American liberal Jews thrived in America because we cultivated a deep connection between our vision of our Judaism as a liberal religion that could thrive in America, and a complementary belief in American liberalism itself. The constitutional revolution currently underway in Roberts’ court deals a major blow to this liberal order, first eroding personal liberty over the national right to have an abortion, and now also – in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District – on the issue of religion in the American public square. As liberal American Jews struggle to respond to this uncertainty, we find ourselves at a crossroads: Are we struggling for our old, wavering vision of America? Or should we consider the history that has brought us to this point and rethink what the future of American Jewish liberalism should mean?
There is a key intra-Jewish historical debate that can serve as a useful backdrop to today’s dilemma. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were intense exchanges of letters between the leaders of liberal Jewish movements and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The letters discussed Chabad’s emerging practice of lighting Hanukkah menorahs in public spaces, which liberal Jewish leaders said ran counter to mainstream Jewish ethics and, they said, went against the grain. against their interests and values. The discussions were formally about the Hanukkah menorahs, but implicitly about schools and prayer. At stake in the exchanges, two points of disagreement: to what extent was Christianity hegemonic in America? And how should American Jews function as a minority in the American context?
The central argument of the liberal rabbis was that it was in the interest of American Jews that the American public square be religiously neutral and that they fight to keep it that way. The Rebbe disagreed: he argued that the American public square was already empirically Christian, even if it was tolerant of Jews; and that Jews should not try to make America what it was not. Liberal rabbis feared that normalizing menorahs in public spaces — essentially, the Jewish ‘equivalent’ of a Christmas tree — could pave the way for more Christian hegemony, in the wake of a looming pogrom .
Since the Rebbe believed America was already a Christian country, he argued that it was honest, selfless, and ultimately in the self-interest of American Jews to admit this. And if the Jews admitted that they were in a Christian country that tolerated only other religious expressions, then it was up to the Jews to compete in the market. For Chabad, it was mainly about bringing Judaism to the Jews. By putting Jewish symbols in public, Chabad championed Jewish pride that would help advocate for the vitality of Judaism. If liberal rabbis feared persecution, the Rebbe feared assimilation; and in conceding the Christian essence of America, he felt he had a lead in trying to win the hearts and minds of Jews.
These represent two opposing stories of what it means to be Jewish in America. The Rebbe’s vision was more “diasporic”; he appreciated the exceptional experience that American Jews had in America, but was hesitant to call America a truly exceptional diaspora. The Rebbe therefore wanted Jews to accept and embrace their “otherness” without ambiguity. The liberal argument, on the other hand, understood America differently as perhaps not even the Diaspora at all, but a kingdom where neutrality would be constitutionally protected, allowing Jews to identify as Jews – or not identify as Jews. In fact, the call for public neutrality was a convenient escape valve for liberal ambivalences about faith and the public representation of our Jewish identities. Keeping religion private not only protected American Jews, it also relieved liberal American Jews of the pressure to understand what our own commitments might entail. To the extent that these liberal rabbis feared that if religion were to be practiced in public it would become open competition, I think they assumed they would lose.
The majority opinion of the Court in Kennedy, rendered by six Christian judges authorizing prayer on a public school football field, affirms a basic Christian history of America, with religion central to an American identity that believes able to respect and tolerate other points of view. The court affirmed the Rebbe’s instinct and turned it into an American value. And I couldn’t help but read dissenters as heirs to the desperate hope that America would defend religious freedom for all by fighting for public neutrality and private expression. They sound, to my ears, like the rabbis and liberal American Jewish leaders of the late 20th century who fought the Rebbe on the menorah.
Liberal Jews who argue for a religiously neutral America are losing. The Rebbe won the Menorah debates both because, as he himself argued, it turned out that many American Jews – whether or not they considered the ideological implications – loved just seeing their symbols in public; and also because the successful assimilation of American Jews into the American public square changed the way American Jews perceived themselves as Americans. While American Jews felt fearless at home, their desire to be proud of their symbols in public outweighed fears that accepting religious symbols in public would ultimately be bad for Jews. The Jews, in essence, embraced abundant religion rather than neutrality.
It was shocking to see the liberal position lost in the courts, but the greater concern is that the liberal position has also lost ground in the American public imagination. Most Americans support a certain amount of prayer in schools, and I don’t believe liberal Jews should worry that this reflects a desire by Christians to proselytize or persecute. It is simply a clash between what appears to be a dispassionate appeal to neutrality against a passionate desire for faith; and I’m not surprised that, in the engagement market, the passionate trumps the prophylactic.
I personally believe that the Kennedy decision is a serious problem. It represents the triumph of American history as a religious project that allows religion to characterize the public square while seeking to be tolerant – over the much more ambitious American history that foregrounds religious tolerance by asking all forms of religion to constrain themselves in the public square. I think the state should always strive to err on the side of civil liberties, and people who push for more faith in public should show much greater humility. For me, this would be a uniquely American revolution against the dangerous hegemonic hold that religious traditions have held over our free societies for far too long. So legally, liberal Jews must continue to fight the erosion of the neutral public square, for the benefit of our public high school students and state employees who risk experiencing bigotry and other disadvantages by refusing to participate or participating differently to these public rites.
But a defensive strategy will be insufficient. If the American public square is to be religiously lush, it is an open market. Chabad understood this and used his understanding of America to build a public advocacy strategy that is now in line with rising American religious conservatism and is the fastest growing denomination in American Jewry. America, it seems, now leans more toward publicly trusting expressions of religion than toward doctrines that protect us from it. Liberal Jews will need a strategy to compete.
Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and host of the Identity/Crisis podcast.