Jewish life in America began, at least for the vast majority of Jewish families, in the decision of European Jews to leave their parents, their synagogues, and their homes to go to America. That decision was part of a process their descendants now continue: the confrontation between Jews and life in the modern age. Their decision to come to America brought them the challenges that Jews today have inherited: how, and indeed whether, to live as Jews in a society that is overwhelmingly Christian and increasingly secular; what parts of Judaism to cling to, and what parts to abandon; and whether the community would define itself as Jewish by faith or ethnic inheritance.
The earliest Jewish settlers in America were Sephardim, descendants of Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492 and had fled to places such as the Ottoman Empire, Holland, and Brazil. They arrived in Dutch and British colonial America, driven to emigrate there by the same forces that propelled other early settlers. In America they soon lived not as poor immigrants in separate neighborhoods, but as respected and often prosperous, influential citizens. And they not only mixed with but very often assimilated into the Christian gentry, who accepted them as fellow members of the upper reaches of society. In the South in the early 1800s, according to historian Frederic Cople Jaher, marriage with prominent gentile clans was extensive. In the North, says Leonard Dinnerstein, it was the same story: Every Jew who settled and remained in colonial Connecticut before the Revolution married a Christian. Similarly, large numbers of Jews in New York and Philadelphia married, raised their children in the community’s dominant faith, and sometimes became Christian themselves.
What was to be the place of Jews in America, as independence approached? These early communities eagerly supported the Revolutionary ideals of individual rights and freedom of conscience, which American statesmen learned from the Enlightenment. Viewing themselves not as a community apart but as Americans of Jewish faith, they fought for full citizenship rights and the disestablishment of Christianity as a state religion. At the national level, they shared the victory when the First Amendment to the Constitution was adopted, prohibiting an establishment of religion and guaranteeing them, and all others, the free exercise of their faith. The Jews did not seek to separate religion and society, nor did they argue that the government could not support religion in general. Rather, they demanded that it be absolutely neutral among religions. And the Constitution was a great advance toward this goal.
At the state level, however, Jews continued to suffer from disabilities that must have reminded these Sephardim of their experiences in less enlightened regions of Christendom. The constitutions of nine of the thirteen original states contained a reference to Christianity, and four allowed tax assessments for church support. Under the early constitutions of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, and Maryland, only Protestants could hold public office. In fact, not until the Civil War was full political equality for American Jews achieved.
The public agenda of American Jews was, then, the demand for equality, and they defined the religious liberty guaranteed in the Constitution as meaning nothing less. They pressed not for a secular state or society, but for treatment of Judaism no less favorable than that accorded Christianity. This would be an historic achievement and a sharp break with the past experience of Jew and Christian alike. The strategy of the Jewish community for gaining a secure place in the new United States, then, may be described as insisting on government neutrality among religions. But soon, when many new immigrants from Germany arrived, this strategy began to seem inadequate.
The emancipation of Europe’s Jews began in Europe itself”in the aftermath of the French Revolution and in the swirl of ideas and actions we call the Enlightenment. For Jews, the Enlightenment, the Haskalah , meant throwing off the patterns of life and thought with which they had bound themselves for centuries. It meant a new way of dealing with Christian neighbors and a new relationship with the government, which in many places began to grant Jews more rights as citizens. The first step had been to leave the Jewish settlements and head for the heart of Europe’s great cities. This was a physical action for some, coming from shtetls and small towns, and a psychological change for others, who emerged from urban ghettos.
In small towns, in rabbinical courts, and in cities renowned for Jewish learning, Jews in Europe had lived for centuries next to, yet apart from, their Christian neighbors. The Jewish community had not only its own religion, but its own Yiddish language, its own economy, its own system of justice. It had never been entirely cut off from Christian society, and Jews had sold their merchandise to Christians and bought from them the products of the land Jews were forbidden to own. But the Jewish community had enveloped its members and Judaism set the pattern of their days. Its autonomy and its inner peace were broken by the violence of Christian neighbors and Christian princes, seeking taxes and, on occasion, blood.
But in the nineteenth century Jews began to join the social and political, and more of the economic, activities of the people among whom they lived. From the Jewish community emerged philosophers and composers, businessmen and financiers, whose lives were played out not within the walls of a ghetto, but in the wider life of the country they inhabited.
