When The Wall Came Tumbling Down

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As the dust settles on this year’s election season, it’s worth reflecting on one aspect of the campaign that holds particular relevance for the Jewish community: the way in which the principle of separation of church and state, a longtime sacred cow of Jewish communal life, was unceremoniously put out to pasture.

For many decades now, the secular Jewish establishment and non-Orthodox religious movements have invoked the Constitution’s Establishment Clause to fight tooth-and-nail against government aid to yeshivos. Yet, along came a candidate named Barack Obama and the tantalizing possibility of a liberal Democratic rise to power, and, suddenly, this hallowed concept disappeared from the collective American Jewish consciousness.

This year’s Democratic convention was so suffused with religious content that it could have been mistaken for a camp revival meeting, except that this one featured even more rabbis than pastors. Then again, it was that convention’s nominee, Barack Obama, who told a Greenville, South Carolina church last year that he is “confident that we can create a kingdom right here on earth,’ and asked the congregation to “pray that I can be an instrument of G-d.” Hillary Clinton, for her part, told a campaign forum that “you can sense how we are attempting to inject faith into policy.” Nary a peep was to be heard from Jewish proponents of strict church-state separation in response to either statement.

A prominent Reform clergyman, David Saperstein is tapped to give the invocation before Obama’s acceptance speech to 80,000 at Invesco Field? No problem, since, as Saperstein explained, it is “so ingrained in American life that it cannot be perceived as a political endorsement.” Nine separate faith-related events during the convention? That’s OK too, according to Saperstein, since “people can choose whether or not to go” and there “are forums being held on other topics.” That sure is a new tune – or should we say “hymn”? – the Reform movement is singing.

Then, after the speech, evangelical Christian pastor Joel Hunter led a “participatory prayer” which he concluded with the words “in Jesus’ name.” But that too was just fine with Saperstein, because, as he put it, we need to accept the fact that if evangelicals are invited to deliver public prayers, “[t]hey’re going to pray in the name of Jesus.” And, after all, he noted, Jews can also treat Jesus as a teacher. Such admirable, and newfound, tolerance.

When John DiLulio, first head of President Bush’s office for faith-based initiatives, spoke at the convention, he pronounced himself “exceedingly encouraged” by Obama’s “extraordinary” vision of government assistance for faith-based programs. Saperstein’s reaction? “I have three responses: amen, amen and amen.” Anyone remotely familiar with Saperstein’s decades-long views on religion and state can only shake his head incredulously.

The ADL’s Abe Foxman did, to his credit, criticize the extreme religious makeover as “excessive . . . aggressive . . . and not where religion belongs,” and declared himself “very much disturbed that the Jewish community isn’t disturbed.” Yet even Foxman said he had “no problem” with the emergence late in the campaign of Rabbis for Obama, a group comprising over 600 non-Orthodox clergyfolk, which, according to Brandeis historian Jonathan Sarna, was unprecedented in American Jewish politics. Indeed, Noam Neusner, who served as George W. Bush’s liaison to the Jewish community, has said that the Bush campaign never encouraged any such effort by rabbis specifically “because of the sensitivity of the church-state issue.”

No such concern apparently perturbed Rabbis for Obama, because as founder Sam Gordon put it, “we’re not doing this as rabbis of synagogues . . . [but] as private citizens,” and that he “would never presume to tell congregants how to vote.” Yup — and if you buy that, can I interest you next in purchasing a certain bridge spanning the East River?

(A sermon Gordon delivered just after the Democratic convention makes for a fascinating study in cognitive dissonance. Gordon waxes lyrical about Robert Kennedy’s death 40 years ago. He then vows never to endorse a candidate from the pulpit, and tells the assembled that “having said that, [Obama’s nomination] was, for some people, the end of the 40 years in the desert. . . . Bobby Kennedy’s death put an end to many of our dreams, but [Obama’s nomination] was thrilling for many of us because we saw some of those dreams come to fruition. . . . He dreamed of things that never were, and said why not? Why not indeed.”)

In a 1996 Commentary symposium, renowned constitutional attorney Nathan Lewin wrote:

I consider the greatest obstacle to the continuity of Judaism in America to be the slavish, mindless and reflexive devotion of American Jewish leadership to the “Wall of Separation” between church and state, [which] is more revered by American Jewish organizations than is the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the authentic and lasting symbol of Judaism. Crushed under the Wall of Separation, which, to my mind, is built on a misunderstanding of the values protected by the First Amendment, are many yeshivas and other Jewish religious institutions. that cannot survive in today’s world without the support that government should provide nondiscriminatorily for religious and conscientious convictions and practices.

As a parent of yeshivah students who, along with virtually every other middle-class yeshivah parent I know, strains under the almost unbearable burden of tuition, even as our children’s teachers go unpaid their meager salaries for months at a time because the schools are themselves heavily in the red, I wholeheartedly agree with Lewin.

