This Friday, I will be giving a lecture about my dissertation, Choice Among the Chosen: The School Choice Movement and the American Jewish Community, at Millsaps College.
I haven’t really looked at my dissertation since defending it this past June, but it has been fun to revisit the story – and good motivation to start moving it toward publication. It’s a story worth sharing; here’s just a taste.
I was driven to write about the topic after attending a rally for school choice initiatives at Beren Academy in Houston, Texas. Houston boasts an ever-growing Orthodox Jewish population. I attended the rally with my father, who was a Republican at the time—and remains a Southern Baptist to this day. He had never met an Orthodox Jew, but quickly felt right at home when “Rabbi T.” began speaking.
With a strong Brooklyn accent, the rabbi fired up the crowd by asking: “Who’s a proud American? Who’s a proud Texan?!”
The crowd cheered, and Rabbi T. continued: “We proud Americans like having choice…this is what democracy is all about. We choose our profession, how we lead our lives, what brand to buy at the supermarket, so why shouldn’t we as Jews be able to choose our education and not decide between food or day school tuition?”
My father was nodding in agreement. He asked, “Are these people Jewish? They sound like Republicans to me.”
I looked at him in amazement. “Dad, there are plenty of Jewish Republicans.”
It wasn’t a new thing for me to hear observant Jews espousing rhetoric that reflected Republican values. What was more surprising was the fact they were staunchly arguing for government funding for parochial schools. Historically, the American Jewish community has ardently supported church-state separation. When did that change, and why?
Turns out that some Jews have been advocating government funds for parochial/religious schools for decades – since the early 1960s. The leading advocates for government funds for Jewish schools were Agudath Israel, Torah Umesorah, and the Orthodox Union. For Orthodox lobbying groups, who did not want to send their children to mixed-gender schools, their constitutional right to education trumped Establishment clause concerns. They claimed to need government support because the Jewish community wasn’t funding their institutions.
At the time, Jewish Federations did not want to support Orthodox schools teaching values not held by Jews in the mainstream community. In fact, at one debate, a female American Jewish Congress member threw a subway token at Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of Agudath Israel, snarkily remarking, “…you must need this for your ride home. That’s all the aid you will get from the liberal Jewish community. It isn’t my responsibility to support your religious choices.”
Leo Pfeffer, the leading Jewish lawyer who fought against school prayer, fought tooth and nail against the work of those like Sherer. The harder Pfeffer fought against federal and state funds going into these schools, the more motivated the Orthodox community became. The battle grew ugly. Pfeffer and his allies were able to convince the Courts throughout the late 1960s and 1970s to declare all but paltry aid to nonpublic schools unconstitutional. In response, Orthodox Jews and Catholics tried new approaches – namely tax credits and vouchers, which come with very little government oversight.
When evangelical Protestants joined the mix, powerful changes in educational policy occurred, ones that increased economic inequality and decreased racial diversity in the American educational system. The voucher and tax credit approach was eventually deemed constitutional. Orthodox Jews, Catholics, and evangelicals collectively wrought this change, all believing it led to more moral schooling for their children. (Evangelicals were once against government funding for private schools as well, especially since up until the 1960s public schools reflected distinctly Protestant values. Public schools were essentially tools for disseminating their values, but that changed after the Supreme Court outlawed prayer and bible reading at school.)
A lot of people think the Moral Majority grew as a result of Roe v. Wade. But the Moral Majority was formed as a result of the Carter administration trying to withdraw tax exemptions from Christian schools, formed in the wake of des-segregation and secularization of public education. Tax exemptions saved these private schools a tremendous amount of money. If those had been revoked, these many of these schools would have dissolved.
Religious private schools clearly still exist, receive tax exempt status, vouchers, tax credits, and so on – a victory for Sherer and his allies. The amount they receive is no longer paltry, either. Last year, $1,233,200,000 was spent on tuition for approximately 337,000 students attending private schools, and that money essentially comes with no government oversight, allowing schools to teach whatever they want and admit whomever they want. Depending on the state, some of that goes to the nearly 255,000 students enrolled in 861 Jewish day schools. In states like New York, yeshivot receive millions each year for things like mandatory services. In all of these cases, that is money not going to public schools. With charter schools also booming, public schools are ultimately getting fewer resources which in turn, hurts public school students.
