Judaism in the Public Square

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

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Years later, sufficiently provoked by assorted life experiences to examine some cherished assumptions, I prepared a course on religion and the state and, for a book I was writing, read widely in American religious history. The Christian imagery that pervaded American history, from the Puritans to the present, was inescapable. Yet generations of American Jews had been taught that the fondness for "Old Testament" metaphors in American public discourse displayed the fundamental continuity between ancient Jewish and modern American values--when in fact these metaphors expressed a flourishing Christian triumphalism.

Similarly, the First Amendment, that constitutional beacon of religious tolerance, had merely deprived the new federal government of power in the realm of religion, while carefully reserving to the states ample freedom to preserve a Christian commonwealth within their borders, if they were so inclined.

The role of religion in American public life is likely to remain what it has been: pervasively Christian, yet prudently concealed. In a country where 95 percent of the population is nominally Christian, this continues to pose obvious problems for Jews--the more so now that the traditionally united front of Jewish support for strict separation has sharply fragmented.

The enthusiastic advocacy of the Lubavitch for menorahs on public property and public funds for yeshivas has shattered the once monolithic "Jewish" position on church-state issues. With their "establishment" battles securely won, Jews must now decide whether they can tolerate their own religious symbols in the public square, where there are already Christmas trees and creches, or whether it remains too risky to demand the free exercise of Judaism, consistent with the promise of the First Amendment.

The more comfortable I became with Judaism and with Jewish observance the less I could defend the separationist position. Now, it seems a curiously American form of Jewish self-denial whose primary function is to separate religion from life, precisely contrary to Jewish teaching. I can no longer pretend that separation effectively neutralized Christianity. The United States, after all, is a country whose history, calendar, language, and, more than occasionally, law reflect the Christian piety and purpose that framed so much of the American colonial and national experience.

Jews may find it uncomfortable to acknowledge this reality, for it undeniably separates them from the American mainstream. But if Jews do not intend to become even more assimilated than intermarriage, secular liberalism, and assorted other American temptations have already encouraged, their only alternative may be to assert vigorously their own distinctiveness as Jews. If the United States truly is as tolerant of diversity as it claims, then Jews should have nothing to fear from being themselves, in public and in private. If it is not true, then Jews should learn the limits and stop pretending otherwise.

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