The first waves of Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe arrived from Germany in the 1840s. There had been just a few thousand Sephardic Jews here in the early 1800s, but the German immigration increased their ranks to fifty thousand by 1850, and again to three times that number by 1860. They were escaping the disappointments of a Europe where, especially after the revolutionary hopes of 1848 were dashed, Jews still faced great danger and discrimination. They were also escaping their own pasts, leaving traditional communities governed by Orthodox authorities. It is not surprising that these enterprising and youthful arrivals were drawn from less, rather than more, religious elements of the German Jewish community.
In America, they sought what they could not fully obtain back home: true civil equality for Jews, and a new, more modern kind of Judaism free from the control of Orthodoxy. How could this be achieved? The now enlarged community of American Jews, most originating in Germany, began to envision a new strategy: rather than stand apart as a visibly distinct group and demand government neutrality among religions, it would be wiser to Americanize and assimilate as quickly as possible and insist that government must not support religion at all. So they abandoned German for English and, as Melvin Urofsky notes, deliberately downplayed any tendencies that might set them apart from their fellow Americans in language, dress, and manners. Meanwhile, absolute separation of church and state, not benevolent government support of all religious groups, gradually became the community consensus on public policy.
Their argument for absolute separation was strong. The country they saw before them, and the memories they carried with them, made this seem the logical course to increasing numbers of Jews and their leaders. To begin with, they had experienced government support of established churches in Europe. They did not believe that government would actually remain neutral in any country where the vast majority of citizens were Christian. How would this be possible when many in the populace, the government, and the churches feared and hated Jews? Any government in a Christian country was certain to propound the true faith, they believed, if it involved itself in religious matters at all. And if government support for religion must mean support for Christianity, the only way to stop it”to reduce the influence of Christianity on public life and on their lives”was to separate church from state.
This issue arose in disparate areas of life. While full political rights had been won by the time of the Civil War, other battles continued. Must Jews who closed their shops on Saturday close them on Sunday as well? Would there be Bible reading in public schools, and if so, whose Bible? Were Jewish children to be preached to from the New Testament each morning? The only practical answer seemed, again, to keep religious matters out of any contact with the government”and vice versa.
Second, this conclusion was further reinforced by the arrival, just as the German Jews were reaching America, of large numbers of Catholics from Ireland and Germany. Given the historic link between the Catholic Church and anti-Semitism in Europe, it was predictable that Jews would fear to see Catholicism strengthened in America. Far better, again, to ensure that government would do nothing to assist the Church.
Third, Jews who wanted to see reforms of their own faith in Germany had often had to contend with official support for the Orthodox rabbinate. Separation of church and state meant that the government would leave them to themselves to sort out Jewish community affairs. If the Orthodox authorities had no civil power over Jews, Jews would be free to be irreligious or to define new religious practices they felt more fitting for the modern world. So the popularity of Reform Judaism among the German immigrants also argued for keeping the state out of religious affairs altogether.
Finally, the German Jews arrived here when the goal of previous generations, government neutrality, was already ensconced in the Bill of Rights. They did not have to fight for toleration or legal rights, at least from the national government. They could raise their sights and ask for more: a society where religion played no public role. For, as they became more and more American in their ways, religion alone was what separated them from their fellow citizens. To minimize this divisive factor seemed the safest path.
Moreover, as Naomi Cohen, a leading historian of American Jewry and professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has suggested, as the German Jewish community weakened”in faith, in ritual observance, and in cohesiveness”this very weakness led it to hope that the new strategy could substitute for the security Jews no longer obtained from membership in a tightly knit and to some extent self-governing group. Jews were coming to believe that their community might be weaker internally, yet safer nonetheless, if the separation between church and state were strengthened while that between Christian and Jew disappeared.
Besides, the Jewish community of the early 1900s was now filled with immigrants who, whatever their level of ritual observance, spoke Yiddish, lived among themselves, and were Orthodox at least in their religious training and education. What is more, community solidarity was reinforced by pressure from without, by anti-Semitism. The lynching of Leo Frank by a Georgia mob in 1915 reminded Jews that, even in America, anti-Semitism could bring violence and death.
Given the extremely high levels of prejudice and anti-Semitism prevalent then, the foreignness of the newly arrived Jews, and their intense desire to become part of American society, the risk of assimilation evoked far less concern than the challenge of achieving full participation in this new society.
