The Magazine

Oy Vey!

The anxieties of America's Jews.

Mar 31, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 28 • By WERNER J. DANNHAUSER
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Indeed, discord is alive and well in Jewish religious movements of this country, to which six chapters are devoted in "Jewish Polity and American Civil Society." The chapters on conservative, reform, and orthodox Judaism, the mainstream, are all competent, though at times they illustrate the baleful effects of social science on English prose. The discussions of ultra-orthodoxy, reconstructionism, and Jewish Renewal are more intriguing and informative. Samuel C. Heilman shows how the ultra-orthodox, the haredim, are driven above all by the urge to be left alone. Reconstructionism, which is in some ways the Reform Judaism of Eastern European Jews, receives a balanced analysis by David A. Teutsch. Finally, Allan Arkush is deliciously though benignly satirical about "Jewish Renewal" (basically the words and deeds of Arthur Waskow and Michael Lerner); Arkush's dead-pan descriptions of things like "eco-Kosher" liven up a volume necessarily short on mirth.

ONE CANNOT READ the various expositions offered in these books without becoming aware of historical change. It was probably inevitable that Senator Joseph Lieberman play a role in both volumes, but one is repeatedly struck by how he differs from the typical Orthodox Jew of, say, fifty years ago. It is not that he does not wear a skull cap on a daily basis; it is that one finds next to nothing in his speech or deeds to the effect that one of the designs of the Torah, Jewish Law, is to separate the Jews from the world of non-Jews, an omission that cannot be completely explained by his desire to serve as president of the United States.

The fact that American Jews live in a world that is not a Jewish world is the predominant theme of "Jews and the American Public Square." Neither is the United States exclusively Christian, to be sure, but it is a country the overwhelming majority of which is Christian and in which about two percent are Jewish. How shall they act, this minority which commands more than two percent of what one can call public attention? In examining the question, one must face squarely the reality that the Jewish community is overwhelmingly liberal. To borrow from Milton Himmelfarb again, Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans. One ought not to be all that surprised: Historically, liberals have been good to the Jews, or at least better than conservatives, ever since the French Revolution set the stage for the entry of Jews into both modernity and "the public square."

Nowhere did the process succeed more spectacularly than in the United States; not since the Golden Age of Jews in Spain have Jews been so prosperous. They took to America, a constitutional republic in which politics involved not only what ought to be done, but what could be done under the law. One might say that for Jews the favorite part of the law was the First Amendment, which prohibited the establishment of a national religion and guaranteed the free exercise of religion. Jews were in the forefront of interpreting that amendment to call for a strict separation between church and state.

IN OTHER WORDS they mistook Jefferson's interpretation of the Constitution for the language of the Constitution itself. In "Jews and the American Public Square," Ralph Lerner, Hillel Fradkin, and others show persuasively that the Founders, including Jefferson himself, had a much more nuanced and wise view of the matter. They envisioned a nation that, in Washington's beautiful phrase, would give to "bigotry no sanction," but also a nation in which the free worship of free men would prosper. They almost certainly did not envision a nation characterized by what Richard John Neuhaus famously named "the naked public square," a country in which a principled indifference to religion operates against religious expression as such.

I do not mean to suggest that Jews were unanimously monolithic in advocating "strict separation." Vocal Jewish conservatives have never found it excessively difficult to propagate their views, to advocate voluntary prayers in school, to support judicious public assistance to parochial schools, etc. And there remains, as well, the fact that Jewish alertness to the threat of Jew-hatred shouldn't be dismissed. Jewish nervousness about living in a Christian world is easy to understand, as is a kind of Jewish shyness toward non-Jews as the Jewish people gropes toward a balanced view of church-state relations.