The United States Constitution disestablishes all religions in order to avoid sectarian strife, which has in the historical past shed blood of some people in order to win eternal life for others. The so-called Jeffersonian State/Church “Wall of Separation” doctrine, which is the doctrinal source of contention in this case, may be framed in two distinct ways. Those who call for a high wall of separation between religion and politics argue that religion is a private concern that has no place in the public square, where religious rites are morally wrong and politically incorrect. For those who advocate a stout separation wall between religion and State, political discourse is open to any and every ideology—except traditional religion, which secular ideologists treat as Secularity’s great enemy—and “heresy.”
Secular Jews and Gentiles view traditional religion as a retrograde ideology to be opposed under all circumstances. However, the Constitution’s plain sense was not historically understood to require a secularization of public ideology. This secular posture ignores the fact that historically, religion was considered to be a legitimate force in American public life. By invoking the Constitution to justify removing religion from public life, ideological secularists contend that the Constitution actually establishes Secularism as the de facto “religion” of the modern, secular State, which in its zeal, adopts a policy that delegitimizes religion. Ironically, the only ideology that the Secular state will not tolerate is traditional religion. Because religionists believe that there are powers greater than the State, they make for unruly, freedom advocating citizens, who possess an alternative moral compass that is independent of, and not answerable to, the State. The authentic religionist may be a good citizen, but will not behave as a surveille subject,
The Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision allowing the Bladensburg, Cross to remain in place was endorsed not only by the five conservative judges, but by Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, two liberal Justices, as well. The dissenting Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg reflect a vocal, ideological Left minority whose feelings are intense and sincere but are not reflective of the legal tradition in which the Wall of Separation was defined and understood.
The religious Jewish interest in this debate should not be minimalized. On one hand, religious Jews should not try to remove civil Christianity from the American public square. If institutional Judaism adopts an anti-Christian posture, Christians will come to view Judaism that is lived in real life as a demonic secularism that exploits religious language in order to advance a secular agenda. Institutional Judaism, in both Orthodox and Reform/Liberal iterations, have composed ideological narratives that parallel the Religionst/Secular divide in the United States. Unlike Halakhah, normative Jewish law, which for Orthodoxy is supposed to mandatory and for liberal Judaism is optional, the contending Jewish streams formulate narratives, or mythologies, that express their ideologies and articulate their anxieties. These narratives—in both Reform and Orthodox versions, [a] are not subject to review, assessment, or evaluation, [b] the details of the narrative[s] must be accepted as dogma, and [c] dissenters may forfeit their communal bona fides. Just as disagreeing with a Great Rabbi is an expression of heretical hubris, objecting to homosexual marriage, based upon a plain, simple, common sense understanding of Leviticus 18:22 earns the dissenter the disparaging designation of “homophobe,” one who feels inappropriate and immoral disapproval of homosexual acts. Neither Right nor Left is prepared to negotiate its Narrative. The Reform’s Progressive “orthodoxy” is affirmed with fundamentalist zeal, and Orthodoxy refuses to concede that its popular practices are often determined by street culture convention, against the letter of the Torah Law they claim to be inviolate. For example, formal Jewish law forbids clapping and dancing on Shabbat and Festivals [bBetsa 30a], requires the transferal of the foreleg, cheek, and intestines to a priest [Deut. 18:3 and mHullin 10:1], after kosher slaughter, a Law that remains in force even after the Temple is destroyed and even in Diaspora, and the married woman’s “modesty” wig is a Halakhic violation [bShabbat 64b]. Both Orthodoxy and Reform claim to be the salvation, way and life of the Jewish people. Neither’s narrative is adequate to the benchmarks of Judaism’s Written and Oral Law.
Instead of demonizing dissenters, religionists should advance their claims, and not waste mental energy repudiating, rebutting, and resisting others. Instead of silencing one’s adversaries, Jewry should advocate for all minorities, even unpopular one’s. The greater the freedom for all, the more robust the citizenry will be. In modernity, we overcome the insecurity of freedom with good faith, good will, and good behavior.
Religionists would do well not to exploit the power of State to advance a partisan agenda. Religious communities have the political freedom and moral right to persuade, but not to coerce. Arguments must be advanced with the moral power of words, not coercive words of power. If the Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation” of Church and State is taken to its secular extreme, Reform rabbis would as a matter of conscience waive their parsonage allowance and their authorization as clergy to officiating at weddings that are recognized by the State.
The American Supreme Court has taught an important lesson. Good government requires good will. Rather than impose our conscience upon others, we keep our eyes, ears, brains, and heart open to the opinions of others. A society that censors ideas will soon not have ideas to censor.
Rabbi Alan Yuter was ordained by YU AND Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Ph.D. NYU in Hebrew literature. Made aliyah, awarded Yadin Yadin from Prof David Halivni and teaches at CJCUC, Ohr Torah's Institute for Jewish Christian relations.
Rabbi Yuter has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted.
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