By the early twentieth century, the Jewish community was rapidly being swelled by yet a new immigration: in the decades between 1880 and the First World War, millions of poor Jews from Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe began to reach New York and other East Coast ports. By the end of World War I, four million Jews lived in America. While their arrival transformed much in American Jewish life, it only reinforced the view that a secular American society was the safest one for Jews.
For most American Jews, the story begins here”with the arrival, three or four generations back, of a relative from Eastern Europe. Like the German Jews, these newcomers were escaping not only government oppression, but sometimes family and religious authority as well. For a young Jewish man or woman, the Tsar was a distant tyrant; there were often others closer at hand. The vast majority came from religiously observant, indeed Orthodox, families. Here, in America, their Orthodoxy crumbled.
From a religious point of view, the transition from a shtetl to life in an American city was devastating. In his famous book about the immigrant experience, The Rise of David Levinsky , Abraham Cahan’s hero explains that If you are a Jew of the type to which I belonged when I came to New York and you attempt to bend your religion to the spirit of your new surroundings, it breaks. It falls to pieces. The very clothes I wore and the very food I ate had a fatal effect on my religious habits.
My own maternal grandfather arrived here just before the First World War, from the town of Tlumatch in Galicia”then belonging to Austria”Hungary, now part of Ukraine. He and my grandmother had an entirely Orthodox upbringing, and to the day they died their household remained strictly kosher. But when employers required that he work on the Sabbath, he complied. The synagogue, and religious law, took second place to the need to feed five children. A chain smoker until his death, he was soon smoking on the Sabbath, too, and by the time I knew him he confined his visits to the synagogue to the High Holidays.
The society operated to Christian rhythms: Christmas and Easter were work and school holidays, not Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Sabbath closing laws shut stores on Sunday, not Saturday. The food, as David Levinsky said, violated Jewish dietary laws, not those of Christians. Toward the end of the nineteenth century a famous European rabbi declared (in Yiddish, of course) that America, which so many Jews call the promised land, was in fact a trefe land , an unkosher country. Abraham Cahan knew what the rabbi meant. For the Puritans, the New World had provided the opportunity to practice their religion more freely than had the Old, and they saw themselves as the successors to the ancient Hebrews striking out into the wilderness. For the descendants of those Hebrews, life in America, far from reinforcing their religious practices, eroded them.
In addition, the very individualism of the Enlightenment philosophers subverted the spirit of Jewish peoplehood. The free individual choice of which those thinkers wrote, and which was sanctified in the American Constitution, was absolutely contrary to the Jewish idea of covenant and commandment. Jewish law was about the collective, inherited obligation to God of an entire people. Could anything have been further from the modern notion that each individual must freely choose his faith? And could anything have been more subversive of the idea that Jews were by birth bound to 613 commandments than a philosophy suggesting that men were free at birth from any religious obligations whatsoever?
But there is more: something special about Judaism that rendered Jews less able to cope with America than members of other old-world religions. Nathan Glazer, professor emeritus of sociology at Harvard and author of the classic study American Judaism , wisely described the problem:
Judaism is even more vulnerable to the unsettling influence of modernity than is Christianity. Judaism emphasizes acts, rituals, habits, a way of life . . . . Once one had found”as so many immigrants did”that it was more convenient to work on Saturdays or to shave or to abandon traditional dress, one had no body of doctrine to fall back upon that could explain what remained really important in Judaism”indeed, the question was whether anything was really more important than the rituals established by God’s word. Under these circumstances, an entire way of life disintegrated.
Professor Glazer was suggesting not that there are no doctrines in Judaism, but that East European Jews had tended to concentrate on ritual far more than on doctrine. And the East European Jews who came to America”the grandparents and great-grandparents of most American Jews”were usually, to say it again, not the most devout people in their communities. Some came for economic opportunity, some to escape the draft, and many to escape oppression, but they did not come to pray. And when they did come to America for religious freedom, very often they were seeking the freedom to be irreligious.
In Europe they had performed the rituals, for there was parental and social pressure to do so, and it was easier to live as a Jew than to violate community norms. But in New York, the reverse was true. There was pressure to grab a (probably non-kosher) sandwich, to work on the Sabbath, to skip a prayer here and there. And as the ritual pillars began to collapse, they brought down with them the whole structure of faith for many new American Jews.
