Church, State, and the Jews
“THE TIME has come,” editorialized the Jesuit magazine America in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in the Regents’ Prayer case, “for [Jews] to decide among themselves precisely what they conceive to be the final objective of the Jewish community in the United States-in a word, what bargain they are willing to strike as one of the minorities in a pluralistic society.” Many Jews were offended by the question, and indeed the rhetoric of the editorial was in some ways offensive, but the question is nevertheless a fair one and deserves an honest answer.
The answer, however, must at once be both simple and complicated. Complicated, because in order to find the true meaning of the Jewish position on church-state issues, it must be understood at the outset that words like “religion,” “secularism,” “society,” have resonances in Christian tradition and post-Christian secularism that they do not have for Jews. Before the challenge from America can be taken up, then, it is necessary to recognize that Jews-even Jews alienated from their own religious and historic traditions-differ from Christians not only in the conclusions they draw from society but in the premises they hold about it. We can, though, begin by stating simply that while there are of course deep differences of outlook within the Jewish community, the overwhelming weight of both feeling and opinion among contemporary Jews is for the strictest kind of separation between religion and the state -and even between religion and society. Nor is this opinion merely a tactical response to the current situation in America; it is in fact the expression of an attitude to society that has deep roots in Jewish history, especially in the Western experience of the last eighteen centuries.
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