Judaism in the Public Square

It's time to chip away at the wall of separation.

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This article is excerpted with permission from "American Jews and the Separationist Faith: The New Debate on Religion in Public Life," edited by David G. Dalin, an online book whose complete text can be found at the website of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

For many years, precisely as long as Judaism was marginal to my life, the strict separation of religion and state made perfect sense. The separation principle provided ample camouflage, enabling Jews to stand together against the further Christianization of American public life, yet without asserting anything Jewish. Jews could privatize Judaism, and even trivialize it, while persuading themselves that they were staunch Americans defending the Bill of Rights.

Jews were trapped in a double bind. We claimed allegiance to an American "tradition" of religious tolerance, pluralism, freedom, and separation. But we certainly knew, long before each Dec. 25, that in all but name the United States still was--as Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story had once declared--a "Christian country." We worshiped at Jefferson's "wall of separation" without ever learning that the author of that famous phrase had drafted Virginia's "Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers," or that the First Amendment was more a monument to federalism and to Protestant definitions of denominational autonomy than to religious freedom.
church and state
For Jews, strict separation became a convenient constitutional rationale for strict secularism. Whoever thought to inquire whether the very principle of separation might not be fundamentally Christian? (It was Jesus, not Moses, who distinguished between what must be rendered to God and to Caesar.) In the Jewish historical tradition, religion and nationality were closely intertwined (as for many Israelis they still are).

Nevertheless, we were Americans, and if that required a pledge of allegiance to a principle that undermined our own history and identity as Jews, we would gladly pay the price. Yet Jews were not fools, nor were we fooled. Separation promised protection, in education and politics, against further Christian encroachment. That was sufficient reason for our tenacious defense of it. In the naked public square, we could still pretend that the emperor--or perhaps the rabbi--was fully clothed.

None of this was clear to me at the time. Christmas was only a "national" holiday. Sunday was merely "a day of rest." Christians deserved to monopolize and control access to positions of public and private power. As Jews, accepting the Christian terms of emancipation, we would behave ourselves by tucking Judaism into our private closets. A double standard, surely, but so much a part of the natural American order that it could hardly be questioned.

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Jerold S. Auerbach is a professor of history at Wellesley College.