Finally, the American Jewish community cannot have been unaffected, in its religious behavior, by its own argument that a secular society was a safer one for Jews. If religious divisions within the society threatened Jews, how could it be helpful to stress them by ritual practices that set the Jew apart from his neighbor? In the mid-1880s, the East European poet J. L. Gordon, a champion of the Haskalah , told his community that the Enlightenment now allowed Jews to join civil society. The formula was to Be a Jew in your tent and a mensch’ [man] when you go out. But Gordon did not foresee that those who stopped being Jews in the street and on the job almost inevitably would stop being Jews in their tents as well. An end to rituals that interfered with the rhythms of American life might soon undercut faith as well, for who could wish to believe that he was shirking and doing wrong? Far easier, and more natural, to shirk not only the practice but the beliefs that required it. To enjoy the bounty of America fully, to mute the distinctiveness that had always brought danger to Jews, and to contribute to the building of a secular society where Enlightenment values would be safer, all seemed to lead away from traditional Judaism as it had been practiced for a thousand years.
Away from traditional Judaism, and into the melting pot. For nothing was more American than the steady diminution of old-world traditions among the new immigrant groups, and especially among their children. It was nearly unthinkable, and surely un-American, for any group to wall itself off, rejecting the fabulous opportunities of this new land because it preferred self-segregation and absolute fidelity to its past. True, the Amish and a few other sects did this and ultimately earned the admiration of the society at large for their resolute refusal to integrate. But these were rare exceptions, and the vast sea of immigrants”Jew and Christian alike”embraced the American ethos. Far from segregating themselves from America as the Amish did, the majority of Jews sought the social invisibility that alone would protect them and permit them to thrive here.
By the 1920s there were millions of Jews in America, and they constituted 3.7 percent of the population. Yet there is another way to see that number, and it is the way most Jews, and their leaders, saw it: America was still over 96 percent Christian. The leaders of the most important Jewish organizations wondered what public policies would best protect American Jews, and faced again the choices that had once been before their predecessors. They could insist that Judaism be given an equal place with Christianity in a deeply religious America, or seek a more secular America where religion’s role was diminished.
They chose the latter path. Their choice is not in retrospect surprising”nor, even when viewed in the light of today’s demographic crisis, was it necessarily wrong. They did not believe that even in America, even in the twentieth century, Christians would grant Judaism equal dignity. If there were no religious tests for public office by the late 1800s, American society remained pervasively Christian. Moreover, there were repeated efforts by Christian clergy and activist laymen to push through Congress the so-called Christian state amendment, which would push aside the neutrality mandated by the First Amendment and make America an officially Christian country. Judaism would be relegated to a permanently inferior position, and the ability of Jews to succeed in America would suffer enormous damage. How could an officially Christian nation ever be home to Jews? Jews strongly opposed and resisted the Christian Staters and even became suspicious of other causes dear to the Christian clergy, such as the temperance movement.
Most American Jewish leaders came to believe that security in America would be found by insisting that this country’s Constitution be secular and that Jewish pressures to diminish the role of religion were based not on self-interest but on faith in law and the Constitution. For most of them, there must have seemed to be no alternative to this approach. For what else could they do? Accept permanent inferiority, or assault Christianity and hope to change its view of Jews? The first was morally unacceptable, and the second implausible and dangerous.
The universalism of the Enlightenment attracted Jews because it offered them a way out of the ghetto. The two great secular movements that won the support of European Jews after the Enlightenment”socialism and Zionism”had something of Jewish messianism in them. Zionism thought to save the Jews, and socialism to save all mankind, and on one question both agreed entirely: it was dangerous for Jews to live as a distinct minority in a Christian state. Dividing religion from state and society, and relegating it exclusively to the area of private life, had been seen by Jews in Europe as the beginning of their emancipation. America was no different from Europe in this respect, for here too a society where individuals could make their way without being segregated according to group origins would be better for Jews.
A more secular, more tolerant, more open society would be more just, benefit all minorities, and be truer to the nation’s fundamental principles. Those principles were not specifically American but rather universal values such as liberty and equality”precisely the values of the Enlightenment. There was, according to this view, a complete identity among Enlightenment, American, and Jewish values.
