Antidisestablishmentarianism

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

Some months ago Rabbis Michael Azose, Menachem Rosenfeld and myself, representing the Chicago Rabbinical Council, traveled to Springfield to lobby for the Education Tax Relief Bill. This Bill would allow up to $500.00 tax relief per student for individuals who are paying tuition in private or parochial schools. It was gratifying to realize that our political excursion to the southern part of the State played a significant role in gathering the necessary votes for this Bill's passage. I am hopeful that its implementation will provide some financial relief for our Jewish community in its monumental task of supporting the Jewish Day Schools of Chicago.

Our visit with our State Legislators was an interesting one. House Speaker Michael Madigan arranged for Rabbi Rosenfeld to be seated in an office. Here he met with individuals to discuss the Bill. Rabbi Azose and myself, largely through the intercession of my State Representative, Larry McKeon, went on the floor of the Legislature, which was in session, to press our cause. Representative McKeon introduced us to many members indicating that he personally supported the Bill. I found interest and in many instances support in all quarters of the Assembly. The noted exception was when we discussed this issue with Jewish legislators.

Representative Louis Lang, who was chairing this session, is one of the key point men for the Teacher's Union in opposing education tax relief for the non-public school parent. In my discussions with him during a previous visit, he was emphatic that he felt it his responsibility to be in the forefront of those who opposed this legislation claiming that monies used for this Bill would be directly taken from those currently used for public education and, in any event, he viewed the Bill as a violation of church and state separation. He indicated that he was not prepared to take into consideration the view of the large Orthodox and Traditional Jewish communities in his district He would not consider any modification of his position.

This visit allowed me to speak with several other Jewish representatives. Interestingly one addressed me in Hebrew pointing out the "nature" of the Gentiles in the Assembly. "Rabbi," she stated, "if you allow this Bill to pass you are playing into the hands of those who would becloud the principle of separation of Church and State. They will use this Bill as a segue to further their cause of advancing a Christian America." Other Jewish legislators seemed to echo this same reasoning. They expressed a serious fear of the possibility that any seeming crack in the wall of separation of church and state would usher in calamitous consequences.

Case in point - The day we arrived at the State House happened to be National Prayer Day. On the steps of the State House were about three hundred individuals. At the head of the steps was a group leading the prayer gathering. Definitely Christian there were those in the crowd deeply moved by the prayers and religious songs being sung. Tears flowed, hands waived expressing sincere and deep devotion. Prayers for our government and our society rang out across the vast area in front of the State House. Rabbi Azose and I entered the building by walking through and beyond this gathering. I was delighted to see so many individuals sincerely praying for the welfare of our society. One of our Jewish politicians however, characterized this gathering as a fundamentalist invasion. I pointed out that should a Jewish group have expressed the desire to gather and pray on the steps of the State Capital in response to the National Day of Prayer their request would have been honored as well. It was evident that deeply felt, G‑d directed public prayer, even for the welfare of our country, was disturbing to this Jewish legislator.

This experience has caused me to revisit my notion of the moorings of the majority of American Jewry's obsessive commitment to separation of Church and State. In the forefront of this battle, their absolutism on the subject, reminds one of an almost cult like approach. They seem unable to discuss this issue with any sense of balance. Every perceived assault on this "sacred fortress" is rebuffed. One is compelled to ask whether this stance represents a more fundamental issue than mere support for separation of church and state?

Remember when you were a contestant in your elementary school's "spelling bee"? What is the longest word in the English language? Of course - antidisestablishmentarianism. Remember what it means? A concerted effort to dismantle the "Church." Perhaps we should consider this word in a Jewish context. One of the highlights of the 1999 Plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization of Federations across the U.S.A. and the denominations as well as some other national Jewish groups was a debate entitled "Serving as a Moral Goad to the Conscience of the Land." The debaters were Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Catholic University law professor Marshall Berger. Professor Berger had served as White House public liaison to the Jewish community under the Reagan Administration. This is but an excerpt of Professor Berger's remarks. "American Jews are failing because of their devotion to church-state separation." Jewish defense organizations, he claimed, are focused solely on building the wall of separation of church and state ever higher, which thwarts opportunities for religious organizations to obtain government support for "good works" that will strengthen communities and alleviate suffering. "Our Jewish defense organizations are secular and lack Jewish spirit, which leads them to defend pornography in the name of free speech while opposing religion in the public square. In many ways, the Jewish community doesn't appear to be a religious community at all. It should be the Jewish community's mission to find ways to integrate religion in public life." (Taken from "1999 Highlights - Jewish Council for Public Affairs")