The damage caused by the denial of government assistance to Jewish families and Jewish education has been real and lasting, while the doomsday scenarios of religious domination that animate the strict separationists are the stuff of fantasy. As the theologian Michael Novak has observed regarding school prayer: “For a state to ‘establish’ a religion . . . takes some heavy lifting. Permitting a moment of prayer in the public schools doesn’t do it, and didn’t do it for the more than 120 years between the founding of the public schools (in about 1840) and the concerted attempt to secularize them that began some 40 years ago.”

Similarly, the reading vans that, for decades, were parked outside yeshivos were a very costly and unwieldy result of then-prevailing Supreme Court doctrine prohibiting public school personnel from setting foot in parochial schools to render remedial services, lest the “pervasively religious character” of those institutions influence the hearts and minds of impressionable teachers. In the mid-90s, however, the Court reversed itself and permitted publicly funded remediation on religious school grounds and — wonder of wonders — the new policy didn’t result in a steady stream, or even a trickle, of public employees heading for the baptismal font — or the mikvah.

Through it all, however, many of us have given the secular and non-Orthodox Jewish establishment the benefit of the doubt that their die-hard opposition to any form of government aid to our schools was based on firmly-held, albeit misconceived, principle. Although we disagreed strenuously, we could understand where they were “coming from,” that their irrational fears of creating a slippery slope culminating in forcible conversions by Pat Robertson’s armed hordes was rooted subconsciously in the sum of Jewry’s darkest historical fears.

But now along comes election season 2008, featuring a candidate who was the liberal Jewish community’s great, longed-for hope. Suddenly — and inexplicably – in service of the overriding goal of ensuring his election, decades worth of hypersensitivity to the slightest perceived breach in The Wall vanished without a trace.

It’s enough to make a Jew skeptical.

This article appeared in the December 3 issue of Hamodia.

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12 Responses

  1. Charlie Hall says:

    Two more thoughts on government support of religious education:

    (1) Whenever the question comes up for a vote in the United States, it always gets voted down, usually by huge margins. There is simply no public support for it. We might want to ask ourselves why.

    (2) This past summer I visited two European countries in which the government does provide support to religious schools, including Jewish schools, in return for the schools’ agreement to follow the government-mandated curriculum. In addition, the schools must also accept students from other religions. And in one of those, teaching about other religions is a *requirement* of the government-mandated curriculum — in order to graduate, Jewish students have to pass an exam on Christianity! We should not expect that government support for Jewish schools in the US, should it ever come, will have any fewer strings, and we should be prepared for them.

  2. Anon says:

    >The damage caused by the denial of government assistance to Jewish families and Jewish education has been real and lasting,

    Interesting

    1) Jewish have product/service
    2) product/service unsustainable
    3) Blame government

    What ever happened to the concept of taking responsibility for personal and communal decisions.

  3. Ori says:

    Larry: The answer is obvious: there are those who have been more than willing to reconstitute our religious beliefs and institutions as little more than agents of the Republican Party. And those who have done so, having just suffered a devastating electoral loss, are unable to contain their bitterness.

    Ori: 48% of the popular vote is a normal political loss, not a devastating one. The Democratic party wasn’t devastated when John Kerry got 48% in 2004 either.

    I suspect that what happened is that the Democratic Party realized it needed the religious vote. As a strategy, that obviously worked. Now the incoming administration will have to either alienate the religious voters, alienate the secular liberal voters, or find a way to satisfy both groups despite their mutually incompatible goals.

  4. Robert Lebovits says:

    Evan Steele writes, “How can I possibly take seriously a critique of the left for being more open to religion when the right has been criticizing & calling for this for years?”
    I believe the author is suggesting that the current acceptance by the Reform establishment of greater religious expression in the public arena is hardly the result of a reasoned, thoughtful review of the subject. Rather, it is borne of political expedience & liberal cynicism that holds “The ends justify the means” – the ends being the election of Barack Obama. Thus if jumping on the religion bandwagon will ensure his success then principles are worth sacrificing for such a lofty goal. While this approach certainly reflects “flexible” thinking by liberals it is not in any way “cautious”. In fact, it is at least as extreme & narrow-minded as anything the right could aspire to.
    Watching the way in which literally every special interest group is bellying up to the bar to get a piece of the largesse Obama wants to bestow, by what measure is it “entitlement” for the Orthodox community to lobby for as much educational funding as it can get for its institutions? Are you as perturbed by the others folks looking after their parochial concerns at public expense?
    Finally, Reform clergy have been politically outspoken for decades & have not been criticized for doing so per se within the frum world. Only when they imply that they speak for the entire Jewish community & their positions are authentically Jewish are they challenged.

  5. Charlie Hall says:

    “Judeo-Christian values on which this nation was founded”

    Judeo-Christian?