To this mix was added a new version of the ancient Jewish respect for the Law, as Jerold S. Auerbach explains in his brilliant work Rabbis and Lawyers . A reinterpretation of Judaism’s commitment to the Law became a critical element of American Jewish adaptation to life in this country, he argues. In essence, Jewish immigrants became American Jews by redefining Judaism and submerging it in Americanism, itself newly defined by the Jewish lawyers who came to lead the community.
In the nineteenth century, rabbis had usually been the community’s most influential leaders; but early in this century lawyers such as Louis Marshall, who served as president of the American Jewish Committee, and Louis Brandeis, the first Jew to serve on the Supreme Court, took their place. As they redefined Jewish legitimacy in American legal terms, Auerbach recounts, they fused Torah and Constitution as the sacred texts of a Judeo-American legal tradition. A key conduit was America’s Puritan heritage, which permitted connecting ancient Israel and America to a common democratic tradition whose origins could be found in the Hebrew Bible. The Puritans looked back to ancient Israel, and the Jews used that reference to affirm their own new American identity. The new synthesis that Marshall and Brandeis developed between 1906 and 1916 was based on the importance of law and justice in both the American and the Jewish traditions. The result was the identification of Judaism with Americanism . . . . The prophetic teachings of brotherhood and righteousness’ . . . had become the modern liberal ideals of democracy and social justice.
As Brandeis put it, the highest Jewish ideals are essentially American, for America’s fundamental law seeks to make real the brotherhood of man. That brotherhood became the Jews’ fundamental law more than twenty-five hundred years ago.
Under the leadership of Marshall and Brandeis, Auerbach concludes, the rule of law that governed American Jewish life came to depend upon the Constitution, not the Torah. This sacralization of the Constitution joined Judaism and Americanism, and the immigrant Jew was now able to embrace a synthesis that allowed him to be a patriotic American as well as an observant Jew”observant, that is, of the newly defined requirements and responsibilities of the Jew in America.
Safety through secularism, integration rather than separatism, and life under the new sacred Law of the Constitution rather than the old Law of the Torah became the American Jewish ideology, and the institutions of the community pursued it with zeal. By the 1960s the battle to disestablish Christianity as the nation’s public religion had largely been won. Great public occasions required clergymen from all three denominations, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish, and the inadmissibility of using state power to advance Christianity was well established. Still the Jewish community pressed on, as Naomi Cohen reports in her history of the American Jewish Committee: Jewish insistence on the sanctity of separation persisted . . . . As a pluralistic society accepted Jewish assertiveness more readily, the Jewish minority sharpened its attack against any entering wedge, no matter how innocuous in itself, which might breach the wall of separation.
Over the decades, as East European Jews became dominant in American Jewish life, the major Jewish organizations changed from being creatures of the rich, assimilated German-Jewish elites who saw themselves as stewards of the community. But the ideology of these organizations, which was secularist and non-Orthodox, did not change as their leadership passed from civic-minded laymen to a new generation of professionals. The members of this new group, like their more elitist predecessors, were highly secular in their own private lives and unenthusiastic about the role of religion in American society. As Cohen argues, They spoke for a religious community, but . . . their actions in opposition to public religion reflected their own indifference if not hostility to religion itself.
Originally, for example, the Jewish defense organizations had fought to remove Christian prayers from the public schools on the grounds of discrimination against Jewish children. But when specifically Christian prayers were gone, these organizations carried on the fight, hoping to exclude any prayer (even voluntary and silent prayer), any observance of religious holidays, any benediction at graduation ceremonies, or any use of school facilities by religious groups. In one celebrated case, Jewish organizations sided with a school administration that permitted all voluntary student organizations, except a Bible club, to use school facilities after school let out. This, the Christian students argued, was discrimination against only one form of voluntary student activity. But the school administration resisted, and the major Jewish organizations supported it and sought to bar even this after-hours and unofficial religious activity. The principle they backed was absolutism in the separation of church and state, for fear that any link of religion to a public institution would eventually endanger American Jews.
Soon, however, that principle was extended from church and state to religion and society. Separation of church and state, as the late social critic Christopher Lasch put it, is nowadays interpreted as prohibiting any public recognition of religion at all. While the Supreme Court has been rethinking these questions recently, the major Jewish organizations continue faithfully to promote the absolutist dogma.