American Jewry is unique. Anyone who has served in the Rabbinate in Europe is very much aware of this fact. When I served a Congregation in Manchester I was always amazed by the acquiescence of my Congregation to my religious view. The attitude was simple - As a Jew I may observe or not observe as I see fit. This is my personal decision. It would seem absurd to any member of my British Congregation to assert however that the rules and regulations, the Halacha of Judaism, be changed because he or she personally did not ascribe to it. Halacha is the norm for Jewish congregational and communal life. The Rabbi is by his very title, by his specific role in the congregation, the sole authority who explains and interprets Halacha.

I need not tell any Rabbi in America how different the situation is here. Crafting a religious posture for the congregation is in the hands of its membership. Selection of a Rabbi depends in great measure upon finding a Rabbi willing to accept the current religious posture of the Congregation. I use the word current advisedly as tragically all too often that posture is fluid resulting in the ever so common changes in Rabbis so prevalent in the United States.

In a sense this smacks of antidisestablishmentintarianism - in this instance an attack upon the authority of the Rabbi and Halacha in sanctioning religious norms to which the congregation should aspire. Generally American congregations tend to "recreate" G‑d in their own image as opposed to allowing G‑d, through His revelation, to recreate us.

The submission to G‑d's Will, the sublimation of my inclinations as an act of Sacred commitment to the revealed word of G‑d, represents an alien and in a growing number of situations a fear inducing action to the vast majority of American Jewry. Oh one can keep kosher or go to Synagogue because its tradition or because he/she simply enjoys these experiences. Yet when one states that his/her religious activity is an affirmation of Judaism premised on the Revelation at Sinai, that these observances are the eternal Will of G‑d, Jews get nervous. Is it any wonder that fundamentalists, who regularly talk in such language terrify the average Jew? Seeing religion in their life as a matter of personal right to select and discard at will, those who speak of a creed and invoke for its infallibility G‑d's authorship of its every word are viewed as dangerous fanatics who will, if given the chance, reek havoc with American society.

Steven L. Carter in his seminal work "The Culture of Disbelief (How American law and politics trivializes religious devotion)" makes a solid case for anyone trying to understand this attitude toward Church and State. Religion is seen as, in the main, divisive and uninformed. A view expressed on a given subject of discussion premised on a religious value is somehow looked at with disdain. Orthodox Jews have repeatedly experienced this phenomenon in Jewish communal life. As a leading Rabbi on the Conservative movement's west coast campus stated in my presence - 5% of American Jewry, Orthodox Jewry, still embrace the traditional Jewish view of sublimation to G‑d's Will as the ultimate expression of freedom, while the vast majority of American Jewry, 50% of whom belong to the Conservative and Reform movements, and 50% of whom are unaffiliated, have endorsed human autonomy as representative of their sense of freedom and responsibility. (Rabbi Dorf at a symposium on Euthanasia convened by the Park Ridge Center for Religion and Morality in American Life)

Professor Stephen Carter details this sad reality. Concerning separation of church and state as defined in the first amendment he writes, "For most of American history, the principle purpose of the Establishment Clause has been understood as the protection of the religious world against the secular government..." He goes on to say that over the years a clear hostility toward religion has been evident in Supreme Court decisions. "Proponents of the hostility thesis believe that the Supreme Court bears a heavy burden of responsibility for what they see as the disfavored position of religion in America. Justice Hugo Black, in Emerson v. Board of Education (1947), often is said to have started the ball rolling when he wrote these words, "The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach." A year later, Justice Stanley Reed warned that "a rule of law should not be drawn from a figure of speech."... The critics are not quite right, and they are not quite wrong either. There is nothing wrong with the metaphor of a wall of separation. The trouble is that in order to make the Founders' vision compatible with the structure and needs of modern society, the wall has to have a few doors in it."

It is these "doors" that we are suggesting in efforts such as the Education Tax Relief Bill, in vouchers, in various governmental aids to secular studies in parochial schools. Unfortunately, the Jewish community's general discomfort with religion based upon Divine Word resulting in a fear that prompts a hard line on church and state places a tremendous obstacle in our path. Understanding the underlying concern, I believe, will better equip us in ensuring the religious community's rightful place in American society.