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Good For The Jews?

Jews can benefit from societies that welcome religious expression.

Mon, 05/12/2014 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Steven M. Cohen
Steven M. Cohen

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court eroded the high wall of church-state separation in the U.S.

In Town of Greece vs. Galloway, a 5-4 majority ruled in favor of allowing the town council to begin its meetings with a prayer conducted by clergy, who — given the local population — are almost always Christian.

Predictably, the ruling provoked an adverse reaction among Jewish communal figures, including representatives of the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, Reform Judaism and the National Council of Jewish Women. Just as predictably, the Orthodox Union welcomed the decision, though cautiously.

But rather than causing consternation, the ruling ought to provoke our rethinking the separationist stance that has been vigorously pursued by organized Jewry since the 1930s. It was then and in the ’40s that several court decisions erected the exceptionally high wall of separation between religion and state in America. For good reasons, Jewish organizations and legal scholars developed the intellectual underpinnings and political savvy to assure America’s religiously neutral public square, one in which Jews and other minorities could feel both safe and included.

The Jewish interest in this policy was both pressing and obvious: Jews were routinely subject to discrimination in housing, employment, universities, charities, country clubs and so many other venues. Even as late as 1964, a social survey found that Jews were seen by their fellow American as the least welcome white ethnic group in the United States. Erecting a high church-state barrier was intrinsic to the effort to remove obstacles to Jews’ full participation in the larger society.

But “the times they are a-changin’.” Today, Jews are America’s most educationally and economically successful religious and ethnic group. And, as Robert Putnam reports in “American Grace,” Jews are also the most popular religious group in America. The very presence of three Jewish justices on the Supreme Court is itself testimony to Jews’ widespread acceptance and remarkable prominence.

While marginalization and discrimination were once the prime challenges to American Jews, the main threat to a vibrant Jewish future has shifted dramatically. Consider the following: With respect to Jews who have married since the year 2000, the Pew study revealed that of those raised Reform, 82 percent married non-Jews; of those with intermarried parents, 91 percent married non-Jews; and of these adult children of the intermarried, just 8 percent raise their oldest children in the Jewish religion. If the 20th century challenged Jewish acceptance, the 21st century challenges Jewish group survival.

These dramatic symptoms of weakening group identity are not unique to Jews; they’re common to all ethnic and religious groups in America. Mainstream Protestant denominations are in demographic freefall, as is the number of Anglo Catholics. Hispanics are rapidly disaffiliating with Catholicism. Even Evangelicals — once booming — are now experiencing numerical declines. The only group growing rapidly is the religious “nones,” those who define themselves as having no religion — about 3 percent of Americans in the ’50s, and 20 percent most recently.

Among Jews, those with no religion (in effect: “I’m Jewish, but I don’t identify Judaism or anything else as my religion”) now constitute 20 percent of all Jewish adults, and as much as 33 percent of those age 18-29. Now, these are not committed secularists akin to many Israelis, Russian-speakers or Yiddishists. They are so distant from Jewish life that of those who married after 2000, 77 percent are raising their oldest children as non-Jews.

Jews may feel and act more ethnic than religious, but the religious dimension to their individual identities and to their group cohesiveness is still critical. Unfortunately, American society and culture are particularly inhospitable to group identities — be they ethnic or, nowadays, even religious identities.

America may be a religious country, but secularization is advancing of late, and nowhere is it more advanced than in the social circles Jews tend to inhabit: highly educated, culturally liberal and geographically (or metaphorically) bicoastal. It is no accident that the least religious and least engaged Jews are also located in the West, the region of the country least hospitable to religiosity or ethnic persistence.   

Some religion in the public square, provided that no single religion is embraced by the state, need not harm Jewish life. The Jews of Canada and the U.K., to cite two examples, have thrived even though their societies take a far different approach to church-state separation; and, France’s staunch secularism has done little to protect Jews against rising anti-Semitism. Most Jewish children in Great Britain attend Jewish day schools, now heavily supported by taxpayer funds. We find, in Canada, far higher rates of in-marriage, attachment to Israel, Jewish charitable contributions, residential concentration, institutional affiliation and numerous other indicators of Jewish engagement. In short, where religiosity is weak (as in the West), Jewish engagement is low. Where the church-state barrier is porous and flexible (as in Canada and the U.K.) Jewish cohesiveness is high (at least higher than in the U.S.). Canadian and British Jews may experience moments of marginality; but, if so, they benefit from living in societies that are more welcoming of religious expression than the U.S., and more supportive of religious instruction (of Jews and others) as well.

We are living in a time of ebbing religious commitment, and of waning religious animosities. Americans readily view Jews as friends, lovers and spouses. Among Jews, intermarriage and disavowing Jewish religious identity have reached their all-time highs. In light of all this assimilation, isn’t it time for organized American Jewry to rethink its reflexive insistence upon a high wall of separation between religion and state?

Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist, is a professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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NO - it's not time to rethink this. Separation of church and state is a core value in American society and politics. I don't like it when someone prays for me, and shouldn't have to listen to it.

I have great respect for Professor Cohen's work, but I must respectfully disagree with his analysis in this particular instance.

He appears to be saying -- if I understand the article correctly -- that if the U.S. shifts to a model similar to Canada and Britain -- with less separation between religious institutions and the state -- more state financial support for Jewish day schools perhaps -- and more overt Christian religious behaviors in the public sphere -- that the intermarriage rate will drop and adult children of intermarriage may marry Jews more often and may will heir children as Jews more often.

As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, I can confidently say that after interviewing hundreds of adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage, the reasons they give me for marrying someone who isn't Jewish are many, but no one has ever referred to the separation of church/shul and state. The three primary reasons that they give me are as follows:

1. Some simply fall in love. Because they grew up with intermarried parents, they are often accepting of a wide variety of marriage partners.

2. At other times they have tried to find a compatible Jewish partner and been unable to do so, just as many Jews with two Jewish parents sometimes have trouble finding a compatible Jewish spouse.

3. Finally, many adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage cite the unwelcoming attitude of the Jewish community towards adult descendants of intermarriage as a strong reason to marry people who are not Jewish and to raise their children outside of Judaism.

If the Jewish community would like to see more adult children of intermarriage raise their children as Jews, it will have to be more welcoming to them, and institute outreach programs for them, just as it currently does for interfaith couples.

Programs for interfaith couples do not address our issues or the continuing discrimination in the Jewish community against us.

I would suggest to Professor Cohen that the Canadian and UK Jewish communities have a higher percentage of Orthodox and Conservative (Masorti) Jews than the U.S. Jewish community, which may be one reason why their communities either intermarry less and/or drive out the intermarried.

I would also suggest that intermarried couples shunned or driven out of these tightly-knit communities may not show up on surveys, thereby artificially lowering the reported UK and Canadian Jewish intermarriage rates.

I would also note that some interfaith family professionals have suggested that the Canadian Jewish intermarriage rate may be rising, and that within another generation the Canadian Jews will begin facing the same situation that the U.S. Jewish community does regarding intermarriage and outreach questions.

Again, I wish to stress my respect for Professor Cohen's work, and I appreciate his essay, which is an interesting approach to this topic that I have not seen before. He is looking carefully at Jewish communal problems with an outside the box approach, which I support.

Robin Margolis
Half-Jewish Network

Your perceptions of religious 'porousness' in the UK and Canada are speculative more than the truth.Canadian Jews are very appreciative of the tolerance that comes with secularism (and yes, we're aware of the pitfalls) and to be left alone.

Also, there is a stronger concentration of Jews in these nations that may support some level of relative homogeneity and observance.

The fact is that the United States is one of the most religious nations in the world - despite the 'walls' - with gentile observance of say, Christianity, far higher in the US. If it wasn't for these walls, I think Jews would not be able to vouch that US society would be more conducive to retaining the faith.

When the Lord's Prayer is sung in public schools in the US I'm sure you would feel very differently - I think your piece is flawed.

It seems to me that Dr. Cohen conflates too many disparate issues in his commentary. Yes it is true that growing secularism and acceptance of Jews poses a threat to Jewish continuity. But that is different from government endorsement of Christianity in the public sphere. When my mother was a public school teacher in New York City in the 1950s it was not only common but required for teachers to teach Christmas carols (including explicitly religious ones) while Chanukah songs were excluded. While the recent ruling does not appear to permit this, it opens the door not to increasing public religiosity but to Christian dominance of the public square. It may be good for more people of all religions to go to their church of choice or even get education vouchers for secular studies. But the recently decided case was part of a strategic move to make Christianity, not just religion, a part of government.

Government should be secular, not just neutral. There is no compelling reason for sectarian prayer (or really any prayer) as part of a legislative meeting or hearing. It sends a message of exclusion and forces me to effectively be in a church while exercising civic rights. Even if a rabbi is invited once in a while, that changes nothing. The intent and effect is to make Christianity the "official" religion, even if others are "tolerated" (thanks but no thanks). Celebrate and pray what you want in your home, church, synagogue, temple or mosque, but keep it out of council meetings, public parks and plazas (no matter who pays for it). If government would spend the same time and resources it now does on religion (and defending religion) in public life on what it is supposed to be focusing on (improving schools, investing in and maintaining infrastructure, providing essential services), Jews and Christians would be better off.

Very well said.

I think we Jews underestimate the even bigger threat that lies beneath allowing sectarian Christianity to dominate the public sphere.

People might mention Jesus Christ and repel other religions, but they won't endorse israel before a city counsil meeting.