This continuing effort is perfectly illustrated by the 1994 case involving the Kiryas Joel school district. Kiryas Joel is a town in New York State established in 1977 and populated by twelve thousand members of the Satmar sect of Hasidic Jews. The problem they faced when they established their private religious school system was the burden of educating emotionally and physically disabled children. When the sect’s leaders concluded that they lacked the resources to educate these children, they tried to arrange for their education at the expense of the state, invoking a right common to all New Yorkers. The children were, for a time, educated in secular subjects by licensed public school teachers on premises within the town. Later, state authorities said this solution violated separation of church and state, and insisted that the disabled children be transported to public school premises outside the town. Claiming that the trip away from familiar surroundings upset the children, and that the other students who crossed their paths mocked their distinctive clothing and appearance, the parents convinced the state legislature to establish the town as a separate school district so that their handicapped children could be educated at a public school within it. The only schooling offered by this new school district was a secular special education program for handicapped children, and the teachers, therapists, and district superintendent were not Satmar Hasidim and did not reside in the town. Still, the state superintendent of schools brought suit, arguing that this new school district was set up solely to help the Hasidim and as such constituted an unconstitutional establishment of religion.
As might be expected, the major Jewish organizations (with the exception of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, Agudath Israel of America, and the National Council of Young Israel”all Orthodox Groups) lined up uniformly against the Hasidim. An amicus curiae brief was filed by the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the National Council of Jewish Women, together with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State; another brief was joined by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the American Jewish Congress, and the National Jewish Community Relations Councils with People for the American Way. Besides Orthodox Jews, the only organizations that sided with the Hasidim were the National Association of Evangelicals and the U.S. Catholic Conference. The deep religious faith of the Kiryas Joel Hasidim was for the major Jewish organizations outweighed by their fear that some conservative or fundamentalist Christian groups might conceivably benefit from a Kiryas Joel victory.
Thus separation of church and state was here taken another step, for now it appeared that any state action whose effect is to help parents keep their children faithful to their religious beliefs could be struck down as unconstitutional. The major Jewish groups all argued that to assist Orthodox Jews in making their children Orthodox was by definition unconstitutional. Several members of the Supreme Court agreed. New York’s law went beyond constitutional bounds, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his opinion, because it provided official support to cement the attachment of young adherents to a particular faith and in this sense affirmatively supports a religious sect’s interest in segregating itself and preventing its children from associating with their neighbors.
This language is a far cry from the ways in which the Court used to talk about religious obligations and the parental role. In the famous 1925 case of Pierce v. Society of Sisters , the Court spoke of the rights of parents to direct the rearing and education of their children, and in a 1944 case it added that It is cardinal with us that the custody, care, and nurture of the child reside first in the parents, whose primary function and freedom include the preparation for obligations the state can neither hinder nor supply. If these decisions do not speak to the issue of public aid to parochial schools, they do demonstrate how the Court’s attitude toward parents who seek to bind their children into obligatory religious commitments has changed from respect and even admiration to outright hostility. And in this journey the Court had the support of most American Jewish organizations.
Judaism, because it is an all-embracing way of life”intended to govern or at least influence one’s thoughts and behavior from waking until sleep, and from birth until death”cannot be entirely private, in that it affects one’s behavior in society. Nor is it entirely voluntary, for the Jew is born into a covenantal community with obligations to God.
But the view of the Jewish agencies”and to some extent of the Court majority, which decided against the Hasidim”is very distant from this understanding: It is that religion is not a way of life, but rather a private opinion. As Nathan Lewin, an Orthodox Jew who was the attorney for the Kiryas Joel Hasidim, noted, the Justices do not see religion as an individual lifelong condition, like poverty or disability. They view it as a temporary personal preference”a possession that one may choose to keep or discard. Far from being a network of obligatory actions that must be taken to follow God’s commandments, religion becomes just another lifestyle choice. Any adjustment to that personal preference, then, is an unconstitutional favoring of religion, and Justice David Souter called the Kiryas Joel law unconstitutional religious favoritism.
Far from demanding that the government grant some leeway to facilitate the practice of a demanding faith, in this case their own, the Jewish groups insisted that such an accommodation is not only unwise but unlawful. The elements of the Jewish community having the greatest difficulty keeping their children Jewish used the courts to attack the practice by which the elements having the greatest success keeping their children Jewish were doing so.
In 1995, the Supreme Court stepped back from the ever more absolute separationist position it seemed to be embracing in Kiryas Joel. In two cases, Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board v. Pinette and Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia , the Court refused to read an endorsement of religion into official actions treating religious activity no better and no worse than other forms of private conduct.