This reality is very pronounced here in Mississippi, and certainly in Jackson. Statistics show that a large percentage of Jackson Public School students drop out in ninth grade, and the turnover rate for teachers and administrators is abysmal. Jackson residents who have the means to leave the public school system have plenty of nice private school options from which to choose.
So, what do you think? When it comes to Jewish values, is it more important for Jews to fight against school choice initiatives, advocating for better public education for all? Or should they push for more school choice/voucher and tax credit initiatives, promoting private school options while giving lower and middle income Jewish families more funding to access to an increasingly expensive Jewish day school education?
The Jewish world is full of debates. Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
[Editor's Note: This post is not our typical "Southern & Jewish" fare; one of our contributors, Rabbi Marshal Klaven, wanted to share a sermon he wrote about homosexuality in the Torah, in light of the ongoing equality debate and the prominence of arguments around this topic "based on biblical texts".]
To Plant or Not to Plant Seed: The Truth of Homosexuality in the Bible
Ladies and gentleman of the jury, Your Honor – the Holy One, Blessed be God, I stand before you today to protest a great injustice and to defend the unalienable rights of fellow members in our human family. Every day, our brothers and sisters – people created in Your Divine image – are having their basic human liberties restricted or altogether stripped away. They are often harassed and tormented; they are often barred from supporting loved ones in times of great need; they are often prohibited from marriage; and, in some places, they are legally thrown out of public places like restaurants and theaters.
Why? What supposed crime have they committed? Simply: falling in love with another human being of the same gender.
And, frankly, it deeply upsets me that this injustice is perpetrated and perpetuated by people of faith, who claim that such blatant discrimination and unabashed bigotry are justified by Your Holy Word. Specifically, contained within the Holiness Code, part of a special section in the book of Leviticus, they point to a group of laws dealing with inappropriate sexual relations. According to just two lines in the entire Hebrew Bible, both of which are found within the double Torah portion of Acharei Mot/K’doshim, we are warned that “if a man lies with a man, as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done a to-eivah, an ‘abhorrent thing;’ they shall be put to death – their blood guilt is upon them.” (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13)
So, no, I will not argue today whether or not homosexual sex is prohibited in the Bible. Clearly, it is. However, I will attempt to answer the question that so often goes unasked in this debate, which is “why was it prohibited?” What about homosexual sex was abhorrent to our ancestors? To answer this pivotal question, which will dramatically change the course of the conservation, I call forward the expert testimony of Robert Alter, Professor of Hebrew Language, renown Biblical commentator. “The evident rationale for such a prohibition,” explains Alter, “seems to be the wasting of seed in what the law envisages as a grotesque parody of heterosexual intercourse.”
Why? What’s the problem with this parody? Well, the problem, according to the Bible, is that heterosexual intercourse, wherein the seed of human life (i.e. sperm) is implanted in the fertile ground of the woman’s womb, is meant for one purpose and one purpose only: to create life, to procreate, “to be fruitful and multiply.” First issued as a blessing in Genesis 1:28, these words only became a Divine command to man upon the depopulation of the world after the flood in Genesis 9:6. There, these words are found among others which deal with a case of homicide. This is intentional, writes the master commentator RaSHI, “for anyone who does not engage in reproduction should be compared to one who sheds blood,” as both require a death penalty.
Anyone, hmmmm? Well then, based upon this rationale a lot of people would be slated for death. Because, in addition to those who engage in homosexual sex, anyone – homosexual or heterosexual – who engages in sex using contraceptives (e.g. condoms), or anyone – homosexual or heterosexual – who masturbates, is likewise guilty of the same crime: wasting seed. What?! Don’t believe me? Then please allow me to introduce into evidence the case of Onan, Judah’s second eldest son. According to the Biblical testimony, “Whenever Onan went to join with Tamar, he let his seed go to waste. What he did,” states the Bible, “was displeasing to the Lord, so God took his life.”
