Jewish Polity and American Civil Society

Communal Agencies and Religious Movements in the American Public Square

edited by Alan Mittleman, Jonathan D. Sarna, and Robert Licht

Rowman & Littlefield, 440 pp., $75

Jews and the American Public Square

Debating Religion and Republic

edited by Alan Mittleman, Jonathan D. Sarna, and Robert Licht

Rowman & Littlefield, 392 pp., $75

JEWS ARE FOREVER taking their temperature. They worry constantly about matters like declining birthrates and increasing anti-Semitism. They brood not only over their future, but--as demonstrated by their penchant for writing histories of all things Jewish--over their past, as well.

Occasionally, somebody suggests that Jews would be better off if they threw away their psychic thermometers. But no sane observer can honestly conclude that the patient suffers only from imaginary illnesses. The Jewish people forever faces grave external threats and internal tensions, and temperature-taking would seem to be in order. Moreover, taking stock is a venerable tradition among Jews, inaugurated by God Himself when He described them as a "stiff-necked people."

The tradition continues with two hefty collections of essays, "Jewish Polity and American Civil Society" and "Jews and the American Public Square," both edited by Alan Mittleman, Jonathan D. Sarna, and Robert Licht. Both books furnish the reader with a great deal of useful information about Jews in America, while the essays included in the books are characterized by competence and earnestness throughout. Each author was afforded great latitude, so repetition was inevitable, but not excessive.

The volumes differ in their emphasis. "Jewish Polity and American Civil Society" concentrates on the internal organization of the Jewish community, characterized as a polity by the late Daniel Elazar because its "institutional infrastructure" manifests, according to Alan Mittleman, certain "quasi-governmental features." "Jews and the American Public Square" deals, as it were, with the "foreign policy" of this polity, its relation with American civil society at large.

Obviously, these overlap to some degree: Some anti-Jewish sentiment exists in that civil society and shapes the response of the Jewish community. Indeed, the organization of the Jewish polity cannot be grasped without paying attention to its three most prominent agencies--the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League--which are commonly called "defense" organizations, defending as they do the Jews against potential and actual injuries. They tend to overshadow the various Jewish federations (originally loosely linked as the Federation of Jewish Charities), although these charitable organizations have done and continue to do a great deal of useful work in dealing with various social problems. Nevertheless, the "Big Three" are much more prominent. They fight indifference or hostility to Jews in various ways, from legal action and lobbying efforts to accentuating the positive contributions of Jews to the United States. (Years ago, I overheard a boy on a New York subway platform ask, "Mommy, is Davy Crockett Jewish?" "No," she answered, "but Dr. Jonas Salk is.")

These Jewish organizations differed in makeup and outlook. The American Jewish Committee used to be made up primarily of German Jews whereas the American Jewish Congress represented East European Jews. The former was more upscale and conservative than the latter, while the Anti-Defamation League tended to be more brash than the other two. Today, much more harmony prevails than in the past, above all because support of Israel unites America's Jewish community. Milton Himmelfarb was right when some years ago he articulated the widespread feeling among Jews that they could simply not make it without Israel. Nevertheless a good deal of fractiousness remains in the "Jewish polity." One is reminded of the old joke that if Robinson Crusoe were Jewish, he would have promptly built two synagogues on his island, one in which to worship and one he would not be caught dead in.

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.

These two well-intentioned and helpful volumes can scarcely be expected to solve all these problems. In an afterward to "Jewish Polity and American Civil Society," Alan Mittleman sagely remarks that each Jewish group must learn to cope with changing historical circumstances. Obviously every Jewish group must cope with an event that happened after these essays were written, September 11, 2001. New threats and problems face not only the Jewish people, but the country that has permitted them to thrive. It is only natural that Jews both ask God to bless America--and that they keep their psychic thermometers handy.

Werner J. Dannhauser is a visiting professor in political theory at Michigan State University.

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