Church & State & the Jews

Religious education is vital for this country--but not on Uncle Sam's tab.

The following 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.

I am primarily a writer of fiction, and when on occasion I have ventured into the essay, it has been with a pointedly literary purpose. I have no qualifications–or capacity–for discourse on public issues. What I come equipped with is not a set of arguments but something quite other: my childhood dread of a school-imposed Christmas and my undiluted memory of the shock of public punishment for refusing to sing Christian hymns at school assembly. The pain of this inescapably overt and helpless nonconformism, forced on a diffident and profoundly frightened Jewish child, has left its lifelong mark.

That is why–this suffering recollection of having been put on display on a platform as a recalcitrant enemy of the polity–I remain unreconstructed on the subject of the unadorned public square and what is, in my view, the still entirely viable heritage of separation. You may exclaim: “What stupid teachers you had! How insensitive to treat a child like that! If only you’d had kind or intelligent teachers, how much more yielding you’d be on this matter.” But the kindness or intelligence of teachers is hardly the issue. Stupidity will always be in good supply.

church and State

What we ought to work for is an absence of opportunity for stupidity to take action. The wall of separation protects against just such opportunity. Of course it is harder, speaking historically, for Christianity (and for Islam) to relinquish the public square than it is for Judaism, because “relinquishment” is indeed what American separationism requires of Christianity.

In almost every nation but our own, Christianity has not been accustomed to go without at least nominal recognition or fealty by the state. Judaism, by contrast, under both Christianity and Islam, has not experienced any connection with sovereign status for 2,000 years; hence, there is no authority or public influence to be surrendered.

Jewish restraint in this respect comes with the territory. (Except when the territory is Israel since its resuscitation in 1948; but Israel–like Britain, Sweden, and Holland, and unlike the United States–is not an Enlightenment construction.)

It is lately being proposed by some Jewish thinkers that the alternative to a religious presence in public places is a tendency toward paganism, vandalism, a diminution of public morality, the annihilation of ordinary expectations of decent conduct in the streets. “Separation favors paganism,” Milton Himmelfarb declares, referring to the biblical view of “pagans,” not the contemporary one. He means by this that irreligion fosters barbarism–a conclusion it would be dangerous to disagree with.

The famous flower children ended up as Charles Manson. “Doing one’s thing” produced Milwaukee’s Dahmer. “Make love, not war” brought on public licentiousness on a hugely tragic scale; promiscuity’s diseases will have killed more young men and women than died in Korea and Vietnam together.

But to say that irreligion encourages savagery is not the same as asserting that separationism favors paganism. Separationism need not result in irreligion. There is, between irreligious barbarism and secularist separationism, a tertium quid.

For this I return to my childhood. I was still in grammar school when the “released time” program was instituted–an undertaking that used hours of the public-school day to send pupils to local churches for religious instruction.

As the only Jew in my class, I had no place to go, precisely because I had a place to go; but my religious instruction began after school hours, in the daily heder, or Hebrew school, which did not take time away from Norse myths or arithmetic and vocabulary tests. Consequently, while the others were away I sat in the classroom drawing pictures, alone with an imprisoned teacher: pointless prisoners together.

People like to say that the heder was an educational failure, and to an extent that is true. Its teaching was inefficient and often ineffective; it did not, by and large, produce scholars of Judaism. But the charge of wholesale failure misrepresents. No one who went diligently to heder after school was left unprovided for by its perspectives and its premises, however shallowly they may have been conveyed.

What the heder taught was this: that there is an urgent connection between study and ethical conduct, between the Hebrew alphabet that is the entrance to the Commandments and simple menschlichkayt–human decency. And one learned this just by showing up, even if nothing more than alef-beys [Hebrew alphabet] sank in, even if one sat the whole time looking longingly out the window into the street, where other kids were cavorting freely at stick ball or potsy. The heder itself–just going to it–was a primary discipline, a barrier against wildness, looseness, recklessness, remoteness, isolation, alienation, neutered separatism.

My afternoons in a poor little room with a young Rabbi Claim Meskin (who afterward went on to more distinguished things) supplied more than the alphabet and the opening of Genesis; what was given, and what was received (even by the most restless), was the idea of civilization. There was a clear difference between the Jewish child who went to heder and the Jewish child who was merely sent to “Sunday school” for an hour once a week (and a still greater chasm between these and the unfortunate child of parents who put a measured quantity of “fresh air” above any measure of religious literacy).

The difference was not so much in information or knowledge as in moral seriousness. Heder kids understood–understood for life–that, no matter how much mischief they made right under the rabbi’s nose, no matter how much they slouched across their desks after a five-hour day in “regular” school, what they were learning was uprightness. What they were learning was responsibility.

With regard to religion in public places, responsibility is the point. The heder was supported by the congregational community, which paid the rabbi/teacher. There was a school fee besides, but those who could not afford it were quietly admitted anyhow; in my class, which included foster children, no one knew whose parents paid and whose did not. What counted was the heder itself. The heder did not usurp time from the public school or money from the public treasury, and certainly it did not demand that its celebrations, its liturgy, and its symbols announce themselves from the rooftops.

The heder did not consider itself in a state of spiritual poverty or deprivation because it remained officially unrecognized in the public square. Its mission was to send out to the world serious human beings who would be incapable of defiling or degrading the public order. The heder, in taking on responsibility for itself, took on public responsibility as well.

So the choice, it seems to me, is not in the least between separationism and irreligion. What our faith communities would be wise to choose is religious responsibility undertaken autonomously, independently, and on cherished private ground, turning their backs on anyone, however estimable or prudential, who proposes that the church steeple ought to begin to lean on the town hall roof. Church steeples, like the people who worship beneath them, are more effective when upright.

The solution to the advance of public paganism is not the deterioration or destruction of the wall of separation. What this country needs is a whole lot of heders, in one form or another, and of every persuasion.

Photo courtesy of

Ben McLeod


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