    None of the founding fathers of the United States was a Jew.

    One signer of the Declaration of Independence was Catholic, but the rest of the founders were a mix of practicing religious Protestants, people from Protestant backgrounds who were lax in there observance or belief (Washington seems rarely if ever to have taken communion, and Adams’ theology would not pass a purity test today), and out and out infidels (Paine, Franklin and Jefferson are examples — any of the three would have been burned at the stake in much of Europe).

    And if you read either Jefferson or Madison on separation of Church and State, you will understand that their stringent position is very similar to that taken by the ACLU today, and not by the Republican party. Late in life, Adams came to the same position.

    Government support for religious institutions may be a good idea, but it clearly was not something that the founders who wrote most eloquently on the matter supported. And many of the founders did not espouse anything resembling normative Christianity, much less Judaism.

  6. Garnel Ironheart says:

    The left is full of hypocrisy. Or maybe not. The “religion” they allow in their state is essentially secular liberalism. Any religion that imposes no obligations on its followers, supports gay marriage and worships the hallowed commandment “Thou shalt be politically correct”, is acceptable to them. The same Reform rabbis who endorsed Barack would condemn any Orthodox rabbi who endorsed McCain without a second thought at the inconsistency.

  7. Larry says:

    “If our Orthodox leaders saw fit to criticize the Democrats when they ignored religion, then why don’t they see fit to praise the Democrats when they respect it?” (Comment by Chaim Fisher — December 11, 2008 @ 8:15 am).

    The answer is obvious: there are those who have been more than willing to reconstitute our religious beliefs and institutions as little more than agents of the Republican Party. And those who have done so, having just suffered a devastating electoral loss, are unable to contain their bitterness.

  8. One Christian's perspective says:

    If our Orthodox leaders saw fit to criticize the Democrats when they ignored religion, then why don’t they see fit to praise the Democrats when they respect it? – Comment by Chaim Fisher

    Chaim, many of us have felt the sting of lack of respect from the Democratic Party . It’s far left liberal views do not reflect the Judeo-Christian values on which this nation was founded. More often than not, this Party has worked very hard at eliminating those values while seeking to make this nation secular in all aspects much like France. A place where G-d has no place or value is not going to be a pleasant place to reside.

  9. Chaim Fisher says:

    If our Orthodox leaders saw fit to criticize the Democrats when they ignored religion, then why don’t they see fit to praise the Democrats when they respect it?

  10. One Christian's perspective says:

    “The ADL’s Abe Foxman did, to his credit, criticize the extreme religious makeover as “excessive . . . aggressive . . . and not where religion belongs,” and declared himself “very much disturbed that the Jewish community isn’t disturbed.” Yet even Foxman said he had “no problem” with the emergence late in the campaign of Rabbis for Obama, a group comprising over 600 non-Orthodox clergyfolk, which, according to Brandeis historian Jonathan Sarna, was unprecedented in American Jewish politics.”

    Interesting observation when one considers the reality that, for the most part, Orthodox Jews and Orthodox (in belief) Christians generally supported the Republican candidate by their vote.

  11. LOberstein says:

    I am listening to “The Audacity of Hope” read by Barack. He is quite open about the importance of religion. I think that the Democrats realize that this is a religious nation and that it is false to characterize one party as the “Party of G-d” (at least not in the USA). There is room for sincere calls upon the One Above in our national discourse and there always has been.
    For a period of time, the Religious Right seemed to have a monopoly and the ultra liberal wing of the party falsly put the “wall of Seperation” up there alongside “a woman’s right to choose” as cardinal beliefs. Now, Obama is moving the party to the middle and appointing pragmatists.The socialist wing of the party is upset with him.
    Now is the time for all good men and women to stop the sniping and unite to save our country in a time of national crisis.

  12. Evan Steele says:

    The problem with pointing to the hypocricy of your opponent is that it exposes your own. How can I possibly take seriously a critique of the left for being more open to religion when the right has been cricitizing and calling for this for years? Talk about a sore winner! Of course, this is indicative of the extreme, all of nothing thinking of the right. One is blindingly pro-American foreign policy, or someone who hates America. One either supports the right wing in Israel or is an anti-semite. A rational position on the involvement of religion in public life recognizes that it has a place, but is cautious about its expression. If the left is being accused of not being rigid in its thinking on this issue, I stand accused with them. I further wonder about the sense of entitlement that demands that non-Jewish tax dollars go to educational institutions whose very ideological agenda is to separate from American culture. As a frum Jew, I completely support this ideology, but I find it rather unreasonable to expect others to pay for it. Finally, criticizing Reform rabbis for speaking out politically is indeed highly hypocritical, when Orthodox rabbis were highly vocal on the matter, and cared not to even give lip service to entertaining opposing views.