In these cases the Court took a clear step back from the extremes of separationism, provided a bit more space for religious views in the public square, and clarified a point it had previously made”that the Establishment Clause does not require barring religious viewpoints from expression in neutral government programs. But the major Jewish organizations refused to take that step back. They fought the Court’s conclusions, once again joining with the absolute separatist groups submitting briefs.
To this day, the major non-Orthodox Jewish organizations reject any deviation from absolute separationism. They still see the expression of religious convictions as a danger to Jews. Whatever may be the nature of their commitment to Judaism, their faith in separationism is absolutely intact.
Thus the official views of the Jewish community in the 1992 Rhode Island benediction case, Lee v. Weisman , where the Supreme Court found that it was unconstitutional for a rabbi to read a prayer at a high school commencement. The case was brought by a nonreligious Jewish family, the Weismans, whose daughter Deborah was a graduating senior. A majority of five justices found that her objections to the prayer were enough to make it impermissible as a matter of government coercion. She might be made to feel uncomfortable by this prayer reading, and might feel peer pressure to stand during the prayer or in some other way show a belief in God that she did not have. This was the coercion that rendered the prayer unconstitutional. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, in the opinion of the Court, that the undeniable fact is that the school district’s supervision and control of a high school graduation ceremony places public pressure, as well as peer pressure, on attending students to stand as a group or, at least, maintain respectful silence during the Invocation and Benediction. This could not be allowed because research in psychology supports the common assumption that adolescents are often susceptible to pressure from their peers towards conformity.
So the benediction was barred, because it was too much to ask Ms. Deborah Weisman to stand quietly or sit silently when others prayed. The support of Jewish organizations for her cause, and their jubilation at her victory, were the product of their assessment of American society and the Jewish place in it. The tradition of benedictions at great public events, from a presidential inauguration to a high school commencement, goes back to the founding of the Republic, but they found it an offensive and unconstitutional practice. In their arguments to the Supreme Court, they once again remained true to the strategy that has motivated them for decades. In other words, they continue to believe that a secular America is the only safe America for Jews and to oppose any practice that may force American Jews to acknowledge their religion in public, or permit Christians to do so. They continue to believe that these results are compelled by sacred Law, in this case the Constitution.
The foregoing cases provide striking evidence of what is actually a shift in the thinking of America’s Jewish leaders. They see religion not as the guarantor of civic virtue, but as the source of civic strife”and of danger for Jews. From the original Jewish insistence that Judaism be treated with the respect accorded to other religions, and even beyond the subsequent belief that any form of government support for religion was barred by the Constitution and potentially harmful to American Jews, their position presently stands revealed not merely as fear of government support for religion but fear of religion itself .
How this came to be is a long and complicated story. One key element is the history of Christian anti-Semitism, which made Jews fearful of any display of Christian religiosity. A second element is the sense among Jews that Jewish religiosity and ritual observance would prove to be an insuperable barrier to assimilation and success in America. And a third is the sad fact that most of the American Jewish community has abandoned Judaism the religion . The old Judaic commandments to keep the Sabbath day, to observe the dietary laws, even to worship God regularly and to keep Him at the center of one’s life, have given way.
It is not that American Jews or their leaders wished to abandon being Jewish. Rather, they adopted an elaborate system of subsitute faiths that were supposed to keep people Jewish”from commitment to prophetic Judaism (read, left-wing politics), to Israel, to the memory of the Holocaust, to a generalized ethnic Jewishness. But the newest demographic data show that these substitute faiths are all failing. It is not possible to transmit this irreligious Jewishness successfully, as the Hebrew prayers have it, l’dor vador ”from one generation to the next. Such Jewishness is a counterfeit faith, a passing phenomenon that will outlast the immigrants by only a few generations. There is within the American Jewish community an increasingly widespread conclusion that it is so, and with it a growing sense of crisis. The critical question facing the community today is whether it will acknowledge and act upon the disturbing truths that, as always in Jewish history, substitutes for Judaism are false idols; that following them is a path to ruin; and that Judaism-centered on the worship of God and fulfillment of His commandments-must be returned to the center of Jewish life.
Elliott Abrams is President of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center. This article is excerpted from his book Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America , just out from Free Press.