Given this precedent, some may wish to continue their prosecution and persecution of homosexuals. After all, they claim, “God instructed us, in this Holiness Code, ‘to reprove our kinsman.’” True, God did say we should “reprove our kinsman;” however that line ends with “but, we may not incur any guilt because of him.” That is to say, when we see someone doing something we believe to be harmful, we are obligated to say something. However, as the second part of the verse implies, it has to be done in such a way as to not be disrespectful. For, we cannot resolve one sin by creating another. Besides, in God’s law of nature, death eventually comes. Not in body, but in name, as one who does not procreate, has no one to carry it on.
With that, Your Honor, ladies and gentleman of the jury, I rest my case. Clearly, without any true Biblical basis, upon which to ground such injustices, I ask that you dismiss all grievances against these fellow human beings, our kinsmen in the family of God. For, as social psychologist Erich Fromm deduced, “In essence, all human beings are identical. We are all part of One; we are One. This being so, it should not make any difference whom we love,” as long as we love with all of our hearts, all of our minds, all of our souls. With this greater truth, may we go on to honor both God’s Holy Words better, as well as all those who hold these Words near and dear: heterosexual and homosexual alike. Kein y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will as well as our own.
 For example, while living in Cincinnati, OH for seminary training at HUC-JIR, I learned of a law there, which allowed a proprietor of a public place to throw someone out of their establishment if he/she suspected the individual of being gay, leaving this individual without any legal recourse. While this law was thankfully repealed in 2004 by 67% of the voters, many cities still have such discriminatory allowances.
 It is important to note that the Hebrew word to-eivah (“abhorrent,” or sometimes translated as “abomination”) occurs numerous times in the Bible. Taking stock of these, Rabbi Richard Friedman commented, “to-eivah is a relative term in the Bible, which varied according to human perceptions. For example, in Genesis, Joseph tells his brothers that ‘any shepherd is a to-eivah/an abhorrent thing to Egypt’ (46:34); but obviously shepherding is not a to-eivah/an abhorrent thing to the Israelites, as they proudly perform this role.”
 Some would like to add Sodom and Gomorrah to this list. However, nowhere in that story does the Bible say anything about homosexual sex. It is merely inferred from the line: “Bring them (i.e. the men) out to us, that we may get to know them.” (Gen. 19:5) It is true. Occasionally, “to know” is the Bible’s way of saying “sex;” but not always. Case in point: the beginning of the book of Exodus. There we are told “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Ex. 1:8). If everywhere the word “to know/yada’at” means “sex,” then we must conclude that the previous king of Egypt and Joseph were engaged in a homosexual relationship. And, because it did not continue with the new king, the Pharaoh became upset and enslaved our people.
 I explicitly state “homosexual sex” rather than “homosexuals,” because the Bible is clearly not prohibiting a person nor is it calling them abhorrent. The Biblical text is specifically referring to an act as abhorrent.
 Robert Alter. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. W.W. Norton & Co.: New York, 2004. p. 623
 The prohibition was addressed only to man, because of our ancestors’ limited knowledge about procreation. According to their understanding, all the material needed to reproduce life was contained with the zerah/the seed (i.e. the sperm), as a woman’s egg is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Hence, that is the reason why sex between two women was never prohibited in the Bible, though included later by the rabbinic sages.
 RaSHI commentary to Genesis 9:6
 Kinsey, Alfred C. et al. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Indiana University Press: Philadelphia. 1948 and 1998, p. 499. According to this study, Kinsey reported that 92% of men engage in masturbation. In Kinsey, Alfred C. et al. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Indiana University Press: Philadelphia. 1953 and 1998, p. 142. According to this study, Kinsey reported that 62% of women engage in masturbation. A similar study was done in 2006 by Gerressu M., Mercer C., Graham C., Wellings K., Johnson A., called “Prevalence of masturbation and associated factors in a British national probability survey.” Arch Sex Behav 37 (2): 266–78. According to their results, 95% of men and 71% of women masturbate.
 See Genesis 38:6-10. The Mishnah, written in the first century of the Common Era, makes reference to this act. As it is written: “The hand that oftentimes makes ‘examinations’ is – among woman – praiseworthy, but among men, let it (i.e. the hand) be cut off!” Just in case we were fooled by the euphemism “examination,” tractate Niddah in the Babylonian Talmud makes it clear that “examination refers only to the emission of semen.” (BT Niddah 13a).
 Leviticus 19:17
 Erich Fromm. The Art of Loving. Harper and Row: 1956.