmas time by swooping down and eliminating holiday decorations.
That is a simple consideration of prudence. A more lofty and idealistic one is that most of us, as Jews, hardly know ourselves or have a sense of Judaism that is not in some way tied up with our experience as cultured members of Western Civilization, which is Christianized not only in an explicit religious sense but also in the pathos and longing of its secular consciousness, as exemplified in its literature and art. Liberal democracy, humanism, even (ironically) the separation of church and state—all emerged from the matrix of a self-consciously Christian civilization. Jews have been able to respond enthusiastically to these cultural and political developments, in part at least, because they resonate with our own traditions and hopes. The Jewish embrace of, and contribution to. Western culture is testimony to a shared inheritance and spirit between Jews and Christians (even if there is not a Judeo-Christian tradition in the strict sense). If this Christian civilization has been involved in all manner of “crimes, follies, and misfortunes,” including terrible atrocities against Jews, it has also nourished Jewish life, a fact that can be seen by comparing the intellectual and religious development of European Jews with that of Jews in the Muslim lands of North Africa and Arabia.
I do not pretend to have answered every possible objection that might be raised to my suggestions. I do think, though, that we must as Jews begin to think about these questions free of a reflexive, often false, separationism. To a degree that would have been unimaginable years ago, it is possible for Jews and Christians to have meaningful dialogue with real possibilities for mutual understanding and accord. We must try harder than in the past to understand the perspectives and needs of the non-Jewish (principally Christian) majority. But before engaging in serious dialogue with others, we must first reevaluate our interests and ideas among ourselves.
Matthew Berke is Managing Editor of First Things.
The Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am distinguished between the “problem of the Jews” and the “problem of Judaism.” Political Zionism—the attempt to secure a homeland through diplomatic means for oppressed Jewry—aimed solely, in Ahad Ha’am’s view, at a solution of the problem of the Jews. The broader, and to him more insistent, issue was the vitality of Jewish tradition, spiritual life, and culture, that is, the problem of Judaism. For Ahad Ha’am, the religious-cultural question had to come first. Without a great renascence of Jewish spirit and communal life, neither political activity as such nor the ends it might achieve could be sustained.
I find the distinction between the problem of Judaism and the problem of the Jews serviceable for the present discussion. As I reflect on bow my views about the relation of religion and public life have changed, I find that I have grown more concerned about the problem of American Judaism and less worried about the problem of American Jews. By the latter term I mean the concern to sustain an open society in which Jews suffer no discrimination simply because they are Jews. By the problem of Judaism I mean concern for the kind and quality of Jewish life which Jews in fact lead in the open society.
Most Jewish considerations of the nexus of religion and public life are fixated on the problem of the Jews. Will diversity be compromised or openness diminished by the “intrusion” of religious values into public life? Will Jews become second-class citizens in a more publicly Christian society?
These are the typical Jewish questions. Yet other questions, I believe, ought to be asked. What kind of religious life is correlated with the judgment that public affairs ought to be wholly separate from religious values? Is it true, as Jewish spokesmen often argue, that public secularity almost miraculously supports private religious intensity? Or is it the case that public secularity begets, reflexively, the secularization of religious communities which advocate a secularizing strategy? In my view, this is precisely what has happened to Judaism in America.
A strategy of uncompromising secularization directed toward the public realm has become a defining condition of the internal Jewish world. Consequently, a renewal of Jewish life requires a fresh consideration of the connections between religion and public affairs. The renewal of Jewish life and the reappraisal of Jewish social thought are closely correlated.
How has the problem of Judaism developed? Judaism is not a sectarian or otherworldly religion. While always a religion of the study ball, it is also a religion of marketplaces, courts, and operating rooms. Since the Emancipation, when Jews gave up whatever communal autonomy was left to them in favor of citizenship rights in modem states, these applications of Judaism have withered into academic topics. Even in Israel, the applicability of traditional Jewish approaches to public matters remains quite limited. Judaism, however, resists confessionalization. While some extreme versions of Reform in Germany and the U.S. did precisely that, most Jews compensated for the loss of a public dimension by embracing modern, surrogate forms of historical action such as Zionism and liberalism.
These concerns point in rather different directions. Zionism is survivalist. Liberalism is universalist. The one asserts the primacy of action for the Jewish good. The other appeals to considerations of the common good. Yet both amount phenomenologically to a Jewish public discourse. Both compensate for the loss of a once all-encompassing Jewish world by providing a rationale for action in history and a self-definition of the Jew as an active, political being. Both, in a sense, have become Judaism.
Judaism in America has become a religion, as Jonathan Woocher put it, of “sacred survival” on the one band and, I would add, social gospel on the other. Judaism has become the civil religion of an American minority. The periphery has become the center. Values of tolerance, pluralism, fairness, equal rights, and so on have come to be located at the core. Not that these very agreeable values could not have been found to some extent at the core all along. They could have been and were. Rather, there is an artifice and disingenuousness about the process of their valorization. Jewish organizations, for example, antecedently convinced of a woman’s right to abortion have combed Jewish sources for proof texts and then displayed the results as evidence of Judaism’s defense of abortion rights. Indeed, Jewish law supports abortion in some (fairly restricted) cases. That is not the point. What is at issue is the meretricious or—more charitably—pathetic nature of the exercise.
I do not take issue here with where the process winds up, but with where it begins. If American Jews had a genuine public philosophy, they would not have to be reduced to adventitious proof-texting. Their consciences would be formed by their subtle and ramified legal tradition. They would argue for the applicability of that tradition to the common good in an appropriately public manner, as the Catholic bishops have tried to do. Instead, they imitate the progressive, yet apodictic pronouncements of Protestant church bodies. Elevated, self-assured moralism substitutes for disciplined argument. And what is said is no different from what might have been said by others. Whatever is distinctive about Judaism has been left out of account either because it does not accord with the liberal consensus or because Jews lack a public philosophy of adequate complexity to mediate the values of their tradition to the culture at large. The result is not a lively tension between a distinctive Judaism and the public realm, but a redundant repetition by Jews of the culture’s (liberal) common sense.
I have argued that the quality and credibility of Judaism is in some sense inseparable from Judaism’s engagement with public questions. Because the mode of that engagement heretofore has been dictated by imperatives from the general culture rather than Jewish tradition, Judaism has acquired the cast of a civil religion. Renewal requires that authentic Jewish perspectives be allowed to penetrate our thinking about public matters. As I want to see other groups engage in their own renewal, I welcome their involvement in public discourse. I do not see how authenticity—or simple self-respect—permits anything less.
Alan Mittleman, an ordained rabbi, teaches in the Department of Religion at Muhlenberg College. He is author of Between Kant and Kabbalah: An Introduction to Isaac Breuer’s Philosophy of Judaism, recently published by SUNY Press.